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Journal of a graduate student in military history and the American Civil War

Historical Presentism

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John AdamsI am on the hunt for examples of Historical Presentism, the notion of reading the present into the past. David Hackett Fischer in his work, Historians’ Fallaciessays that “…the fallacy of presentism is a common failing in historical writing by men who have never been trained in the discipline of history.”Peter Charles Hoffer, when going back to publish his Harvard dissertation Liberty or Order, admits that after reading Fischer’s book he felt he was himself guilty of historical presentism. But, he said, “I am comforted that the same charge can be laid against Jefferson, John Adams (above), and all of the other revolutionaries studied.”2 I need to finish reading his book to find out why but what a fascinating assertion.

For my own enlightenment and education, I’d be interested to hear of other examples any of you may have of historical presentism.

By the way, in researching the authors I’m reading, I am always fascinated to find out what accomplished historians and scholars they are. I’ve added both professor Fischer and professor Hoffer to my “the historians” page here where you can read more about them.

Historians' Fallacies : Toward a Logic of Historical Thought

Fischer1David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies, Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York, 1970), 137.

Hoffer2 Peter Charles Hoffer, Liberty or Order: Two Views of American History from the Revolutionary Crisis to the Early Works of George Bancroft and Wendell Phillips (New York, 1988), ii.

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  1. [...] Morris in effect was calling attention to the fallacy of presentism–that of applying contemporary standards and ideals to events and characters of the past. In other words, reading the present into the past. [...]


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