What AHA President James Sweet Got Wrong—And Right

Just after Christmas, the chief of staff of the United States Army stood before a national meeting of historians to tell them America’s military weakness was their fault.

You people, the general declared, have been writing bad textbooks. Few of you, he added, study military history at all anymore.

Because of what you teach—or don’t teach—in high school, America’s voters are complacent. Because of you, Congress has been underspending on national defense.

This claim went over about as well as you’d expect.

A former president of the American Historical Association icily replied a couple of days later that if the general would just get right-wing activists, parents, and legislators to stop censoring their work, his members would be happy to write honest textbooks.

It was 1939, four months after the Nazis invaded Poland.[1]

History Is Political

More than eighty years later, the only surprising thing about General George C. Marshall’s attack—or Charles A. Beard’s rebuttal—is that anyone ever equated being a historian with writing high school textbooks. In every other respect, the story is familiar.

History is political because human experience is political. Historians have power, or at least we want them to. We require that secondary-school and university students study history because we hope it will shape their behavior as citizens. The work of historians, therefore, is always likely to be controversial.

The real question is how historians should exercise their power.

A Professional Controversy

This summer, the current president of the American Historical Association wrote a 1,600-word essay for the AHA’s magazine, Perspectives on History. It ran under the headline “Is History History?”

He probably expected entire dozens of readers to see his essay. Perspectives is not exactly Us Weekly. Instead, James H. Sweet found himself under intense criticism from many of his colleagues on social media—especially on Twitter.

Within days, Sweet felt compelled to add an apology to the web version of the article. But responses from other historians in Perspectives kept the controversy simmering throughout September and October.

Then The Atlantic reported on it.

In “The New History Wars,” David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush who has an MA in history, portrayed James Sweet as a victim of younger academics’ political correctness. Much of Frum’s story was measured in tone. But at the end, he added a joke about Soviet censorship to characterize “much of academia” today, intimating that contemporary historical scholarship is being taken over by ideologues.

The Atlantic’s readers, in other words, were led to believe that the controversy over Sweet’s essay proved that real historians like Sweet are being bullied and silenced by leftist partisans. But what did Sweet actually argue in Perspectives, and why did so many of his colleagues denounce his essay? That’s a deceptively complicated question.

The Argument

Revisiting “Is History History?” now, I find that—at its core—it’s the kind of reading material I’d happily assign in an undergraduate seminar to spark a set-piece debate. It is interesting, but it’s also a retread of arguments everyone in the profession has heard many times.

Indeed, Sweet started out by invoking an essay written twenty years earlier by another AHA president, Lynn Hunt.

In “Against Presentism,” Hunt had warned fellow historians in 2002 that some of them were overemphasizing recent (that is, 20th-century) topics of study. She also thought some of them were interpreting the past solely “in terms of present concerns”—like, for example, their scruples about racism. Together, those two temptations constituted what she meant by presentism.

Instead of total present-mindedness, Hunt had written, historians should maintain “a fruitful tension between present concerns and respect for the past.” But, she added, “Both are essential ingredients in good history.”

Many generations of history students had already heard versions of this speech. That’s because—as Hunt knew—it describes a problem that can’t be fully fixed. “Presentism,” Hunt wrote near the end of her essay, “admits of no ready solution.”

We can’t fully set aside our present-day perspectives when we study the past. That’s impossible not only because historians are people like anyone else, but also because they write for the sake of addressing present-day readers about topics they—historians and readers alike—consider important. That’s the point. History written from the perspective of historical subjects themselves is called “memoir.” If you want a memoir, read a memoir. If you want analysis of the past, read historical scholarship.

In his essay twenty years later, however, James Sweet took Hunt’s essay as a Cassandra’s prophecy about the risks of letting presentism into the historical profession at all. It wasn’t a description of a paradox inherent to historical writing; it was an alarm bell. And “the discipline,” Sweet wrote, “did not heed Hunt’s warning.” Since 2002, according to Sweet, the American historical profession has slid deeper and deeper into the presentist mire Hunt warned about. His evidence: in the decade after Hunt’s essay appeared, there was an 18% increase in doctoral dissertations about topics more recent than 1800. (Whether a dissertation focusing on, say, the War of 1812 should really be considered “presentist” is a question Sweet, whose own research focuses on the 18th century, didn’t answer.) Then came the Great Recession, which galvanized historians to write about “contemporary socioeconomic topics.” That was only the start: “Then came Obama, and Twitter, and Trump.”

Thanks to these developments, Sweet complained, “our interpretations of the recent past collapse into the familiar terms of contemporary debates, leaving little room for the innovative, counterintuitive interpretations.” In other words, he complained that 21st-century historians increasingly write what they consider politically useful accounts, even though their more valuable contribution, in the long run, would be mind-expanding explorations of past worlds that were totally different from ours. In writing this, Sweet implied that there was a time before the 2000s when American historians weren’t presentists—a time when their histories weren’t overly full of “race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism,” or other present-day issues, like, perhaps, issues related to military preparedness or the rise of fascism in histories written around 1939.

Whether or not Sweet was conscious of that implication, it was an ahistorical fantasy.

The Examples

If Sweet’s essay had stopped there, “Is History History?” would have been odd and frustrating. But it might not have generated a strong reaction from Sweet’s fellow historians.

Instead, Sweet provided three examples of what he considered historical presentism in action.

First, he criticized the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which—he mistakenly claimed—makes American history “a zero-sum game of heroes and villains viewed through the prism of contemporary racial identity.” Though Sweet at least acknowledged that 1619 was primarily a journalistic project, not a work of historical scholarship, he blamed historians for legitimizing it as a work of American history through their “engagement” with it.[2]

Second, Sweet described his own visit to Elmina, Ghana, a key site in the history of the Atlantic slave trade, which he studies. (Sweet is a historian of the African diaspora.) In Elmina, he had been “troubled” to find that local historical interpretation was so oriented toward the specific interests of Black tourists from the United States—including a man carrying a copy of The 1619 Project—that it did not fully contextualize Ghana’s role in the history of slavery in the larger Atlantic world.

Sweet is not the first scholar to be troubled by the story told at Elmina. The American literary historian Saidiya Hartman paid a longer visit to Ghana some years earlier, writing about her experience in Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. Hartman’s hybrid memoir-history, an instant classic, expresses similar concerns about historical interpretation at Elmina and elsewhere in Ghana. Hartman’s diagnosis of the problem, however, is far more satisfying than Sweet’s, partly because it is openly present-minded.

Hartman set out to study memories of West African slavery as part of her own ancestral history. But in Ghana, she found that Africa’s story was not her story after all—not in the ways she had expected. Hartman finally came to realize that the past’s legitimate relevance appears in the way people use it as a basis for new stories about their own present and future. “As circumstances changed,” she wrote, “so too did the ways we imagined ourselves”—in Ghana as well as in the United States.[3] In other words, the past can be fundamentally different from our world and still be relevant to the stories we need to tell about and for our world. We don’t have to imagine that our ancestors were just like us—the supposed temptation of presentism—to discuss them in a story about us. Unlike Sweet, therefore, Hartman didn’t conclude that present-mindedness itself is a problem.

Third, Sweet complained about the misuses of history in recent opinions of the Supreme Court of the United States, including the majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson. Conservative justices, Sweet wrote, have been “cherry-pick[ing] historical data” to fit their own political convictions as they rewrite the law of the land.

All three examples, Sweet claimed, show how dangerous presentism is.

The most obvious problem with this part of his argument is that none of these examples of presentism—not 1619, not Elmina, and not the Supreme Court opinions—showcased bad work by academic historians.

In fact, as Sweet pointed out, the American Historical Association has been filing amicus curiae briefs in many Supreme Court cases, only to have these historical interventions ignored by conservative justices. So was Sweet arguing that the AHA, the organization he leads, should stop filing legal briefs? I’m honestly not sure! His argument seems to suggest that—and those briefs are arguably the only example he provided of presentism being committed by professional historians. Yet this example seems to show that historians’ political activism is not taken seriously enough.

More troubling, Sweet’s first two examples (1619 and Elmina) could be read as implying that a white historian writing about the African diaspora—like Sweet himself—is intrinsically more “historical” (because less focused on his own concerns and identity) than Black scholars seeking to understand their ancestors.

The Professional Context

To fully understand the negative responses to James Sweet’s essay, three additional realities should be kept in mind.

First, almost everyone who pays attention thinks the academic historical profession is collapsing. In the very same issue of Perspectives, the AHA itself reported grimly that “the 2020–21 academic year had the fewest professorial job listings in history since the AHA first started keeping records in 1975.” There is reason, this report noted, to assume that fewer than one in four new PhD recipients—and perhaps as few as 15%—will find tenure-track jobs as professors.[4]

This means that many highly trained young historians—hundreds of new PhDs every year—are simply unable to find work that would allow them to indulge in Sweet’s version of non-presentist, pre-1800 history.

Rather than address or even acknowledge that reality, Sweet blamed these younger historians—whom he theoretically represents as the president of the AHA—for studying subjects that might help them put their training to use outside the shrinking walls of the tenured academy. Salting the wound, he accused these displaced scholars of being seduced by “the allure of political relevance, facilitated by social and other media.” In other words, he told younger scholars that most of the historical work they can still get—in think tanks, for example, or in journalism, or just contributing punchy historical commentary online in their free time—represents a betrayal of their calling.

And many of them were on Twitter. That’s the second reality that shaped the reception of Sweet’s essay. That’s also where I think some of Sweet’s defenders have a point. Twitter can be a toxic place. I say that as a devoted user going on twelve years—because it can also be a great place! It has been crucial for my own professional life, in fact. It provides space for scholars who have no other substantial public platform to share their thoughts. But structurally and culturally, Twitter is a machine for generating resentment, anxiety, groupthink, and misunderstanding.

Here’s the thing, though: when you’re talking about Twitter, you can just say “Twitter.” You don’t have to interpret the dynamics of one social media platform as evidence of a vast swing toward censorious political correctness by an entire generation of professionals.

There is a third lens that may help explain why some historians read and responded to Sweet’s essay with hostility. It’s something Sweet never mentioned, nor did Frum in his article about the controversy. But some readers were certainly aware of the scandal surrounding one of Sweet’s former graduate students.

Two years ago, a white tenured professor at George Washington University was exposed for misrepresenting herself as a scholar of color. Jessica A. Krug had published a well-received book called Fugitive Modernities (2018), a study of West Central African peoples and their descendants in the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries.[5] The trouble wasn’t with the book. The trouble was that Krug had presented herself as a scholar of African and Caribbean descent. Some acquaintances knew her as “Jess La Bombalera,” a Puerto Rican community activist from the Bronx.[6] In fact, as she admitted in September 2020, she had grown up as “a white Jewish child in suburban Kansas City.”

Jessica Krug was an advisee of James Sweet.[7] How much her high-profile scandal influenced Sweet’s attack on other young historians’ “presentism” is impossible to say. But some knowledgeable readers assumed it played a role in Sweet’s anxiety about activist historians, or argued that it discredited his authority to speak on the issue.[8] All the more ironic, then, that Krug’s dissertation and book were works of pre-1800 history, not studies of the recent past.

The “History War” Worth Having

James Sweet was right: the American historical profession does need some deep soul-searching about what responsible scholarship looks like in 2022.

And he was right that getting sucked into the vortices of contemporary politics, in ways that necessarily deprive us of critical historical perspective, is a real and potentially deadly risk to our credibility.

Let me be frank: being a good historian does not automatically mean you’re a good political commentator, or vice versa. And good political commentary needs historians—at least, some of them—to maintain professional distance from partisan debate. (It certainly needs some of us to be more circumspect on Twitter.)

Teachers and curriculum writers need to be able to rely on the nonpartisan public credibility of historians when they submit their work to angry legislators and school board members.

Contingent scholars, similarly, need America’s tenured professors not to abuse their speaking privileges in ways that discredit and endanger their more vulnerable colleagues, who have none of the same job protections.

And the American historical profession needs to find ways to support the research and publishing of historians who don’t study the recent past. We need that work to continue. It’s essential infrastructure for everything else we do.

Finally, universities should consider what forces and failures contributed to the decision by a rising star in the profession to misrepresent herself. Unfortunately, much of the commentary about Jessica Krug’s scandal has merely reinforced existing clichés about left-wing academic politics. It ought also to contribute to a more practical assessment of the academy’s weak fact-checking and susceptibility to personal charisma—and perhaps also the ways that competition for desperately scarce jobs contributes to credential overkill.  

Attacking presentism as a mindset of younger scholars doesn’t solve any of those problems. Sweet’s diagnosis was a misdiagnosis.

Many important aspects of American historians’ work may depend on whether better diagnoses and better sets of remedies can be found.

Featured image created by Clio editorial team.

[1] George C. Marshall, “National Organization for War,” speech to the American Historical Association, Dec. 28, 1939. Collected in The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 2 (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 123–127. Charles A. Beard’s response in the Washington Post on Dec. 30 is quoted in fn3. Accessed from https://library.marshallfoundation.org/Portal/Default/en-US/RecordView/Index/12670, Nov. 11, 2022.

[2] For related commentary here at Clio and the Contemporary, see Derek Litvak’s “There’s a Legitimate Critique of the 1619 Project. And Then There’s Sean Wilentz,” Oct. 23, 2020.

[3] Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), 234.

[4] Leland Renato Grigoli, “The 2022 AHA Jobs Report: A New Normal?” Perspectives on History 60, no. 6 (Sept. 2022), https://www.historians.org/ahajobsreport2022.  

[5] Jessica A. Krug, Fugitive Modernities: Kisama and the Politics of Freedom (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2018).

[6] Major reporting and commentary on this scandal includes Claire Lampen, “There’s a New Rachel Dolezal,” The Cut (Sept. 9, 2020), https://www.thecut.com/2020/09/historian-jessica-krug-admits-to-posing-as-a-black-woman.html; Lauren Michele Jackson, “The Layered Deceptions of Jessica Krug, the Black-Studies Professor Who Hid That She Is White,” The New Yorker (Sept. 12, 2020), https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-layered-deceptions-of-jessica-krug-the-black-studies-professor-who-hid-that-she-is-white; Hari Ziyad, “The Stories and Lies of Jess Krug,” Vanity Fair (Dec. 17, 2020), https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2020/12/the-stories-and-lies-of-jess-krug; and Helen Lewis, “The Identity Hoaxers,” The Atlantic (Mar. 16, 2021), https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2021/03/krug-carrillo-dolezal-social-munchausen-syndrome/618289.  

[7] Jessica A. Krug, “’They Glorify in a Certain Independence’: The Politics of Identity in Kisama, Angola, and Its Diasporas in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” Ph.D. dissertation (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2012), 1. Accessed from https://search.library.wisc.edu/catalog/9910217478402121, Nov. 20, 2020.

[8] Sweet’s connection with Krug was noted immediately, for example, by T.J. Tallie, “On Black Autonomy and Responding to Abstract, Genteel Contempt” (Aug. 17, 2022), https://theteej.tumblr.com/post/692882482112151552/on-black-autonomy-and-responding-to-abstract; Aliyah Khan (Aug. 18, 2022), https://twitter.com/aliyahrkhan/status/1560455805392003076; David Austin Walsh and Ben Schmidt (Aug. 18, 2022), https://twitter.com/benmschmidt/status/1560277144323756037; and Geoffrey Hughes (Aug. 19, 2022), https://twitter.com/geofffhughes/status/1560635221933838338.

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