Mar. 13th, 2017

missroserose: (Default)
When I attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks, I had the good fortune to take a Modern World History class from Professor Cole. His courses were known for being high-quality, but not easy - study groups were strongly recommended, as the reading was dense and we went over almost none of it during the lectures. The reason for this, though, was also what made him such an excellent teacher: he spent the lectures talking about (and, while flipping through a truly gargantuan stack of transparencies, offering examples of) perspective, propaganda, confirmation bias, and precisely why it's so important to seek out multiple sources when studying any historical event. The very first class, for instance, we watched Rashomon; the rest of the course would continue in a similar vein.

Just yesterday, I came across an interesting example of just the sort of narrative nuance he warned us about. So in true Professor Cole fashion, I'm going to demonstrate, albeit with screenshots rather than transparencies.

First, if you'll pardon the slightly long quotation, we have a passage from Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton:

Chernow, <i>Alexander Hamilton</i>, 2004, p.316

Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, 2004, p.317

Needless to say, this doesn't paint a particularly flattering portrait of Thomas Jefferson - he comes off as a naïve idealist at best, and an intentionally blinkered one at that.

And yet, while reading Tom Reiss' The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, I came across this bit of context that Chernow left out of his analysis:

Reiss, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, 2012, p.98

Despite the damning evidence of the founding father's own words, it's worth also considering Chernow's biases in judging Jefferson's shortsightedness. It's pretty clear from the name that Alexander Hamilton isn't focused on Jefferson, except in how he relates to the title personage; given that Chernow clearly admires Hamilton, the fact that they were constantly at odds with each other means that Chernow has a vested interest in portraying Jefferson as clueless and/or villainous. (Lin-Manuel Miranda, to take the examination further, had an even stronger reason to do so when writing Hamilton, as any good musical needs a villain to drive the dramatic action forward, and the British were more or less out of the picture by the end of Act I.) Whether or not this was historically justified is a separate matter; it's certainly arguable that after centuries of canonization, Jefferson is due for some examination of his flaws. But by leaving out the fact that he was far from the only person who foresaw a peaceful end to the French Revolution, and that general public opinion (at least prior to the brutal winter of 1788-89, and the following grain shortage that spring) agreed with him, Chernow makes Jefferson's letters sound like the pronouncements of a lone, ludicrous figure, rather than a perhaps overly idealistic man speaking from a position of privilege. It's a subtle bit of character assassination, and worth considering.

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