PRINCETON, N.J. – Historians could ask whether Thomas Jefferson was a hypocrite.
"That is a dumb question," Davidson College President Carol Quillen told a Princeton University crowd Saturday.
Yes, she said, there is the profoundest of contradictions between owning people and proclaiming that all men are created equal. But if society gets at that question by demonizing Jefferson, distancing ourselves from him, she said, then we don't see our accountability in the present for slavery's ongoing legacy.
Princeton, where Quillen earned a doctorate in history, was awarding her the James Madison Medal, the university's highest honor for an alum of its graduate school. She asked a crowd packed with Princeton alumni and Ivy League professors, including her PhD adviser, to follow her through how the study of history boils down to creating and telling stories.
Those stories, she argued, might help rebuild our fragmented democratic republic.
And stories begin with good questions.
In the case of Jefferson, Quillen offered an alternative question that historian Edmund S. Morgan posed in his book American Slavery, American Freedom:
"How could a people have developed the dedication to human liberty and dignity exhibited by the leaders of the American Revolution," Morgan wrote, "and at the same time have developed and maintained a system of labor that denied human liberty and dignity every hour of the day?"
By asking the "how" question, Quillen said, the public can focus not on the character of one person, but on a historical phenomenon whose consequences persist even now.
Stories are about people, for people. Telling them is an ethical act, she said. Historians who create stories have an obligation both to the dead, who were complex human beings, and to the living, who are accountable in the present for the institutions they inherit.
Every story leaves something out, Quillen said, and records of the past can sustain more than one story -- but not all stories.
The study of history allows people to see how stories are created in the context where there are only artifacts or bits of text -- pieces of knowledge, she said. Stories developed from questions asked with empathy, with an intellectual humility, questions that acknowledge the people and that there are multiple possible stories of the past, can help build bridges.
Asking questions that way now, and telling those stories today, can build bridges in today's society, which increasingly self-segregates, craves similarity and avoids political discussions with those who disagree, she said. Instead of distorting what happens in order to support a point, or searching for the clarity of a litmus test, Americans need to embrace their founding principle of pluralism and engage with one another.
She encouraged that they orient themselves toward each other in the same way as looking at the people of the past, listening for "stories that deserve to be understood," Quillen said, "and not positions to be refuted or accepted."
Ann-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton alum and former dean who was in the audience, said Quillen's storytelling approach could humanize interactions today, whether in the workplace or public policy debate.
"She opened a door for me," said Slaughter, CEO of the New America think tank, "on how to navigate debates in my own organization and in public."