Politics & Policy

History in The Making

An interview with David Hackett Fischer.

The most mammoth footnote ever recorded appears, if memory serves, in a volume of John Hodgson’s 19th-century magnum opus, A History of Northumberland, a copy of which I once happened to own. Hodgson, a country vicar and amateur antiquary, knew more about that tumultuous Anglo-Scottish border county than any man who has ever lived, which I suppose means he gets a pass on devoting no fewer than 165 pages to his single, sesquipedalian note.

David Hackett Fischer, the author of a bestseller, Washington’s Crossing, while a dab hand at footnotes (he racks up 1,122), is the John Hodgson of the appendix. At a time when publishers are asking their authors to compress their scholarly apparatus, Fischer appends 24 appendices plus, for good measure, a fascinating 32-page essay on the changing historiography–how we perceive an historical event, as opposed to examining what actually happened during that event–of Washington’s crossing of the Delaware.

These “technical” appendices range from a disturbingly interesting discussion of “Ice Conditions on the Delaware River” to a catalogue of “Weather Records in the Delaware Valley, 1776-77″ to a table of “Ratios of Artillery and Infantry in the Battles at Trenton and Princeton.” Then there are the lengthy orders of battle for the American, Hessian, and British armies: e.g., on January 2, 1777, the Light Infantry Brigade comprised the 1st Light Infantry Battalion, the 2nd Light Infantry Battalion, the Grenadier Battalion Köhler, the 42nd Foot (Royal Highland Regiment), and the 71st Foot.

All this stuff isn’t intended solely to delight fetishistic war buffs. Thanks to modern computing and research methods, we know more about the past than even its original residents knew about themselves: mortality rates, average height of the population, international trade figures, nutritional levels, and so forth. Fischer’s essential technique, a trademark throughout his books, is to mine this ore of hard data and refine it sufficiently to reveal the era’s broader social structures, its greater forces, and the influence these bear on the formation of collective “mentalities” (a piece of scholarly jargon used to describe how people think, their attitudes, and how they see the world).

Take, for instance, that perhaps not overly interesting listing of the “42nd Foot (Royal Highland Regiment)” in Appendix Q, on page 410. On pages 46 through 50, Fischer explains why the 42nd assumed a major role in the fighting by slotting it into an expanded treatment of the Gaelic-speaking Highland Regiments, “an army within an army,” of which the 42nd Foot, later, more famously, known as the Black Watch, was part. Employing original sources and specialist monographs, Fischer describes the regiments’ history, organization, pay, recruitment, weaponry, uniforms, training, and, most importantly, their ethos, rituals, reputation, and ideals (of “loyalty, fidelity, honor, duty, discipline, and service”). On the broadest level, the deep inculcation of these principles explains the strange enthusiasm of Highland Scots, who, only 30 years before the Revolution, had fought the detested Sassenachs at Culloden, to volunteer en masse for King George’s army. Raised to esteem a hierarchy of loyalty that began with one’s extended kin and ascended to one’s clan, and from there to the clan’s chieftains and thence ultimately to the king, Highlanders, despite their occasional bouts of bolshieness, were really quite natural adherents to monarchism.

The crucial point here is Fischer’s conviction that “for men on both sides … the war was not primarily a conflict of power or interest. It was a clash of principles in which they deeply believed.” If you read the Marxists on the Revolution, by way of contrast, one of two interpretations of the Scots’ behavior might ring clear: first, that they were coerced by the oppressive English into fighting their imperialist wars; or, secondly, that they were the working-class tools of Anglo-American capitalists tyrannizing radical progressives in the Colonies and in England. Either way, the Highlanders come off as being zombies with no minds of their own. They are, like the Homeric heroes who were playthings of the Gods, tossed and turned by the forces of history. In Fischer’s view, the Scots chose to volunteer for service in His Majesty’s army in America. They were their own men, and they believed the Americans were in the wrong about this rebellion thing.

When I talked to Fischer on the phone about his emphasis on the “clash of principles,” he announced that he was essentially a “Whig historian,” a phrase one rarely hears nowadays, redolent as it is of smug 19th-century historians convinced that History (sorry for the pretentious capitalization, but it seems apposite here) was the story of Man’s Progress (ditto) from Teutonic barbarism to liberal Anglo-Saxon civilization. History was an inevitable process that hit its high-water mark in about 1850, conveniently enough for the Victorian bourgeoisie, but the Whiggish interpretation hasn’t really been popular since the First World War finished it off (as well as the sons of the Victorian bourgeoisie).

Fischer quickly set me straight. Though confessing a sympathy for the “teleological idea of the history of progress,” he realizes that the traditional Whiggery of, say, Lord “Lays of Ancient Rome” Macaulay, is obsolete. Like the historical interpretation and forecasts of Macaulay’s near-contemporary, Marx, it was too beholden to the concept of inevitability, too deterministic, and so it lost sight of individuals. Unlike poor old Macaulay, however, nowadays (unfortunately) unread, Marx (nowadays, unfortunately, read) was invigorated by the 20th century’s travails. By the 1960s, the decent, dufferish liberals running the Ivy League had been purged and Marxist determinism reigned in the universities.

The aim of Fischer, who seems the sort of genuinely enlightened, unpoliticized don once common here and abroad (he says “most Americans are centrists, and I dislike the extremism on both sides in today’s America”), is to nudge 19th-century Whiggery into the 21st century by leavening his history-writing “with a sense of the individual actors, of contingency,” the latter Fischer defining as the tale of “people making choices, and whose choices makes history.” In other words, he’s a neo-Whig who reminds us that Washington’s personal choices helped win the Revolution, a victory by no means predetermined. Betraying his roots in ’60s social history, Fischer also reminds his readers that the little people are important, too: “Some of the critical American decisions were made by privates in the Philadelphia Associators who demanded that their officers cross into New Jersey. Other choices were made by hundreds of sick and weary Continental infantry who decided to stay beyond their enlistments.”

Now here’s the clever part. These individuals making millions of choices operate within a Whiggish mental framework created by the “growth of an opening society, a society organized around liberty and freedom,” explains Fischer (who has a 900-page behemoth coming out in September on Liberty and Freedom–they’re not synonymous–in American life). To this end, the thrust of Washington’s Crossing is to explain how it was that an amateur military force, suffused with newfangled notions of independence and freedom, defeated a professional, regular army fighting to preserve the traditional order, a certain type of discipline, and an ancient hierarchy. Contemporary observers assumed that the little American rebellion must inevitably be crushed by the greatest empire on earth, yet, somehow, individual Americans made a series of better decisions than did their British and Hessian foes. Washington’s Crossing devotes almost equal time to examining the decisions, good and bad or just plain mediocre, made by both sides. Old assumptions are challenged, and newer ones demolished; it’s not a style calculated to appeal to those who like their history pat. After all, “people don’t want their history dumbed down; I’m writing for an intelligent audience.”

For an American who devotes so much time to writing about American subjects in America, Fischer’s method is remarkably un-American. When I asked which historians figure among his major influences, Europeans and Britons feature prominently, though he’s also partial to Perry Miller (author of the classic “mentality” text, The New England Mind), Edmund Morgan, and James McPherson (Battle Cry of Freedom). First and foremost, though, he cites the French Annales school of Fernand Braudel, Marc Bloch, and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, as well as the “Cambridge Group” headed by Peter Laslett. All these historians have applied the methods of the social sciences and hard number-crunching to produce visions of historical events of startling clarity and precision. (Hence the import of Fischer’s appendix on, say, “Ratios of Artillery and Infantry in the Battles at Trenton and Princeton.”)

They tended to shy, however, from presenting history as resulting from a succession of short-term political developments or individual actions and decisions. Everything had to do with “the structure”–which could only be observed over huge spans of time–and men were really quite inconsequential in the scheme of things. Braudel took this theory to an extreme in the massive trilogy, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, which told us a great deal about civilization and capitalism, but not a whole lot about the people who created and nurtured these impersonal forces.

The Annales School and its allies were always very long on analysis, often tediously so. Most of them could have used a good editor to pare the pompous jargon and inject some vim into the writing. Middlebrow American historians (or historians writing for an American market), conversely, have traditionally excelled at the art of narrative drive and color, even as they lack cutting-edge analytical rigor and originality. Barbara Tuchman, Stephen Ambrose, Dava Sobel, Daniel Boorstin, William Manchester, Samuel Eliot Morrison, Walter Isaacson, David McCullough, William Shirer, even old Arthur Schlesinger Jr., none of these writers will ever assume a plinth in the Pantheon alongside Gibbon and the Venerable Bede, but they all succeed in telling the uplifting stories of real, live people surviving and thriving in worlds lost to us.

Where does Fischer come into all this? Washington’s Crossing is a very odd and queer fish, which might be one reason it’s sold so well. Half Annaliste, half American (the book clips along like an adventure story), Washington’s Crossing is a nonfiction book that reads like fiction, partly owing to Fischer’s expertise in selecting, compressing, and positioning materials to achieve what he describes as a “braided narrative.” That is, the art of “telling complicated stories without trying to simplify them, but giving them narrative coherence” and analytical ballast. In this respect, Fischer takes a leaf from the master narrator-analyst, Macaulay, who wrote: “[Writing] history has its foreground and its background: and it is principally in the management of its perspective that one artist differs from another. Some events must be represented on a large scale, others diminished; the great majority will be lost in the dimness of horizon; and a general idea of their joint effort will be given a few slight touches.” Good history, in other words, depends on combining delicate detail with broad strokes, and balancing color with depth.

Since the beginning, there has been a tug-of-war between the followers of Herodotus, who was never averse to inventing such facts as advanced a riveting story, and loyalists of Thucydides, whose factually sound and scrupulous Peloponnesian War can be a bit plodding. (Cue complaint from Victor Davis Hanson here.) As Dr. Johnson confided of Milton’s Paradise Lost, ’tis a brilliant work, but none ever wished it longer than it is. Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing has, like Dante’s Virgil, pointed the way towards squaring that eternal circle. It’s even a pity it wasn’t a bit longer.

Alexander Rose is deputy managing editor of National Review.


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