Of Hindsight and Foresight: An Introduction to Rethinking Applied History

Katrina Ponti

Over the last few years, I have found myself in an awkward spot. What is my intellectual identity? With an undergraduate training in public policy and political science, as well as graduate degrees in the history of the early republic, I have always viewed the fields as complementary, even in conversation. Yet, as I entered my postdoctoral years, I came to realize that the fields were at odds, talking past each other about how to interpret and draw meaning from the past. Sitting in the middle of this crossfire is the concept of “applied history.”

Applied history falls under the umbrella of public history. It is largely defined as understanding and using the past to help guide modern public policy decisions. Its major audience is public policy influencers and makers.

As a result of this audience, traditional academic historians connotatively understand applied history as a tool of those with partisan agendas to cherry-pick historical episodes from the past, at the expense of the vital diversity and nuance inherent to the American democratic project. I largely agree with the connotations; however, we cannot ignore that historians must participate in political and policy-relevant discussions. Otherwise, the cherry-pickers will continue to do it for us. I do not think that this will make historians engage in “presentism,” nor will it require a partisan agenda. We identify patterns and convey arguments that are grounded in the facts of the past.

Colin Powell sits in the Oval Office with George Bush, overlooked by a portrait of Thomas Jefferson.

A portrait of Thomas Jefferson looks on as the first African American Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, advises George Bush in the early 1990s. Echoes of the 1790s remain ever-present in the halls of power in Washington DC. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Alma J. Powell.

The original framers of the applied history concept in the 1970s were historian Ernest May and political scientist Richard Neustadt. They joined intellectual forces to confront national policy challenges in their Cold War era. They studied the historical patterns of elite policymakers, particularly presidents, to gain insights on how to develop foreign policies to counter Soviet influence. Their main audience was intended to be the president and other elite policy influencers.

Consequently, many current applied histories and historians often focus on topics in the post-World War era, as well as themes that tend to rely on studying the historical elite such as the presidency, war, high politics, diplomacy, and grand strategy. All concepts that share vocabulary with and are familiar to scholars of international relations but are generally considered by the academic field of history as problematic.

Applied history also does not necessarily appeal to a casual adherent when the most recent articulation is perhaps offputtingly titled “Applied History Manifesto.” However, there is merit in the words of the Manifesto. It exhorts those with interest in modern political issues to seek out “history first,” especially to understand such problematic modern movements as “America First,” which has its historical origins in the Founding.

Along with other contributors to this roundtable, I argue that historians, especially those of the early American republic, should—and probably already do—engage in applied historical discussions. Over the next few weeks, we will be publishing five pieces from historians of the early republic that reflect on the ways that applied history factors into their work.

Shira Lurie will start us off by helping us to write an effective historically inflected op-ed. Then Emily Conroy-Krutz appeals for source diversity in U.S. foreign affairs, finding invaluable perspectives in the writings of missionaries. Cody Nager and Jordan Zdinak share their modern-day experiences building policy community relationships in the service of the past. Finally, Zachary Conn exhorts us to remember that secondary education is the most formative time for young students to develop their civic energy.

Now is the opportunity for historians of the early American republic to help redefine applied history as a field of public history that must include the social, cultural, and racial aspects of American politics, at the local, state, and national levels.

In the United States, historically informed citizens are the greatest assets to reinforcing democracy. If they can see themselves in their national past, they are more aware and empowered to embrace the rights of citizenship and seek change in the halls of power.

15 February 2024

About the Author

Katrina Ponti is a May Postdoctoral fellow at the Belfer Center, Harvard Kennedy School where she is working on her first monograph, Virtuous Emulations of Liberty: US Diplomatic Culture in the Early Republic.

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