John Hope Franklin

The Uses of the Past

VTR Date: July 22, 1990

Guest: Franklin, John Hope



Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: John Hope Franklin
Title: “The Uses of the Past”
VTR: 7/22/90

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND, and, I proudly point out at least at one time, the teacher of American history, which in part is why I’m so pleased to have as my guest today such a truly distinguished chronicler and interpreter of the American past as John Hope Franklin. Now, his major historical work is From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans. But it is his recent Race and History, a selection of Professor Franklin’s scholarly essays over the 50 years from 1938 to 1988 that offers the most telling summary of his impressive insights into many different aspects of the uses of the past. Indeed, in his intriguing essay, On the Historian and the Public Policy, Professor Franklin points out that, “one might argue that the historian is the conscience of his nation, if honest and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience.” He assures us that, “the historian is not in the business of protecting the morals of the people, but as the servant of the past is in the best position to provide a rational basis for present actions.” Now, I think it’s because intellectually they touch so closely upon work I’m into now that I’d like to share with you, in particular, Professor Franklin’s last sentences in this splendid essay, and then ask my guest whether, on his part, they signal most profoundly an aloofness from or abiding involvement with the major controversies of our time. “The people, yes, the people, shall judge. But they require a sound basis for making judgments. They will have that basis if and when they know what has happened, why it has happened, and consequently, how the public policies growing out of historical events or shaping those events can serve the common good. If, then they prefer to ignore their past mistakes and prefer to live in a world of fantasy and make-believe, they will deserve to suffer the fate of repeating the grave errors that they could easily have avoided.” So, Professor Franklin, what does that signal? A deep involvement in controversy or a movement away, when you say, “they deserve what they get if they haven’t paid attention and live in fantasy-world instead?”

FRANKLIN: Well, I think it means that if people do not heed the lessons of history, if they indeed look at the historical past and ignore it, if they create instead a set of myths that they call the past, and then act upon the basis of those myths, which they created, these myths will undoubtedly lead them into policies and actions which are unrealistic, which are themselves misleading, and which of course will cause them to end up on the wrong side of a particular problem. I think that we have too much of that in our present as well as in our past. And I think that’s why we have such difficulty in being realists in this country, looking hard and long and carefully at the facts of history. I think that if we were to do that they would tell us a great deal about what we are, where we’ve been and they might even suggest – I say this tentatively – where we might be going.

HEFFNER: Why do you say that tentatively? Don’t you think that history could, would, should be a guide for the future?

FRANKLIN: Yes. I say it tentatively because I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I would imply that history repeats itself.

HEFFNER: Only historians repeat themselves.

FRANKLIN: Only historians repeat themselves. But with respect to it’s being a guide and its being instructive, I have no reservations about that. I don’t speak tentatively. It was merely to make certain that I caution people against the possibility that they might think history repeats itself.

HEFFNER: I think we think that we’re quite a historical-minded people. We’re constantly concerned with what Jefferson would have said, what Washington would have said. And yet, as I read your essays, I find there a thrust in the direction of saying that we have been at least as frequently misread by those who would use history as propaganda.

FRANKLIN: I think that’s quite true. We do have a fascination with what we call history. But it’s a fascination with a kind of superficial type of history. We like to think of the founding fathers in the most romantic way, the most uncritical way. We like to place them on a pedestal, so to speak, and regard them as demagogues without looking at them critically, without subjecting them to the kind of scrutiny end examination that all persons deserve who are human beings like you and me. And this is what I think we do so often with our history. On the one hand, we regard it as a very romantic and wonderful and inspiring kind of story. On the other hand, we look at it superficially in quite another way, mainly as a set of almost disconnected, disembodied facts about it. So that when some of our institutions (who remain nameless) get us disturbed about the performance of young people on historical tests, lets say, and so forth, we get very disturbed that they can’t remember the decade in which the Civil War was fought, or they don’t know the year in which the Declaration of Independence was singed and issued, or they don’t remember the opening and closing years of Reconstruction, let’s say. But I would be much more distressed if they did not know what the Civil War was about, even if they couldn’t remember that it was in the 1860s. I would be much more distressed if they did not know the inconsistencies that the stands that the founding fathers took in the Declaration of Independence. Inconsistencies represented by their, on the one hand, fighting for their own independence, and on the other hand, holding a firm grip on the slave to be certain that they didn’t have human freedom or independence. And in much the same way, I would be very disturbed if Americans paid more attention to these factual data generally than to the causes and the consequences of our great historical events and developments.

HEFFNER: But I must press you then, because it is my impression that as a people we know neither. We do not know the dates any longer.


HEFFNER: We are distracted in your American Council of Learned Societies speech, which was so wonderful and evocative of an earlier age in terms of your own upbringing when the distractions were not there, and you wrote about your father’s pattern of reading and writing each evening and your own developing pattern of doing the same thing each evening, and I’m sure that’s true today too. You learned. You learned the facts, you learned the dates, you had those pegs upon which to hang your intellectual hat. But you also come to understand the facts that you have just related about our founders. Now, are you suggesting that we do know the one but not the other?

FRANKLIN: No, no, no. I’m suggesting we don’t know either. But I’m suggesting that one is more important then the other. And I’m more distressed that they don’t know what causes a war than I am that they don’t know when it was. But so many don’t know either. And so I’m distressed on two counts. But if I had my preferences, I would prefer that they know a good deal about the causes of the Civil War, even if they can’t quite figure out that it started in 1861.

HEFFNER: You know, the early essay that you wrote — and I’m glad you included it in Race and History, the selected essays of ‘38 to ‘88 –the one on Birth of a Nation.


HEFFNER: …seemed to me to focus so importantly upon the myths that have been perpetuated in our own history writing, in our own larger culture. Do you think that that has been remedied since the early years of this century?

FRANKLIN: Remedied to a very limited degree. I would argue still that after all these years and after all the remarkable scholarship in the field, say, of Reconstruction (because that’s what Birth of a Nation deals with), but even with the efforts of Kenneth Stamp in his book, Era of Reconstruction, or my book on Reconstruction after the Civil War, or of the vast number of books that have come along, like Eric Foner’s book on Reconstruction and many monographs on Reconstruction in the various states, and Leon Litwac’s remarkable book won the Pulitzer Prize, We’ve Been in the Storm So Long. In spite of all that, I am fearful that there is the impression still conveyed that the Reconstruction Period was similar to that which is depicted in the first movie that was ever made, namely, The Birth of a Nation, or in the volume that became an early choice of the Literary Guild, The Tragic Era, by Paul Bowers, or in a much more recent work that came out in 1948, The Saider Reconstruction by E. Merton Coulter, I’m afraid that they still dominate much of the thinking about Reconstruction that most Americans in 1990 subscribe to. And worse still, I’m so afraid that much of the public policy that is being worked out in the 1990s is based on a conception of African Americans in the Reconstruction years.

HEFFNER: You know, I feel like saying, ‘hot diggety dog,” because when I try to make that point to my students about the impact, when I show them Birth of A Nation, it passes over. When I suggest that there is a relationship between the 200 years of unrequited toil and Birth of a Nation and, our languored approach to civil rights, it goes beyond most people. Now, what could the connection possibly be about a film that came out so many decades ago? But you’re stating it that the images, the stereotypes, are very much with us. How could they not be?

FRANKLIN: They could not be de as long as we’ve had a persistence of practices that fed on these stereotype notions, persistence of practices that, say, kept blacks out of politics for the most part for several generations after Reconstruction, and that in turn was renewed by Birth of A Nation, by Paul Bowers’ Tragic Era, by Coulter’s The South During Reconstruction. So that it’s what you want to see that you see. And there develops, as I tried to say in my presidential address before the American Historical Association, which was called “Reconstruction: Mirror for Americans.” It recalls very clearly in the minds of so many people that Reconstruction is synonymous with black rule. It is synonymous in turn, with malfeasance and misfeasance in office. And that even in 1990 when there’s reference to say, a black candidate for public office in this year, sometimes you will see in the media a reference to the fact that this will be the first time, if the person is successful, if this black person is successful, it will be the first time since Reconstruction. That conjures up, you see, a whole set of notions about what went on during Reconstruction, you see. It’s not merely that blacks have not had any power since Reconstruction. It is also that when they had power they misused it, you see. This is what you call a kind of subliminal effect. I’m not suggesting by any means that everyone who used the term even knows what it means. Indeed, there’s a lot of inaccuracy. For example, when Harvey Grant announced his candidacy for the United States Senate in North Carolina in 1989 and then made good in running in 1990, many of the writers referred to this as the first time that a black would go, if he’s elected, would go to the Congress since Reconstruction. Well, the last black from North Carolina in Congress was, left the Congress in 1901, which was long after Reconstruction. Or they will say that he will be the second senator elected from the South since Reconstruction. That also is wrong. There were two elected from Mississippi during Reconstruction. Not only then do we have our facts all mixed up, muddled up, and inaccurate with respect to this problem, but much more important, it seems to me, is there is this undercurrent of fraud and implication that if they are elected they will somehow return us to that awful period which is called “The Tragic Era.”

HEFFNER: In commenting upon this — and you mentioned historians who do — I think of Beard’s notion that all written history, all recorded history is an act of faith. And this is an expression, these, what you and I would consider misinterpretations of the past, are indeed acts of faith that stem from a very present-minded attitude toward blacks and whites.

FRANKLIN: Yes. Right. Right. Well, I couldn’t agree with Beard more when he said that history is an act of faith, and said it in his presidential address. But I think that Beard would be the first to criticize the use of history in this fashion, that is, as though this is what history is rather than merely an act of faith.

HEFFNER: But isn’t that the danger we run whenever the historian becomes involved in – and now I go back to the beginning of our program – becomes involved in controversial issues? Doesn’t he almost necessarily lend his perspective and perhaps even shape his perspective relating to the past to his contemporary-minded, his present-minded wishes?

FRANKLIN: I think that’s always the danger. And I think that’s something about which one must be ever conscious. I don’t see anything wrong or objectionable about being present-minded, about the historian being present-minded, as long as he understands what he’s doing, and as long as he doesn’t take the historical fact for the purpose of somehow distorting it to fit into a present context, into a context that will somehow lead down a certain road that does not necessarily follow. Let me, if I may, just illustrate that very briefly by suggesting that if you feel deeply about, say, a misrepresentation inn history, as I do about, say, the way in which the Reconstruction has been misrepresented, if I’m going to use that as an example of how one must guard against repeating that during the, say, present, then I have to be aware of the dangers of this misrepresentation. I have to be aware and be very sensitive to the possibility that even I, in using that material, might misrepresent it to make my point, you see.

HEFFNER: Are you satisfied that generally the disciples of Cleo today are that aware of the dangers and that aware of what they must and must not do?

FRANKLIN: Oh, no. (Laughter) I’m not at all satisfied. Certainly not about all of the disciples of Cleo. I see still too much use of Cleo’s work for purposes which it seems to me would not be for the common good or for the best interests of historical facts and historical knowledge itself. You know, there is always, as I suggested in one of the essays in this book, there’s always the dilemma that the historian faces of being on the one hand a true, diligent, committed disciple of Cleo, the muse of history, and doing precisely as one should do in order to carry out her wishes and the accurate portrayal of history. On the other hand, every historian is a human being, with deeply held beliefs, passions, desires, aspirations, criticisms about the present and the future, and wants to do whatever he can to improve their chances of a better world in which we live. If that is so, then he walks a kind of tightrope between, on the one hand, being certain that he is true to his principles of writing fair, objective, unadulterated history, on the one hand, and of advocating to the extent that he possibly can the improvement of our social order on the other. The extent to which he uses the materials of history to do that is limited, I think, because he must be certain that in using these materials he does not fall prey, does not become tempted to twist them or distort them just to make his point.

HEFFFNER: We have two to three minutes left. Let me ask you whether if, not we here, but you in your lifetime, had it to do all over again, would you be even more of an activist than you have been? And you have been, quite considerably.

FRANKLIN: I would, I think, be more of an activist. But still very conscious about the distinctions. I think there are opportunities, which maybe I missed, to be an activist. If not I, say, testifying in court to provide historical materials for arguments for equality, if not for marching from the outskirts of Montgomery into Atlanta, into Montgomery with Martin Luther King, if not for working on the Brown decision in the United States Supreme Court that outlawed segregation and segregated schools, perhaps also, if that was not enough, perhaps also in trying to organize a larger number of historians to become committed to using the data, materials of history, to illuminate the past in a way that a much larger number of the American public would understand it, and to use the materials of history to try to replace this superficial and disgustingly simplistic view of history on the part of Americans with an understanding of its complexities and it’s difficulties and the way in which it can indeed be used – appreciating those difficulties – the way in which it can be used to improve our chances for a better America in the future.

HEFFNER: John Hope Franklin, I’m so pleased that you would join me today and present these views. And it does seem to me, from what I know of your involvement in causes, that you’ve done pretty darn well. It’s interesting to me to hear you say you think you would, if you could do it all over again, have done more. Thank you for doing your part in coming here today.

FRANKLIN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, please write: The Open Mind, PO Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”