As much as 2017 has been a year of engrossing current events, it has also been a year for resurrecting history. In February, President Trump briefly brought Frederick Douglass back to life at an event marking Black History Month. For some, his abrupt dismissal of FBI Director James Comey evoked memories of Watergate and the Saturday Night Massacre. Nazi imagery and rhetoric resurged in the alt-right movement. And over the course of the summer and fall, the Civil War was repeatedly relitigated. So amid all the reflections on this unusual, eventful year and how it was covered by the press, it doesn’t feel out of place to look back a little—or even a lot—farther than January 1.
Revisiting Atlantic articles from 150, 100, or even 50 years ago provides glimpses into places and events that now feel remote: the Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury, the German trenches of World War I, a Civil War outpost in South Carolina. But it also offers up discussions and ideas that wouldn’t feel unfamiliar in 2017, from an examination of presidential impeachment to a criticism of city public schools.
“On the Writing of Contemporary History” by Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
Fifty years ago, as the 1960s began to wane, Schlesinger, a historian and former special assistant to John F. Kennedy, described the growing need for historians to document events not of a distant past but of their own times. In the preceding decades, he wrote, technology had intensified both the “volume of communication” and the “urgency of events.” And as a result, he asserted, “It is now a necessity—a psychic necessity to counter the pressures of life in a high velocity age and a technical necessity to rescue and preserve evidence for future historians.”