Understanding Historical Revisionism

History is perhaps one of the most important fields in academia, and one which has a significant influence on everyday life. Every aspect of our politics revolves around what happened in the past, while today many of the issues in the so-called “culture wars” are issues that are often dealt with in the realm of historians. Among these issues include how we today remember, teach, and discuss the American Civil War and whether or not statues should remain standing of Confederate soldiers and generals, the legacy of Founding Fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, or the actions of explorer Christopher Columbus during his lifetime have all become perennial issues that concern the body politic of the United States. It was the issue of a statue of Robert E. Lee that ignited Charlottesville, one of the flashpoints of the rise of extremism in our modern era. The legacies of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson have become points of discussion by President Donald Trump at his rallies, yet another cultural issue now seen in the context of partisan fighting. Even Christopher Columbus, a figure who has been dead for five hundred years, has become a point of political arguing. Most recently was the case of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project published in The New York Times which takes a new interpretation of American history that slavery and freedom were intertwined from the beginning as slaves arrived in Virginia in August 1619. This took place only a decade after the founding of Jamestown, and that slavery had since then been connected to the destiny of the colonies and later the United States of America. In all of these issues, including the aforementioned project, the term “revisionist history” or some variation of it has been used to attack the historians who each and every year bring new perspectives and information to the historical record, and to discredit their findings as merely being political, rather than historical. Although “revisionist history” has joined other terms such as “political correctness” and “culture war” as terms used by the far-right to explain some imaginary conspiracy by academics to foment hatred by tarnishing American historical figures. This is very far from the truth, and ignores how vital revised history is to the field.

The simple fact is that historical revisionism is necessary to the field of history. Whenever a historian sets out to research a subject, whether it be an event such as a war, battle, or political movement, or even an individual, they are likely building on decades or even centuries of work by past historians. This likely will include information that will counter a widely accepted narrative among historians and even the general public. It could be a previously unknown person associated with this figure or event, a document that only came into the hands of historians in recent years, or perhaps information previously censored now being allowed to come to light. One such example was during Lynne Cheney’s tenure as Chair of the National Endowment of the Humanities from 1986 to 1993, when she killed research proposals which dealt with race, gender, or the impacts of slavery, while promoting projects which dealt only with her own largely conservative and positive vision of United States history. Any research project which in any way created a more nuanced vision of American history was decried as being left-wing and bowing to the pressures of political correctness. This is one of countless examples of a more accurate narrative based on evidence being ignored, and a revised view being halted due to political interference. One example of successful revisionism comes with the book Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar, which cuts through a heavily mythologized portrait of George Washington, and showing how from our very founding slavery was an issue that encompassed the nation, and how Washington himself held dearly to that institution. Dunbar would likely not have been allowed to publish such an important work thirty years ago, as it would have run counter to Lynne Cheney’s vision of a “positive” history.

Perhaps one of the most staunch defenders of revising the historical record was James M. McPherson, a prominent historian of the American Civil War and President of the American Historical Association in 2003, where he spoke on the importants of historical revisionism. During his annual address to the AHA on September 1, 2003 he states that its members “Know that revision is the lifeblood of historical scholarship. History is a continuing dialogue between the present and the past. Interpretations of the past are subject to change in response to new evidence, new questions asked of the evidence, new perspectives gained by the passage of time. There is no single, eternal, and immutable “truth” about past events and their meaning. The unending quest of historians for understanding the past—that is, “revisionism”—is what makes history vital and meaningful.” He then states that without historical revisionism, the views of historians who had incomplete information or a bias towards one side of an event or war might win the day. His defense of the practice is vital in understanding why it is so important. Without revisionism, the history of the United States as decreed during the 1950s, which ignored the history of people of color and women, would still in place. Stories of figures such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass would be secondary to those who once held them in bondage such as Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, while the history of the Civil Rights Movement or of the Suffragette Movement might be downplayed in favor of other events that showcase the greatness of the country, rather than events and movements that might tarnish its image.

When historians in the course of their careers find new information that was either previously unknown or held back due to some higher authority, they are often accused of historical revisionism because what they have found runs counter to something that has been mythologized for entire generations in popular history. Typically these situations occur when they related to a historic event that collides with the public consciousness such as the American Civil War, or a figure that rises to the collective consciousness, such as George Washington and Christopher Columbus. When a historian such as Kevin M. Levin wrote Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, he was accused of revising history for political purposes. Like most historians, he dug into a largely unknown aspect of the American Civil War and found that a popular myth was that black slaves fought for the Confederate States of America. Through his research, Levin found the evidence lacking, and he was subsequently attacked even prior to his book’s release and accused of distorting the facts to benefit a left-wing version of history. Instead, this myth was propagated in order to downplay the fact that slavery was the primary cause of the American Civil War. At a time where facts are often mixed with lies in a postmodern age of social media, it is more important than ever to recognize that historians are working while relentlessly under attack by the political right, who are attempting to sanitize history and to erase the legacies of racism, sexism, and discrimination that dominated the country. Only through continued historical revisionism can we ensure that the truth of these events be allowed to be researched and explored without interruption.

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