The skills of a good liberal historian cannot be understated.

Practicing Liberal History

Michael J. Douma is an assistant research professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, where he is also the director of the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Markets and Ethics. He is a coauthor of What Is Classical Liberal History? (Lexington Books, 2017) and the author of Creative Historical Thinking (Routledge, 2018).

It is no secret that to become a good historian it helps to read the works of good historians who have come before. We learn to tell stories by copying the rhythm, pace, and style of other storytellers. Fundamentally, historians are storytellers. But, historians are also detectives who must seek clues from a long ago scene and interpret them. Like detectives who have a set of skills and knowledge to solve a crime, the best historians bring skills and experience to explain a part of the past.

What skills should one have to become a liberal historian? Here are some things you may consider:

Be aware of unintended consequences. When laws are passed, when economic policies are put into action, when the football coach calls a play, the results seldom correspond to how the plan was drawn up on the chalkboard. A historian who is aware of unintended consequences is sensitive to all of the possible fallout from a major historical decision. This makes the historian more likely to write a more complete, and therefore better history.

An example from my current research on slavery in New York might provide a decent example of this. When the state of New York passed a gradual emancipation law in 1799, they provided funding for persons who would take in recently freed children and house and feed them. Those who are aware that a law seldom accomplishes exactly what it intends would not be surprised to discover what happened next. Many slaveholders found it to their advantage to free the children of their slaves and then welcome the very same children back into their houses, now with a monthly subsidy check from the state. What began as an anti‐​slavery measure resulted in benefitting the very slaveholders it had intended to harm.

A historian working in the liberal tradition should also recognize different time scales and frameworks for writing historical accounts. Liberal history in the 18th and 19th century was often couched in the study of the nation‐​state, and this is one possible framework for the study of liberty. But the urge to be free is as old as humanity, and the history of liberty can and should be told on time scales as long as millennium and as short as a few days.

Jonathan Glover’s A Moral History chooses the twentieth century as its parameters for the study of the abuse of individual rights. The emerging field of “moral history” shares much with liberal history in the sense that both put ideas first. C. Bradley Thompson emphasizes autonomous moral agents in his America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It (2019), a book which sets its chronological borders by the ideas that early Americans expressed.

Liberal historians should understand that cause and effect is complicated and not strictly verifiable by observation. Historians are particularly prone to the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, the mistake that because event X came after event Y, that event Y must have been the cause of event X. Liberals should be particularly aware of this mistake because theory developed extensively by Ludwig von Mises and other liberals helps provide a way around the error.

According to Von Mises, we can never know cause and effect by empirical observation alone. Rather, to understand cause and effect, we need theory, an explanation of how a causal mechanism works. For a liberal historian, it is not sufficient to see a government plan go into action and then to claim that some particular results owed entirely to that plan. Rather, the plan could have had the opposite effect than what resulted, but some opposite and greater force overturned its effects. Correlation is not causation, and from Mises’s view, even the absence of correlation does not mean the absence of causation (an often controversial claim among statisticians and economists).

Liberal historians should be skeptical of teleological claims, of statements by politicians, and of the actions of authority figures. They should even be skeptical of written accounts of the past that others call authoritative. Skepticism, even contrarianism, is a strong force in the liberal mind. This is because liberals do not accept as normative the order of the world as it is. On the other hand, however, they are skeptical of those who think they can reshape the world in a perfect way. Skepticism is a characteristic of the liberal historian who recognizes that extensive research is necessary to make a convincing case, and that even the most convincing case may not be the final word on the matter. A skeptical historian demands mountains of evidence and argument, and is never convinced by a line in a history book that reads “some people did x” followed but one or two examples of peopling doing X.

A final skill of a liberal historian should be openness to new ideas, an essential liberal quality. Along with openness comes collaboration and networking to give the liberal historian an advantage. Many like to conceive of history writing as a solitary, individual activity. In truth, history writing is a team sport, and not just when a historian is co‐​authoring an article or a book. I say history is a team sport because historians produce the best works in correspondence with others, through debate, discussion, and the use of networks to find and interpret historical information. Historians ought to take a lesson from philosophers who enjoy arguing (so much that one could say they argue professionally) and from economists who blog frequently and share their insights for all, not always worried about who will get the credit for a discovery.

There are many more skills that make a good liberal historian. There are skills of language, econometrics, statistics, deep reading, textual analysis, demography, political theory etc., that are all tools of the trade. But I think a historian who is skeptical but open, demands theory and evidence to support causal claims, works in different time scales and pushes new chronology, and who recognized unintended consequences will be an excellent scholar for the job.

FEATURED BOOK

Liberal history is primarily concerned with ideas and with the reasons why individuals acted as they did in the past. Liberal historians prefer to study themes of power and liberty, particularly as they relate to the rise and fall of political systems that protect liberties and individual rights. As the selections in this reader show, the liberal approach to the past is generally skeptical of laws of history and suggestions of historical determinism.

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