Reasons to Study and to Edit History

Article excerpt

"The future is certain . . . it is only the past that is unpredictable." So the Russians used to say about life in the unlamented Soviet Union. In this country we like to think the past is set but that we can change our futures. We all, however, edit the past, intentionally or unintentionally.

When writing history, when reading history, and when examining how others have written history, we must remember that revising the past is a human characteristic. History is always edited, including "gatekeeping" - deciding what information to include and what to exclude. Editing includes choosing the theme and approach to one's topic. Editing also can include shading facts to support one's view - backwards research, determining meaning before gathering information.

In addition to the enjoyment, we study history to gain perspective on modern events and developments, how we got where we are. We study history, perhaps less wisely but usually with the best intentions, to seek analogies for modern problems, to try to replicate solutions that worked, avoid those that failed.

Finally, some of us study history to find evidence to use in modern discourse, valid or otherwise. We take only what we need to buttress our arguments, discarding the inconvenient. There is a fine line between using history as a tool for modern debate, and looking at history from a modern viewpoint. We can only write history with a "current" perspective. We can bring skill to learning, evaluating and presenting our subject. We can try hard to empathize with people of the past, to capture their life and times. We can approximate the past.

But we can never totally capture the past.

The debate over the cause of the American Civil War is an example of interpretive trends, of editing history. Wars have more than one cause. However, most historians now agree that slavery played a major role, probably the leading role, in causing secession and war.

Southern partisans have always claimed otherwise. Before the Civil War, most Southerners considered slavery the unchangeable foundation of their system, and declared their determination to defend slavery. "The cotton states owe it to their own citizens and the world to secure themselves now against a calamity which the continued possession of the Federal government for a few years by the Black Republican, or anti-slavery, party will make more than possible," it was proclaimed in the Daily Courier of Louisville, Ky., on Dec. 20, 1860.

The idea of a nation, as opposed to a loosely united collection of localities, was slower to catch on in the South than in the rest of the country. People will fight for principles. However, they are more likely to fight for practical reasons, particularly their own safety. Slavery was not just convenient for Southerners, it was seen as the only way to control a potentially dangerous and significant portion of the population.

Slavery, however, has been "politically incorrect" since the Civil War ended. Fighting for slavery is now rightly considered a bad thing. Claiming a "War Between the States" over the right of each state to pick its own domestic institutions presents a far more appealing public image.

Southern partisans found a modern reason to stress states' rights as a cause of the Civil War. The 1950s and early 1960s saw a rebirth of interest in the war, with the centennial. This period was also the height of the American civil rights movement. The federal government came to use more and more of its power to force states to grant all citizens equal rights. Southerners who opposed this process, whatever their motives, found it appealing to link themselves to their gallant Confederate ancestors.

Current focus on devolving federal power and responsibility to the states does not seem to have provoked revisionist Civil War history. Perhaps enough evidence exists for historians to agree on the dominant role of slavery in provoking Southern secession and civil war. …