Anthony Grafton, president of the AHA in 2011, wrote in his inaugural column in Perspectives on History that “Historians of everything from drought in ancient Egypt to the economy of modern China do, in fact, have knowledge that matters—knowledge based on painstaking analysis of hard sources, which they convey to students and readers as clearly and passionately as can be managed.”
In that spirit, with the firm belief that we best understand the present when we more fully comprehend the past, the AHA is continuing its series of Roundtables on the presidential debates of 2012.
Do vice presidential debates matter? That seemed to be the question of the day, the one that dominated the airwaves before and after last night’s debate. From our perspective as historians, we are certain that they do matter, even if they don’t generate a bump in the polls or a defining moment in the campaign. For the historian, they are responses to long-standing trends and further evidence of the importance of understanding the past.
Our Roundtable on the vice presidential debate features historians responding as historians.
As a community of historians the AHA believes that public discourse on any topic benefits from historical context and historical thinking. In that vein we have asked a group of historians to comment on last night’s presidential debate as historians. We leave the punditry to the pundits; the partisanship to the politicians. Our role is to offer the benefit of historical thinking and historical context.
After listening to the first half hour of the debate, I began to wonder whether this forum might be more effective on the web site of the American Mathematical Society. But the end, however, it did indeed become clear that from the principles of nation’s founding documents to the use of evidence, and the ways in which we construct historical narratives of the recent past, the debate was indeed rooted in context. As Gwen Ifill observed afterwards, “They spent an awful lot of time talking about the past.”
—James Grossman, Executive Director, American Historical Association
“Both candidates should feel ashamed. If they ever read the Lincoln-Douglas debates they’ll be mortified at the contrast. On the other hand, both doubtless realize that these 2012 debates are exercises in pure wishful thinking. They are premised on the idea that a new president can decide what to do on entering the White House.
The AHA announces a series of online forums featuring prominent historians commenting on the upcoming presidential and vice-presidential debates. This conversation is part of an ongoing AHA Roundtable, arising from the Association’s commitment to injecting historical thinking into public culture. For each debate we have assembled approximately four to five historians working in fields likely to be covered, and asked them to provide us with their responses by the following morning.
The AHA Roundtable series brings together professional historians to offer historically informed commentary on current events.
In light of the historic importance of yesterday’s Supreme Court decision, and with the belief that history can help inform debate on any contemporary topic, we offer three commentaries from professors of history on yesterday’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act.
Alan Brinkley, Columbia University
Having prepared comments on the demise of the health care bill, I am happily surprised that the Court has sustained it. Over the months of waiting, I had thought that the only conservative justice who might support the bill would be Kennedy.