From Persuasion at Substack, The Contradictions of American History by Michael Walzer:
It’s a mistake to deny the contradictions of our history, but it isn’t easy to live with them. We (some of us, anyway) long for the Founding Fathers as we once saw them: Washington refusing to play the monarch, retiring to his country estate; Jefferson writing the inspiring words of the Declaration; Franklin telling the others that they must hang together or hang separately. But it is necessary to remember that the workers on Washington’s estate were slaves, and to remember Jefferson’s enslaved “mistress,” Sally Hemings, and to remember those of the Founders who intended to sustain the slave system. All that…and all that.
Even as we give the revisionists their due, we need to be wary of a kind of eliminationist history, which would leave us with nothing to admire in our past. What we should see in the contradictions I’ve described is not simple hypocrisy or self-regard but the common “doubleness” of political action, driven by private interest and public commitment. The desire for power, say, rubs shoulders with the hope for liberty, or democracy, or socialism. That great student of political life, Niccolo Machiavelli, argued that the crucial motive that led political actors to found, sustain, or revive a republic was the desire for personal glory—not for the well-being of the political community. But we can honor the decision to seek glory in founding a republic, even as we condemn the egotism of Great Men.
A fair historical account needs to do more than catalogue sins. Ideals are real, and sometimes effective; interests are real, and sometimes determinative. Reading the past, writing history, we must be idealistic materialists or material idealists. What do these seemingly contradictory phrases mean? We should avoid a purely “patriotic” history, a story of American nobility and nothing else. In truth, we shouldn’t be too entranced with nobility. It isn’t always a bad thing to act from material or personal interests: Think of workers on strike fighting for higher wages and better working conditions. High ideals alone often produce arrogance and cruelty: Think of Lenin’s socialism.
We should also beware the excesses of “ideology critique.” Economic self-interest doesn’t explain everything that happens in the world. Nor is everything that happens irredeemable. We can’t resolve the contradictions of the past, but we can choose sides; we can oppose the racism of our own time and support contemporary versions of The Democratic Review’s campaigns for immigrants and workers. We can acknowledge the sins of the Founders and still agree that we are bound to recognize and redeem the promise of the “new order.”
Perhaps most importantly, we should guard against hubris. Acting on our own, in our own time, we will certainly try to avoid the immorality and injustice of the past. We will do the best we can to recognize all the implications of our values. We promise, when we defend equality, that we won’t leave anyone out. But we had better add humility to our righteousness; we are unlikely to avoid the contradictions of political life.
A great piece, a retort to simplistic revisionism. History is complicated and not easily reduced to single theory explanations such as the 1619 Project. We can address our sins without ignoring our redemption. We can learn more from understanding context than by either glorification or demonization.