Kenneth M. Stampp

History as an Act of Faith

VTR Date: October 16, 1985

Guest: Stampp, Kenneth M.


VTR: OCTOBER 16, 1985

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Years ago I trained as a historian, admittedly a very present-minded one though fortified I trust with a sufficiently balanced and measured presentism that really shouldn’t have disturbed even rather hidebound devotees of Cleo. Or perhaps that’s a self-serving thought. What isn’t, however, is the belief that most viewers are present-minded, too. Concerned mostly with the here and now and the about to be and therefore as curious as I am about what I think should be the parallel between the abilities and the responsibilities of historians and journalists alike. Both, after all, report and interpret the past, whether near or distant, molding in that way what and how we think about yesterday and today and then what we do about them tomorrow. When journalists have been my guests on THE OPEN MIND, media people from both print and the electronic press, they usually deny sharing the historian’s influence or his responsibilities. And I’m eager to learn whether a change of intellectual as well as geographical venue today will provide us a different point of view. Recording this program at KQED here in the San Francisco Bay area, my guest is the distinguished historian, Kenneth M. Stampp, Morrison Professor of American History at the University of California at Berkeley, past president of the Organization of American Historians, and my teacher and boss nearly forty years ago.

Ken, that’s letting the cat out of the bag, and it was nearly forty years ago. And I was thinking back to that time as I was reading your truly extraordinary essay lecture “Interpreting History”, the O. Meredith Wilson lecture in history in March 1983. I was wondering, well I was thinking back to those times when you would give a lecture and I’d go into the section as your teaching assistant and say he’s all wrong. That isn’t the way to interpret Franklin Roosevelt’s role in our history or whatever it might be. You got a great kick out of that and you were always accepting of that. And as I read this statement about interpreting history I wondered whether you find students and fellow historians and civilians generally any more able to accept what you had said about history being an act of faith?

STAMPP: Not very much I think. I think that historians who function have to feel that what they say in their lectures and what they write in their books and articles is something more than that. That they have found the explanation for some great or small event and that their explanation is going to be generally accepted by the students and by the profession. And that it will endure. I’ve become increasingly skeptical of that possibility. I really do think that history will be rewritten every generation because every generation has different interests and different concerns and different perspective. And so, it will be rewritten. And each time it is an act of faith. Each time a new generation of historians feel that they have somehow written better history and more perceptive history and history that’s going to endure for a longer time than the history written by their predecessors by their professors and their teachers. And as I said at the beginning, one has to believe that or one gets rather discouraged.

HEFFNER: But isn’t that a function of the arrogance of those historians and as you know in terms of the ax I have to grind of journalists who believe that what they are giving us is what really has happened either yesterday or a thousand years ago? Isn’t that an arrogant notion? You quote in your “Interpreting History,” you talk about Edward H. Carr who has observed that facts never speak for themselves. The facts speak only when the historian calls on them. It is he who decides to which facts to give the floor and of what order of context. And if he is different from the other person, he’s going to do it differently. Why then…is it the training historians receive that makes them feel they must know with such precision?

STAMPP: Well, let me put it this way. When a historian finishes a book or an article and sends it off to a publisher, there’s a moment, a brief moment, when he feels, knowing that it’s never happened before, that he has written a definitive work.

HEFFNER: This is the way it was.

STAMPP: This is the way it was. And it’s an exquisite moment. You know, you really feel that you are communing with the…with all the great forces and that it won’t have to be done again. Then come the reviews. And the reviewers. Andy you’re suddenly brought back to earth. Other historians who are more or less competent to judge your work have different perspectives and see it in different ways. You’re fortunate if they say this is a very good book. It’s persuasive in most respects, but I’m doubtful about this and that. And probably he should have considered this and that and something else. And so your book becomes part of the ongoing pursuit of an understanding of the past. Eventually its destiny is to become part of the historiography of whatever the subject or the period might be. But other books will, to a great or less degree, precede it. I’ve had that experience and so I know that pleasure of writing the definitive book and the pain of discovering that it wasn’t quite as definitive as one thought at first.

HEFFNER: well, of course in your essay on living with Lincoln your life with Lincoln really was a story of your changing perceptions, the certainty, you said a moment…there was a moment when the manuscript was submitted when you know that this was the definitive statement. But you have been able to change your mind. Your mind has been open enough to change your interpretations of the past. Is this as shaky an experience as you indicate?

STAMPP: Well, it’s always painful to have to, for anyone to have to change one’s mind and particularly painful if you’ve committed yourself in print. One doesn’t like to be exposed for inconsistencies. I think that historians would be well advised to be philosophical about their work. To understand that what they’ve done is the best they could do given their own lives and experiences and perspectives and the limited sources they had to work with. And realize that eventually other historians will have different ways of looking at the problem and come to different conclusions. As to why I changed my mind about a number of things, and I should say incidentally that I probably have not changed my mind about more things than I’ve changed my mind, it’s always hard to have to revise ones opinions and look at it in a different way. I’ve changed my mind on a number of important questions in the period that I’m particularly interested in which is 19th Century political history, the history of the South, the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period. Sometimes because new evidence has turned up. Sometimes because I have had in different times in my life different ideas about human behavior and the motivating forces of human beings, and sometimes simply because the world I live in has changed. And in a new period one develops different interests about the past and looks for different things in the past, and things that didn’t seem relevant thirty years ago seem terribly relevant today. No historian can ask questions about the past that he and his generation don’t understand as significant. I can give you an example in my study of a group of Democrats, the American Northern Democrats, during the American Civil War who were called Peace Democrats and sometimes Copperheads because they were interested in trying to negotiate an armistice with the South and find some way to negotiate the South back into the Union without…peacefully. At the time that I looked at them back in the 1930s during the Depression, during the years of the New Deal the thing that struck me about the so-called Copperheads was that they sounded so much like agriculture reformers in the late 19th Century. They sounded like populace. They sounded like Grangers. They were talking about the unscrupulous practice of Eastern bankers and railroads and…

HEFFNER: You mean they were good guys.

STAMPP: Yes. They were poor farmers. They were speaking for the poor farmers in the West who were afraid that the war was going to be used to enrich railroad interests and banking interests and manufacturing interests especially in the Northeast. Years later in the 1960s a very different time, I went back over the notes I had taken in my study of this Copperhead group. And I found something in my notes that had been there from the 1930s and it interested me mildly, but it didn’t seem to be the important thing about them. And that was that the Copperheads also were racial demigods. They used every device and technique they could think of to house the racial fears of Northerners against Blacks, charged that the Civil War was an abolitionist crusade. That Lincoln was going to free the slaves and that they would then sweep into the North especially into the Northwest and take jobs away from white men and demand the right to vote, demand equality with whites and given the racial feelings of that time this was an effective device. And when I saw these things I wondered why that didn’t seem important to me in the 1930s when I was taking these notes. Why didn’t I give it more emphasis in the writings…in my writings. And the answer is obvious. In the 1960s race relations and racial feelings and race prejudice was much more relevant. We were much more aware of it than the average white historian was back in the 1930s.

HEFFNER: And Stampp was a different guy.

STAMPP: And Stampp was a different guy. Or at least Stampp was living in a different age. An age that was asking different questions of the past.

HEFFNER: Well, in talking about that and in reading your life with Lincoln, the way you changed your perspective concerning Lincoln, I couldn’t help but think back to the business about FDR. Have you changed your mind about him?

STAMPP: Oh, of course. I see FDR as a…from a rather different perspective. I was a young radical in the 1930s and didn’t think that Roosevelt was going fast enough or far enough. And that his reforms were superficial and I was in a hurry to bring about drastic changes in the American economy and the American social structure. Looking back, I have a better understanding of the possibilities open to Roosevelt and to his advisors to the political skill that the man had and so I would say you know that my view of Roosevelt is a good deal more mellow and understanding than it was then.

HEFFNER: I’m awfully glad to hear that.

STAMPP: I know you are.

HEFFNER: Because I do remember…

STAMPP: Because I remember our arguments…

HEFFNER: But you know it seems to me that it is so difficult for most people to latch onto that notion of perspective in terms of well…my friend, the First Amendment attorney, Floyd Abrams keeps saying, keep repeating the old business about where you stand depends upon where you sit. And if where you sit is in a chair in which you’re 50 or 60 or 70 rather than 20 or 30, where you take your stand may be very different. I was fascinated to look at the NEW YORK TIMES clippings that had to do with the time that you became president of the Association of American Historians and you are described in the preliminary stories as in a sense a representative of the Old Guard as opposed to the radicals.

STAMPP: That happens to all of us.

HEFFNER: Right. But I couldn’t help but think about the early 1940s or the mid-1940s when you were a part of that young guard. Do you think that that perspective is fostered in any way…would help to see this by the newer kind of history, the involvement with statistics, the involvement with the computer, perhaps? Is it a help or a hindrance?

STAMPP: Oh, very much a help as long as one recognizes its limitations.

HEFFNER: That’s a big as long as, isn’t it? I mean that’s a big caveat as long as one recognizes…

STAMPP: Yes. Yes. And I’m afraid that some historians who are applying modern statistical procedures and making excellent use of computers don’t always recognize the limitations of these new methodological devices. One historian some time ago pointed out that refined statistical procedures can help historians quantify more responsibly than they did in the past. And it’s true. Historians were rather careless in the way they used terms of quantification sometimes hardly knowing they were terms of quantification. Many, few, the majority, the overwhelming majority, some, without giving enough thought, as much as they should, to what precisely they meant by these things. Statistical procedures that many historians are trained in now make it possible to be more precise in using terms of quantification. The limitation I think is a fairly obvious one. These statistical procedures using computers can make it easier for historians to tell more accurately what happened in the past, but no computer and no statistical computer procedure will ever be able to tell a historian why things happened in the past. And that is the…to me the very essence of historical research and historical writing, trying to find out why things happened. Trying to explain to the historian’s generation not just what happened in the past, but why thing happen.

HEFFNER: Do you think that the certainty generated by the presence of statistics leads to a kind of arrogance that makes for more frequent assumptions that the whys are certainties as well? That the certainty that you can have in counting numbers leads you to a firmer assumption that what you’re saying about the whys, the interpretations of history, are just as well-fixed, just as certain?

STAMPP: Well, it’s possible and it does happen. There are historians who are skilled in the use of quantitative methods who feel that out of this will ultimately, and in the not too distant future, develop finally a scientific history. And that it won’t be necessary in the future for historians to engage in what one historian has called wheel-spinning revisionism, this business of rewriting history and rewriting history generation after generation. Now with our modern statistical procedures and with computers we can write history for the ages. You know, It will be written in stone. It will be there forever.

HEFFNER: That’s not a concept that you embrace.

STAMPP: It is certainly not a concept I embrace, and I’m still waiting for the first example of this history for the ages to be presented. Those who use these procedures have found when their books and articles are published that they are exposed to revision and attack and criticism as their predecessors were. And so we still are engaged in the same wheel-spinning revisionism as in the past.

HEFFNER: Talking about wheel-spinning I frequently come back and back again to this question of the responsibilities and the abilities of journalists as well as historians. Do you find anything particularly unacceptable about drawing this parallel between what the two should be doing? That the journalist has more or less the responsibilities of the historian?

STAMPP: Well, the journalist has the responsibility to report what is going on accurately. He has the responsibility of explaining and interpreting it and in that respect he has the same problems and the same limitations that historians do. And I think that journalists also have the responsibility of having some historical perspective…

HEFFNER: And humility?

STAMPP: And humility. I don’t suppose that’s a great advantage for a journalist for a columnist to show too much humility. He must sound like somebody who’s on top of the news.

HEFFNER: But for the historian it’s certainly a prime qualification isn’t it?

STAMPP: Oh, I think so. For a good historian. I don’t think that all historians have as much humility as they ought to, but…

HEFFNER: I’m not talking about what they do, but what they should do.

STAMPP: What they should do.

HEFFNER: Wouldn’t you, then, impose that same responsibility upon the journalist, the person who’s recording not what happened in Lincoln’s time, but what happened in Ronald Reagan’s time?

STAMPP: Right. One historian years ago said that every historian ought to preface his explanations of why things happened with the phrase, in my opinion. And I think that might be a good idea for a journalist as well.

HEFFNER: I came across in your article on interpreting history the Wilson piece. You said, the problem of discovering what happened is not unlike the problem of discovering the truth in a court of law. And the historian would be well advised to consider its rules of evidence. Historians, like lawyers, judges and juries get their facts from fallible human beings and their sources. Historical documents provide them with much erroneous information. You feel that the legal process points the way to some greater wisdom for the historical process?

STAMPP: I think it does. In accomplishing the first function of the historian, that is, finding out what happened. I mean before you can begin to explain why things happen, you have to be sure you can know what did in fact happen. And here the historian is always confronted with the limitations of his sources. The sources that are provided him, I’m talking about sources, writing, the historians also use oral sources, but the problem, I think, is essentially the same. If sources are provided by fallible human beings who tell you, assuming that they don’t have reasons for trying not to tell you what happened or trying to conceal what happened, let’s assume that they’re trying to tell you accurately what happened, their limitations as witnesses as…so I think that some of the rules that apply in a court of law might well be used with profit by historians.

HEFFNER: They’re humbling rules. And I wondered whether you would say today, forty years after we began talking about these things, that historians…that the writers of history today are by and large, so I’m using the modifiers, by and large, some, many, a few, but by and large more humble in the face of the limitations of their craft, or less so?

STAMPP: About the same.

HEFFNER: Oh, come on. That’s not…

STAMPP: No. No. About the same. They are not more humble. I wouldn’t say they’re more arrogant. I think young historians tend to be sure of themselves and sure that they have found the truth than older historians. And I think there has been a degree of arrogance among younger historians…the older generation. I remember what a cocky, confident group we were when I first started teaching. I don’t think we were very humble and all that aware of our limitations. One thinks as one gets older that one gets wiser and more reflective. I’m not sure.

HEFFNER: what was it that Clemenceau said about anyone who hadn’t been a radical before he was thirty was a fool or a knave and anyone who was afterwards was one or the other? Is that what you’re saying? You’re talking about age…

STAMPP: That’s a rather pat statement. There are many ways of defining radicals and one is not necessarily radical in every respect and one may retain some of one’s radicalism well on into one’s later years. I think one tends to be more impatient in one’s early years and one becomes, later on one begins to be weighted down by the limited possibilities open to individuals in generations as a result of experience.

HEFFNER: Have you become more or less of an economic interpreter of history as you’ve moved on?

STAMPP: Much less so. I began as a kind of quasi-Marxist, Charles A. Beard economic determinist, and felt that that was a frame of reference in which one could satisfactorily interpret historical events and historical movements.

HEFFNER: And today?

STAMPP: Today life seems and history seems much more complex and I haven’t totally rejected the importance of economic forces in history, but I certainly am no longer an economic determinist.

HEFFNER: Kenneth Stampp, thank you so much for joining me today.

STAMPP: A pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”