On a drizzly afternoon last September, the Princeton-affiliated historian Allen C. Guelzo told listeners at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., that left-wing influences on the teaching of American history were endangering the welfare of the United States, a nation founded on an idea, not a bloodline.
“We have no ethnicity, no tribe, to fall back upon — only our vivid dedication to an Enlightenment ideal ‘stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone,’” Guelzo said, quoting Abraham Lincoln, his most frequent research subject. “If we wish to imperil the American experiment, we can find few more sinister paths to that peril than by forgetting, obscuring, or demeaning who we were.”
The response from fellow academics was immediate, and furious. Forty-six organizations of scholars in the humanities and social sciences signed an American Historical Association statement deploring the conference as “a campaign stunt” designed to inflame the culture wars. In Slate, L.D. Burnett, a historian who teaches at a Texas community college, argued that Guelzo’s presence “served as a scholarly fig leaf to cover the naked polemicism of the event.” On Twitter, the Yale historian David W. Blight declared, “Shame on Guelzo for lending himself to that stunt, and helping profane the National Archives.”
“I was a little taken aback by it,” says Guelzo, a scholar of the Civil War era who has appointments in both Princeton’s Humanities Council and the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. “It was like — ‘Really? Is this the commission of a crime?’”
If the ferocity of the opposition was something new, Guelzo’s willingness to cultivate a public profile was not. For more than 25 years, he has sought to reach an audience beyond the narrow confines of academia, and he has succeeded to an extent unusual for a credentialed scholar. His books have been published not only by university presses but also by the trade publishers Simon & Schuster and Knopf. The popular recorded lecture series offered by The Great Courses includes six featuring Guelzo. An audio version of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, for which Guelzo provided an introduction, was nominated for a Grammy Award. And in the past five years, Guelzo has published dozens of essays in newspapers and magazines on topics both historically inflected and contemporary: the value of the Electoral College, the culpability of Robert E. Lee, the wrongheadedness of Pennsylvania’s coronavirus lockdown, the “unholy mess” of mail-in voting.
But the furor over the White House conference raised a compelling question: In the age of Trump, can a serious scholar moonlight as a conservative pundit without tarnishing his reputation in the academy?
In person — or, at least, in person via Zoom — Guelzo, 68, comes across as affable and preternaturally articulate. He quotes Lincoln-related sources from memory, reels off polished historical anecdotes, and riffs knowledgeably on the role of the double bass in orchestral music. Colleagues describe someone with a sharp sense of humor, a prodigious memory for historical and cultural arcana, and a forceful personality. “He is no wallflower,” says Lucas Morel, a fellow Lincoln scholar who heads the politics department at Washington and Lee University. “At parties, he’s got more than one story to share. He’s got a bit of a dramatic flair to him.”
Guelzo puts that dramatic flair to use in a sonorous, theatrical mode of public presentation that Gary W. Gallagher, a retired professor of history at the University of Virginia, calls a “spread-eagle style of lecturing.” On stage, Guelzo is a commanding presence, standing 6 feet 4 — the same height as Lincoln — and, with his balding dome, high forehead, and deep-set eyes, bearing a slight resemblance to the actor Kelsey Grammer. Guelzo “has a great voice for radio, and he uses gestures, and he moves around,” Gallagher says. “It’s a kind of 19th-century style of speaking.”
As a child growing up in and around Philadelphia, Guelzo was required by his grandmother to memorize poetry. “I can remember standing at her knee, as she’s sitting in this big chair, and having to recite ‘Paul Revere’s Ride,’” Guelzo says. “She could recall stretches of Longfellow’s ‘Evangeline’: ‘This is the forest primeval.’ That would set her off.”
Guelzo’s grandmother also ignited his love of history. She told him about the white-haired Union Army veterans who had visited her school to recount their Civil War experiences. She gave him a first-grade primer with a section on the medieval King Robert of Sicily. And, in a foreshadowing of Guelzo’s career, she bought him a comic-book biography of Abraham Lincoln.
But if these anecdotes conjure an idyllic 1950s childhood, the reality was quite different, in ways Guelzo will describe only obliquely: Abandoned by his father at an early age, he was largely raised by his grandparents in a financially strapped working-class household. “It was not happy,” Guelzo says, amid long pauses. “It’s not easy to talk about.”
School provided a welcome escape, but finances limited his college choice to a small Christian school, Philadelphia College of Bible. “It was either that or I was going to become a paper-hanger like my grandfather,” Guelzo says. Initially, he trained for the ministry, earning a bachelor’s degree in pastoral studies and then a master’s in theology, the equivalent of ordination, from the Pennsylvania seminary of the theologically conservative Reformed Episcopal denomination.
In the age of Trump, can a serious scholar moonlight as a conservative pundit without tarnishing his reputation in the academy?
Throughout, history remained a passion. “Always loved history. Never understood why people said, ‘Oh, history — that’s so boring,’ ” Guelzo says. “I thought, ‘Boring? How could that be boring? It’s like a constant movie going on in your head.’”
As Guelzo embarked upon his professional history training, however, his religious background repeatedly seemed to confound the denizens of secular academia. Concerned about enrolling a student from a little-known Bible college, faculty at the University of Pennsylvania conditioned his admission to their history doctoral program on his grades in master-level coursework. When Guelzo aced those courses, says Alan Charles Kors ’64, a now-retired Penn historian, a faculty gatekeeper unsuccessfully argued against passing Guelzo on to the Ph.D. program — what was the point, if he was going to end up teaching at a Bible college? And when Guelzo — by then a graduate of two Christian institutions and the author of a dissertation on the 18th-century theologian (and, briefly, Princeton president) Jonathan Edwards — began looking for an academic job, a Penn faculty member warned him that “the slightest whiff of religion on your résumé is the kiss of death,” Guelzo says.
Guelzo, who remains a devout Episcopalian, spent the next 17 years as a teacher and administrator at institutions where religious commitment posed no handicap: four years at the Reformed Episcopal Seminary, his alma mater, and 13 years at Eastern University, a Baptist school near Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, he contemplated his next research project. His dissertation, published in 1989, had explored Edwards’ philosophy of free will and his influence on generations of thinkers into the mid-1800s; Guelzo envisioned a sequel taking the story into the next century. Hunting for ways to make the book more appealing to a nonacademic audience, he decided to explore Abraham Lincoln’s thinking on free will. “Being able to invite Lincoln as a character onto the stage — I thought, ‘Well, that’ll spice things up,’” Guelzo says.
A well-received conference paper on the topic led to a contract for a Lincoln biography — one that would for the first time consider Lincoln as a man of ideas, a voracious reader whose religious faith grew from a deep engagement with the intellectual currents of his age. The result, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, published in 1999, won the prestigious $50,000 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize, and Guelzo never returned to his free-will project. “I got my hand in the Lincoln cookie jar, and I couldn’t get it out,” he says.
Guelzo followed up his initial success by giving himself a crash course in constitutional law for Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the first full-length study of the document that ended American slavery. He mined precinct-level voter data in the archives of the Illinois secretary of state for Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America. In historical societies from Maine to Mississippi, he discovered memoirs that helped reconstruct the experiences of ordinary soldiers for Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. And along the way, he became the only scholar to win the Lincoln Prize three times. Later this year, Knopf will publish his voluminous biography of Robert E. Lee, and Guelzo — by now the author or editor of more than a dozen books — is already planning his next one, on Lincoln and democracy.
“Lincoln is a figure that I find perpetually fascinating,” Guelzo says. “I can’t say that about Lee — I’m really done with Robert E. Lee. But Lincoln I keep coming back to, because there are depths in Lincoln that elephants could swim in.”
His Lincoln scholarship also provided Guelzo with a path to more prestigious academic appointments. Five years after the success of Redeemer President, he moved to Gettysburg College, the small liberal-arts school located a stone’s throw from the Civil War battlefield. And in 2018, after three widely spaced stints as a visiting scholar at Princeton, he accepted an essentially permanent, although nontenured, position: a three-year renewable appointment as both a senior research scholar with the Humanities Council and the director of the Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship in the James Madison Program, a longtime bastion of conservative thought at the University.
Guelzo’s scholarly work is generally well-regarded. Among the 11 American historians interviewed for this article, even those who said they sometimes disagree with Guelzo’s interpretations praised his indefatigable archival burrowing, broad-ranging expertise, and graceful prose. “He’s a very assiduous researcher, and he writes very well,” says retired Princeton professor James M. McPherson, the dean of Civil War historians. “I think he stands very high in the field.”
Although Guelzo’s colleagues say his political conservatism doesn’t color his scholarship, many describe him as conservative in a different sense: traditional — critics would say old-fashioned — in paying most of his attention to prominent political and military leaders, rather than to the unsung multitudes who are the subject of social history.
Guelzo’s focus is on “high politics and constitutionalism and military history. Those are all unfashionable in academia,” says Gallagher, of the University of Virginia. “They are, however, the things that most nonacademics want to read about. Allen writes books that appeal to people who are interested in American history but are not interested in what are currently fashionable academic approaches to American history.”
But if Guelzo’s scholarship is largely uncontroversial, his public-facing conservatism, especially as manifested in the Trump era, is anything but. Nine American historians contacted for this story — including Blight, the Yale professor — declined to speak about Guelzo; several said or implied that their disagreements with his politics motivated their refusal to discuss him. On Twitter, he has been called both “hackery personified” and “a national treasure.” In January, news of the forthcoming publication of his Lee biography sparked a lively Twitter back-and-forth over whether his work could be trusted. “Given Guelzo’s ‘interventions’ in the historical profession of late, I can’t imagine this will be anything but yet another neo-Confederate hagiography,” one historian tweeted. “Completely misguided, silly accusation,” retorted another. (Indeed, Guelzo says he has no patience with the pro-Southern “Lost Cause” school of Civil War historiography. “Ba-lo-ney,” he says, drawing out the vowels. “They were doing it all for slavery, and they knew it, too.”)
For many liberal historians, last year’s White House conference crystallized their anger at the Trump administration. (They were even more outraged at the version of American history presented in the January report of Trump’s advisory 1776 Commission, in which Guelzo played no role.) In part, the controversy embodied a recurrent debate, says retired UCLA history professor Gary B. Nash ’55 *64, who co-directed the much-contested 1990s effort to write national standards for history education. “We seem to have this exercise, this culture war over U.S. history, about once every quarter-century,” Nash says. “It happened in the ’20s, it happened in the ’50s, it happened in the ’90s, and here we are getting it in the 2020s. It becomes to certain people a useful political tactic.”
The White House conference also tapped into the ongoing controversy over The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, a collection of essays, poems, and fiction that aimed to place slavery at the center of the American founding. Guelzo was among more than a dozen scholars across the political spectrum who publicly criticized the project, published in 2019, for errors of fact and interpretation, and speakers at the White House conference, including Trump, described the Times’ work and a school curriculum based on it as destructive, anti-American propaganda.
“Allen writes books that appeal to people who are interested in American history but are not interested in what are currently fashionable academic approaches to American history.”
— Gary W. Gallagher, retired professor of history at the University of Virginia
Initially, Guelzo says, he saw nothing unusual about his decision to attend the conference: After all, he had served on the National Council on the Humanities during both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations and, in 2010, had been appointed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the committee seeking a replacement for the historian of the House of Representatives. When the Trump White House called a week before the conference, Guelzo says he saw only a chance to talk about a pet concern: the problematic state of history education in the United States, at both the college and pre-college levels. “If this had been billed to me as a Donald Trump reelection event, I would have said no,” Guelzo says. “I don’t do reelection events. I do history.”
To critics, however, the conference’s partisan nature seemed obvious. “I think I speak for all of us when I say how blessed we are to have a leader like President Trump,” Ben Carson, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, said in his opening remarks. Two other panelists described the summer’s police-brutality protests as “riots” and linked the violence to leftist bias in the teaching of history. “There have been times when the main political forces in both parties were friendly to educational reform and decentralization,” said moderator Larry P. Arnn, the president of Michigan’s Hillsdale College. “This is not such a time, so we have some big decisions to make in the next few weeks.”
Guelzo’s own remarks lasted just over 10 minutes, and in the cavernous, echoing rotunda of the National Archives, he says he could hear little of what his fellow panelists were saying — and, in any case, doesn’t necessarily endorse the views of everyone with whom he shares a stage. “I will take the opportunity of any platform offered me short of outright tyrants, depraved fools, and genocidal murderers to talk about American history,” he wrote in a defense of his appearance published weeks later by the online History News Network.
As Guelzo sees it, the crisis in history education has two causes. The first is neglect: A focus on math and science has frequently pushed history out of the K-12 curriculum. The second factor, he says, is ideology: The relentless negativity of much contemporary scholarship (“an unrelieved witches’ sabbath of condemnation of the American past,” he said at the White House conference) has left students grasping for reasons to honor and protect the extraordinary achievement that the United States represents.
Guelzo traces the bleak scholarly outlook on the American past to the precarity of the academic job market in the American present. Graduate students feel betrayed by a system that can no longer guarantee them stable long-term employment, and that frustration “leaches into what they’re writing,” he says. “How can you write happily, contentedly, cheerfully about the prospects of American history when your own job teaching it is liable to be blotted out by the decision of some administrator in an administration building far, far away from you? I think that has played a significant role in the darkening of perspective in American history.”
Guelzo attended public schools, his wife has taught in them, and he has participated in summertime history seminars for K-12 educators. But none of his three now-adult children attended a traditional public school, and critics of the White House conference say its panelists — only two of them professional historians with Ph.D.s in the subject — grossly misrepresented both the state of K-12 history teaching and the aims of modern scholarship in American history, with its emphasis on issues of race, class, and gender. “It’s not a question of overturning one narrative with another,” says Manisha Sinha, a historian of 19th-century America at the University of Connecticut. “It’s an idea of adding more actors to the past and telling a more complete story of the past.”
Guelzo insists that he too wants only to ensure that students encounter the full richness of American history — its shortcomings, yes, but also its glories. Along with “the horrific nature of slavery — of destroying families, of selling people down the river, of flogging people within an inch of their lives, of rape — there is also a Frederick Douglass, who rises up to denounce that,” Guelzo says. “Douglass had more reason than almost anybody else to understand the flaws, the defects, the hypocrisies in American life — and they’re there. He also celebrated its opportunities, what it made possible.”
Guelzo sidesteps the question of whether he was naïve in not foreseeing how his participation in the White House conference would be interpreted in the volatile political climate of late 2020. But he does acknowledge an irony: He spoke about his fear of the social splintering that might result if Americans lost their shared sense of a valued past, and the reaction only underlined how splintered American culture already is.
“We are threatened by fracture, and it’s a fracturing in which we cease to regard each other as fellow Americans, we cease to feel that we have anything in common with each other,” Guelzo says. “And we start coming apart at the seams, we start shunning each other, and then we start separating from each other. And what do we get? Secession.”
Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer based in Princeton Junction, New Jersey.