Sometimes history just leaps off the pages and proclaims its relevance for our own times. On December 24, 1894, The Times of London published a long editorial about the first trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus for alleged treason.
We must point out that, the more odious and unpopular a crime is, the more necessary is it that its proof and its punishment should be surrounded by all the safeguards of public justice. Of these, the most indispensable is publicity. . . . It may be important for the French people to preserve the secrets of their War Department, but it is of infinitely greater importance for them to guard their public justice against even the suspicion of unfairness or of subjection to the gusts of popular opinion.
The Times correspondent wrote these words when there was still little doubt of Dreyfus’ guilt in the public at large. There were no Drefusards yet, that is, members of a movement to see the wrongfully convicted man exonerated. It was three years before Emile Zola wrote “J’accuse.” The point wasn’t about guilt or innocence. It was about the rule of law, which meant due process out in the open even for grave matters of national security. The later establishment of Dreyfus’ innocence reminded observers why.
Tomorrow my class is discussing Michael Burns, France and the Dreyfus Affair: A Documentary History (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999). Burns tells this dramatic tale with his own gripping prose interspersed with documents from the period. And he extends the tale as far as 1998, in order to help readers understand the affair’s legacy. For those with more time on their hands I also recommend Jean Denis Bredin, The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (New York: George Braziller, 1986), a big history book that reads like a good political thriller.
Today citizens of the United States celebrate Independence Day. On this day, 232 years ago, thirteen American colonies proclaimed their independence from Great Britain in a famous document that Thomas Jefferson wrote, the Declaration of Independence. As a history teacher, I find this document fascinating, because it fuses together two different political traditions. On one hand, it recalls seventeenth-century English constitutionalism and its arguments about what had supposedly always been the rights of Englishmen. On the other hand, it advances the kind of powerful and universalizing claims about natural law and human rights spawned in the Enlightenment and given their most dramatic expression during the French Revolution. These connections make the document an interesting object lesson for the history classroom. They also can act as a healthy reminder to Americans that our Declaration of Independence displays not only differences from European political traditions, but also powerful affinities for them. Continue reading →
I have been teaching History 100, the one-semester survey of Western Civilization that is required for all students at George Mason University. Yes, really. One semester. As I mentioned earlier, this semester I decided to abandon the old chronological approach and follow a thematic one instead. I organized the course into six major themes, plus an introductory unit on historical thinking. One of those themes was “Politics and Human Rights.”
If one looks at Western Civ textbooks or the reading lists from my days as a graduate student, human rights are not going to be an obvious subject of study, especially not for a history survey that can only afford to choose six major topics. Yet they are not only important to learn about, they also offer a powerful integrative vehicle for talking about a variety of issues that have been central to the history of the West since the eighteenth century. Continue reading →