The evolving historical view of the American Civil War.
"The historian's one task is to tell the thing as it happened. This he cannot do, if he is Artaxerxes's physician, trembling before him, or hoping to get a purple cloak, a golden chain, a horse of the Nisaean breed, in payment for his laudations. A fair historian, a Xenophon, a Thucydides, will not accept that position. He may nurse some private dislikes, but he will attach far more importance to the public good, and set the truth high above his hate; he may have his favorites, but he will not spare their errors. For history, I say again, has this and only this for its own; if a man will start upon it, he must sacrifice to no God but Truth; he must neglect all else; his sole rule and unerring guide is this -- to think not of those who are listening to him now, but of the yet unborn who shall seek his converse." [Lucian (c.120-190 C.E.), "The Way to Write History"]
History is not written in a vacuum. Historians are embedded in their surrounding culture, even though they are capable of questioning and even upending that culture's assumptions about itself.
Which is why history misleads when it calls itself a "social science." It may use scientific methods. But it is not, overall, a science. The British physicist Derek Jackson once said that if you read a French history, it's sympathetic to France; if you read a British history, it's sympathetic to Britain; but no one ever wrote a chemistry book that favors zinc over copper.
Jackson's quip was more true of 19th century historians than modern ones. Modern historians also have agendas, but they tend not to be nationalistic ones. Instead, they write with an eye on contemporary social causes, which they either support or oppose, or they write with an eye on the beliefs of the past generation, almost always with an intention to throw down false idols. These two motives, of course, need not exclude one another, and they often merge.
Most U.S. historians are patriotic; that is, in common with most other people, they are personally committed to the places where they were born and raised. They want to see these places shed their problems and fulfill their potentials. Like Americans in general, though, they can differ wildly over what aspect of America fall into the categories of "problem" and "potential."
In their student years, historians learn how to research. But they also read and parse the works of the then-dominant generation of historians. There are few deliberate ideologues among the chief historians in any era, but even those without such a motive sometimes feel an obligation to question the cultural assumptions that have nourished their trade.
This is especially true of topics that are heavy with social and political importance, yet are capable of a broad range of interpretations. Bray Hammond, in the 1950s, researching what would become a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of banking in America, kept encountering even in contemporary writing the echoed political prejudices of an earlier generation. Many turn-of-the-century U.S. historians, as men, had had a powerful reaction against the Populist politics of William Jennings Bryan. As a result, Frederick Jackson Turner and other American historians after c.1894 had written of the destructive "craze" for cheap paper money that, they claimed, infected the American in colonial times, agitated by radical agrarians and poor debtors.
The myth rides right over what Hammond knew, which is that many colonial paper money issues were successful and prudent, that they were an excellent solution to the colonies' chronic lack of hard cash, and that the agitation for them came from businessmen and merchants, not farmers. But the historians, eyesight blurred by contemporary realities, had projected the present onto the past. Hammond wrote:
"This effort made a half century ago to save the country from Mr. Bryan and his Populists is one with which I have a congenial sympathy and in which I had an infant but enthusiastic part. For my liveliest political recollections are of the exciting presidential campaign of 1896 -- there has been none like it since -- when I was nine years old and my breast was covered with badges attesting allegiance to the gold standard. My father, a country banker in Iowa, on occasion wore a waistcoat of golden yellow to the same purpose; he was a young man of great ardency, and as a member of the McKinley and Hobart glee club he sang derisive songs about greenbacks and the free and unlimited coinage of silver at the ratio of 16 to 1. I understand the anxious bias which omitted to say any good of paper money and which saw in history more warnings against contemporaneous agrarian monetary projects than were really there. But it is time that the 18th century be freed from the 19th century's polemics, which like the golden yellow waistcoat are now démondé."That is why historical geniuses of one generation can hold views that historical geniuses of the next reject. The discipline of history is not a mosaic to which each publication adds a chip, a shade. It is a conversation carried on over generations. It is a place where whole paradigms of the past are thrown off and replaced by new ones, woven from the same data but with a different design.
The image of "shifting paradigms," of course, is from Thomas Kuhn's "Structure of Scientific Revolutions." Because even the pure sciences, whether Jackson knew it or not, are infected by this quality. Stephen Jay Gould and his heirs among modern biologists fight so hard against anything that suggests genetic influence over social behavior because they remember, with shame, the nightmare of earlier scientists' seduction by social Darwinism.
What Gould writes about science (in his introduction to "The Mismeasure of Man") can be as well said of history:
"... I believe that science must be understood as a social phenomenon, a gutsy, human enterprise, not the work of robots programmed to collect pure information. ... Science, since people must do it, is a socially embedded activity. It progresses by hunch, vision, and intuition. Much of its change through time does not record a closer approach to absolute truth, but the alteration of cultural contexts that influence it so strongly. Facts are not pure and unsullied bits of information; culture also influences what we see and how we see it. Theories, moreover, are not inexorable inductions from facts. The most creative theories are often imaginative visions imposed upon facts; the source of imagination is also strongly cultural."
What is true of biology is true the more so of history. In history, even the most strictly scientific work gets embroiled in social agendas. Ella Lonn and Albert Burton Moore in analyzing statistics of the American Civil War were influenced by the social upheavals of World War I. A modern straightforward statistical analysis of the lives of slaves, Fogel and Engerman's "Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery"  evoked a firestorm of criticism. Nobody overturned their numbers or their methodology. But they were accused of being insufficiently sympathetic to slavery's evil, by daring to print statistics that strongly suggested Southern plantation slaves in 1850 were healthier than free blacks in New York City at the same time. As though these two fine historians were somehow trying to make the case that slavery was good.
And when the historical writing is not primarily statistical, but deals with motives, causes and effects, it is the more subjective. The dean of American Civil War historians, Prof. James McPherson, eschews objective reality altogether, in an interview, and says that the process of "doing history," not the truth, is the goal:
"I think it's probably true that in a literal sense it's impossible to establish objective, historical truth. My feeling about this is let a thousand flowers bloom' -- is that the Chinese saying? That's the nature of the writing of history, that it's constantly in flux and in contestation. That's what makes it interesting. The ideal of an objective truth about history is a will of the wisp, I don't think there is any such thing. History is basically what we think about what happened in the past, what we think it means. And everybody is going to have a somewhat different perspective on that, or different schools of interpretation are going to have different perspectives on that."The scholarly views on the causes of the American Civil War, along with the dynamic of Southern class and race relations before and after the war, are a mirror of social movements. In the first half of the 20th century, historians tended to view slavery as a minor factor in the daily life of the average pre-war Southerner. As a moral/political issue, they tended to view it as mainly a soapbox for agitators. The "Progressive" school (Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles A. Beard, etc.) was focused elsewhere, and the subsequent "consensus" historians who dominated the 1950s and '60s focused on the shared American experience and on what was similar in the lives of yeoman farmers, be they in Georgia or Vermont. W.E.B. DuBois was almost alone in the 1930s in having anything positive to say about Reconstruction.
This view grew, in part, from the culture they had been raised in. The Civil War was a more serious split than we realize, and we fail to realize that in part because it was smoothed over so well after 1865. In part, the "Lost Cause" ideology of the late 19th century was the sweetener for the bitter pill of reconciliation for the South. It enabled Southerners to distance themselves from the issues of the war without repudiating the veterans, even as they surrendered regional aspirations and accepted a role as the sharecropper colony of the rest of America.
The "Lost Cause" did what the Confederacy did not have time to accomplish: forging a common identity and heritage over the vast, diverse southern tier of America, with its disparate class, ethnic and economic traditions. But it went even wider than that. A consensus history of the Civil War and Reconstruction knit the different regions of America together with a far tighter grip than either the North or the South managed internally during the Civil War. It allowed the entire country to redefine racial and regional relations in the post-slavery, post-Civil War era.
For the "Lost Cause" was a national creation, and it served a national purpose. In shaping the national (white) consensus on the Civil War, it emphasized American military skill, honor, and virtues. It presented the secession movement as rooted in the Constitution, thus strengthening all America's connection to its essential document. It helped smooth the path for a nation recently at war with itself to achieve, in a few remarkable decades, an integrated national economy at home and an empire abroad. The truly remarkable event of the Spanish-American War is lost on us today: white Southerners fighting under the American flag.
But America paid a high price for this re-integration. It created a definition of a collective "whiteness" as the crucial American identity. It strengthened segregation everywhere -- against blacks nationwide, against Asians and Indians in the West.
Many interests fed into it: former Confederates, a white working class in the north struggling for labor goals, midwestern farmers dodging bankruptcy, scientists caught up in racist theories, New England elites on the defensive as cities filled up with dark-skinned southern European immigrants, even suffragettes.
A significant minority of contemporary historians still work in the "consensus" mode. Other mavericks reject both views for a variety of alternatives. But since the 1970s, the highlight for most scholars of American history has been conflict -- of class, race, ideology -- rather than continuity. They have emphasized slavery's centrality in the Confederacy.
The difference between "then" and "now" is a generation of historians raised in the presence of, or the wake of, the Civil Rights movement. They bring to their discipline a perspective of an America suddenly alert and awake to past injustices, and to the subtle ways those injustices persisted. One advocate of the new school explains it this way: "For years, historians treated slaves primarily as objects of white action rather than as subjects in their own right, and largely ignored the behavior and beliefs of the slaves themselves. Reacting against this emphasis, many scholars have more recently focused on the slaves as actors, stressing the world they made for themselves rather than the constraints imposed by their owners."
Treating slavery as not a central or important point in American Civil War-era history may or may not have been valid, but it overlooked the fact that, for the slaves, slavery was the central and important fact of existence. When the current generation of historians realized their discipline had done this, and able historians had built what was now seen as an unconscious racism into their version of American history, that edifice was torn down and rebuilt, with slavery in a new focus.
It also became the focus of the Civil War. The modern historian quoted above, very much in sympathy with the prevailing view, writes, "The racism that suffused American scholarship during the first half of the twentieth century made it easy for historians to dismiss slavery as a significant issue and to argue that Northerners and Southerners, Americans all, 'should' have been able to settle their minor differences amicably, without resort to arms."
The prevailing paradigm of American history in this generation rejects that view, and replaces it with its own. Leon Litwack (who wrote an excellent history of antebellum Northern racism) said in his presidential address to the Organization of American Historians in 1987 that historians till then had underestimated "the depth, the persistence, the pervasiveness, the centrality of race in American society," and in doing so they had "perpetuated and reinforced an array of racial stereotypes and myths and easily justified the need to repress and quarantine black people."
We're now at a point where a historian (Bernard Bailyn) who uses the word "fanaticism" to refer to abolitionist beliefs is attacked for using "the vocabulary of proslavery apologists." Or where Gordon Wood is said to "defend slavery" [by Garry Wills, New York Times, Dec. 28, 2003] simply because he points out that women and children, in addition to slaves, contributed to a state's representation in Congress without having the right to vote. It's hard for me not to see an element of overkill in this reaction. Whether the modern slavery-centered view will in turn be overthrown, or whether it will be integrated into a synthesis with previous and later versions, is for the next generation to decide.
"[I]n revolutions of opinion, one part of the truth usually sets while the other rises."
-John Stuart Mill, "On Liberty," 1859.
1. "Banks and Politics in America From the Revolution to the Civil War," 1957, Princeton University Press, pp. 34-5.