The Atlantic Archives: Historical Inquiry And The American Idea

by Conor Friedersdorf

In their 1857 statement of purpose, The Atlantic Monthly's founders declared that the magazine would "honestly endeavor to be the exponent of what its conductors believe to be the American idea." So began an enterprise defined early on by its abolitionist arguments. As the decade turned, the publication partially reinvented itself as a Civil War journal, with Nathaniel Hawthorne filing battlefield dispatches. More than 150 years later, Ta-Nehisi Coates and occasional guests on his page are using the blog format to delve into the same era, expounding on the American idea through historical research and reflection. Learning along with TNC is a pleasure, as is watching how he connects slavery, its ripples, and the America we inhabit. Efforts like his show how the spirit of the magazine infuses even its Web era.

It also exemplifies the sort of historical study that Paul Gagnon argued for in his November 1988 cover story "Why Study History?" The piece offers a powerful opening brief:

The answer goes back to judgment, which requires more than knowing where the tools of self-government are and how to wield them. Judgment implies nothing less than wisdom–an even bigger word–about human nature and society. It takes a good sense of the tragic and of the comic to make a citizen of good judgment. It takes a bone deep understanding of how hard it is to preserve civilization or to better human life, and of how these have nonetheless been done repeatedly in the past. It takes a sense of paradox, so as not to be surprised when failure teaches us more than victory does or when we slip from triumph to folly. And maybe most of all it takes a practiced eye for the beauty of work well done, in daily human acts of nurture. Tragedy, comedy, paradox and beauty are not the ordinary stuff of even the best courses in civic and government. But history, along with biography and literature, if they are well taught, cannot help but convey them.

It also summons urgency with this passage:

The truly tough part of civic education is to prepare people for bad times. The question is not whether they will remember the right phrases but whether they will turn words into practice when they feel wrongly treated or fear for their freedom and security, or when authorities and the well-placed, in the public or private sector, appear to flout every value taught in school. The chances for a democratic principles to survive such crises depend upon the number of citizens who remember how free societies have responded to crises in the past, how free societies have acted to defend themselves in, and emerge from, bad times. Why have some societies fallen and others stood fast?

All this is preamble to an extended critique of history as it was taught circa 1988 in American high schools. There is far too much material for me to provide even a fair summary here. It is nevertheless worth looking at one example:

We have taken to teaching it by itself, as though it were rooted nowhere – as though the American past, by which David Donald's students hoped to understand themselves, reached back only to Columbus, rather than to Noah and before.

The plain fact is that American history is not intelligible, and we are not intelligible to ourselves, without a firm grasp of the life and ideas of the ancient world, of Judaism and Christianity, of Islam and Christendom in the Middle Ages, of feudalism, of the Renaissance and the Reformation, of the English Revolution and the Enlightenment. The first settlers did not sail into view out of a void, their minds as blank as the Atlantic Ocean. They were shaped and scarred by tens of centuries of religious, social, literary, and political experience. Their notions of honor and heroism were learned from Greco-Roman myth and history, from the Bible and the lives of the saints of the Church, from stories of knights and crusaders, explorers and sea dogs of the Renaissance, soldiers and martyrs of the wars of religion. Those who sailed west to America came in fact not to build a New World but to bring to life in a new setting what they treasured most from the Old World.

One lesson I take from a lot of TNC's blogging is that too often, upon interrogating race in America, we treat the subject as if it began in the Civil Rights era, if we even harken back that far. But if we want this country to be intelligible to us, and to be intelligible to ourselves, it is necessary to look back much farther than that.