I think my favorite living historian is David Hackett Fischer. His books are wide-ranging, exhaustively researched, intelligently argued, and beautifully written. He’s a tremendous inspiration to me, and his work has provided me with many instructive lessons on the craft of history.
One of those lessons involves how to approach historical figures. The temptation, of course, is to do so with either blind admiration or fashionable contempt.
Fischer offers what I think is a sensible approach in his book on the events leading up to Lexington and Concord. His two main actors are the American patriot Paul Revere and the British officer Thomas Gage. One of his purposes, he writes, is “to study both Paul Revere and Thomas Gage with sympathy and genuine respect.”¹
Neither worship nor condemnation, but “sympathy and respect,” a simple appreciation of their basic humanity and a willingness to put oneself in their shoes. Not bad advice for scholars who find themselves passing judgment on men and women in extraordinary circumstances.
¹ David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), xviii.