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.