election exclusive: interview with Francis Parkman

October 27, 2004

While I have nothing but praise for PBS’s decision to ask historians to comment on the Presidential campaign I must point out that their coverage does suffer from one, albeit minor, limitation: in choosing to speak only with current (i.e. living) historians they have unintentionally slanted their coverage towards the recent past.

So, in order to get a longer-range perspective on the election, I decided to inquire into the views of a man some have called the greatest American historian of his century, a man who was not only an expert on earlier periods of American history but who actually had personal life experience in the 19th century. I speak, of course, of Francis Parkman. Known primarily for his work on the Oregon Trail and his multi-volume account of the conflict between France and England in North America, Mr. Parkman has also authored articles on contemporary politics for such eminent journals as the Atlantic Monthly and the North American Review. His replies to a few brief questions are presented below:

No Great Matter: First of all, Mr. Parkman, I would like to thank you for your time. I know you haven’t appeared anywhere outside of the spiritualist media for over a century. Now before we get into politics, I’d like you to comment – as an historian – on a recent remark about history coming from within the Bush administration that has been the subject of no small amount of coverage lately. As you may not have caught the remark in the papers I will repeat it in full:

”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Senior Adviser to George W. Bush, quoted in the New York Times Magazine, 17 Oct 2004

As a man who has given much thought to the influence of individuals in history, what do you think of this view?

Francis Parkman:

The history of the progress of mankind is the history of its leading minds. The masses, left to themselves, are hardly capable of progress, except material progress, and even that imperfectly. Through the long course of history, a few men, to be counted by scores or by tens, have planted in the world the germs of a growth whose beneficent vitality has extended itself through all succeeding ages; and any one of these men outweighs in value to mankind myriads of nobles, citizens, and peasants, who have fought or toiled in their generation, and then rotted into oblivion.

NGM: Turning now to politics, let’s start with foreign policy, as most commentators see it as the key issue of this election. What do you think about the idea that the United States must be willing not only to acknowledge, but to embrace the idea that it is an empire?


There are those who call on imperialism to help us; but, supposing this heroic cure to be possible, we should rue the day that brought us to it. Our emperor would be nothing but a demagogue on a throne, forced to conciliate the masses by giving efficacy to their worst desires.

NGM: That’s a rather pessimistic view. Do you give no credence to the argument that our institutions, along with our system of checks and balances, will be able to prevent the worst abuses of power from taking place in the domestic arena – no matter how poorly our officials may govern?


The irrepressible optimist, who discovers in every disease of the state a blessing in disguise, will say that eminent abilities are unnecessary in democracies. We commend him to a short study of the recent doings of Congress, and, if this cannot dispel his illusion, his case is beyond hope.

NGM: In that case, do you consider yourself among those who see few positive prospects for our future? Do you find yourself worrying that we could be heading towards some kind of decline or fall?


There are prophets of evil who see in the disorders that involve us the precursors of speedy ruin; but complete disruption and anarchy are, we may hope, still far off, thanks to an immense vitality and an inherited conservative strength. The immediate question is this: Is the nation in the way of keeping its lofty promise, realizing its sublime possibilities, advancing the best interests of humanity, and helping to ennoble and not vulgarize the world? Who dares answer that it is?

NGM: Certainly those are important questions many people are asking – though their answers may differ from yours, of course. After all many consider this to be one of the most important moments in our history. Just look at the intensity of this campaign season. Do you see in the increase in voter registrations a sign of a reinvigoration of our political system?


There is an illusion, or a superstition, among us respecting the ballot. The means are confounded with the end. Good government is the end, and the ballot is worthless except so far as it helps to reach this end. Any reasonable man would willingly renounce his privilege of dropping a piece of paper into a box, provided that good government were assured to him and his descendants.

NGM: You don’t mean to say that you entertain doubts about the democratic process, do you?


…universal suffrage becomes a questionable blessing. Still we are told it is an inalienable right. Suppose for an instant that it were so, wild as the supposition is. The community has rights as well as the individual, and it has also duties. It is both its right and its duty to provide good government for itself, and, the moment the vote of any person or class of persons becomes an obstacle to its doing so, this person or class forfeits the right to vote; for, where the rights of a part clash with the rights of the
whole, the former must give way.

NGM: Well, I’m not sure we want to go down that path – and in any case we seem to be running out of time here. But I have one more question. What do you say to recent charges that you, and your predecessor George Bancroft, engaged in plagiarism while composing your histories?

Mr. Parkman declined to comment.

(Disclaimer: This interview is for entertainment purposes only. Readers interested in reading Parkman’s views in context – should refer to this article from 1878. Note further that the views expressed therein are for historical purposes only. Any resemblance to opinions held, whether secretly or openly, by people living today is purely coincidental.)

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