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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: The impossibility of history

by Philip Martin | September 28, 2021 at 4:45 a.m.

"Purely objective truth is nowhere to be found . . . The trail of the human serpent is thus over everything."

-- William James, "Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking" (1907)

There is no such thing as human history, the amateur historian said.

It is inarguable, he went on, for "the annals of mankind have never been written, never can be written" and we would not have the time or patience to read them if they were. After all, the perfect map would be as large as the territory it is meant to represent, and therefore useless. Jorge Luis Borges recognized this, as did Lewis Carroll.

What we can have, the historian continued, is "a leaf or two from the great book of human fate as it flutters in the stormwinds ever sweeping the earth. We decipher them as best we can with purblind eyes, and endeavor to learn their mystery as we float along to the abyss; but it is all confused babble, hieroglyphics of which the key is lost."

The historian making this postmodern argument was John Lothrop Motley, who wrote two well-received popular histories of the Dutch Republic. He was speaking before the New York Historical Society on Dec. 16, 1868.

A few months later, President Ulysses S. Grant would appoint him "Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary" to the United Kingdom. (Grant would recall him in December 1870 when Motley disregarded the administration's instructions for pursuing a claim against the British for attacks upon Union merchant ships by Confederate raiding vessels built in British shipyards during the American Civil War.)

These are statements which can be determined true to a relative certainty. Motley left behind plenty of impressions; he was a popular author both in this country and the Netherlands (though a Dutch historian, Robert Fruin, who considered the discipline more science than art, thought Motley had a tendency to make up colorful facts).

People witnessed his address; it was reported on and remarked upon. Accounts were published. Motley himself cannibalized the speech for his 1869 book "Democracy: The Climax of Political Progress and the Destiny of Advanced Races."

On the other hand, you could argue against all this.

You could insist that Motley never existed, and that all the evidence for his existence has been manufactured and planted to fool us. Why someone would want to do this is hard to say, but if you want to disbelieve in Motley it is certainly possible. People have believed in stranger theories and even argued some of them into law.

No doubt there are people in your circle who sincerely believe that the War Between the States was fought over the issue of states' rights--the right of a state to determine for itself whether its citizens ought to be able to own other people or not. Some of them might be fond of a more euphemistic construction: The South fought the Civil War to protect its "way of life."

It's not entirely their fault. It's what they were, or weren't, taught in schools. A lot of what we think we know is what someone in authority told us, or what we thought they told us. Teachers have a good deal of discretion over their lesson plans, and if my experience of high school was anything close to typical, a lot of contingencies conspire to dictate the course of any pedagogical program.

One teacher might follow a specific text more or less strictly, another might take a more discursive approach. My wife remembers how none of the various American history classes she took in high school and college ever got beyond World War II--they simply ran out of time before they ran out of history.

There are great teachers, good teachers and bad teachers, and maybe the best we can hope to do is to raise the standard.

And the history they did get to was, as Motley lamented, a mosaic of selected details--"facts" cherry-picked and privileged over others in order to form a cogent, comprehensible story about where we came from and how we got here. There are any number of stories we can tell ourselves about the past, and some that are never told are just as valid (maybe more) than the ones that have become our intellectual furniture.

We must start with the recognition that there was never a time of innocence. There was never a time when we all got along or when reason ruled. Mayberry is a whitewashed myth; there was nothing charitable about slave-owning, and all of us owe the greater portion of our comfort to the misery of the unseen and unremembered.

America was founded on genocide, on the assumption that it was OK for white Europeans to seize the land of Indigenous people of color too backward to have developed notions of realty. Our forefathers were, by and large, the surplus poor of Europe, come into a New World for a new start, a fresh beginning, and they were ruthless in their pursuit of a better life. Their crimes positioned their posterity, in the same way more ancient crimes built more ancient nations.

That said, the preservation of slavery was not one of the chief reasons the American colonies revolted against the British. It's disingenuous to suggest that it was.

In many ways, The New York Times' 1619 Project is an important corrective to simplistic American mythology, but there's nothing laudatory about substitution of one over-simplification for another. History, like science, is an ongoing process of discovery and revision--all history should be revised whenever the evidence demands it--but the truth tends to bend toward nuance and ambiguity.

As Motley understood, history is in the ultimate sense an impossible errand. The past is a remote and foreign land that refuses all passports and honors no treaties. There are those whose names we will never know; the best we can do is to try to parse what we think we know, to fashion a story that might prove instructive. We understand objectivity is illusory, that there will always be holes in our understanding.

Yet we ought to be brave enough to try to understand how things are, and how they have come to be. We ought to try to understand because we believe there is such a thing as "the truth," and we have faith that "the truth" is valuable, that it can be useful as human beings try to improve themselves and the world.

Maybe we owe nothing to the dead, who have no use for statues and cannot feel defamed. But we do owe the future.

Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at and read his blog at

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