MOOC | What is Historiography? | The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1861 | 1.3.1

MOOC | What is Historiography? | The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1861 | 1.3.1


>>So today — excuse me — what I’m lecturing is what we called historiography. Sounds pretty boring. What is historiography? Historiography is the history of history; that is to say, it’s the history of changing interpretations. How have historical interpretations of the coming of the Civil War changed over time and why? I had some problem figuring out what images to bring along with that. Pictures of historians? Boring. We don’t want to see that. I have a few but not as many. All right. So there are thousands of works on the Civil War, all of them implicitly or explicitly have something to say about why the Civil War happened. And, to oversimplify, with numerous permutations and combinations, basically there are two interpretations of the causes of the Civil War, okay? One, what we call the irrepressible conflict, the irrepressible conflict. Anyone know where that — which famous New Yorker used that phrase in a speech in 1858? No one knows. The irrepressible — who?>>William Seward.>>Thank you. William Seward. Exactly. William Seward, later the Secretary of State under Lincoln in a speech in 1858, Senator from New York at that time. This is an irrepressible conflict between North and South. In other words, the differences are so fundamental that they could not be resolved without war, okay? That’s one point of view. The second point of view in many combinations comes down to what we called the blundering generation point of view, that compromise was possible. What led to war was just a failure of political leadership for one reason or another. As we speak, the same debate is going on among historians right now for the hundredth — this year is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I in Europe. The US didn’t join until 1917 but 1914 the catastrophe of World War I. Why did World War I happen? Historians are still fighting about that. Same thing. Was it an irrepressible conflict between, you know, great powers; or was it just blunders by statesmen, etc., etc. So — all right. The coming of the Civil War used to be the number one problem or issue that American historians tried to address. It’s not quite so true anymore, but it certainly — as you know, the Civil War remains a subject of popular fascination and a lot of historical work. But we still don’t agree. We still don’t agree on the fundamental causes of the Civil War partly because that debate gets entwined with another I’d say metaphysical debate about whether the Civil War was inevitable. Was the war inevitable? My point of view, that is not a historical question. What are the causes is a historical question. What is inevitability? I don’t even — it’s not even clear what that means. Everything is inevitable after it happens [laughter], right? What I mean by that is that, once something happens, the historian comes along and can produce a very plausible, very persuasive account of why it happened and why it had to happen. Once it happens, then it’s — then you can create a straight line backwards to explain why it happened. But, at any historical moment, they are always more — many possibilities existing. When the event — when something happens, it eliminates all the other possibilities except what actually happens. But, if you go back before, there were all sorts of possible scenarios or possible paths existing, and the notion of inevitability kind of leads us to ignore all the possibilities that exist in any historical moment. Now, one of the reasons we can’t agree about the Civil War is that the war raises fundamental questions as we’ve said about our own society, about slavery, about the political system, about political leadership, about — and ultimately it often comes down to the moral values of the historian as well as their professional sort of analysis of evidence or something like that. A great historian, David Potter, now about 30, 40 years ago wrote a fine book about the coming of the Civil War called The Impending Crisis. The Impending Crisis. And he ends the book with a sentence which says basically I’m paraphrasing here — Fort Sumter, the firing on Fort Sumter, the beginning of the Civil War, and then he just has one sentence. Four years later, secession was dead. 620,000 people — now we would say over 700,000, but 620,000 people were dead, and slavery was dead. Secession — the Union was preserved, hundreds of thousands of people were dead, and slavery was dead. Here’s some images to show this is — here’s the Union. This is a wonderful picture of the departure of the 7th Regiment from New York City. Look at the flag. This is — the Civil War created, and we’ll see that later — a gigantic burst of patriotism, nationalism, and unionism and the consolidation of the national state. This is a good visual image of this. Okay. That’s one of Potter’s things. The second one or 600,000 people were dead. Well, this is — this is — you could have — there are many, many pictures, and we will see them dead on the battlefield. This is one I actually think is more touching in a way. It’s a girl. I don’t even know if it’s a Northern Or Southern but in mourning dress holding a picture of her father killed in the war. So this is just one person, one little personal example of the massive slaughter that the Civil War entailed. And then here is the end of slavery. Freedom to the slave, okay? And it’s a — it’s a lithograph from that period of the emancipation of the slaves. On the left is a guy, a former slave reading a newspaper in front of a public school. You’ve got that cap of Liberty right at the top of the flag. Remember I was talking about that with that statue of freedom. Now we have the cap of Liberty atop, the combination now of Union and Liberty together as a result of the war. So okay. So this is — this is what Potter is talking about. These are the three great results of the — of the Civil War. How do you — what is the weight you want to — you want to ascribe to those? That’s a personal judgment. Which is more important, the liberation of slaves or the avoidance of war? Which is more important, the preservation of the Union or the preservation of peace? In other words, how the historian weighs those factors has a lot to do with the ultimate judgment on the Civil War. And how you weigh those factors reflects the times in which you live. That’s one of the big points I’m going to make today. Of course, historical knowledge is created not just by historians but in the — you know, in the public by battlefields and museums and — there’s one more picture I want to show you — and battlefields, museums, and, you know, monuments all over the place. Our knowledge of the Civil War, the popular knowledge, how is the Civil War remembered? What is remembered? What is forgotten? We talked about that. Here’s one more example. This is a — I don’t know if you can quite read this. This is a monument in Austin, Texas, a Confederate monument in Austin, Texas, that — where the University of Texas, of course, is. It’s a monument to Confederate soldiers. And what does it say? Died for states’ rights guaranteed under the Constitution. The people of the South animated by the Spirit of 1776 — linked back to the revolution — to preserve their rights withdrew from the federal compact in 1861. The North resorted to coercion. The South against overwhelming numbers and resources fought until exhausted. So this is a point of view about what caused the Civil War. To defend states’ rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Now, the word slavery does not appear in this monument, right? This is part of the creation of a certain view of history. And all over the South you will see this, so that’s — you know, this is — this is how historical knowledge is also, you know, disseminated. And then, of course, there’s the final thing is do we really believe there’s any answers to historical questions, you know? If you become a — if you want to adopt a postmodernist idea, there is no truth anyway. It’s all relative, and it’s all positional, where you happen to stand; and how are we going to judge anyway? Now, you know, that’s a very common academic view nowadays. It’s also, I might add, adopted by the federal government. Did you know the federal government is an adherent of postmodern theory? [Laughter] It is. For example, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the INS, administers a citizenship test for people who want to become citizens of this country. And one of the questions on that test is, The Civil War was fought over what important issue? And, according to the INS, you are correct if you answer slavery, but you are also correct if you answer states’ rights [laughter]. So officially, in this country, historical explanation is indeterminate. There is no actual truth or there are many truths. So take your choice and that’s how — that’s what happens when you become a citizen. Now, we are going through right now the 150th anniversary otherwise known as the sesquicentennial. I don’t how to spell it, but that’s what it is. The sesquicentennial of the Civil War. It hasn’t aroused that much interest, I’d have to say. 50 years ago when they had the centennial of the Civil War, it took place, of course, at the height of the Civil Rights revolution, the first five years of the 1960s going back to the 1860s. And it created a lot of interest because the passions of the Civil War were still around it seemed. For example, in April 1860 — in April 1961, there was a commemoration or marking of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the war, the firing on Fort Sumter. So delegations from all the states gathered in Charleston, South Carolina. When a black woman member of the New Jersey delegation was refused admission to the headquarters hotel which was still segregated at that time, President Kennedy ordered the whole thing transferred to a nearby Naval base which was integrated whereupon the Southern delegates seceded [laughter] from — yes — seceded from the celebration and had their own. So there were two commemorations, the one at the Naval base and the other at the hotel by what they then called themselves the Confederate States Centennial Conference. So, in other words, the Civil War wasn’t 100 percent over 100 years later.

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