Shakespeare, Shylock and The Merchant of Venice: Protestants, Catholics and the Jewish Question in Elizabethan England

Shakespeare, Shylock and The Merchant of Venice:

Protestants, Catholics and the Jewish Question in Elizabethan England

Burton Weltman

1. The Jewish Question and The Merchant of Venice.

The Merchant of Venice is probably the most troubling of Shakespeare’s plays for modern directors, actors, scholars and audiences.  In the wake of the Nazi Holocaust, antisemitism of even the genteel sort that was common among the European and American upper classes during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and that was regularly found in literature and drama of the period, is no longer acceptable in public.  It is not that antisemitism has disappeared from the world.  It is just not generally acceptable to promote antisemitism in a play.  The problem with The Merchant of Venice is how to present and portray the greedy Jewish money lender Shylock, a central character in the play, without appearing to be antisemitic.

Antisemitic portrayals of Shylock had hitherto been standard fare.  Although the overwhelming majority of Jews were historically among the working class poor and did not engage in commerce, the common stereotype of the Jew from at least Shakespeare’s time to the twentieth century was based on the relatively few Jews who were bankers and merchants and who were often denigrated by Christians as mercenary money grubbers.

The Merchant of Venice was generally presented as a dramatization of what during the nineteenth century was termed “the Jewish question.” This was the question of what decent Christian society should do with an alien religious sect of Jews that was typified by the disreputable shyster Shylock.  The Holocaust has made this question and this interpretation of the play unacceptable in polite society.

Modern interpreters of the play have, as a result, had to scramble to try to reshape the presentation of Shylock.  But they do not seem able to get it right.  I have read many interpretations of The Merchant of Venice and seen many performances, most recently during the summer of 2013 at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario.  I have seen directors try vocal modulations, pantomime gestures and other stage directions to soften the harshness of the language that the Christians use against Shylock and to undercut the cruelty of the actions these characters take against him.  Nothing of that sort seems to work.  The Christian characters’ language is blunt and blatant.  Their actions are coarse and cruel.  Shylock is still treated as a despised Jew.  The play still comes off as antisemitic.

But it does not have to be that way and I do not think Shakespeare intended it that way.  The problem is that directors and interpreters have remained locked into a conventional way of presenting the Christian characters in the play as exemplary people.  The solution, in turn, is seemingly simple: As bad as the Jew Shylock is in the play, the main Christian characters, including Antonio the so-called merchant of Venice, are worse.  And that, I think, is the main point of the play.

2. Literature and the Method of History as Choice.

Interpreting literature is much like interpreting history.  A historian who is trying to make sense of a historical situation will have at hand a body of facts which must be accounted for in the historian’s interpretation.  For many situations, there may be more than one plausible interpretation that fits the available facts.  As a result, the historian often has to make a choice among differing legitimate interpretations.

Similarly, the director or other interpreter of a play has a script of written words that are like a historian’s facts.  The script will contain speeches by the characters, some descriptions of place and action, and some stage directions.  A director or interpreter must adopt a way of approaching the play that fits the words in the script.  But there are often different ways that one can legitimately stage a play and perform what is contained in the script.  These different ways will embody different interpretations of the play and lead to different conclusions about it.  The director or interpreter must choose.

With plays as with historical events, interpretations often take hold because they best fit the preconceptions and prejudices of a given time.  Prejudices against Jews and in favor of Christians played a major part in previous interpretations of The Merchant of Venice.  In turn, as with many social, political and cultural ideas and practices, an out-of-date historical or literary interpretation may hang on long after the reasons for its adoption have passed.  This seems to be the case with The Merchant of Venice.

Even as modern interpreters want to eschew the antisemitism of the past and are willing to portray flaws in Christians, an interpretation of the Merchant of Venice that portrays the main Christian characters as virtuous holds on despite the fact that it inevitably leads to an antisemitic portrait of Shylock.  More important to the integrity of the play, this interpretation does not fit as well with Shakespeare’s script as does one that portrays Shylock as the best of a bad lot.

3. Weltschmerz and Other Discontents in The Merchant of Venice.

The interpretation of the play that I am proposing seems obvious to me from the first line of the first act.  The first act contains three scenes, each of which introduces us to one of the three main characters, first Antonio the merchant, then Portia, a wealthy heiress, and finally Shylock the moneylender.  Each of these scenes begins with a speech from that character which exemplifies his/her personality and values.  Each of these main characters is, in turn, surrounded by a caste of supporting characters who reflect and highlight the main character’s values and person.

Scene One: Antonio.  In the first line of the play, Antonio moans in luxurious self-pity to a group of young followers that “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad, it wearies me, you say it wearies you.”  Posturing world-weariness and boredom with life, Antonio betrays himself as a self-centered, self-indulgent shell of a man.  Not a model of Christian faith and hope.

Antonio is a wealthy speculator who invests in ocean-going merchant vessels that carry valuable goods around the world.  Ocean travel is dangerous and precarious so that this is a risky business, especially for sailors on the ships but also for investors such as Antonio, because ships often do not make it safely to their destinations.  When ships go down, sailors lose their lives and investors lose their money.  But the profits to investors for each successful voyage are so great that they can cover the loss of many ships.  In the course of the play when it appears that ships have been lost, Antonio expresses not one word of concern for the sailors.  His sole concern is for his money.  So much for Antonio’s Christian humanitarianism.

In this first scene, Antonio is sitting at a cafe bemoaning his weltschmerz with several younger men who seem to be idle rakes whose interests run to gossiping, partying and pursuing women.  They are sycophantically commiserating with him.  Antonio’s  protege Bassano joins the party.  Bassano is admittedly a wastrel and spendthrift who has run through his own inheritance and now wants to pursue marriage with the wealthy Portia so that he can take advantage of her inheritance.  Bassano is, however, broke and deep in debt.  He wants a loan from Antonio so that he can put on a good show of wealth for Portia and trick her into marrying him.  Bassano puts this request in purely financial terms as an investment for Antonio that will enable Bassano to repay to Antonio both the new loan and old debts owed by him.  As the scene closes, Antonio agrees to the loan with the caveat that he is currently cash poor so that he will himself have to borrow the money to give to Bassano.

Scene Two: Portia.  The second scene opens in essentially the same way as the first with Portia proclaiming her own weltschmerz to her handmaid: “By my troth Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world.”  Portia is a wealthy heiress whose father has left her his money conditioned on her marrying the first man who is able to guess a riddle that he has contrived.  She is lazy and self-indulgent, and is willing to accept the degrading and demeaning conditions imposed on her by her father in order to keep her great wealth.

When her maid Nerissa tells Portia that she is spoiled with too much money and too little to do, Portia admits to the accusation but responds with a classic hypocrite’s rationalization: “If to do were as easy to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces.”  That is, she knows what she should do but does not have the moral strength to do it and does not think others do either.  So much for Portia’s Christian virtue.

Portia is a clever-witted  person whose main delight seems to be in mocking and making fun of others’ foolishness.  She is seemingly a person whose self-loathing and lack of self-respect becomes a rationale for loathing and disrespecting others.  She spends the rest of  the scene belittling and making fun of her prospective suitors.  So much for Portia’s Christian humility.

Scene Three: Shylock.  Shylock’s first words illustrate his character as a man who feels unjustly oppressed but who is generally able to control his anger.  “Three thousand ducats, well” he says when Bassano proposes that Shylock loan him money for Bassano’s Portia venture with Antonio as the guarantor of the loan.  That little word “well” is a telling piece of self-control on Shylock’s part.

Shylock initially bridles internally at the request, for both business reasons he acknowledges to himself and personal reasons he does not like to admit.  Shylock tries publicly to present himself as a man who is concerned only with  business, and who sees Antonio as only a business problem.  But we can see that his deepest resentment against Antonio is personal, and is based on the way Antonio disparages Jews in general and Shylock in particular.

Antonio is a Catholic who objects on religious grounds to money-lending for interest, usury so-called.  For this reason, he claims, he tries to undercut Shylock’s business as a moneylender.  But Antonio also publicly insults Shylock every time they meet, and he has repeatedly spat on Shylock, and has even spat in Shylock’s face without any provocation.  His antisemitism goes beyond mere business differences.

Shylock responds to the requested loan by debating with Antonio whether there is any difference between investing in commerce for profit as Antonio does and lending money for interest as Shylock does.  Shylock cites Biblical passages in support of his contention that they are the same thing and clearly has the better of the argument.  But Antonio won’t admit it and covers his defeat by declaiming to Bassano: “Mark you this, Bassano, the divel can cite Scripture for his purpose.  An evil soul producing holy witness is like a villain with a smiling cheek.”  Unable to beat Shylock in argument, Antonio resorts to insult.

Despite this insult, and maybe because of it, Shylock decides to loan the money to Bassano without any interest owing.  He states his intention of thereby shaming Antonio for defaming him.  Shylock’s only condition is that Antonio pledge a pound of his own flesh as bond for repayment of the loan’s principal.  Both Shylock and Antonio treat this as a playful jest and agree to the terms.  There is at this point no expectation that Antonio will not be able to repay to loan once one of his ships comes in.  As Antonio himself is forced to admit, Shylock is behaving with Christian charity.  In this scene, Shylock shows that, unlike Antonio and Portia, self-respect and the respect of others are more important to him than money.

Subsequent Events.  The end of the first act marks the high point of amity in the play and things run downhill from there.  Bassano succeeds in impressing Portia who, despite her avowed respect for her father and her father’s wishes, cheats on the riddle so that Bassano can guess it and win her hand.  So much for Portia’s honesty.  Antonio resumes his insults of Shylock and helps arrange for a friend to steal Shylock’s beloved daughter and some of Shylock’s wealth away from him.

Antonio is unable to pay back the loan on time and Shylock is so furious at Antonio for the loss of his daughter that he is seemingly prepared to exact the pound of flesh from Antonio and, thereby, kill him.  Portia saves Antonio by pretending to be a learned jurist and convincing the Duke of Venice through spurious sophistry that Shylock is the one who is really at fault.  She convinces the Duke that in return for sparing Shylock’s life, Shylock must forfeit his wealth and convert to Christianity.

In the course of her perorations, Portia makes her famous “quality of mercy speech.”  “The quality of mercy is not strained,” she intones, “It droppeth  as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.  It is twice blest, It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes…”  A previously self-admitted hypocrite, Portia declaims this paean to mercy even as she is insisting on the cruelest revenge and savage persecution against Shylock.  Shylock is the one who has attempted to do the most right and who has suffered the most wrong during the play.  Yet he is the one whom she insists on punishing.  So much for the quality of Christian mercy.

Happily Ever After…Not.  Having vanquished Shylock, Portia and her maid play tricks on their respective lovers and get the better of them.  The play ends with what the characters seem to feel is a “happily ever after scene” in which the various lovers come together in wedlock and what they anticipate will be everlasting bliss.  But is this likely?  The husbands are mercenary, feckless, sensitive to insult and prone to violence.  The wives are shrewish, smarter than their husbands and not reluctant to show it.  This is not exactly a recipe for everlasting harmony and bliss.

4. Internal and External Evidence in Interpreting The Merchant of Venice

The best evidence for the interpretation of the play that I am proposing comes from the words of the play itself.  Shakespeare accepts the stereotype of the greedy Jew for dramatic purposes, but then explodes it.  Shylock comes across as a deeply damaged character, but his flaws and faults seem in large part to be a product of his situation and the persecution he has faced.  He displays streaks of genuine humanity that are inconsistent with the attitudes and actions of the Christian characters against him.  His offering to lend the money to Bassano without interest, his grief at the loss of his daughter and the theft of a keepsake from his dead wife, and, especially his passionate “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech are evidence that Shakespeare intends us to empathize with Shylock.

The Christian characters have no excuse for their bad behavior toward Shylock.  Until the end of the play when he explodes in anger toward Antonio, Shylock has done nothing to harm them and has only courted their respect.  Given their despicable behavior towards him, it is hard to see them as virtuous or heroic. Likewise, given their own greedy materialism, it is hard to see them as better in that regard than Shylock.  People looking for a one-dimensional play with clear cut heroes and villains may see Shylock’s flaws and then conclude that the Christian characters must be the heroes, but this is mistaken.  Shakespeare wrote many plays that did not have clear cut heroes, for example, Julius Caesar and Coriolanus.  The Merchant of Venice seems to be of this sort.

There is also some historical evidence with respect to Shakespeare’s likely attitudes toward money-lending and toward Jews that seems to support this interpretation.  The prohibition against money-lending for interest which is at the heart of the Christian characters’ antipathy toward Shylock in The Merchant of Venice was a regulation of the Catholic Church.  This was one of the provisions of the Catholic Church that Protestants rejected when they broke from the Church.  Despite controversial claims by some scholars that Shakespeare was somehow a closet Catholic, it seems pretty clear from his plays that Shakespeare was a patriotic Protestant in an anti-Catholic country and, as such, would likely have wanted to promote the Protestant position on money-lending.

Many of Shakespeare’s plays take place in Catholic countries such as Venice or during times when England was Catholic.  In these plays, priests are invariably portrayed as, at best, well-intentioned fools who cause unintended mischief — for example, in Romeo and Juliet in which the priest is the inadvertent cause of the lovers’ deaths.  Church officials in Shakespeare’s plays are invariably portrayed as malicious connivers — for example, in Henry V and King John in which they induce England into disastrous wars for the benefit of the Church.

In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock makes what was essentially the Protestant argument in favor of money-lending for interest in his debate against the Catholic Antonio.  Shylock claims that profit-making on investments is essentially the same as money-lending at interest and has the better of the argument.  This seems to be Shakespeare’s argument.  In addition, despite their vehement denunciations of Jewish usury, the Christians in the play do not hesitate to borrow money at interest from Jews in order to pursue their investment strategies.  This was the reality in most Catholic countries including England when it was Catholic.  Catholics used Jews as the fronts for their own profit-making enterprises.  Shakespeare seems to portray this as hypocritical.

In addition to ideological and theological evidence, there also seems to be some family evidence that Shakespeare’s father was a money lender and was even jailed for this practice at one point by the then Catholic authorities.  And there is some speculation that Shakespeare himself engaged in some small-time money-lending.  If this is so, he would not likely have wanted his play to be seen as a diatribe against money-lenders.

Finally, there is some evidence respecting Jewish law and Shakespeare’s knowledge of Jews.  At the heart of the case against Shylock is his accepting the pledge of a pound of Antonio’s flesh as bond for the loan to Bassano and his insistence at the end of the play on exacting the pound of flesh.  Exacting the pound of flesh would have been a blatant violation of Talmudic Jewish law.  A Jew cannot demand fulfillment of a debt that causes physical harm to someone.  If Shakespeare wrote the play with any knowledge of Jews and Jewish law, Shylock could not initially have intended the bond as anything but a jest in which the Christian Antonio was symbolically putting his life in the hands of the Jew Shylock.

And there is reason to believe that Shakespeare knew a fair amount about Jews as he apparently lived for a time in the Jewish quarter of London.  As we can see from the play itself, Shakespeare was seemingly knowledgeable about the persecution and perilous situation of Jews in England in which it was illegal to be Jewish until the 1650’s.  Jews such as Shylock lived in England during Shakespeare’s time only at the sufferance of antisemitic Christians such as Antonio and only to the extent Christians found the Jews to be useful.  That Shylock appears to be willing to exact the pound of flesh from Antonio at the end of the play — and we do not know if he would have actually gone through with it — seems a testament to the overflowing of Shylock’s outrage and hurt at the way he has been treated.

5. The Shylock Question and History as Choice.

So what are we to make of Shylock and why should we care?

I think we can distinguish two aspects of Shylock in the play.  There is Shylock the miserly moneylender who openly and honestly articulates and practices mercenary values that the hypocritical Christians deny and denounce, but nonetheless practice themselves.  This Shylock is largely a creation of the Christians as a tool for their own business purposes and as a scapegoat for their bad consciences.  They project their own materialism onto him and then decry it in him and deny it in themselves.

Then there is Shylock the Jew who is a narrow-minded money grubber because money grubbing is the only path to success and to some measure of respect allowed him in the Christian society.  He is a bitter man who craves the respect of his Christian fellows and who will exact it through revenging himself on them if they won’t otherwise give it to him.  He is a scapegoat who kicks.

I think that Shakespeare has written a play about Christian ideals and their debasement by Christians through their debasement of Jews.  The play is not usually performed in this way.  But I think it is important that we see that it can be performed in this way.  In so doing, I am not merely trying to rescue Shakespeare from the taint of antisemitism.  I am also trying to rescue that period in history from a one-dimensional interpretation as antisemitic and, thereby, to suggest new possibilities for what people in Shakespeare’s time might have understood.  Maybe they were not as antisemitic as we have thought.  Maybe there were currents of empathy and tolerance that could have led England in a different direction if other choices had been made.

Whenever we uncover new possibilities in the past — new options for what could have happened as well as new ways of understanding what did — we discover new possibilities for understanding the present and creating a better future.   This hope is the underlying rationale for studying history and literature as a process of people making choices.


I wrote this essay two years ago.  It has come to my attention that the British director Jonathan Dumby recently staged at Lincoln Center in New York and at Navy Pier in Chicago a version of The Merchant of Venice that is substantially similar to the interpretation I am suggesting in the essay.  See the reviews by Charles Isherwood in The New York Times (July 7, 2016) and by Chris Jones in The Chicago Tribune (August 8, 2016).  Although I live in Chicago, I was unfortunately unable to see the play because the tickets were sold out before I could get my act together to get some.  Hopefully, the play will come around again.

Burt Weltman   August 10, 2016


Limiting the Sum of Lincoln’s “Some:” Democracy, Mobocracy and Majority Rule.

Limiting the Sum of Lincoln’s “Some:” Democracy, Mobocracy and Majority Rule.

Burton Weltman

Abraham Lincoln and Democracy as a Fools’ Paradise? 

Abraham Lincoln famously said that you can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.  This is, I think, a great formulation of political wisdom, and the conclusion that you can’t fool everybody all of the time has been taken as an expression of hope for the world.  Demagogues and shysters may have their way for a while, Lincoln conceded, but we cannot all be fooled by them all of the time.  So, his is a statement of hope for democracy, but it is also a statement of concern.  Lincoln’s underlying concern lies in the word “some” that appears in the first two clauses of his statement, that you can fool everyone some of the time and you can fool some of the people all of the time.  The word “some” in these clauses begs the question as to how long can you fool all of the people, and what proportion of the population can be perpetually fooled?  Most important, Lincoln leaves us with the all-important question of how can we minimize the sum of these “somes?”  How can we minimize number of people who are fooled and the duration of their being fooled?  That was one of Lincoln’s main concerns for American democracy, and remains a concern for us today.

To be foolish is to think that you are expert in something that you know little about, and to think that you are wise in ways that you lack good sense.  It is a failing to which most of us all-too-easily fall prey.  Most people are knowledgeable about things with which they are regularly involved, their jobs for example.  People are generally willing and able to think about such things in complex terms and to reach nuanced conclusions.  At the same time, most people know very little about things with which they are not regularly involved, for example politics and government.  But that does not stop them from thinking that they need to know all about those things, or that they do.  What most people do in that situation is to insist that things about which they are ignorant are really quite simple, and to latch onto some simplistic slogans that supposedly embody the truth about those things. With respect to government and politics, for example, they may latch onto Fox News talking points about government and politics.

The tendency of people to think simplistically about politics and government is a problem in a democracy such as ours.  As citizens of a democracy, we are all supposed to participate in choosing our government, deciding what actions it should take, and monitoring its performance.  Few people, however, actually know anything about how government works.  They don’t study it, and they don’t have government jobs that might familiarize them with the workings of government.  Their personal contacts with government are minimal and usually involve unpleasant matters, such as paying taxes and traffic tickets and complaining when something goes wrong.  At the same time, most people take for granted the services that government routinely and regularly provides, such as clean water, paved roads, street lights, etc.  They assume those things are simple, and many don’t even realize they are a product of government.  It is this ignorance of how government works, coupled with the arrogance of thinking that government is simple, that leaves people open to being fooled by demagogues and shysters who preach bumper sticker slogans and sell simplistic half-truths.

How can democracy function with a public that can be fooled in total some of the time and in part all of the time?  That is the gist of Lincoln’s concern.

Edmund Burke and the Conservatives’ Case against Democracy. 

Edmund Burke, who is generally considered the father of modern conservatism, believed that the general public was not capable of playing a constructive role in government.  That is why he favored an aristocratic and elitist form of government over democracy.  Cultivate an elite class of leaders, Burke claimed, give them the reins of government, and all will be well.  Give power to the people, and you will end up with what we might today call a mobocracy — violent and oppressive rule by the ignorant masses.  Burke warned that the ignorance and impatience of the masses would leave them open to demagoguery — the simplistic sloganeering of malicious leaders who appeal to peoples’ fears and hatreds.  Subservience to demagogues would lead the masses to violence and society to ruin.  In this context, Burke railed against the mobocracy that he claimed was destroying France during the French Revolution of the late eighteenth century.

Burke was particularly opposed to majority rule.  Majority rule, he warned, can quickly devolve into mobocracy in which racial, religious, ethnic and political majorities oppress minorities, impose the majority’s ideas on everyone else, and give no one else a chance for power.  This is a significant issue for us today.  We have seen in recent years many countries around the world where dictatorships have been succeeded by mobocracies which, in turn, may soon be succeeded by new dictatorships.  This was a vicious cycle of dictatorship and mobocracy that worried many of the ancient Greeks, and that worried Burke about democracy.

Burke was also concerned about destructive social changes that he thought would inevitably result from democracy.  The masses, he warned, would be misled by ideologues and demagogues into supporting first one and then another futile radical reform.  This is also a significant issue for us today.  Burke claimed that the ability of humans to predict and control the consequences of their actions was limited, and that the potential for unintended negative consequences outweighed the potential for positive consequences in any radical reform.  Burke was, therefore, unwilling to support radical reforms that proposed to make things better because he believed the resulting unintended negative consequences were likely to make things worse.  He was not, however, opposed to all social change, and he was willing to support modest social reforms that were intended to ameliorate hardship and keep a bad situation from getting worse.

Burke was a pragmatic conservative.  He was not a right-wing ideologist of the sort that today parades as conservative, but is actually radically reactionary and regressive.  Self-styled Tea Party conservatives, religious conservatives, and social conservatives of today want to radically change society back to ways that they believe were better in days long past.  They are not conservatives but radical right-wingers, ideologues and demagogues of the sort Burke feared would dominate in a democracy.  Burke would likely cite their popularity as proof of his arguments against democracy.  Burke and conservatives since his time have generally claimed that liberty and equality, and freedom and democracy, are distinct and incompatible.  Liberty, freedom, minority rights and social stability are safe, they say, only in the hands of an entrenched and enlightened elite.  In a democracy, demagogues of the left and right will invariably take advantage of the masses to destroy liberty, and to wreak havoc on society.

The Founders’ Democratic Faith.

The Founders of this country agreed with Burke about the dangers of majority rule, but rejected his vision of democracy.  Democracy as it was envisioned by them, and embodied in the Constitution, is more properly conceived of as majority rule with minority rights, with the most important of these rights being the right of the minority to someday become the majority.  Guaranteeing the right of minorities to freely function and someday possibly become the majority was a key concern of the Founders, and is the underlying rationale for the Bill of Rights.  While the Founders believed in government of the best and brightest, they also believed that ordinary people could and would recognize and choose the best and brightest as their leaders.  And they believed that the constitutional system they had established provided an institutional framework for successfully combining liberty and democracy.

At the same time, the Founders did not think that the history of democracy in the United States would be an easy progression.  They anticipated a perpetual struggle over the terms and practices of democracy, and they provided in their Constitution for the ways and means of amendment and interpretation that would embody that struggle in what they hoped would be peaceful conflict.  Things did not always work the way the Founders hoped, as exemplified by the Civil War, the various Red Scares and other episodes of intolerance and oppression of minorities in our history.  But as the Founders expected, there has been an ebb and flow of liberty and democracy in the history of this country.

Conventional History, History as Choice and the Case for and against Democracy.

You would not, however, get from conventional histories of the United States the impression that democracy has been a highly contested term and precarious practice.  To the contrary, while conventional histories generally admit that the country has moved from being less democratic to being more democratic, they generally describe American history as an inevitable march toward democracy.  And in so doing, most histories simplistically define democracy as majority rule, and describe the rise of American democracy simplistically in terms of the rise of majority rule.  This is a one-dimensional definition and a one-dimensional narrative that not only makes for bad history, it is undemocratic history.

The problem is that conventional history is essentially winners’ history.  It focuses almost solely on what happened, and leaves out what could have happened.  It provides you with little idea of what the various options were in any given situation, why a given option was chosen over the others, and what might have happened if a different option had been chosen.  The losers are lost in this sort of history.  The minorities who did not prevail are dismissed.  This sort of history does not portray the struggle over democracy, or the struggles within a democratic system.  It provides people with little education in how politics and government actually work, and how they might go about making choices as democratic citizens.  And it plays into the sort of one-dimensional ideological narratives promoted by right-wing and left-wing demagogues.

History as choice resurrects the options, debates, choices, consequences (both intended and unintended), and alternative possibilities of the past, and portrays a multi-dimensional past that looks and feels like the multi-dimensional present.  In so doing, it recognizes the importance of the losers in history, the minorities who may eventually became the majority, sometimes for the better — as in the case of the civil rights advocates who lost in the 1860’s-1870’s, but came back to win during the 1960’s-1970’s — and sometimes for the worse – as with laissez-faire economics which was completely discredited and discarded during the early twentieth century, but has regained credibility and influence during the early twenty-first century.  Approaching history in this way helps you to understand how government and politics work, and helps prepare you for the choices that you need to make as a democratic citizen today.

History as Choice and Limiting the Sum of Lincoln’s “Some.” 

But history as choice is not simple or simplistic.  And most people do not have the time or energy to engage in complex historical studies.  Which brings us back to Burke’s challenge to democracy.   How can we expect ordinary people to be informed and intelligent citizens?  How can we minimize the sum of perpetual fools that worried Lincoln?  What is to be done?  I can suggest at least three things:

First, I think that those of us who are students and teachers of history have an obligation to approach history in ways that I characterize as approaching history as choice.  This method is by no means unique to me.  Even the phrase “history as choice” is used by many others, and is the way that most students and teachers approach history when they are doing what they consider their best work.  Studying history can and should be practice for living in a democratic society.

Second, I think that we all have to recognize and acknowledge that we cannot know everything about all the things we want and need to know about.  We have to rely for most things in this world on the experience and expertise of others.  That does not mean we have to depend on a permanent class of elite leaders as Burke would have us.  The democratic alternative to elite leadership is revolving leadership in which those in the know on a given issue can and will be allowed to take the lead on that issue.  But those who lead on one issue may not necessarily lead on the next issue.  On the next issue, different leaders may emerge.

In this context, possibly the most important question that we all have to answer in deciding most issues is “Whom do we trust?”  And a key to answering that question is to look for people to trust who neither claim that things are simple nor provide simplistic answers.  You would not rely on a doctor who merely mouthed the advertising slogans for medicines that you see on TV.  So why would we want to rely on politicians who do likewise?  We should look, instead, for people who approach problems pragmatically rather than dogmatically, deal with them in depth, and provide more than bumper sticker solutions.  Studying history as choice can help us develop the skills needed to identify those who can be trusted to lead on important issues.

Third, while Franklin Roosevelt may have exaggerated when he claimed that “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” the politics of fear and hate is the province of demagogues who appeal to our lowest emotions in order to fool and manipulate us.  We must, instead, look for ideas, policies and leaders that emphasize the politics of hope, inclusion and cooperation.  Studying history as choice can help us to distinguish the politics of hope from the politics of fear.  We must understand how and why sometimes bad options are chosen with good options ignored, and vice versa.  We must understand how and why sometimes bad people flourish, but other times good people do.  We must explore the ways in which sometimes losers become winners, and winners become losers.  This is the ebb and flow of our daily lives and of history, and these studies can help us distinguish between what we should fear and what we can hope and trust.  Yes, there are things to fear, but fear is the worst of these things, and the thing we should fear the most.  That we can overcome our fears and our ignorance is the hope that Lincoln left us with, and the best way to meet Burke’s challenge to democracy.

What do you think?

Postscript:  For further discussion of history as choice and democracy see my book Was the American Revolution a Mistake? Reaching Students and Reinforcing Patriotism through Teaching History as Choice (AuthorHouse, 2013).