One question regarded Cornelius Vanderbilt, the other Jesse James. The first brought up the Obama administration's economic policies; I got the impression that the questioner did not approve of government intervention in the economy. The second was from someone who seemed to feel strongly that Reconstruction policies after the Civil War were wrong.
I don't mean to judge these questioners, or pretend to really know what they think. Rather, they reminded me that, generally speaking, there are some who see both Vanderbilt and James in ideological terms. I have often encountered people who either believe that Vanderbilt is a hero who demonstrates the greatness of the unregulated marketplace, or a villain who represents the evils that capitalists inflict upon their workers and society. In terms of Jesse James, I have met with outright anger from people who believe that I am wrong to discuss slavery as a major factor in his life and in the Civil War. In the latter case, the connection to the present is murkier (no one wants to bring slavery back), but it relates to feelings about race, civil rights laws, affirmative action, and the general sense among some Southerners that their section was treated badly after the Civil War.
For a biographer, the challenge of such prejudices is twofold. First, I think it's important to strip yourself of your own prejudices, to avoid presentism as much as humanly possible. You must be willing at every step to challenge your own assumptions, which are naturally rooted in the present day. In Vanderbilt's case, I had to think afresh about the corporation and the role of government; the way Americans saw such things before the Civil War, in particular, was radically different from the way we do in the present. I tried very hard to discuss the contemporary debate over Vanderbilt, over opportunity and equality, not one we might have today. Understanding the historical origins of our modern argument is very useful for the present, but we must not turn a historical figure into an ideological pawn.
Second, in dealing with the public, you have to be honest but careful. For those who resist the idea of slavery as a key to understanding Jesse James's life and the Civil War, I must patiently lay out the facts—how secessionists themselves named the preservation of slavery as the reason for forming the Confederacy, how James's family counted much of its own wealth in human beings, how slaves outnumbered whites on his mother's farm before the Civil War, how local Missouri secessionists developed a fiercely militant view of slavery as necessary to preserving white liberty.
But it's important to stress that this is a historical exploration, not a moral or ideological judgment. I try to defuse the anger, if I encounter it, so the listener can hear what I'm saying. For example, some Southerners today feel that to discuss the historical centrality of slavery is to condemn their ancestors as morally inferior or evil. Far from it. So I tend to add—quite honestly—that most Northerners opposed slavery because they didn't want to live near black people or compete with slave labor. They were not racial egalitarians. In Missouri, many slaveowners sided with the Union because they thought it was a better way to keep their slaves; Lincoln had promised not to interfere with slavery where it existed, and if Missouri seceded it would lose the benefit of the Fugitive Slave Act, allowing slaves to slip across a nearby international border.
In other words, the history of the Civil War is not a morality play (even though slavery was unquestionably evil, and its destruction was a very good thing). And, when speaking to people who feel strongly about Vanderbilt as hero or villain, I stress—again, honestly—that I am not preaching about the present day, that I am trying to understand this person, and how he shaped the American economy and political debate. Frankly, it's a good thing that I wasn't trying to preach some present-minded message: I wrote The First Tycoon before the financial crisis of September 2008, and my book would likely have sounded badly out of date as soon as it was published.
It's tricky, being honest with yourself. And it's tricky, engaging readers (or listeners) who have set viewpoints, while still remaining honest. I myself have political views, which are informed by my research. But I try my best to keep it a one-way road; I don't want my views of the present to be imprinted on the past, as I describe it to my readers. I take it as a sign of success that there is at least one customer review on Amazon that condemns my book for being too admiring of Vanderbilt, and another that condemns my book for being too hostile to Vanderbilt. That probably means I got the balance just about right.