Matthew Yglesias has accused Americans of being hypocrites this week, claiming that if they truly valued team-work and grift in sports, then everyone would cheer for the San Antonio Spurs. Instead, though, they follow the glamour of the Heat; clamour for Blake Griffin’s dunks, and turn a blind eye to a team that pursues excellence in its own quiet way.
I wonder if something similar can be said about the way historians approach the past. Not that they are hypocritical, exactly, but that their attention naturally turns to events of resounding significance rather than examining areas where, all things considered, the lack of change was more notable. (As a historian of the American Revolution, I am clearly open to these charges myself). Indeed, one of the most memorable lectures I attended as an undergraduate was Christopher Haigh’s full-frontal attack on the very title of the course which we were studying. What was ‘Renaissance, Recovery and Reform’ if not a more interesting way of saying ‘Progress, Progress and Progress?’
Presidential rankings are open to a similar charge. When asked the question “Who was America’s greatest President?” the top answers are familiar – Washington, Lincoln, FDR, in some order. What unites them, clearly, is that they dealt with times of national crisis. Yet there is more than a fair amount of luck that characterizes any Presidential term. Would Jefferson be considered such a great President had Napoleon not offered the sale of the Louisiana Territory? What were the peculiar and distinctive challenges that faced, say, Chester A Arthur? Besides, doing nothing is sometimes better than doing something. Either things are working as they should be, or systems deserve a fair and full experiment before bringing judgment.
Ranking historical figures risks intensifying a further problem – in seeking to classify them as ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than each other, we become reductionist in the values we promote when thinking about political leadership in the present. There is more than one path to successful leadership. Clement Attlee was Prime Minister in one of the most significant governments in British history, laying the foundations of the welfare state that has lasted to this day. Yet in contrast to FDR, who gets most of the credit for the policies of the New Deal, Attlee is scarcely treated with great popular affection or warmth. That isn’t surprising – in terms of his personal appeal, he does not stand a favourable comparison with his predecessor and successor, Winston Churchill. Nor was he the most outstanding political talent in his Cabinet. Yet in many ways an unassuming figure who let other figures take control of their individually consuming tasks was the ideal man for the job at the time.*
There is a danger, though, in looking only at times of change for historical study. It can lead to a fallacy in which the only valid version of successful leadership can roll off a list of significant achievements where positive agency can be proven. There is always something seductive about the eye-catching initiative, after all. Yet imagining the past as a period permanently pregnant with crisis can mistakenly alter our perception of the present. Sometimes, keeping things ticking over is all that is needed. Even the most ardent revolutionary envisages a future time when there is no need for violence or tumult.
If there is a plea from this post, it is to consider that the Era of Good Feelings might give similarly valuable lessons as the 1790s. (After all, five new states were admitted to the Union and the Monroe Doctrine was coined). James Monroe, despite his penchant for revolutionary-era headwear, may not be as lodged in the historical firmament as George Washington – but then again, what were the pressing crises that faced the Monroe Administration? Certainly nothing so weighty as creating a new government from scratch.
This, I realize, leaves me drawing the uncomfortable parallel of Washington as LeBron and Hamilton as Dwayne Wade, compared to Monroe’s Tim Duncan. I’m not sure I’m prepared to push the argument quite that far. There is, though, something to be said for studying periods of seemingly less moment in as much detail as we pore over times of cataclysmic change. Even change is only important insofar as it can be measured against some previous understanding of normalcy.
*Important side note: I am aware that some historical rankings of Prime Ministers place Attlee at or near the top. I am also aware that popular polls show nothing like the same admiration for his leadership. To take The Times rankings, one person asked placed Attlee at number 22; no-one else ranked in the top 10 had a ranking lower than 16th from the lowest expert polled.