“Everyman His Own Historian” was Carl Becker’s AHA Presidential Address in Minneapolis, December 29, 1931. It is the title essay of a collection of Becker's writings published in 1935.

Carl Becker has a very democratic vision of history. He begins his speech by saying that the topic we describe as history is actually "knowledge of history" (233). Events in the past are irretrievable and rather than "the actual series of events that once occurred", what we're really talking about is "the ideal series that we affirm and hold in memory" (234). This makes sense to me: the past is too complex to be accurately perceived by individuals. There are too many events and too many perspectives. So if "History is the memory of things said and done", then the important question is, whose memories? (235)

Becker goes on to throw a little shade at the "pure antiquarian image to be enjoyed for its own sake". He prefers history to be "associated with a picture of things to be said and done in the future" (238). This may be my favorite idea in the Becker philosophy: that the value of history relates to its relevance to our own lives, today.

Becker makes his case that people regularly engage with "history" in the sense that he defined it above. This engagement even extends to evaluating "conflicting reports" and conducting "a critical comparison of the texts...to eliminate error" (239). In addition to connecting the ways that regular people use critical thinking, this is a valuable reminder that the tools of historians are not arcane, technical formulas that can only be understood by the few initiates into the mystery.

One of the seemingly complex but actually pretty basic minefields of historiography is causality. Becker demystifies this, too; saying, "Which comes first, which is cause and which effect, whether our memories construct a pattern of past events at the behest of our desires and hopes, or whether our desires and hopes spring from a pattern of past events imposed upon us by knowledge and experience, I shall not attempt to say. What I suspect is that memory of past and anticipation of future events work together...without disputing over priority and leadership." (241-2)

So history is necessary for day to day living, and every person constructs history to make sense of the present and plan for the future. But because each person is constructing history to meet her own needs, "it is so intimately associated with what we are doing and with what we hope to do, [that it] cannot be precisely the same for all at any given time" (242). This is obvious for very recent history, but might seem less so for accounts of the more distant past (which we believe are less closely connected to our present lives?). But even then, people including historians are subject to "limits set by his fellows" (243). This is the beginning of an argument that anticipates the post-modern "cultural turn" by decades.

A lot of this cultural conditioning is unconscious, Becker implies, saying, "Daily and hourly, from a thousand un-noted sources, there is lodged in Mr. Everyman's mind a mass of unrelated and related information and misinformation, of impressions and images, out of which he somehow manages, undeliberately for the most part, to fashion a history, a patterned picture of remembered things said and done in past times and distant places." (245)

This semi-consciously-constructed history, Becker says, "will inevitably be an engaging blend of fact and fancy". People don't typically seek to deceive themselves or others, he suggests, but each person "takes the facts as they come", which renders each resulting history a bit different. The saying (attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan) that you are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts is actually incorrect in several ways. Because there are a nearly infinite number of things that happened in the past, compounded by a nearly infinite number of perspectives from which these things were observed and experienced, it is probably
impossible for two people to share the "same facts", unless one of those people is knuckling under and just accepting the other person's "facts". This is called hegemony, and it's not that surprising that Moynihan failed to notice that fact.

Becker goes further, declaring that "myth" is just obsolete fact. That is, NOT primarily of a different TYPE of knowledge, but merely a "once valid but now discarded version of the human story" (247). Then (this time anticipating Hayden White) he says that a narrative we call history "employs all the devices of literary art (statement and generalization, narration and description, comparison and comment and analogy)" (248). Although it's true that trying to "establish the facts" is a central task for historians, "to suppose that the facts, once established in all their fullness, will 'speak for themselves' is an illusion" (249). Becker continues, criticizing the self-proclaimed "scientific historian" (he's talking about Leopold von Ranke and his disciples here) for believing that their own cultural assumptions were immutable truths; and also for imagining that by being objective (which he describes as "exhausting all the sources" and "reflecting without refracting the truth of all the facts") they could nail down the "definitive and impregnable meaning of human experience" in their books. "The most disinterested historian", he concludes, "has at least one preconception, which is the fixed idea that he has none" (250).

The problem is that, "Left to themselves, the facts do not speak; left to themselves they do not exist". This is a radical statement, because it implies that it is the historian that creates history and as Becker has repeatedly said, everybody is a historian. Unlike tangible building materials like a brick, which "retains its form and pressure wherever placed", the data and interpretations of history have "a negotiable existence only in literary discourse". They not only "vary with the words employed to convey them", but I'd argue that their power and credibility often derive as much from the quality of the words as from the accuracy or reasonableness of the facts or arguments. "It is thus not the undiscriminated fact, but the perceiving mind of the historian that speaks", he says. I'd add, and the mind of the historian's audience, that weighs not only the quality of the information and argument, but the persuasiveness of the presentation.

Returning to the cultural construction of knowledge, Becker repeats that "every generation, our own included, will, must inevitably, understand the past and anticipate the future in light of its own restricted experience" (253). I'd add, and in light of its immediate concerns, crises, traumas, and partisan disputes. Does this mean doing history is absurd and pointless? I don't think so, and I don't think Becker did either. The point, I think, was to push the scientific historians off their olympian perch and to suggest that although we are "surely bound to be as honest and as intelligent as human frailty permits; but the secret of our success in the long run is in conforming to the temper of Mr. Everyman, which we seem to guide only because we are so sure, eventually, to follow it" (253). In reality, despite our pretensions, we are embedded in many of the same cultural constraints as everyone else; so our histories are often as revealing of our own times and their concerns as everyone else's. This awareness, although it will not free us from these constraints, may at least allow us to say something meaningful. And with luck, something that encourages us to reimagine our present and future plans.