In last week's column I mentioned, among other things, that I thought David Barton was a practitioner of revisionist history. I wrote that "all history is revisionist" and added that "revisionism is the lifeblood of history." Several readers thought I was wrong about this and they did not hesitate to tell me so in the comments section, on Facebook, on my blog, and via personal e-mails. It seems that the word "revisionism" continues to carry a negative connotation.
Yet, despite my detractors, I continue to believe that revisionism is absolutely essential to the study of history. In fact, there would be no history without it. In his book Who Owns History?, Columbia University history professor Eric Foner recalls a conversation with a Newsweek reporter who asked him, "When did historians stop relating facts and start all this revising of interpretations of the past?" Foner responded: "Around the time of Thucydides." (Thucydides, who lived in the 5th century B.C. and was the author of the History of the Peloponnesian War, is considered by many to be the first "historian.")
Those who believe "revisionism" is a negative term often misunderstand the way it is used by historians. Revisionists are not in the business of changing the facts of history. Any good revisionist interpretation of history will be based on evidence—documents or other artifacts that people in the past left behind to help us reconstruct the world in which they lived. Revisionists don't just make things up.
This type of reconstruction of the past always takes place in community. We know whether a particular revision of the past is good because it is vetted by a community of historians. This is called peer review. When bad history does make it into print, we rely on the community of historians to call this to our attention through book reviews. Bad history comes from all sectors of society. Historians have not only been critical of Christian nationalist writers like David Barton, but they have also criticized left-wing and secular revisionists, such the late Howard Zinn, whose People's History of the United States reads like a case of indoctrination by historical example.
Perhaps a few examples might help to illustrate what I mean when I say that revisionism is the lifeblood of history.
Without revisionism, our understanding of racial relations in the American South after the Civil War would still be driven by what historians call the "Dunning School." William Dunning was an early 20th-century historian who suggested that Reconstruction—the attempt to bring civil rights and voting rights to southern Blacks in the wake of the Civil War—was a mistake. The northern Republicans who promoted Reconstruction, and the various "carpetbaggers" who came to the South to start schools for Blacks and work for racial integration, destroyed the southern way of life.In the end, however, the South did indeed rise again. In Dunning's portrayal, southerners eventually rallied to overthrow this northern invasion. They removed Blacks from positions of power and established a regime of segregation that would last for much of the 20th century. These so-called "redeemers" of southern culture are the heroes of the Dunning School, an interpretation of Reconstruction that would even inform Birth of a Nation (1915), one of the most popular, and most racist, motion pictures of the early 20th century.
In the 1970s the Dunning School was challenged by a group of historians who began to interpret the period of Reconstruction from the perspective of the former slaves. Rather than viewing the Blacks in the post-war South as people without agency or ability to contribute to society, these revisionist authors provided a much richer understanding of the period with a place for all historical actors, regardless of skin color or social standing, in the story of this important moment in American history.
Similarly, in 1913, historian Charles Beard wrote a book called An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. Beard argued that the framers of the Constitution were motivated primarily by economic interest. The founders were all wealthy landholders and thus had a natural desire to protect their wealth from common farmers and landholders who could conceivably threaten their livelihood if they were to have too much power in government. The Constitution was thus a "counter-revolution." With its system of checks and balances and a Senate and President not elected directly by the people, the Constitution, according to Beard, curbed the democratic impulses of the masses and made it more difficult for them to pass legislation that would bring economic equality to the country.
Beard's thesis was eventually discredited by revisionist historians who argued that the founders were motivated not by economic gain, but by political ideas. It was, more than anything else, the theory of republicanism and the political thought of pamphlet writers in England who defended individual rights and liberties that motivated the founders and the framers of the Constitution. These revisionists, in their effort to offer a different interpretation of the American founding period, have given us a more complete picture of why the founding fathers framed the Constitution in the way they did.
Finally, one of the most recent developments in the historical profession has been the dominant role that religion has played in the way historians are writing about the past. As I mentioned in last week's column, revisionist historians are making religious belief and practice an important part of the stories that they are telling. No longer is the study of history dominated by economic or military themes. Historians are now taking seriously the way religion shapes behavior. Religion is now the most thoroughly studied topic among members of the American Historical Association. American religious history is one of the hottest subfields in American history. I would imagine that this is a form of revisionism that many supporters of David Barton could embrace.
In the end, we are all revisionists. As new evidence emerges and historians discover new ways of bringing the past to their audiences in the present, interpretations of specific events change. This makes history the intellectually engaging and exciting discipline that it is.