A Note on Revisionist History

Next to “politically correct,” the phase “revisionist history” and its various derivations often appears in comments and posts across the blogosphere. Usually it’s used disparagingly to attack people who hold views not shared by the commenter as a sort of placeholder that substitutes for actual intellectual engagement with the point being debated.

One common response that one sees is that all historical scholarship can be called “revisionist history,” because as scholarship moves forward and understandings change, past interpretations undergo revision. While true, this explanation does little to satisfy those people who employ the term as a means to attack that which they cannot otherwise counter.

However, students of Civil War causation historiography (a vanishing breed) know that the term has a more specific meaning in context: “revisionist interpretation” refers to a school of interpretation that emerged following World War I and continued through World War II. Perhaps the most famous representative of that interpretation was Avery Craven, although James G. Randall is also identified with this approach. As Bruce Catton once said, “In recent years a highly industrious school of historians has begun asking whether the war should have been fought at all and whether it was perhaps not more the fault of the North than of the South. Seeking to revise earlier judgments they have become known as the revisionists, and one of the most gifted and studious of them all is Avery Craven, whose The Coming of the Civil War . . . is one of the landmarks of revisionist literature.” For these folks, the Civil War was a needless war, brought about by a generation of blundering politicians (with a few extreme fanatics thrown in for good measure) whose short-sighted tactics had unanticipated consequences.

Advocates of this position tended to focus most of their criticism on politicians, followed by abolitionists, largely leaving the fire-eaters alone. Among the assumptions that guided this interpretation was the belief that slavery was a dying institution, and sooner or later it would collapse. Many scholars tend to associate the rise of this school with growing dissatisfaction in the United States about American intervention in World War I. Popular readers also tended to blend this interpretation with the notion offered by Charles and Mary Beard that the American Civil War represented the second American Revolution, and that revolution was best understood as the triumph of industrialism over agrarian forces. Slavery as an institution played at best a minor role in these interpretations, with very little thought given to the condition of the enslaved.

Not everyone accepted this interpretation, but it was not until after World War II that one saw the full-blown emergence of a counter-interpretation, which we can discuss at another time. Traces of the old approach remain in the work of scholars such as Michael F. Holt, and Thomas Fleming’s recent A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War (2013) resurrected many of the revisionist themes, blended them with a curious reading of Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross (1974), and offered what was at best a new packaging of old interpretations.

In the popular mind, it is interesting that one finds the most visible remnants of this “revisionist” interpretation among some of those people who hold dear to the Old South and the Confederacy. They claim that slavery was on the way out in any case; they attack the abolitionists for stirring up a hornet’s net of trouble; and they see the war as largely unnecessary and forced upon the South by the North. Indeed, some of these folks go so far as to label their targets “abolitionist,” as if the abolition of slavery was a bad thing. Their characterization of these targets reminds me of what the “needless war/repressible conflict” scholars had to say about the abolitionists of the nineteenth century: that they were people who were racist hypocrites and fanatics who hated the South and evilized white southerners (one sees suggestions of this in Fleming’s book).

In short, those folks who throw out the term “revisionist” as a form of derision may not be aware that many of the tenets that they hold dear were advanced by a school of historians known as the revisionists.

15 thoughts on “A Note on Revisionist History

  1. John Foskett January 14, 2014 / 2:38 pm

    An interesting observation which illustrates how often people walk unknowingly into irony. As for Fleming, who eminently fits the bill of a “popular historian”, I also don’t recall that he worked in Fogel’s later corrective (Without Consent or Contract).

  2. Jim Pearson January 14, 2014 / 3:02 pm

    The revisionist point of view that slavery would eventually die away fails to consider the racial hatred would not go away. No matter how poor the white man, he could atleast believe “Atleast I am not black.” [He would have used another term.] No matter how slavery ended, the white man would still want to make sure “they knew their place.” If there had been no civil war would George Wallace have been less popular.

    Those who treasure southern tradition want to excise slavery,

  3. Paul Revered January 14, 2014 / 11:26 pm

    So what is the view of Fogel’s later corrective, ‘Without Consent or Contract’ among historians? It is on my bookshelf but I haven’t had time to read it. Does he acknowledge any changes in his thinking over time?

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 15, 2014 / 1:37 am

      I think he did not care for the spin some people put on his findings in TotC, and I don’t think he would have cared for Fleming’s take. But Without Consent or Contract is more respected than read.

      • John Foskett January 15, 2014 / 11:12 am

        True. It should be read, however, in part because Fogel dispels the simple-minded analysis by some that an evaluation which concluded that slavery was a fairly efficient economic strategy translates to moral/legal/political “approval” by the evaluator. It’s a bit like deciding that someone who evaluates the investment performance of Farben or Krupp in the late ’30’s/early ’40’s necessarily approves the uses to which their products were put.

        • Dan January 18, 2014 / 7:11 pm

          Better than the prison industrial complex. Butt scratching civil service or agricultural equipment?

          No comparison possible on the question of economic value.

  4. Dan January 15, 2014 / 3:43 pm

    As the US slips to second place as a trading nation to a relatively homogenous nation state called China, I’d say that the civil war an utter wasted effort. Was any long term ascendency really established in the bloodbath?

  5. Rudel January 16, 2014 / 5:57 pm

    “For these folks, the Civil War was a needless war, brought about by a generation of blundering politicians (with a few extreme fanatics thrown in for good measure) whose short-sighted tactics had unanticipated consequences.”

    Surely, given that the rest of Christendom was able to eliminate formal slavery without a murderous war that cost 700,000 lives, there exists room to argue that The War Between the States was an unnecessary bloodbath. Taking into account that even now White folks throughout the nation still refuse to intermarry with Negroes and that Asian and mestizo immigrants will have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with them, the “war” is not really even over.

    • Al Mackey January 17, 2014 / 6:35 am

      First, slavery was normally ended as the result of a war of some type.

      Secondly, while issues surrounding slavery and its protection and expansion were the root causes of the war, and while slavery was a fundamental issue of the war, from the Union point of view their purpose in accepting the war started by the confederates was to preserve the Union, which they saw as preserving the United States from ruin and thus preserving their own liberty and the liberty of their families in the long run. Thomas Jefferson, if alive at the time, would have agreed.

      Thirdly, the confederates at the time didn’t see it as unnecessary when they started the war. They saw it as a necessary step to preserve the institution of slavery.

      • Dan January 18, 2014 / 9:07 am

        Brooks has repeatedly stated that whites are welcome to leave the current modus vivendi of the USA. Except that when they do thy will be clattered with another march to the see by a reincarnated Grant or Sherman. Cheered on by people like Brooks himself.

        • Dan January 18, 2014 / 9:08 am

          See = Sea

        • Al Mackey January 18, 2014 / 11:26 am

          They can leave anytime they want. Delta is ready when you are. Pick a place and go. Leave behind the real estate, though.

      • Dan January 18, 2014 / 9:14 am

        Slavery was was suppressed. It was also renedered obselete. The only “war” I know of that was fought to end the institution was the ACW. Even Haiti was a sham on that score. The HNIC’s there ran the island like a concentration camp after they slaughtered the French.

        The Royal Navy’s suppression of the trade wasn’t a recognized as a war at the time. More of an Anti Piracy action.

        • Al Mackey January 18, 2014 / 11:25 am

          You should work on reading for content. Slavery normally ended in one way or another as the result of the war. That doesn’t mean wars were fought in order to end slavery, it means that slavery normally ended as the result of what happened in a war. The Haitian Revolution was fought to end slavery. The American Civil War was fought on the confederate side to retain slavery but on the Union side to preserve the Union. Ending slavery was a result of the war. Ending slavery was the result of several wars in history. Both sides would offer freedom to slaves as a routine measure. One side would free the slaves of its opponent as an inducement to aid them in their effort. Or one side would offer freedom to its own slaves as an inducement to serve as soldiers.

      • Rudel January 18, 2014 / 10:47 am

        Nonsense. The War Between The States was a 4 year long bloodbath. British policing of the slave trade was a mere police action akin to anti-piracy efforts and the importation of new slaves was also illegal in the United States and discouraged by Southerners as new slaves decreased the value of existing ones.

        Stop lying.

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