What is historical contingency?

Why Study HistoryParts of this post are based on my book Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

In a recent piece at The Atlantic, Yale historian Joanne Freeman writes about Hamilton: The Musical:

It has also gained new relevance over time, promoting an idea that historians hold near and dear: contingency—the importance of remembering that people in the past were living in their present, unaware of future outcomes. As I’ve taught time and again in college classrooms, the founding generation didn’t know if it would win the Revolution or if the new nation would survive; Hamilton makes this abundantly clear. People were living in the moment, much like us today.

The lesson to be learned from this is vitally important. As much as we might like to, we can’t assume that all will be fine in the end. America’s long-standing faith in its exceptionalism is blinding people to the fact that our constitutional order is fragile, that democracy requires hard work, and that success isn’t a given.

But failure isn’t a given either. The future is always in flux. This may well be the most valuable lesson historians can offer in the current crisis: For better or worse, history doesn’t stop. And for that very reason, our actions and decisions now—today—matter in ways that we can’t begin to fathom. Even passivity, the willingness to let things fall where they may, might have dire implications.

In short, there’s no escape from the urgency of now. We owe it to ourselves and to the future to recognize the meaning of this moment, and to choose our actions wisely and well.

As Freeman points out, historians are always concerned with contingency–the free will of humans to shape their own destinies. People’s choices matter. It is the historian’s task to explain the way people are driven by a personal desire to break free from their circumstances and the social and cultural forces that hold them in place. History is thus told as a narrative of individual choices made by humans through time.

Contingency is thus at odds with other potential ways of explaining human behavior in the past. Fatalism, determinism, and providentialism are philosophical or religious systems that teach that human behavior is controlled by forces–fate, the order of the universe, God–that are outside the control of humans. While few professional historians today would suggest that chance, determinism, or God’s providence is a helpful way of interpreting past events, it is undeniable that we are all products of the macrolevel cultural or structural contexts that have shaped the world into which we have been born. Karl Marx suggested that human action is always held in check by “the circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.” It is unlikely that any proponent of contingency would deny that human behavior is shaped by larger cultural forces, but in the end historians are in the business of explaining why people–as active human agents–have behaved in the past in the way that they did.

One prominent example of contingency is the way that historians of the American Civil War have interpreted the Battle of Antietam. After suffering several defeats at the hands of the Confederacy, the Army of the Potomac (the main Northern army under the leadership of General George McClellan), desperate for a military victory, was preparing to meet the Army of Northern Virginia (under the command of Robert E. Lee) in a major military campaign, which would eventually take place at Antietam Creek in Maryland.

About one week before the battle, while the Army of the Potomac was passing through Fredericksburg, Maryland, Corporal Barton Mitchell of the 27th Indiana Regiment found a copy of Lee’s battle plans. There were seven copies of “Special Orders, No . 191” produced by the Army of Northern Virginia, and one of them was now in enemy hands. Historian James McPherson has suggested that the “odds against the occurrence of such a chain of events must have been a million to one,” and “yet they happened.”

The Battle of Antietam turned out to be the bloodiest single day in American history. Over 6,300 soldiers were killed or mortally wounded. But the Union victory on September 17, 1862 , prompted President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in the South and setting the war on a course that would eventually result in Northern victory. And it was all because someone stumbled across a piece of paper rolled around three cigars lying in a field.

There are several ways that we can interpret what happened in the week leading up to the Battle of Antietam. Perhaps it was mere chance. The late Wheaton College English professor Roger Lundin was not entirely satisfied with this answer. He prefered to see the theological dimensions of contingency. As a Christian drawing from the ideas of fifth-century theologian Augustine, Lundin questioned whether a coincidence like this is every possible:

The history of a nation and the fate of a race dependent upon a piece of paper wrapped around a few cigars in a field? That sounds as uncannily coincidental and disturbingly unpredictable as the claim that a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger could be the son of God. It is, apparently, a law of life that so much depends upon contingent events and the free actions of agents, both human and divine.

Lundin wanted to remind us that, for Christians, contingency gets us only so far. Humans have free will, but it is ultimately exercised in the context of a sovereign God who orders the affairs of his creation. In the end, however, God’s providence in matters such as the Battle of Antietam is a subject worthy of exploration for Christians, but these kinds of theological matters are not part of the historian’s job description. And even for theologians (or Christian English professors), we must always remember that we see through a glass darkly.

Earlier today, Adam Rothman, a history professor at Georgetown University, had a helpful twitter thread on historical contingency:

Not “esoteric” at all professor Rothman! The question of contingency is absolutely essential for teaching the general public how to think historically.

What Can We Learn from the 1619 Project?

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Read all our posts on The New York Times 1619 Project here.

Historian James Brewer Stewart has some good thoughts.  Here is a taste of his piece at History News Network:

But here’s what’s most important. Those of us who value the 1619 Project can reclaim our “teachable moment” by excavating beneath the heated rhetoric. There we will discover that the journalists and the historians embrace conflicting but equally valuable historical truths regarding slavery’s power to shape our nations past and present. I will soon articulate why this is so and what we can learn as a result.

First, however, we must move beyond the conflict that erupted when Wilentz, joined by James M. McPherson, Gordon Wood, James Oakes, and Victoria Bynum, eminent scholars all, forgot that they also have an obligation to serve us as educators, not as censors. By so harshly attacking credibility of the 1619 Project in their letter to The New York Times, they squandered the “teachable moment” that the Project itself intended to create. Instead, these scholars appointed themselves gatekeepers charged with the heavy enforcement of their personal versions of high academic “standards.” 

Instead of constructively dissenting and inviting dialogue, they berated the 1619 journalists for pushing “politically correct” distortions grounded in Afro-centric bias. “The displacement of historical understanding by ideology” is how one of them phrased it. They demanded retractions, worked assiduously (and failed) to recruit scholars of color to their cause, and sent their complaints directly to the top three editors of the Times and its Publisher A.G Sulzberger. That looks a lot like bullying. Dialogue dies when one contending party publicly attempts to undercut the other with his/her bosses.

Read the entire piece here.

Stay tuned. In Episode 63 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast we talk about the 1619 Project with historian Tom Mackaman of World Socialist Web Site. The episode drops February 16, 2020.

The 1619 Project: Debate Continues

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When we last left the debate on the 1619 Project, Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz leveled more criticism of the project in a piece at The Atlantic.  

Social media historians (and some non-historians who are advancing informed and not-so-informed opinions) are going crazy.  While many ague based on historical evidence and best practices, there is clearly a political dimension to all of this.  The 1619 Project has led to some good conversations on race and slavery in the United States.  It has also exacerbated political divisions in the discipline over how to do history in the 21st century and how the study of the past informs competing visions of American identity.  And yes, as Annette Gordon-Reed tweets, personalities are involved.

There were two major salvos yesterday.

Alex Lichtenstein, the editor of the American Historical Review, considered by many to be the most important historical journal in the United States, weighed-in on the controversy.  Here is a taste:

…many scholars initially greeted 1619 with excitement and effusive praise. In part, I suspect that this was because the basic impulse behind the collection of eighteen articles and many additional short essays—by journalists, historians, sociologists, poets, legal scholars, English professors, artists, playwrights, and novelists—reflects how many, if not most, American historians already teach about that past in the undergraduate classroom….

So why the hostile, if somewhat belated, reaction? Here I admit to being perplexed—hence my initial hesitation to wade into the debate. The initial caveats came from an unlikely precinct, at least for a mainstream public intellectual knock-down, drag-out. In early September, the website of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) fired a broadside at the Times, denouncing the 1619 Project as “a politically motivated falsification of history” designed, in their view, to bolster the Democratic Party’s alignment with “identity politics” at the expense of any serious engagement with class inequality. This attack came not from the expected quarters of the right, which one imagines would find offensive and unpatriotic the denigration of the American promise as irredeemably racist, but from the Trotskyist left. As good Marxists, the adherents of the Fourth International denounced the project for its “idealism,” that is to say, its tendency to reduce historical causation to “a supra-historical emotional impulse.” By mischaracterizing anti-black racism as an irreducible element built into the “DNA” of the nation and its white citizens, the Trotskyists declared, the 1619 Project is ahistorical and “irrationalist.” This idealist fallacy requires that racism “must persist independently of any change in political or economic conditions,” naturally the very thing that any materialist historian would want to attend to. “The invocation of white racism,” they proclaim, “takes the place of any concrete examination of the economic, political and social history of the country.” Perhaps even worse, “the 1619 Project says nothing about the event that had the greatest impact on the social condition of African-Americans—the Russian Revolution of 1917.”4 (Well, OK, I was with them up to that point.) In some ways, the debate merely reprises one fought out nearly half a century ago: Which came first, racism or slavery? Who is right, Winthrop Jordan or Edmund Morgan?5

But that, it turns out, was merely the opening salvo. In October and November, the ICFI began to post a series of interviews with historians about the 1619 Project on its “World Socialist Web Site,” including (as of January 11) Victoria Bynum (October 30), James McPherson (November 14), James Oakes (November 18), Gordon Wood (November 28), Dolores Janiewski (December 23), and Richard Carwardine (December 31).6 As many critics hastened to note, all of these historians are white. In principle, of course, that should do nothing to invalidate their views. Nevertheless, it was a peculiar choice on the part of the Trotskyist left, since there are undoubtedly African American historians—Marxist and non-Marxist alike—sympathetic to their views. Barbara Fields comes immediately to mind, as she has often made similarly critical appraisals of idealist fallacies about the history of “race” and racism.7

If these scholars all concern themselves in one way or another with historical dilemmas of race and class, they hardly are cut from the same cloth. Bynum, best known for her attention to glimmers of anti-slavery sentiment among southern whites, some of which was driven by class grievances, doesn’t always take the Trotskyists’ bait. For example, she points out that “we cannot assume that individual [southern] Unionists were anti-slavery,” even if they “at the very least connected slavery to their own economic plight in the Civil War era.” Similarly, McPherson, the dean of Civil War historians, acknowledges in his interview that initially most Union Army soldiers fought to “revenge an attack on the flag.” (As the Green-Wood memorial indicates, that’s how many chose to remember it as well.) Still, McPherson complains that the 1619 Project consists of “a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lack[s] context and perspective on the complexity of slavery.” Yet it is safe to say that he would not sign on to the Marxist version of the Civil War preferred by the ICFI—“the greatest expropriation of private property in world history, not equaled until the Russian Revolution in 1917.”8

McPherson insists in his interview that “opposition to slavery, and opposition to racism, has also been an important theme in American history.” Sure, but it wouldn’t be difficult to find a dozen historians who could say, with confidence, yes, but on balance, slavery and racism themselves have probably been just as, if not more, important. In his interview, Oakes, one of the most sophisticated historians of the rise of the nineteenth-century Republican Party and its complex place within an emergent anti-slavery coalition, offers a bracing critique of the recent literature on slavery and capitalism, scholarship that underpins sociologist Matthew Desmond’s contribution to 1619. But other than gamely defending Lincoln against the charge of racism, Oakes doesn’t really direct much fire at the 1619 Project in particular. For his part, Wood (described by the Trotskyists as “the leading historian of the American Revolution”) seems affronted mostly by the failure of the 1619 Project to solicit his advice, and appears offended by the suggestion that the Revolutionary generation might have had some interest in protecting slavery. Yet, oddly enough, even he seems to endorse what has become one of the project’s most controversial assertions—that “[Lord] Dunmore’s proclamation in 1775, which promised the slaves freedom if they joined the Crown’s cause, provoked many hesitant Virginia planters to become patriots.” Those are Wood’s words, and they are part of his wide-ranging and fascinating discussion of the place of anti-slavery and pro-slavery sentiment in the Revolutionary era and the Revolutionary Atlantic World more generally.

Taken as a whole, the interviews are of enormous interest, but more for what they have to say about these scholars’ own interpretations of key aspects of American history than as a full-on attack on the 1619 Project. Reading closely, one sees the interviewed historians trying to avoid saying what the Trotskyists would like them to say, offering a far more nuanced view of the past. This certainly entails dissent from some of the specific claims of 1619, but it hardly requires them to embrace fully the Trotskyist alternative, which I suspect at least several of them would be reluctant to do. Frankly, I wish the AHR had published these interviews, and I hope they get wide circulation. Not for the critique of the 1619 Project itself, but because collectively they insist on the significance of historical context, the careful weighing of evidence, the necessity of understanding change over time, and the potential dangers of reductionism. I would urge anyone to read them.

Read the entire piece here.  Lichtenstein respects the critics of the 1619 Project who were interviewed at World Socialist Web Site, but he was not overly impressed by the letter these critics wrote to The New York Times.

The second major response to Wilentz’s piece in The Atlantic comes from early American historian David Waldstreicher at the Boston Review.  Here is a summary of Waldstreicher’s piece:

Some historians, espousing what we might call the establishment view, insist that it is anachronistic to see slavery as central to our understanding of the decades-long revolutionary period. According to this view, the Revolution was in fact fundamentally antislavery, since it led to what Bernard Bailyn called in his 1967 study The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution a “contagion of liberty” that made it possible for Americans to think critically about ending the institution. Such accounts emphasize that various Northern states restricted the slave trade and began to institute gradual emancipation during and after the Revolutionary war, and that enslaved people used the ideals of equality voiced during the Revolution to press their own case for freedom. Although a civil war was fought over what the government could and could not do about slavery, these historians say, Lincoln and other members of the Republican Party envisioned a path to emancipation under the Constitution and made it happen.

This is the accepted orthodoxy underwriting the contention, made in the letter sent to the Times, that it is just wrong—as well as bad politics—to tell schoolchildren that some or many or even any American revolutionaries fought to defend their property in slaves from a powerful imperial government. Hannah-Jones wrote that defending slavery was a primary motivation for independence in 1776, but the pushback from Wood and Wilentz was far more absolute. This was not surprising to academics who have followed the work of these historians. Wilentz argues in his latest book, No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding(2018), that the Constitution was antislavery in its essence and most of its subsequent workings, and has repeatedly gone out of his way to attack those who emphasize the proslavery politics of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson. And for his part, Wood, a student of Bailyn, called talk of slavery and the Constitution in Staughton Lynd’s pathbreaking work “anachronistic” in his 1969 book The Creation of the American Republicand has never let up. According to his view, the founders belonged to a “premodern” society and didn’t talk or think about slavery or black people. In response to Silverstein’s response, he wrote, “I don’t know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves. No colonist expressed alarm that the mother country was out to abolish slavery in 1776.”

On the other side of this debate is a growing number of scholars—Woody Holton, Annette Gordon-Reed, Michael McDonnell, Gerald Horne, and myself, among others—who question the establishment view of the Revolution and the founders. These historians, most of them younger than Wood or Wilentz, see a multi-sided struggle in an American Revolution that was about colonizing and winning power and authority. They see slavery as more than a peripheral matter. They do not take for granted that the story is primarily one of uncovering the motives and beliefs of the founders. Their work has considerably undercut the glass-half-full version of the narrative, which sees the end of slavery as a long-term consequence of American idealism and independence.

In ambitious works that explore the “unknown” revolutions that contributed to the independence movement, for example, books such as Gary Nash’s The Unknown American Revolution(2005) and Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804(2016) have challenged Wood’s sunnier version of events. In their hands the story loses some of its traditional romance but gains a deeper sense of realism. Other scholars, such as Robert Parkinson in his book The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (2016), have shown just how concerned the revolutionaries were, in both the North and the South, with slaves as an internal enemy. Perhaps most important of all, newer histories show how Africans and their children themselves forced the issue onto the agenda of the revolutionaries and the empires competing for dominion, especially in wartime. If we were talking about any other revolution or civil war, we wouldn’t be surprised that enslaved people fought on both sides, depending on which side seemed more likely to improve their condition.

Read the entire piece here.

Whatever you think of Waldstreicher’s article, it is a wonderful overview of revolutionary-era historiography.  Graduate students take note.

Stay tuned.  We have more coming on this controversy.  In the meantime, read all of our posts on the 1619 Project here.  I also tried to explain the project to my local community here.

Sean Wilentz’s Criticism of *The New York Times*’s 1619 Project

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Some of you will remember Sean Wilentz‘s letter to The New York Times criticizing the newspaper’s 1619 Project.  You can read it here.  The letter is signed by Wilentz, Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon Wood.  With the exception of Wilentz, all of these American historians criticized the 1619 Project at the World Socialist Web Site.

After the publication of the letter, journalist Adam Serwer wrote a piece at The Atlantic titled, “The Fight Over the 1619 Project is Not About the Facts.” The subtitle reads: “A dispute between a small group of scholars and the authors of The New York Times Magazine‘s issue on slavery represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society.”

Today The Atlantic published a longer piece by Wilentz on the subject.  Here is a taste of piece “A Matter of Facts“:

The opportunity seized by the 1619 Project is as urgent as it is enormous. For more than two generations, historians have deepened and transformed the study of the centrality of slavery and race to American history and generated a wealth of facts and interpretations. Yet the subject, which connects the past to our current troubled times, remains too little understood by the general public. The 1619 Project proposed to fill that gap with its own interpretation.

To sustain its particular take on an immense subject while also informing a wide readership is a remarkably ambitious goal, imposing, among other responsibilities, a scrupulous regard for factual accuracy. Readers expect nothing less from The New York Times, the project’s sponsor, and they deserve nothing less from an effort as profound in its intentions as the 1619 Project. During the weeks and months after the 1619 Project first appeared, however, historians, publicly and privately, began expressing alarm over serious inaccuracies.

On December 20, the Times Magazine published a letter that I signed with four other historians—Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon Wood. Our letter applauded the project’s stated aim to raise public awareness and understanding of slavery’s central importance in our history. Although the project is not a conventional work of history and cannot be judged as such, the letter intended to help ensure that its efforts did not come at the expense of basic accuracy. Offering practical support to that end, it pointed out specific statements that, if allowed to stand, would misinform the public and give ammunition to those who might be opposed to the mission of grappling with the legacy of slavery. The letter requested that the Times print corrections of the errors that had already appeared, and that it keep those errors from appearing in any future materials published with the Times’ imprimatur, including the school curricula the newspaper announced it was developing in conjunction with the project.

The letter has provoked considerable reaction, some of it from historians affirming our concerns about the 1619 Project’s inaccuracies, some from historians questioning our motives in pointing out those inaccuracies, and some from the Times itself. In the newspaper’s lengthy formal response, the New York Times Magazine editor in chief, Jake Silverstein, flatly denied that the project “contains significant factual errors” and said that our request for corrections was not “warranted.” Silverstein then offered new evidence to support claims that our letter had described as groundless. In the interest of historical accuracy, it is worth examining his denials and new claims in detail.

No effort to educate the public in order to advance social justice can afford to dispense with a respect for basic facts. In the long and continuing battle against oppression of every kind, an insistence on plain and accurate facts has been a powerful tool against propaganda that is widely accepted as truth. That tool is far too important to cede now.

Read the entire rest here.  Whatever one thinks about Wilentz’s argument, it is hard to say that he is not making a case based on historical facts or offering a critique of the 1619 Project that is within the bounds of historical inquiry.

The Fight Over the *New York Times* 1619 Project

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I have said all I want to say about the 1619 Project.  You can read my posts here.

Over at The Atlantic, David Serwer tells the story behind the opposition to the project coming from historians Sean Wilentz, Victoria Bynum, Gordon Wood, James McPherson, and James Oakes. These historians recently published a letter criticizing the project.  Here is a taste:

Underlying each of the disagreements in the letter is not just a matter of historical fact but a conflict about whether Americans, from the Founders to the present day, are committed to the ideals they claim to revere. And while some of the critiques can be answered with historical fact, others are questions of interpretation grounded in perspective and experience.

In fact, the harshness of the Wilentz letter may obscure the extent to which its authors and the creators of the 1619 Project share a broad historical vision. Both sides agree, as many of the project’s right-wing critics do not, that slavery’s legacy still shapes American life—an argument that is less radical than it may appear at first glance. If you think anti-black racism still shapes American society, then you are in agreement with the thrust of the 1619 Project, though not necessarily with all of its individual arguments.

The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. Was America founded as a slavocracy, and are current racial inequities the natural outgrowth of that? Or was America conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles? These are not simple questions to answer, because the nation’s pro-slavery and anti-slavery tendencies are so closely intertwined.

The letter is rooted in a vision of American history as a slow, uncertain march toward a more perfect union. The 1619 Project, and Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay in particular, offer a darker vision of the nation, in which Americans have made less progress than they think, and in which black people continue to struggle indefinitely for rights they may never fully realize. Inherent in that vision is a kind of pessimism, not about black struggle but about the sincerity and viability of white anti-racism. It is a harsh verdict, and one of the reasons the 1619 Project has provoked pointed criticism alongside praise.

Americans need to believe that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the arc of history bends toward justice. And they are rarely kind to those who question whether it does.

Read the entire piece here.

Civil War Historian James McPherson on the Problems with the 1619 Project

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What is the 1619 Project?  Get up to speed here.

Prize-winning Civil War historian James McPherson talks to Tom Mackaman at the World Socialist Website.  Here is a taste of the interview:

Q. What was your initial reaction to the 1619 Project?

A. Well, I didn’t know anything about it until I got my Sunday paper, with the magazine section entirely devoted to the 1619 Project. Because this is a subject I’ve long been interested in I sat down and started to read some of the essays. I’d say that, almost from the outset, I was disturbed by what seemed like a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective on the complexity of slavery, which was clearly, obviously, not an exclusively American institution, but existed throughout history. And slavery in the United States was only a small part of a larger world process that unfolded over many centuries. And in the United States, too, there was not only slavery but also an antislavery movement. So I thought the account, which emphasized American racism—which is obviously a major part of the history, no question about it—but it focused so narrowly on that part of the story that it left most of the history out.

So I read a few of the essays and skimmed the rest, but didn’t pursue much more about it because it seemed to me that I wasn’t learning very much new. And I was a little bit unhappy with the idea that people who did not have a good knowledge of the subject would be influenced by this and would then have a biased or narrow view…

Q. We’ve spoken to a lot of historians, leading scholars in the fields of slavery, the Civil War, the American Revolution, and we’re finding that none of them were approached. Although the Times doesn’t list its sources, what do you think, in terms of scholarship, this 1619 Project is basing itself on?

A. I don’t really know. One of the people they approached is Kevin Kruse, who wrote about Atlanta. He’s a colleague, a professor here at Princeton. He doesn’t quite fit the mold of the other writers. But I don’t know who advised them, and what motivated them to choose the people they did choose.

Q. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead writer and leader of the 1619 Project, includes a statement in her essay—and I would say that this is the thesis of the project—that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.”

A. Yes, I saw that too. It does not make very much sense to me. I suppose she’s using DNA metaphorically. She argues that racism is the central theme of American history. It is certainly part of the history. But again, I think it lacks context, lacks perspective on the entire course of slavery and how slavery began and how slavery in the United States was hardly unique. And racial convictions, or “anti-other” convictions, have been central to many societies.

But the idea that racism is a permanent condition, well that’s just not true. And it also doesn’t account for the countervailing tendencies in American history as well. Because opposition to slavery, and opposition to racism, has also been an important theme in American history.

Read the entire piece here.

Race in America: 1860 and 1960

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Next week Martin Luther King Jr. biographer Taylor Branch will be at Messiah College to deliver our annual American Democracy Lecture. (Admission is free, but you need to pick up a ticket at the Messiah College box office).  I teach my Civil War class on the evening of the lecture.  We are planning to meet for the first hour of class and then walk over to the hall.  I had been thinking about some different ways of helping my students make the jump from the 1850s/1860s to the 1950s/1960s when I ran across this piece by Civil War historian James McPherson at the Oxford University Press blog.

Here is a taste:

The civil rights movement eclipsed the centennial observations during the first half of the 1960s. Those were the years of sit-ins and freedom rides in the South, of Southern political leaders vowing what they called “massive resistance” to national laws and court decisions, of federal marshals and troops trying to protect civil rights demonstrators, of conflict and violence, of the March on Washington in August 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the Lincoln Memorial and began his “I have a dream” speech with the words “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been scarred in the flame of withering injustice.” These were also the years of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which derived their constitutional bases from the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments adopted a century earlier. The creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau by the federal government in 1865, to aid the transition of four million former slaves to freedom, was the first large-scale intervention by the government in the field of social welfare.

These parallels between the 1960s and 1860s, and the roots of events in my own time in events of exactly a century earlier, propelled me to become a historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction. I became convinced that I could not fully understand the issues of my own time unless I learned about their roots in the era of the Civil War: slavery and its abolition; the conflict between North and South; the struggle between state sovereignty and the federal government; the role of government in social change and resistance to both government and social change. Those issues are as salient and controversial today as they were in the 1960s, not to mention the 1860s.

Read the entire piece here.

Civil War Historian James McPherson on Writing

Battle_Cry_of_Freedom_(book)_coverOver at The Chronicle of Higher Education Rachel Toor interviews the Princeton historian, Pulitzer Prize-winner, and author of dozens of books on the Civil War-era.

Here is a taste of her interview:

How did you tackle such a gigantic project — writing the entire history of the Civil War in one volume?

McPherson: One chapter, or section of a chapter, at a time. I don’t write from an outline — I’ve tried it, and it proved to be a waste of time. In my head I had a general outline of the whole book and a somewhat more specific outline of what I hoped to cover in each chapter.

I would sit down to read the sources, secondary and primary, for each part of a chapter, and then write that part before going on to repeat the proc­ess many times until I had a complete book. As I wrote each paragraph, the subject of the next paragraph would become more clear in my mind, and that proc­ess repeated itself through countless paragraphs.

The second and third drafts rarely changed organization or substance; they focused on sentence structure, clarity, and finding just the right word (with frequent use of a thesaurus) in the right place. In revising at the sentence level, I would change the passive voice to active whenever possible, try to change “to be” and other nonaction verbs to action verbs, and to break up some compound or complex sentences into two or more shorter sentences when it seemed appropriate.

I also read my second draft aloud to myself as a way to catch sloppy or unclear syntax from two perspectives — sound as well as sight.

How did that book’s success affect you?

McPherson: It was a two-edged sword. On one edge, I enjoyed the praise and 15 minutes of fame that it earned, the royalties that it paid, the invitations to give lectures that paid additional fees, the prominence in the historical profession that I acquired, and other benefits of success. On the other edge, this notoriety cut deeply into family time, into the leisure for exercise and hobbies like tennis and bicycling that I had previously enjoyed, and into the peace and quiet that are part of a quality life that was eroded by my newfound prominence.

Read the entire interview at the Chronicle of Higher Education

Quote of the Day

“First question about Davis.  Great Confederate president, or the greatest Confederate president?”

–Stephen Colbert to James McPherson on the October 6, 2014 Colbert Report.  McPherson was on the show to discuss his recent book Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief

HT: The American Historian magazine, p. 9.

*New York Times* Interview With James McPherson

He is currently reading Ron Chernow’s biography of George Washington.  The last “great book” he read was James Oakes, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States.  He believes that Bernard Bailyn, David Brion Davis, Gordon Wood, Eric Foner, David McCullough, and David Hackett Fischer are the best historians writing today.  He endorses John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom as the best book ever written on African-American history.  C. Vann Woodward’s Origins of the New South is the book that has had the most influence on his career as an American historian.  If he could assign Barack Obama one book it would be Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit.  If he was hosting a literary dinner party he would invite Mark Twain, John Dos Passos, and William Faulkner.  He is embarrassed that he has not yet read A. Scott Berg’s biography of Woodrow Wilson.

Read about these things and more in this interview with noted Civil War historian James McPherson
By the way, he has a new book out:  Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief.

Christopher Graham on "Religion and the American Civil War"

The Way of Improvement Leads Home correspondent Christopher Graham offers some notes on this star-studded panel on religion and the Civil War. –JF
The turnout for the Religion and the American Civil War: History and Historiography panel exceeded the organizers’ expectations. So many showed up that we all migrated to a larger room, and participants still overflowed into the hallway, where additional chairs were set up. Mark Noll presided and Allen Guelzo, Harry Stout, George Rable, James McPherson, and Laura Maffly-Kipp spoke. The title of the panel suggested a broad reconsideration of the historiography of religion and the Civil War but the individual papers did not amount to as much.
Stout discussed how his interpretation of Lincoln’s relationship to God has changed since the publication of his On the Altar of the Nation. Guelzo explored the historiographical view of Lincoln’s religiosity and concluded that because of scant and contradictory evidence, Lincoln disappoints all doctrinaires. McPherson spoke on evangelical efforts to sponsor freedmen’s schools, and Maffly-Kipp considered religion’s place in the African American interpretation of the Civil War as a battle in a longer warfare waged by slavers on the enslaved. In short, the combat over bodies also was a combat over souls.
George Rable recognized the considerable wave of scholarship on religion in the war that has been produced in the last ten to fifteen years, and sketched out seven topic areas that require further examination. They go something like this:
1. The relationship between the Bible and the American Civil War. Politicians, editors, preachers, and soldiers all utilized scriptures as a justification for war and a comfort for its victims. He said that if there is an American Jesus, there just might be a Civil War Jesus, and suggested that such a title would sell.
2. The role of military chaplains is unexplored, from the problem of their recruitment, to their performance, to the often-fraught relationships between chaplains and soldiers. He suggests that there are loads of unexplored sources on this.
3. Some attention has been given to wartime revivals, but more needs to be done. Further study might reveal conflicting religious views between officers and men, or soldiers and civilians. To that end, Rable called for more research on how the war changed attitudes toward piety, including communion, baptism, and the idea of blood sacrifice and atonement of sin.
4. How did civil religion change? How did days of prayer and thanksgiving and attitudes toward them change?
5. In a catchall on “society and war,” Rable asked how the war touched domestic religious ideals, what activities the religious undertook, how the print culture changed, or rises or declines in church membership. He even suggested there might be value in doing good old-fashioned denominational histories, which produced some bemused groans from the audience.
6. He called for an examination of the international aspects of religion during the war.
7. Finally, he wants further work on the relationship between religion and larger social issues during the war. He admits that this work is already underway, but the more the merrier.  
The discussion produced a few interesting nuggets. For instance, the panel generally agreed that millennial thinking largely did not appear in the rhetoric of religious people during the war. Stout thought it was because to have a millennial construction, a rhetorical anti-Christ is necessary, and the war was simply seen as a Protestant-on-Protestant fracas. Guelzo suggested that participants simply could not articulate a good expression of millennial thinking and when they tried, the results were often muddy.
Guelzo contended that the Civil War ate away at religious people’s confidence in revelation. After watching carnage, many people found it impossible to believe again in Godly order. Even folks who did not witness carnage, like Charles Hoge and Charles Finney, felt the same way. Rable disagreed and suggested that the war did not cause a shattering of belief but instead drove people further toward a reliance on God’s promises.
Finally, one questioner asked how religion figured into the memory of war. Inexplicably, no one in the room mentioned Ed Blum’s Reforging the White Republic. Myself included.

25 Years of McPherson’s "Battle Cry of Freedom"

James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom has been a staple of my American Civil War reading list ever since I taught it for the first time at Valparaiso University in 2002.  Over at Book Beast, Marc Wortman interviews McPherson on the 25th anniversary of the publication of this Pulitzer Prize-winning book.  Here is a taste:

Whose idea was it to write a one-volume history of that war, a war that has led to more books—50,000-plus—than any other American event? That must have been a daunting prospect.

I was asked by C. Vann Woodward and Sheldon Meyer, editors of the Oxford History of the United States series, to do the volume on the Civil War era in 1979. It was indeed a daunting prospect, not so much because of the 50,000 books on the Civil War as because of the prestige of the series and the prominence of other authors in the series.

Did you anticipate the book’s success? Few if any 900-page books by history professors can compare in sales here and abroad. What made readers 25 years ago so receptive to your book?

No, I did not anticipate the success of the book. One reason readers were receptive to the book was the growing interest at that time in the Civil War, of which the also unanticipated success of Ken Burns’s video documentary two years later is additional evidence. My book got a tremendous send-off by very positive front-page reviews in The New York Times Book Review and The Washington Post Book World, so it hit the ground running.
Is there anything that you now feel you should have done differently inBattle Cry?
In retrospect, I don’t think I should have done anything differently.  If I were writing it today, I would include more social and cultural history and perhaps cut back on the military and political history, but the scholarship to sustain those differences didn’t yet exist in the 1980s.
You estimated in a 1994 interview that you had read by that time 25,000 letters written by some 1,000 soldiers, Union and Confederate. I imagine the number is all the greater now. Are there aspects of any of the individual letters that still stand out for you?
The aspects of those letters that still stand out, as they did two decades ago, are the patriotic and ideological convictions of so many soldiers, which kept them in the ranks and fighting for two, three, four years despite their homesickness and fears of the consequences of death or wounds for themselves and their families. I was also struck by the religiosity of many soldiers.