One cannot really understand a period in history without having been there, or spoken to someone who was there. People who were on the scene in a historical period are called “contemporaries.” Sure, you will find a difference of opinion among contemporaries, but very rarely will you find a difference of opinion about the essential facts and zeitgeist (spirit of the times). Thus it is essential to obtain and preserve the personal experience of contemporaries during any historic period.
However, it is a mistake to “personalize” a historic period. By that I mean to impose a theory or belief of one’s own back in time onto a previous period. That is one of the greatest and most common intellectual mistakes of the past forty years. I saw the beginning of it in college in the early 1970’s. Another word for this phenomenon is “revisionist” history but there is a difference. Genuine revisionist history is an attempt by the current state and intellectuals to rewrite or reshape history in a way that is less embarrassing and more supportive of the current regimes, and there is a long history of that. However, that is not as serious a problem as what I am speaking of in the “personalizing” of history. Governments and their toady intellectuals may produce “revisionist” history, but scholars always maintain the facts of contemporary accounts and thus when the zeal for revisionism passes, people can pick up again with studying the actual facts of the previous times.
Personalizing of history is a far murkier, sloppier and dangerous endeavor and habit because it results from a genuine misunderstanding of how people used to live and think. People who personalize history think that the way they think now is the way people used to think and thus motivated their behavior. Here is a silly example as an analogy.
Suppose that years from now scholars try to understand why the IPOD was so popular, because it has gone out of existence. Perhaps society has changed so that everyone likes the same music and so no one has personal players and custom play lists anymore. So scholars are trying to understand why IPODS were so popular. They study the historical information and learn that there was a wide variety of tastes in music, that everyone had their own favorites, and that also the IPOD allowed the listening of one’s own music in a variety of settings. So these scholars understand by reading contemporary accounts why IPOD was so popular and how it was used even though they no longer “relate” since in that theoretical time in the future everyone likes the same songs.
Now, here is how revisionist history would work. Suppose the government has just spent millions of dollars installing public address systems that play the songs that everyone likes. They are genuinely worried about an individualistic “retro” movement whereby people are interested in marginal types of music again and thus would oppose the shared investment in the public music systems. Revisionists would not hide that people used to have IPODS but would “explain” via “spin” that people were “forced” to spend their own hard earned money on individual systems because the government did not provide public shared music systems. So one still had access to the facts and contemporary accounts, but revisionist history “explains” the facts in terms that put a more positive light on current agendas.
A personalized view of history would honestly misunderstand even the contemporary accounts that are right in front of their eyes since those moderns are no longer capable of understanding people who used to have individual taste in music. Thus they would make up totally bogus interpretations of the past usage of IPODS that are “natural” and “obvious” to how they are living at that time. They might say, for example, that “IPODS were so popular because the government at that time sent out subliminal secret messages that kept the IPOD users ensnared in IPOD use.” So they would read the playlist of someone who lived a hundred years before them and go “Yeah, sure, I bet” as the long deceased author wrote about how much he liked his own mixed playlist of rap and jazz. You could show them a thousand playlists, each different and each reflecting an individual love of music, and these people would sneer and say, “Oh, sure, the hypnosis worked really well.”
Even if they are not conspiracy theory oriented (that being one of the great fuels of erroneous personalized views of history) lack of intellectual rigor and empathy for earlier times in history can also cause erroneous personalized view of history. For example, suppose the people are all miserable and kind of bleak souls in the future (even with their shared liking of the same music, LOL). They assume that people have always been miserable and bleak. So they would figure that IPOD usage was popular because people were trying to escape that period’s “misery and bleakness.” It would never occur to them that people were not always the miserable sad sacks that they are, and thus they interpret history by imposing current feelings on the past and thus totally distorting and warping history.
By looking at FDR and what he did during the two great crises, the Recession and World War II, one can see an example of a current personalizing of his era. So I want to tell you a small story that illustrates the importance of not doing that, and instead embracing contemporary zeitgeist of the actual time as it truly was.
In the middle 1970’s I visited FDR’s home at Hyde Park.
It is a beautiful house in New York State on the Hudson River. There was a warmth and humanity about the house that I was able to directly compare to the other mansion we toured that day, which was the Vanderbilt mansion that was grander but colder.
FDR died April 12, 1945 so we visited his house almost thirty years after he had died and, therefore, there were many people alive who remember those times. In other words, there were many contemporaries walking around who lived during FDR’s term in office from March 4, 1933 for the twelve years until his death. His house was a popular touring spot and so we ran into many people who were there, and there is no other way to describe it, to pay homage to his memory and express their gratitude for what he had done.
As we chatted with the various others touring the house and the grounds, time after time we were told that they were there because they loved FDR and were grateful for what he had done to combat the Recession. These tourists would tell us specific stories about jobs he created that they benefited from, or other activities that helped them to keep body and soul together and survive those terrible long years of the Recession. In particular in his office, looking at his very desk, there would be a hush and often people’s eyes would tear up.
Political commentators today like to cast aspersion on how much FDR “really did” and they have a cold and clinical view of those times. They are not being scholarly because they are totally dismissive of contemporary accounts of not only the facts but the zeitgeist. Thus it would be easy for one of them to be on a talk show or to talk to an individual young person and tell their audience that FDR “really didn’t do all that much” and that “much of what he did was harmful.” That simply is not true.
I cannot emphasis enough that you cannot have an accurate view of history by looking only at a “catalog of mistakes.” Modern commentators totally dismiss zeitgeist and the reality of the ordinary people in favor of only listing “mistakes” and “overreaching” that completely misses the genius of what FDR did accomplish. This is true not only of FDR but of all historical eras and personages. Modern people think they are being all clever and skeptical by looking for warts and listing mistakes and then drawing conclusions about the goodness or effectiveness of a person or a historical era. Yet reality is the sum total of all that was being done and not just a list of what people think were shortcomings.
To use the IPOD example, suppose that future historians only reported how many people did not have IPODS. So if you looked up “IPOD” in the future Wikipedia, you would read only one entry: “One hundred million people did not have an IPOD.” That is it. There is no information about what an IPOD is, how many people had one, what they used it for, and how much they valued having one. All that you found in the Wikipedia entry is the bleak and repressive statement that implies elitism and some sort of wrong done, “One hundred million people did not have an IPOD.”
That is what modern pundits and would be historians have become, in both secular and most egregiously in faith history. All they report is the “problems” and the “errors” and ignore the ninety nine percent of normal life that is good and in times of crisis maintained through either secular or faith deeds. FDR is becoming the poster child for this erroneous and even sinister personalizing of history. There is no way one can truly transmit the look in the eyes of the people I saw, humble and ordinary people, who had come to Hyde Park to see the desk and the home of the President who they said “saved the country.”
I was and am still today remarkably moved by the encounters with those who loved FDR so much, those who were the “real people,” the average people, who were certain because they lived it that through his jobs creation and other programs they were able to survive. By the way, during that time I was married into a very astute family of professional historians, so this was not schmaltz. Even when they knew he had done “bad things” like “pack the Supreme Court” they knew the facts of the overall context of all the positive and essential that he had achieved. So there is no substitute for historians who have a comprehensive view of the full context of the time, both the facts and the actual experiences and perceptions of the people who lived in those times.
So to summarize, be aware that there are two problems in modern interpretations of historical times. One is deliberate and quite customary, called “revisionist history.” The other is an unconscious and thus pernicious and dangerous imposing of the cloud of emotion and distortion of the present by some onto their view of history, casting it into a mold that it simply did not occupy at all. The best cure for this is to read contemporary literature of the time as much as possible, including textbooks that were written soon after and not years later when they themselves tend to be very agenda and revisionist driven. I see this, for example, in writings about George Washington. Even if there is a glow around the older works they are more accurate factually, because in the effort to “stamp out the glow” moderns also stamp out their understanding of the times and thus a lot of the context and the facts too.
Readings from FDR’s inaugural addresses:
…Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only the by standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing. Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honestly, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live.
Restoration calls, however, not for changes in ethics alone. This Nation asks for action, and action now.
Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the Government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time, through this employment, accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources.
Hand in hand with this we must frankly recognize the overbalance of population in our industrial centers and, by engaging on a national scale in a redistribution, endeavor to provide a better use of the land for those best fitted for the land. The task can be helped by definite efforts to raise the value of agricultural products and with this the power to purchase the output of our cities. It can be helped by preventing realistically the tragedy of the growing loss through foreclosure of our small homes and our farms. It can be helped by insistence that the Federal, State, and local governments act forthwith on the demand that their cost be drastically reduced. It can be helped by the unifying of relieve activities which today are often scattered, uneconomical, and unequal. It can be helped by national planning for and supervision of all forms of transportation and of communications and other utilities which have a definitely public character. There are many ways in which it can be helped, but it can never be helped merely by talking about it. We must act and act quickly…
-Franklin Delano Roosevelt
First Inaugural Address
Saturday, March 4, 1933
When four years ago we met to inaugurate a President, the Republic, single-minded in anxiety, stood in spirit here. We dedicated ourselves to the fulfillment of a vision-to speed the time when there would be for all people that security and peace essential to the pursuit of happiness. We of the Republic pledged ourselves to drive from the temple of our ancient faith those who had profaned it; to end by action, tireless, and unafraid, the stagnation and despair of that day. We did those first things first.
Our covenant with ourselves did not stop there. Instinctively we recognized a deeper need-the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization. Repeated attempts at their solution without the aid of government had left us baffled and bewildered. For, without that aid, we had been unable to create those moral controls over the services of science which are necessary to make science a useful servant instead of a ruthless master of mankind. To do this we knew that we must find practical controls over blind economic forces and blindly selfish men...
Second Inaugural Address
Wednesday, January 20, 1937
Well, if you think about it, it is not too difficult to see many parallels between what FDR said and the great financial crisis and damage to the economy and self esteem of the workers and the homeowner (to say nothing of the homeless and the jobless) today.