What History Is … and Is Not

The City of Jacksonville’s recent removal of another memorial to the Confederacy from a city park has made the idea of “protecting history” a lively topic [again]. Of course, anything that gets people talking about history can’t be all bad, so historians welcome the conversation. To historians, though, fear of the “destruction of history” is puzzling. So are the claims of those who say they want to “protect history.” Let’s try to settle on just exactly what history is and is not.

History is an ongoing argument about the meaning of the past. Put differently, history is not what happened in the past. It is the process by which we understand and try to make sense of the past in our present moment. History is like any other argument, using knowable facts in order to develop opinions and reach judgments. Facts about the past are often invoked to support ideas in the present but those ideas are constantly evolving, and so are the facts behind them. History is always teaching us new things.

Here’s one example of how the past keeps reshaping our thinking about justice, political ideology, and economic policy: Was Franklin Roosevelt elected president of the U.S. during the Great Depression? Yes. Did his administration create new federal programs aimed at helping sustain the U.S. economy? Yes. Were Roosevelt’s domestic policies generally called the “New Deal?” Yes. Did the New Deal accomplish any good? Answering that is the work of history, and it’s complicated, as history usually is. Such questions matter, because they help us understand ourselves in the present and suggest what we ought to do next.

Protecting “history” does not mean defending a particular version of what happened in the past. Defending history means protecting the right to study and learn from the past. Often we hear history used or abused in support of fights that people simply want to win. That’s why knowing about the past matters. For Americans, historical knowledge is more than just a right, it is a duty of citizenship. There are places in the world where learning and discussing facts about the past is risky. The United States is not among them.

Using history effectively depends on knowledge, but also on a measure of tolerance for those from whom we differ. Among other things, that means using ideological language with care and precision. We can be passionate, engaged, and even partisan – after all, being Americans means that we are free to express our beliefs. But even in the most heated public political or ideological brawl, an effective argument strives for accuracy, especially when characterizing the views of others, living and dead. Stating what we believe in that way, and then listening to dissenting ideas, leads others to see us as thoughtful and informed fellow citizens.

Regular readers of Jacksonville History Matters will recognize some of what I have written above, but I think they will agree that these values need upholding and occasional restating. That is part of the work of the Jacksonville History Center, this city’s oldest and only public history organization serving all of the people of Jacksonville, Florida. Please stand with us, strengthen our mission, and strengthen the civic life of this sprawling, complicated city.

Alan J. Bliss, Ph.D.
CEO, Jacksonville Historical Society / Jacksonville History Center