Back to the Future; Or, Whenever I Show up to Talk about the Past, My Audience Can Only Hear about the Present

Todd Estes
A woodcut print of 13 columns labeled with the names of the 13 original states.  All of the columns are standing upright except North Carolina and Rhode Island which are falling over.

“The Federal Edifice,” 1788. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Like many historians, I regularly give talks to library, community, school, and civic group gatherings exploring some aspects of my research on early U.S. history—and I usually talk about my own ongoing book project about the 1787–88 debate over ratifying the Constitution. My current “stump speech” concerns the crucial role of moderation in that debate, an argument that appears in my current Journal of the Early Republic article. In brief, I see moderation as both a mindset and a set of substantive practices characterized by genuine efforts to compromise with opponents on constitutional issues; behaviors that treated rivals as collaborators, with respect and conciliation. Our founders demonstrated moderation by listening carefully, weighing opposing views, and being willing to make concessions to the other side; Federalists and Anti-Federalists undertook this exercise with the recognition that concessions were being made on both sides. A reciprocal process, moderation required one to debate with sincerity, good faith, and a genuine desire to make changes; it also required one to recognize opposing views as principled. A moderate seeks to accommodate divergent views because those positions were meaningful to a room of colleagues at the ratifying conventions and, more importantly, to multitudes across the nation.

Strikingly, what I do not talk about in such settings is the current and recent U.S. political scene. I deliberately make no references to Trump, impeachments, MAGA, January 6, or indictments. But while I offer a vision of history, the audiences gaze upon the present. Repeatedly, I find that contemporary audiences view my presentation through the lens of contemporary politics. And they often connect the presence of moderation in 1787–88 with its absence today, lamenting that just when moderation is most sorely needed it seems most conspicuously absent.

This phenomenon is not new. In a 2019 issue of The Panorama, Robert G. Parkinson described the surprising reactions to work he presented about Revolutionary-era leaders who consciously weaponized race. He found that his listeners consistently told him that his project was “really” about September 11, or the Iraq War, or Obama and the Tea Party, or the rise of Trump. “The truth is,” Parkinson notes, “none of those things mattered to me.” The actual source for his interpretation, as he memorably put it, was the squeaky microfilm reader on which he scoured colonial newspapers.[i]

Print of a room full of men in 18th century dress sitting at desks deliberating the constitution.Parkinson, like me, talked about the past to audiences in the grip of the present. Should I be surprised that audiences listen to my talk and then want to discuss current politics? Given the unprecedented intensity of the moment, it seems like a natural and reasonable response on their part. So, the more challenging question becomes: Why am I disinclined to indulge such discussions?

One explanation is my personal reluctance to hew my scholarly statements too close to the present. My training and years of practice qualify me to make judgments and offer interpretations about the early republic. But when it comes to opining on current events, I see myself as just another concerned citizen—well-informed and curious, certainly, but without a scholarly background on public policy issues. My views, even if well-considered and historically grounded, are still merely personal. But while I can speak with authority to early U.S. history in my capacity as a professor and scholar, my reticence on contemporary issues stems from a long-held conviction that my opinions are no more authoritative than my neighbor’s or the audience member in the back of the room.

The second explanation is less personal and more widely prevalent among historians. We study the past, and “the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there,” as the British novelist L. P. Hartley wrote. One platitude I consistently push back against—from students, from friends, from the person sitting next to me at the bar—is the notion that “things back then are the same as they are now,” or the belief that an episode from the 1790s, for example, can be comprehended with the understanding that it’s “just like today.” I tend to be conflict-averse, but even I cannot let such nostrums go unchecked. Historians know that context is everything. And whenever I find myself drawn into comparisons of the present and the past, I try to draw bright lines between the two, often frustrating interlocutors by my insistence on cabining the past and stressing differences over similarities.

But as this situation occurs repeatedly—even with scholarly audiences—I must acknowledge the possibility that something in my presentation itself may be implicitly, if unintentionally, inviting and even encouraging precisely the comparison that I hesitate to claim or state explicitly. Perhaps what I say about moderation and the way I say it conveys a point of view—a posture—toward moderation in political life that does, in fact, suggest a way for listeners to think about modern politics. Perhaps I have actually primed the audiences with my historical examples from the ratification debate, and their understandable desire to explore the practice of moderation today (or the lack thereof) should be embraced, not deflected.

If I do shed my reluctance to discuss moderation in the present day, I will remind audiences that historically, moderation has required good faith, sincerity, and seriousness of purpose. It also has depended upon reciprocity, prudence, responsibility, and principled actions. And then I will raise questions—does Donald Trump embody any of those qualities? Do his MAGA followers? Do Kevin McCarthy, Josh Hawley, Jim Jordan, Lauren Boebert, or Matt Gaetz? Do Marjorie Taylor Green, James Comer, Ted Cruz, or Rupert Murdoch and Fox News? [ii]

Moderation requires principled, serious people committed to larger, constructive purposes, not reckless obstructionists. During the ratification debate, such people, both Federalists and Anti-Federalists, stepped forward and jointly secured the Constitution. We seem far removed from that spirit today. Maybe it is past time for me to join other historians who have overcome our disciplinary reluctance to speak outside the comfort zone of the archive. Perhaps it is my time to lean into the ramifications of my research and explore what the practice of political moderation in the 2020s might mean for the health of our fragile democracy. We have a platform and an audience; we should not be shy about engaging with the public in the discussions they want to have.


Endnotes

[i] Going for Broke – The Panorama (shear.org). See also Parkinson’s recent book, Thirteen Clocks: How Race United the Colonies and Made the Declaration of Independence (Chapel Hill, NC, 2021), viii.

[ii] To be sure, Democrats have their own problems but attempting to overthrow the government and subverting democracy are not among them. If anything, today’s timid, feckless Democrats may be too willing to tolerate the shenanigans of their extremist opponents, and too unwilling to call out and confront the present menace that is the Trumpian Republican party.

  • William Kerrigan says:

    This is an issue that I think all of us who present our research to public audiences grapple with. But I think it is important to recognize that even as we have a greater capacity than our public audience to see complexity in the past—because we spend so much time immersed in the study of it—that doesn’t mean that we are not also sometimes in “the grip of the present.” It is no surprise that as you look into this period from the vantage point of 2023 that the characteristic of moderation and the idea that compromise can be virtuous is what has drawn your attention. I would say that deploying the past in the service of a current political argument is not generally useful. When an audience member declares that the past you are speaking of is “just like the present”or conversely the opposite of the present you can acknowledge the similarities while also providing contrasting perspectives that complicate overly simple ones. Also when it comes to politics, it can be more fruitful to acknowledge that an idea like the current one that moderation/compromise is a moral failing is not exclusive to one side of the political spectrum. I don’t think it is whataboutism to point out that many on the left today also disdain moderation and compromise today.

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