Revisionist History

You’ve heard it before.  Perhaps you’ve even used the term.  “That’s revisionist history!” “Those people are revising history!” “S/He’s a revisionist!”  People who use that term talk like it’s a bad thing to revise history.  Is it?

I think we need to start first with understanding what we’re talking about by “history.”  I like to start with the dictionary.

his·to·ry noun \ˈhis-t(ə-)rē\

: the study of past events

: events of the past

: past events that relate to a particular subject, place, organization, etc.

plural his·to·ries
Full Definition of HISTORY
1 :  tale, story
2 a :  a chronological record of significant events (as affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes
 b :  a treatise presenting systematically related natural phenomena
 c :  an account of a patient’s medical background
 d :  an established record <a prisoner with a history of violence>
3 :  a branch of knowledge that records and explains past events <medieval history>
4 a :  events that form the subject matter of a history
 b :  events of the past
 c :  one that is finished or done for <the winning streak was history> <you’re history>
 d :  previous treatment, handling, or experience (as of a metal)

  1. I studied history in college.
  2. a professor of medieval history
  3. They were one of the greatest teams in history.
  4. It was one of the most destructive storms in modern history.
  5. It was a period in American history when most people lived and worked on farms.
  6. The history of space exploration is a fascinating topic.
  7. He wrote a well-known history of the British empire.
  8. The book begins with a brief history of the Internet.

Origin of HISTORY

Middle English histoire, historie, from Anglo-French estoire, histoire, from Latin historia, from Greek, inquiry, history, from histōr, istōr knowing, learned; akin to Greek eidenai to know

First Known Use: 14th century
For this  particular topic, this definition is applicable:  “a chronological record of significant events (as affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes.”
We’re talking here about written history of events, and specifically secondary sources. See a discussion of sources here, and primary sources in particular here.
When talking about “revising history,” we’re talking about revising secondary sources, not primary sources.  A primary source doesn’t get revised.  It’s contemporaneous testimony from someone who was there.  What gets revised is our understanding of what those primary sources mean.
Now we need to talk a little bit about how historians work.  They start by asking a question regarding a historical event.  To answer that question they do research in primary and secondary sources to find out what happened.  Based on their research and their insight into the event they come to a conclusion on the answer to their question and conclusions about the event.  Answering that question leads to other questions to be answered, which are researched, and so on until they have findings about that historical event.  Then they publish their findings and those findings are reviewed by other historians to ensure they’ve handled the evidence correctly.  You can see more on this here, here, and here.
A conclusion about a historical event based on primary source evidence is one that can be defended.  If enough people are convinced of its accuracy, it then becomes the dominant interpretation of the event.  Unfortunately, we don’t have 100% complete information about any event.  We obviously can’t read the minds of people who lived many years ago, so we have to rely on the historical record which consists of written evidence, archaeological evidence, and other records.  Also, each historical actor experienced the same event in different ways, so what one person writes may differ markedly from what another person writes, and both could be correct.  Because we don’t have 100% certainty we have to interpret the past.  See here and here for two perspectives on this.  If there was not going to be any revision of interpretation, then all we would need to do is have one book about each historical event.  You’d read that book and that’s all you would need to know.  But things change.  New evidence is uncovered.  Perhaps someone finds an old book and some letters are in the book.  Or perhaps a trunk filled with letters that has been in storage is discovered.  These new letters are additional evidence, and perhaps they impact our understanding of a historical event.  The new evidence just might mean we have to alter our interpretation of the event.  In other words, we have to revise our interpretation.  Another way historical interpretation is revised is if we approach an event from a different perspective and view the evidence through that new perspective.  It may force us to revise what we previously thought.
This is something historians do all the time.  So really, when people complain about “revisionists” and “revisionist history,” they’re complaining that historians are doing what they’re supposed to be doing–looking at the evidence and revising our understanding of it based on a new understanding of the evidence or based on new evidence.  Revisionism, then, isn’t necessarily a bad thing provided it’s done through an honest handling of the evidence and is based on primary source evidence, and not a partial reading of that primary source evidence.  Revising history isn’t a bad thing, but lying about history, abusing historical sources by claiming they say what they don’t say, and misclaiming facts are bad things.  That’s not revisionism, that’s simply bad history.
So next time you come up against someone using bad history, call them on bad history.  But don’t call them revisionists, because all historians are revisionists, and we wouldn’t want them to be anything else.  We want them to revise our understanding of events based on new evidence.  We want them to revise our understanding of events based on new perspectives and different ways of thinking about and approaching events.
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47 comments

  1. This is one of your best columns. Sadly, the people who need to see it won’t, and if they do, they’ll dismiss it out of hand.

  2. Al sez, “So really, when people complain about “revisionists” and “revisionist history,” they’re complaining that historians are doing what they’re supposed to be doing–looking at the evidence and revising our understanding of it based on a new understanding of the evidence or based on new evidence.”

    Not necessarily. They might be complaining about the historian injecting his own biased perspective into his “interpretation.”

    1. More accurately, Connie, it’s that the historian isn’t injecting their biased perspective into his interpretation.

      A historian looks at the world through the lens of his or her own experiences and viewpoints. The difference between good history and bad history is that good history is solidly grounded in the available primary source material and the conclusions the historian draws are backed up by that material and logically follow from that material.

      1. jfepperson · · Reply

        Complaints about “bias” are merely a code for “unable to refute the argument or deal with the facts.”

        1. That’s about right.

        2. Mr. Epperson, I don’t believe you can know that about everyone who perceives bias in historian interpretations.

          1. What I know is that virtually every time someone complains about “bias,” the complaint is rather free of specific facts and argument.

          2. You know every time someone complains about bias? EVERY TIME? How do you do that?

          3. Pretty dishonest play on words Connie.

  3. Mr Mackey surely you did not just write this? Your history is right and all other are wrong? God bless you son.

    1. Well, that certainly shows you didn’t understand a word in that post. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      1. But that is what your post is intended to convey. Your “history” is right and history you don’t like, or history BY somebody you don’t like is wrong. You think you’re not transparent and people can’t see through you. You’re mistaken.

        1. You didn’t understand the post either, Connie. I can’t say that I’m surprised.

  4. All history is revisionist history–if it’s any good.

  5. Pat Eakin · · Reply

    Jfepperson, how true. Every time I see the word “bias” I never see any verifiable evidence to substantiate the claim that the bias in question is untrue or misguided.

  6. “…the conclusions the historian draws are backed up by that material and logically follow from that material.”

    Not necessarily true of all historians.

    And historians aren’t somehow magically free from injecting their own personal bias into their work.

    1. It’s true of the good ones, Connie. That’s the point. Good history vs. bad history.

      1. Al,your judgment of whether they’re good/bad or biased/unbiased is, well, biased. Everyone filters everything through their own perceptions, which are not identical to anyone else’s. Everyone is influence by their raising, learning, life experience, etc., which combines to create their own personal bias.

        1. Again, Connie, you fail to understand the post. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say you don’t understand history.

          1. I do understand human limitations, and your assessment of who is and is not a good historian, and what is and is not good history, is distorted by the imperfection of your perception — i.e., your bias.

          2. Nobody’s perfect, Connie, but you still don’t understand the post.

          3. That’s a very poor “refutation” of what I’m saying, Al. In fact, it’s no refutation at all. Your assessment of what is and is not good history and historians is tainted by your perception, which is biased, like everyone’s. Even the historians’ perceptions are biased, regardless of the reliability of their source material. That means their interpretations and conclusions will likely reflect their human inability to be totally objective.

          4. It’s the truth, Connie. You have no understanding of this post whatsoever.

    2. Connie, it is true that all historians see the material through their particular worldview. But they are required to try and be as neutral as possible. That’s why their work is peer-reviewed–to be sure that they haven’t skewed the sources by over-emphasizing some aspects and discounting others. A historian who freely engages his or her bias is not a real historian, and loses face and credibility within the community pretty quickly.

      It would be well if you and others would free yourself of this notion that we historians have a preconceived result we want our work to achieve, and then pursue that result, even if the sources don’t support that. We don’t, or we never would have got out of grad school.

      1. Required by whom, Christopher Shelley? Peer reviewed… to make sure someone’s product doesn’t wander too far off the history plantation — i.e., the currently accepted historical worldview. (Accepted primarily by academia, but also others in the “history” biz, like the civil war center in Richmond, the NPS, etc.) Why should I “free” myself of a “notion” that my observation confirms is accurate?

        1. See, Connie, you have no understanding of the process whatsoever. Sad.

          1. Well, can’t say I didn’t try.

          2. Admirable effort, Chris, but unfortunately there are huge roadblocks in the way.

  7. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

    A very good post, Al. Context is huge and so many fail to understand how it works in relation to history. Either the mind can work with abstract ideas or it cannot. Some people just fail in that regard and prefer simplistic answers which fall short when confronted with factual evidence.

    1. Context?! What kind of crazytalk is that?

  8. Pat Eakin · · Reply

    Have any of you had any contact with the chronologically handicapped crowd? I mean, those persons who look at what happened after the war had already started, and then use that as a reason for why the South wanted its independence? Also, why do so many say they are proud of their history, and yet when I quote from leaders such as South Carolina’s Lawrence Keitt, or ask why Howell Cobb did nothing about alleged unfair tariffs when he was Sec of Treasury, they act like they have no idea who I’m talking about?

    1. Yes, when you point it out to them they claim the secessionists knew it would happen.

      It’s heritage instead of history.

  9. Good post Al. Very Historiography 101 stuff.

    1. Thanks, Rob.

  10. Pat Eakin · · Reply

    I expressed the opinion on another ACW discussion group that history can be mentally painful, but a true historian should not be afraid of the truth. Revisionist are those who want their history, but without any of the realities that force us to accept facts they would prefer to ignore.

    I wish I could say that the people of the Northern free states were anti-slavery. I could go to MLKing blvd and tell the local residents how my ancestors helped to free their ancestors. Wecould share some food and drinks and have a good time. But I know there were many north of the Mason Dixon who profited from slave grown cotton and tobacco. I even found the names of Northern state politicians who opposed any interference with slavery. In NewYork City racist rioters murdered free black people. The truth is, In 1861there were no plans to free the slaves by 1865. Had it not been for the Secessionists the slaves would have remained captive for who knows how long. The true story of the North and slavery is not exactly the history I would prefer.

    1. Pat, the whole point of the post is that good historians are always revisionists. You can’t be a good historian if you don’t revise understanding based on new evidence or a new outlook.

  11. Pat Eakin · · Reply

    Al, have you ever had any contact with a pro Confederate who was willing to revise their perception of history based on new evidence?

    I have to agree with you on the importance of accepting revision when it comes to learning history. I wrote my own biography of Gen George McClellan. I started off thinking I would be writing the usual hatchet job describing him as a slow and unpopular commander. When faced with the facts, and not what I remembered from school, friends, TV, and movies, I came away with a much revised opinion.

    1. Actually, Pat, I’ve had contact with a couple folks who grew up hearing one type of history and when confronted with the facts accepted their previous view was wrong. Most people can learn, but only if they’re open to learning.

  12. Pat Eakin · · Reply

    I was reading “The Greater Journey, Americans In Paris” by David McCullough. He explained that during the war many in France sympathized with the South. France had abolished slavery, so why favor a slave power? Was this a case of immediate revision where the rugged Johhny reb soldiers took on the role of the underdog and thus the sympathy of the a French people?

    1. Europeans by and large didn’t understand the US Constitution, nor did they understand the position of the Republicans or Lincoln. In many respects, a number of folks today don’t understand either. That’s why the Europeans thought, and some people today think, that the conflict didn’t concern the future of slavery.

      1. jfepperson · · Reply

        There would also be the geo-political component. I would imagine many in France looked with favor on their adventure in Mexico, and understood that a weakened United States along with an independent Confederacy would further the success of that venture.

        1. Nations do act in their own interests, but my comments addressed the common Frenchmen on the street as well as the government. I’m not sure the common Frenchmen on the street thought that much about geopolitics.

  13. Kristoffer · · Reply

    The term “revisionist” became bad when Holocaust deniers started using it to describe themselves. My definition of negative “revisionism” is the distortion of evidence in pursuit of an agenda. There are plenty of examples of that COUGH David Irving COUGH David Barton COUGH Ward Churchill COUGH.

    1. I agree with much, though I hope we can just refer to bad history practice as bad history, or in the case of your examples, outright fabrication.

      1. Kristoffer · · Reply

        I do recognize the need for genuine historical revision, as new evidence is found. For an example of Ward Churchill’s bad history/bad revisionism, his story of the US Army spreading smallpox blankets among High Plains Native Americans in 1837 was a total fraud and never happened. He was fired by the University of Colorado roughly a year after his fraud was exposed:
        http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/p/pod/dod-idx/did-the-us-army-distribute-smallpox-blankets-to-indians.pdf?c=plag;idno=5240451.0001.009
        http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/p/pod/dod-idx/ward-churchills-twelve-excuses-for-plagiarism.pdf?c=plag;idno=5240451.0002.004

        1. Bad history is bad history no matter who writes it.

        2. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

          The first recorded attempt to spread smallpox to Native Americans via blankets was by the British Army in the 1760s during Pontiac’s Rebellion. At least as far as I know of.

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