Do We Need To Like The People We Write About?

Lindsay Chervinsky, Ph.D.
4 min readJun 18, 2021

How one historian tries to be transparent about biases

Image courtesy Udo S

On May 28, Pulitzer Prize-winner Gordon Wood reviewed Pulitzer Prize-winner Alan Taylor’s new book, American Republics. The reviewed caused quite the Twitter brouhaha among historians, journalists, and readers. The line that stuck out the most for me is this one: “It is startling to witness just how much the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor at Jefferson’s own university dislikes its patron, Thomas Jefferson.”

For starters, it’s not a job requirement that we like the people that started the organizations or universities where we are employed. Cassie Good commented that this isn’t part of our historical training. That would be a bit silly. Really successful people could often be jerks.

But it brings up a larger question about whether we need to like our historical subjects. This subject has been in the news a fair amount, and last month I wrote about why the Founders are useful for historical study, even if, especially because they weren’t perfect. But how to actually do that is a separate question. This concept has been on my mind a lot lately as I dive head first into book two and naturally have to consider which figures I want to spend the next several years writing about.

Someone once said that when writing a biography, you should never fall in love with your subjects (as a side note, I spent a fair amount of time Googling trying to figure out who said that? I think maybe Jill Lepore?). That’s great advice. Just like it would be hard to write honest biographies of our mom or our spouse, so too it’s a challenge to write about someone when you are absolutely besotted with their personality.

That’s not to say we can’t like aspects about the people we study. It certainly helps! For example, I loved that Washington adored dogs, I find John Quincy Adam’s snarky-ness endlessly hilarious, and John Adams’s love letters to Abigail can’t help but warm my heart. Enjoying these small details helps us get through the long hours of research and writing.

Yet, I also acknowledge it would also be the height of human arrogance to assume that we can treat our subjects with complete objectivity. That’s impossible. We aren’t machines. We all have ingrained biases, preferences, and experiences that shape our understanding of the past.

What we can do, and I’d argue, we should do, is interrogate our own limitations. If we are aware of our biases, we can try and keep them out of our writing as much as possible. Or, when we let them in, be very intentional about it and explain our choices.

For example, as a strong, educated, independent woman, Jefferson’s misogyny annoys me. He was also super cruel toward the dogs owned by enslaved individuals on his estates. You all know how I feel about dogs. Something about him just rubs me the wrong way and always has. But, and here’s the critical part, I don’t deny it and I’ve been pretty open about it on podcasts and in interviews.

Equally as important, just because he irks me, doesn’t mean I can’t acknowledge his tremendous historical contribution. From 1775–1825, he probably had more impact on the United States than any other figure, and his legacy continues to dominate American life, memory, and politics. Plus you know, the Declaration of Independence and all that jazz. Hard to deny the significant of the person that wrote “all men are created equal,” especially as our nation has grappled with what that means since he wrote it.

So how does that work in practice? I imagine everyone handles it differently, but for me, it’s a constant process of evaluating my language choices and querying my sources. For example, when I was writing about cabinet meetings, usually Jefferson and Hamilton left parallel records of conversations. I would compare them and try and come up with what I think actually happened. Usually it was somewhere in the middle, as both Hamilton and Jefferson can be….unreliable narrators. Then when I describe the events, am I using laden language to describe Jefferson especially? Am I hinting that he was weaselly or duplicitous, and if I am, do I intend to? Sometimes the answer is yes because he was. Other times it sneaks in there and I need to find more neutral language. To be sure, it’s an ongoing process and one that I’m continuously refining.

But I think this honesty, both about process and about emotion, is super important. I really appreciate when scholars and authors are transparent about their preconceived notions. For example, if someone says, “Look, I really don’t like Jefferson, however, I came to appreciate this contribution,” I am much more likely to listen to what they have to say than if someone writes a fawning hagiography. I’m naturally suspicious of that type of writing.

Anyway, that’s just how I think about it and how I approach my work. Which historical figures are you biased toward or against? I’d be really curious to know!

And to be fair, Jefferson did give us one of the all-time great quotes on June 10, 1815, when he wrote to John Adams, “I cannot live without books.” I think we can all relate.