“The Conscience of His Nation”: John Hope Franklin on Historians in Society

In a 1974 lecture at the University of Chicago, the great historian John Hope Franklin (1915-2009) lamented the existence of “some rather strange and quite unlikely notions of the role of the historian in society” — some propagated by historians themselves. For example, he complained that some historians have seen themselves as “[promoting] the interests of a particular political party”; one, Claude Bowers, was so good at doing that for Democrats that Franklin D. Roosevelt rewarded him with an ambassadorship.

John Hope Franklin

From the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation

But while he found “essentially partisan and defensive” the notion of historians “supporting causes or offering explanations after the fact,” he did believe that historians could “assist in the search for solutions to difficult problems in the area of public policy,” since that reflected an interest “in how historical events can provide some basis for desirable change.”

(This seems to fit with what many of you see as the chief use of history: that it provides “lessons for the present.”)

As one example, Franklin recounted how he and other historians had helped NAACP lawyers argue key Supreme Court cases on desegregation:

The historians and lawyers were an unusually effective team. The historians provided data that traced the evolution of the concept of equality, with its culmination in the writing and ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. They showed how the pre-Civil War views of the radical abolitionists dominated the egalitarian thinking of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment. They were able to show, moreover, how the intent of the framers of the amendment had been frustrated and vitiated by the separate-but-equal doctrine which, the lawyers contended, was conceived in error….

Using the findings of the historians, the lawyers argued that the “history of segregation laws reveals that their main purpose was to organize the community upon the basis of a superior white and an inferior Negro caste.” (pp. 312-13 in Franklin, Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938-1988)

Woodward, Strange Career of Jim CrowLikewise, historian C. Vann Woodward wrote The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955) in order to demonstrate that “segregation was neither as universal in origin nor as venerable in age as many on both sides of the argument assumed that it was.” Franklin doubts that Woodward’s scholarship “converted many segregationists,” but it did make a “significant contribution to the discussion and, perhaps, helped to prepare the ground when the segregation statutes slipped largely into disuse after the passage of the Civil Right Act of 1964” (p. 316).

Since then, most government departments have hired historians, and other such scholars speak into important public policy debates, whether in Native American affairs or foreign relations (two examples Franklin gave in 1974).

Of course, this also means that historians sometimes serve as critics of their nation’s policies, but Franklin memorably concluded that

As a nation views its history and the various positions that it has taken, it is not difficult to conclude that its postures have been mixed and exist on several levels of morality. At times, in the case of the United States, at least, its public policy has been humane, healthy, and worthy; at other times, it has been bereft of many or any praiseworthy objectives. It is the function of the historian to keep before the people, with as much clarity as possible, the different lines of action that have been taken, the several, often complicated reasons for such action, and to point to the conflicts and inconsistencies, the contradictions and the illogicalities, and to the defects and deficiencies where they exist. One might argue that the historian is the conscience of his nation, if honesty and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience. Perhaps that is too much to claim for the historian who, after all, is not in the business of protecting the morals of a people. But the historian, as the servant of the past, is in the best position to provide a rational basis for present actions. (pp. 319-20)

Do you agree with Franklin that “the historian is the conscience of his nation”? Should historians actively enter into debates about public policy?

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One thought on ““The Conscience of His Nation”: John Hope Franklin on Historians in Society

  1. I do not agree at all with Franklin’s claim that historians should be the conscious of a nation. While historians do have much greater access to the past and understanding to boot does not justify proclaiming judgements. A historian’s role is to find the past and present/interpret it in all of its complicities. A good example of a profession like history is the law enforcement/justice system. A historian is like a police officer, their job is to find out what happened and what might have drove it. They are not judge and jury. Their priority is to find the truth, not judge the truth.

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