21st-Century Scholars and the Otherness of the Civil War Era

David Prior's picture

CIVIL WAR AUTHORS BLOG publishes a new post on the fourth Friday of each month. These posts reflect questions and challenges from Civil War books-in-progress, and are intended to create conversation among H-CivWar subscribers.  In addition to our regular contributors, we welcome posts from guest bloggers. If you would like to contribute a guest post, please contact David Prior at dmprior@unm.edu.

            Are we 21st-century scholars inhabitants of the same intellectual and cultural moment as Civil War-era Americans? By way of attempting to convince you that this is a worthwhile question, I should state my suspicion. We—us historians of the Civil War era—tend to underestimate, or at least understate, just how far removed we are from our historical subjects. Our scholarship plays up continuities, in part because we want our work to be relevant to the present. And the Civil War era has certainly shaped our own time, with powerful linkages connecting now and then. The persistence of a specific set of racist categories and a concomitant regime of violent and inequitable practices would be a foremost example. There are also, however, profound differences between how contemporary scholarship conceptualizes the human condition, if we can even use that phrase, and how the denizens of the Civil War era thought about themselves. In and of itself that is not a problem. But we do tend to downplay, and perhaps neglect, the extent to which we approach the Civil War era from across a great divide.

            I’ve found myself pondering this issue at multiple moments in my career, most recently when prepping for a roundtable on “Empire and Nation-Building from the Antebellum to Reconstruction in Transnational Perspective” at the recent SCWH meeting. In working on my short paper, I got caught up on whether scholars in the present take the terms empire and nation to mean the same things that people in the mid-19th century did. The persistence of these terms down to our own moment would seem to suggest powerful conceptual continuities. We compose, one might argue, our mental maps of the globe using the same building blocks as our historical subjects did. Yet I found this dubious because what the denizens of the Civil War era meant when they used these terms was often so different from what we mean by them. This is true of these words’ subjective implications—empire, for example, has uniformly negative connotations today, but was more polyvalent in the past. It is also true in basic definitional terms (with the caveat that these terms did not then and do not now hold single, unitary meanings). Today we think of an empire as holding colonies, but in the middle of the 19th century the word could refer to a polity headed by an emperor styled in the Roman tradition, with imperialism meaning the consolidation of political power within a country.[1] On a deeper level, we use empire and nation as opposite terms, with the former implying rule by outsiders and the latter a population practicing or aspiring to self-government. In the mid-19th century, in contrast, the two terms could be interchangeable, especially in discussions of the imposition of central state authority. Above all else, to us, both nations and empires are perhaps best described as specific examples of a general category of something along the staid lines of “geopolitical entities” or “modal forms of sovereignty.” In the middle of the 19th century, the terms could be more evocative, even mystical. Nations and empires were, in this view, historical agents acting on the world stage, the dynamic actors driving human history.

We share so much of our own social and political lexicon—terms like not only nation and empire but also class, corruption, democracy, and liberty—with the Civil War era. Yet how we use these terms has changed to the point where their persistence risks obscuring the analytical gulf that stands between us and our historical subjects. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the term race. We invoke the word constantly in our work, as did the denizens of the Civil War era in their daily lives. Our understanding of it, however, is diametrically opposed to its former meanings, and deliberately so. In the 19th century, the term race conveyed the confident assertion that humanity comprised readily identifiable and genuinely different groups of people who had distinctive, naturally recurring attributes. Contemporary scholars use the term race to refer to not only that idea but also the tragic phenomenon of people believing in and acting on it. Even as we invoke its name in a commonplace manner, we aim to create distance from the idea and acknowledge its broad and deep legacies. It is for good reason that some scholars recommend jettisoning race as an analytical term in our writing, because it can be read to say exactly what we mean to not say.[2] But whatever individual scholars make of those recommendations, the fact that we use such a loaded term from the past as part of our own analytical language introduces opacity into our writing. Part of what that opacity does is obscure from us and our readers just how different our understandings of human populations are from those prevalent during the Civil War era.

            Further examples could be adduced, but what I hope these few suggest is that this is more than just a curious issue involving semantic slippage. There are substantive, profound differences in how we think of things like group identities, historical time, and political legitimacy and how the denizens of the Civil War era did. There is of course nothing wrong with those differences—our analyses benefit from them. But our own terminology, because it is so closely but complexly related to that of the Civil War era, tends to obfuscate the extent to which we view the Civil War era from across a wide and deep divide. To the denizens of the Civil War era, human populations were coherent and distinctive, with deeply embedded characterological differences. Humanity’s path through history had underlying purpose and direction. The rightness or wrongness of a law or policy was incomprehensible outside of arguments about a specific written constitution. Contemporary scholars are skeptical, perhaps even dismissive, of such claims, with perhaps a minority endorsing them with careful qualification. To us, group identities are fluid and contested ideological projects, human history bereft of specific inherent meanings, and the U.S. Constitution but one imperfect, even intrinsically flawed, attempt to design a government. Further points of contrast no doubt exist concerning topics like gender, religion, and the nature and sources of human dignity. If that holds up, then shouldn’t our central message about the Civil War era, whether to students, the public, or ourselves, concern its essential remoteness from our own scholarly vantage point? And if so, then don’t we need to extricate our own analytical language from the contested keywords of the Civil War Era?

 

[1] See especially Andrew Heath, “’Let the Empire Come’: Imperialism and Its Critics in the Reconstruction South,” Civil War History 60, no. 2 (2014): 152-189. There is of course a much larger literature interrogating the history of various concepts and the relationship to modern scholarly writing that would warrant careful engagement in a fuller treatment of this topic.

[2] See, for example, how Barbara Fields makes the distinction between “race” and “racism” in the excerpt of her interview on the 2016 election here: https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2552-barbara-j-fields-we-left-democracy-behind-a-long-time-ago. Another interesting assessment of the relative merit of these terms in historical analyses is Andrew Wells, “Race and Racism in the Global European World Before 1800,” History Compass 13, no. 9 (September 2015), 435-444.

Thank you, David, for a thoughtful post. The problem you bring before us is part of a difficulty that has long confronted historians. How do we convey a good sense of the past—with its different language, conceptions, culture, and so on—to the present? The particular case you raise is a philological one. In the classroom, I have dealt with this very issue—as I’m sure everybody else has. Before I discuss Reflections on the Revolution in France with my students and tell them that Edmund Burke was one of the important intellectual forebears of modern conservatism, I find myself stating emphatically that when they think about the subject, they ought to put present-day conservatism (and the Republican Party) out of mind. I feel compelled to make the same types of disclaimers whenever I teach about other big, important ideas. Of course, as you point out, if we stress the gulf between old and new versions of the same concept, we run the risk of sounding irrelevant. But there is a connection even if there has been great change over time: as I tell my students, contemporary conservatism probably resembles Burke’s article in the same way that they resemble their great-great-great-great-grandfathers.

We face the same problem with our scholarship, and we ought to approach this issue with great care. The task is difficult, largely because terms like “empire,” “nation,” “democracy,” and “race” have always been multivalent, and different intellectual groups have attributed different meanings to these words. I recall that James Hunt, founder of the Anthropological Society of London and a close associate of Henry Hotze (the famous Confederate propagandist), asserted that no two people in his time used the word “race” in quite the same way. But I believe that with empathy and assiduous reading, we can bridge the gap. After all, these topics were the subject of extensive discussion in the mid-19th century, and a variety of public intellectuals, politicians, and journalists tried their hand at defining these terms. In reading these definitions, we can see distinct strands of thought. For example, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, Lord Acton, and Ernst Renan and a host of lesser liberal figures produced a particular vision of what the nation was (I choose these folks since I am, by training, a Europeanist, and I discussed all but the last in my book). We might find their definitions problematic or even objectionable, but they were sufficiently clear for us to understand what they were referring to. So much so that when William Gladstone, Britain’s liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, claimed in October 1862 at Newcastle that Jefferson Davis had “made a nation,” we have a pretty good idea of what he meant (even if he misunderstood the situation and later considered this speech a great blunder).

Perhaps, as a Europeanist, I find the task of defining these terms somewhat easier because there are so many primary and secondary sources to help me along. And perhaps, as a Europeanist, I’m not fully aware of the unique difficulties that confront Americanists who study these terms. But my feeling is that while we should “mind he gap,” if we are careful enough, we can still cross it.

Cheers,

Hugh

Dear Hugh,

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I particularly appreciate your language about family resemblance and minding the gap—those are some helpful turns of phrase. I should note that I share your confidence that historians can manage these issues with care, so I don’t want to come off as pessimistic. But that said, there are two issues that, to my mind, don’t get enough attention from the field. I don’t think we’re collectively reckless with these issues, but it seems to me that they constitute underlying challenges that deserve to be unpacked at greater length. To expand on these based on my original post…

The first issue is that our own terminology sometimes does us more harm than good, especially when we use contested keywords from the Civil War era as terms of art and analysis in our own writing. (This issue comes up in other fields as well, of course, such as in Atlantic history; see for example Joyce E. Chaplin, "The Atlantic Ocean and Its Contemporary Meanings," in Jack D. Greene and Philip D. Morgan, eds., Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal [Oxford, 2009].) I definitely grant you that historians understand that the meanings of contested keywords change, but I think this raises the question of whether we should lean on them so heavily in our own analyses.

The Burke example you offer is a good one, but is your point that today's Republican Party isn’t conservative (and that the concept of conservatism has some kind of stable, underlying definition), or that it isn’t conservative in the same way as Burke was (and that there is no unitary definition of conservatism)? Or is it merely to warn students not to confuse subtle but important differences in what the term meant then and means now, aside from whether it also has an underlying consistency? (For what it’s worth, if the readers here aren’t familiar with it, Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin [Oxford, 2011] offers an interesting case for the underlying consistency of what makes a conservative a conservative [roughly: beliefs that hierarchical authority is legitimate and that some realms of life should be insulated from regulatory oversight]). I don’t want to suggest I have the final answer to this issue, but I’m struck by the ways in which our own analyses are strewn with terms that seem to imply that we see the world through the same conceptual lenses as our Civil War era subjects. 

Related to that, the second issue is that the persistence of these terms in our own writing obscures just how different our perspective is from that of our historical subjects. To take your metaphor, it may be that we mind the gap in passing, but don’t ask how deep it is or how wide it opens at points. Perhaps the gap is philological but there is a chasm beneath it that is epistemic. I’m skeptical, for example, that the idea of an American nation—or more precisely of a sense of peoplehood shared by U.S.-Americans—holds remotely the same emotive force among most historians today as it did among our Civil War-era agents. We understand nationalist discourse as a historical artifact produced by a combination of factors at a specific historical juncture, not as a cosmic calling. We do, however, see historians who study the Civil War era invoking the notion of an American nation in their scholarship, both as a category of analysis and even as a method of making appeals about who “we” are as “a people” and “a society.” (See, for example, how notions of a shared national past and common future inform Ira Berlin’s presidential address to the OAH in 2003, published as “American Slavery in History and Memory and the Search for Social Justice,” Journal of American History [March 2004], pp. 1251-1268.) The persistence of such language tends to paper over how little moral authority modern scholars give to nationality, and how much that in turn sets us apart from the people we study. Or so I suspect. At any rate, I’m less worried that scholars hold different viewpoints on these kinds of issues than that we don’t really address them. They have implications for what it is we’re writing about, what our perspective is, and who we are writing for.

In raising that question, I’ll admit that part of what I’m really interested in is what the opposite argument—that the terms persist because they accurately describe reality then and now—looks like. Perhaps many of the day’s key terms that persist do so because of their solid analytical value. I could see a case being made, for example, that some of the terms related to Civil War-era political economy, social reform, and civil rights should persist because they are essentially reliable for our analytical purposes, especially in the sense that--so the argument might go--the inequalities of the past don’t need translation to be recognizable or comprehensible to people in the present. When people in the Civil War era wrote and spoke about “the state,” “graft,” “competition,” “rights,” and “justice,” this argument might go, they meant essentially the same things as we mean today, perhaps with some minor qualifications that need not inhibit scholars from using the terms. It is interesting to consider a work like Heather Cox Richardson’s How the South Won the Civil War (Oxford, 2020), which isn’t really about the South winning the war (along the lines of what some, like David Blight, have argued about Civil War memory) as much as it is about the triumph of oligarchy over democracy. I’m not convinced by the analysis there, in part because I’m not sold by the volume’s use of the term oligarchy. But I think it’s interesting that the volume puts forward a broader synthesis of modern American history based on these terms, which were certainly prevalent in the Civil War era itself. The book, at least implicitly, makes a case for the Civil War era and the present being tied together by a set of continuous struggles that together constitute a broader historical moment that overarches the Civil War era and the present. A diverse cohort of Civil War-era Americans magically transported to the present would not all agree with the book, but they would find the terms of analysis straightforward. 

But I’m not sure that we aren’t more radically set off from the Civil War era and its struggles, and that our own language doesn’t sometimes hide this from us. 

Best wishes,

Dave

 

 

 

 

Dear Dave and everyone,
I think Dave's argument crystallized most for me with a statement that I actually rather disagree with: "A diverse cohort of Civil War-era Americans magically transported to the present would not all agree with the book [Heather Cox Richardson’s How the South Won the Civil War], but they would find the terms of analysis straightforward."

I think this begs the question of how historians 160+ years hence might interpret *our* historical moment. Not merely in terms of the assault on the Capitol, the president's encouragement of white supremacy, the repression of voters, etc etc. As disturbing as all of those things are, there is a more significant aspect of our historical moment to consider.

When I try to make "regular people" understand just how entrenched slavery was in the U.S. -- economically and politically -- it seems the most apt analogy is to the climate crisis. The horrors of slavery were enacted upon people that those enacting the horrors considered categorically different from themselves. But the horrific effects of the climate crisis will not be limited in this way. Here in the Northwest, climate fires (and the health-damaging smoke they generate) are now a regular part of every summer. In other regions, fires are now a year-round threat. Add in heat waves, drought, flooding, loss of agricultural crops, spread of insects and the illnesses they bear, etc. and the impact is already being felt across geographic areas (although certainly the effects are more keenly felt now in some places than others). And yet, we are unwilling to do much about it. Sure, some folks are buying hybrid or electric cars, or putting solar panels on their roofs. I only buy locally grown organic vegetables! I ride my bike far more often than I drive! But these are small gestures that do not get at the fundamental truth that the way humans, particularly humans in this country, live -- the way we consume -- is not only unsustainable; it is lethal. Lethal to many species, our own included. And yet we persist.

We cannot come together around parting with plastic drinking straws, let alone parting with automobiles. We cannot conceive of what seems like an economic and political impossibility -- focusing on stewardship rather than consumption -- even though it is vital not merely to some group we have successfully "othered" from ourselves, but to all of us.

One shudders to think what the historians 160 years from now would have to say about all of this . . . presuming there is any kind of surviving infrastructure in which humans can "do history" despite the devastation we are enacting now. I am dubious about whether "a diverse cohort of 2020s-era Americans magically transported to the future" would find the terms of analysis remotely straightforward.

It seems difficult to presume that those we study were as deluded about their historical moment as we ourselves seem to be about our historical moment. But perhaps we have at least that much in common with them!

-Lois

Lois Leveen
she/her/hers

Hi David,

Phew, that’s a lot to digest. As I initially drafted this response, I gassed on about Burke for several paragraphs—specifically about the degree to which he did or did not resemble contemporary conservatives—before excising that section. All I will write under that head is that I believe contemporary American conservatives are not specifically conservative in the same way as Burke—largely because they operate in a different time and place. But we find ourselves using the word “conservative” to describe both because it recognizes a large, tangled family tree that tenuously connects 18th-century Irish Burke to contemporary American conservatives. And that tree leaves us with the vague notion that across time, conservatives are united in the defense of existing institutions and prefer managed change that respects those institutions—as opposed to the project of the “left” (the concept of which emerged during the French Revolution that Burke argued so strenuously against). I don’t know if this connection amounts to a unitary definition. However, in this context, it seems to me that Burke’s ideas about inheritance and reform are especially apposite to our conversation about the meaning of words: each generation inherits words from the previous one and reforms their definitions to suit changing times before passing them on. A word undergoing this process remains the same in recognition of its origin and descent even as its significance alters. That phenomenon makes language slippery but, to use Burke’s ideas, what words could we substitute for existing ones that wouldn’t completely sever the chain of meaning that connects one generation to previous ones?

One key line you wrote in the second half of your response really resonated with me: “I’m skeptical, for example, that the idea of an American nation—or more precisely of a sense of peoplehood shared by U.S.-Americans—holds remotely the same emotive force among most historians today as it did among our Civil War-era agents.” In Ambivalent Nation: How Britain Imagined the American Civil War (toward the beginning of Chapter 6), I argued that antebellum British commentators (as well as those who observed the Civil War) generally failed to understand American nationalism and the emotional pull of the Union. Tocqueville, who exerted a weighty influence on British view of America, was also extremely skeptical of the force of what he described as the self-interested and “calculating patriotism” of Americans; the Frenchman would have very much preferred to see a patriotism of instinct and feeling. I observed in that section of the text that one cannot be too hard on these figures for these misunderstandings when even contemporary historians don’t seem to agree on the power—let alone the constituent elements—of antebellum American national feeling.

There are several different—even contradictory—deductions we could draw from the foregoing. First, if we misunderstand these terms, we are not alone in our misunderstanding—even people in the mid-19th century didn’t quite get American nationalism. In other words, are the difficulties you refer to a matter of temporal distance and semantic change—or do they stem from plain misjudgment? Or both? Second, if you are correct in your estimation of American nationalism, the problems you’ve mentioned have not stopped you from detecting the emotive power of Union. If that’s the case, is the gap between now and then so great? These questions are not rhetorical; I don’t know the answers.

All of this puts me in mind of Jorge Luis Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” The titular character in this typically absurdist Borges short story “did not want to compose another [Don] Quixote, which surely is easy enough—he wanted to compose the Quixote.” In so doing, he had no intention of copying the original. Rather, “his admirable ambition was to produce a number of pages which coincided—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.” Initially, Menard’s method was as follows: “Learn Spanish, return to Catholicism, fight against the Moor or Turk, forget the history of Europe from 1602 to 1918—be Miguel de Cervantes.” But he discarded this plan as too easy and decided to come “to the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard.” This was “a task of infinite complexity, a task futile from the outset.” The narrator points out that “there is no intellectual exercise that is not ultimately pointless,” but he credits Menard for his courage, audacity, and learning.

There will always be a gap between what mid-19th century people wrote and what we can reconstruct. There are important and necessary epistemological limits to our discipline that make it impossible to fully “capture” the past; we approach it asymptotically without ever reaching it. Our job is just a little less futile than Menard’s self-appointed task. Under these circumstances, it seems to me that we can strive for nothing more than our honest best in reimagining the past.

Cheers,

Hugh

Dear Hugh and Lois, 

Thank you for your comments. A few quick replies. 

Re. Hugh's statement that: 

And that tree leaves us with the vague notion that across time, conservatives are united in the defense of existing institutions and prefer managed change that respects those institutions

I think there is a good case, as some in the punditocracy have made, that modern Republicans fail precisely this litmus test for conservatism. The central goal of the party from Goldwater on has been to hastily dismantle, even smash, the institutions of the welfare state. Not that one can't disagree with the pundits--there is a good case that in other ways modern Republicans conceive of themselves as putting the brakes on change, and that this affirms the applicability of Hugh's proposed underlying definition. More generally, I think the argument you're making is akin to Robin's in The Reactionary Mind--for all the differences, there are some recognizable continuities in the word's meaning.

To Hugh's question: 

what words could we substitute for existing ones that wouldn’t completely sever the chain of meaning that connects one generation to previous ones?

This is an excellent question well worth pondering at length. There are really two dimensions to it. The first is whether it is in fact possible to develop terms of art and analysis in the humanities that aren't overburdened with meanings from their long histories of usage. The second is whether we'd want to do this if we could. Perhaps, as your phrasing suggests, severing the chain of meaning across time would be counterproductive to our ends. I think many here might agree with that. But it seems to me that the purpose of the technical prose common across much of academia is to ensure that writing is comprehensible within the discipline regardless of the cultural context around any given scholar (hence physicists and engineers across continents can collaborate on the Webb telescope even if they can't play improv games together). While it is tempting to argue that such soulless technical language is a discipline-specific practice and that historians don't go in for it, I want to emphatically argue that we absolutely do. We in fact have plenty of such lingo in history, such as "primary source," "historiography," and even more dreaded terms like "intertexuality." Our technical terminology may be less ornate than that of other academic disciplines, but it serves the same purpose. Such terms work because they aren't context-bound in the sense that they can be applied with equal success to any "subject" of "historical inquiry." We so take these terms for granted that we perhaps don't even realize how deliberately sterile they are. And yet Civil War historians also turn to terms--"nation," "justice," "masculinity," etc.--that are not only laden with culturally-specific meanings, but also with specific meanings that modern scholars do not mean to invoke, and sometimes, as in the case of "race," abhor. It stikes me as an odd manuever. 

To take Lois's example about climate change/catastrophe... I definitely see her point about the distinctive (and tragic) nature of our own broader historical moment, and cheer on all efforts to ponder historians' own place in it. But to put a fine point on it, isn't the ambition of contemporary climate science to render an assessment of the causes and consequences of climate change that would stand up 160 years from now? No doubt climate scientists expect future analyses to be more robust and executed with far greater computing power, but I'd wager they don't expect to see core terms of analysis like "carbon," "ozone," and "temperature" jettisoned. So while we would find life in the next century confusing, presumably some of the academic methods and lingo prevalent today will hold up with our robot and/or alien overlords--or at least this is the conceit of present practitioners. 

I know it is a truism that historians write in and for the present, but I suspect that in fact we'd all be deeply disappointed if our writings did not have a decent shelf life. Indeed, if pressed on how long that present is to last (presumably longer than it takes to read what we've written), I think we might find that many of us aspire to have our writings hold up over time. 

Two other quick points. Re. Lois's comment about plastic straws, which I appreciated. One way to think of the difference between the Civil War Era and the present is that, in the former, there was a shared political and social lexicon that transcended partisan and sectional divides. Planters, abolitionists, freedpeople, and others tended to invoke and seek authority over and through the same contested keywords. Since some of those keywords still circulate today, the same characterization probably at least somewhat pertains to our moment. But I wonder if there isn't far more discursive distance between the Left and Right today than there would be at the far ends of the political spectrum in the 1860s. At any rate, there is much commentary today about social media, television programming, and other forces creating separate informational bubble worlds within the United States. 

Finally, allow me to attempt to clarify my arguments in previous posts by briefly sketching a related thesis, which would go something like this. In the 18th and 19th centuries a then-unprecendented volume of public and academic writing invoked and shared confidence in a series of categories and terms used to describe the world. These categories and terms--like "race," "nation," the notion of a essential difference between the sexes, a belief that societies progressed through stages, etc.--held tremendous authority for well over a century. Then, across the 20th and early 21st centuries, academics, sometimes with a broader influence on the public, dismantled many of the beliefs associated with these terms, most strikingly so with "race," but also in substantive ways with many others. Yet historians today (or at least Civil War historians) still rely on 19th-century categories, and sometimes even terms, to identify their historical subjects and to describe the world those subjects inhabited. They do this even though they are deeply ambivalent about those categories and terms and even though these introduce genuine confusion about exactly what it is modern historians are saying. The field has never really made an assesment of how far it has moved away from the intellectual world of the Civil War era, and writings in the field tend to muddle the issue. As I hope my previous posts suggest, I think there are many grounds on which to disagree with this thesis, but in my own limited readings, I've never seen the arguments fleshed out. 

Best wishes, 

Dave

Dave,
I have enjoyed reading your initial post, the responses to it, and your replies.

Your focus seems to be primarily philological. We today still use many of the words used in the Civil War era, but meanings have changed. Your description of these as "keywords" prompts me to make a suggestion. I think that it would be a great aid to students in this field if someone could produce something like Raymond Williams' KEYWORDS describing how the terms you mention and others were used at the time.

That said, one limit to a focus on individual words is that words taking meaning in relation to other words. For instance, at the time, "freedom," "liberty," "emancipation," and "slavery" interacted with one another. Thus, I think that scholars of the Civil War/Reconstruction era would benefit from looking at the work of the Cambridge School of political thought associated with Quentin Skinner and J. A. Pocock. The Cambridge School has written at length on how best to understand the "otherness" of political languages in the past. Its "contextualism" is for example a welcome alternative to the "textualism" of the present majority on the Supreme Court. The "textualists" claim to find original meanings in order to bind the present to the past, while time and again discovering past meanings that somehow mysteriously serve their present political agendas. "Contextualism" recognizes the otherness of the past and the extreme difficulty of inhabiting it as a "foreign country." But by careful study of the words in dialogue and debate with one another and especially with attention to contributions of often neglected thinkers it helps us bridge the divide without subordinating the past to a self-serving presentism or subordinating the present into a mythical past.

Moving beyond the question of language, I want to suggest another way in which the Civil War era might be different from our own--or at least the one most academic historians occupy: the way in which many people at the time conceived of the relationship between events unfolding in the present and the past. The most famous historians at the time were the romantic historians John Lothrop Motley, William Prescott, Francis Parkman, and George Bancroft. They used the new Germanic method of archival research to establish a special role for the American republic within a Eurocentric world history conceived as a teleological unfolding of a protestant God’s plan. Writing about the Spanish conquest, Prescott fed the myth that Columbus’s discovery of the new world was part of national history. Parkman portrayed the conflict between the French and the British for North America as a battle between Catholic absolutism and protestant liberty. For Motley, Dutch independence from Spain foreshadowed America’s struggle for civil and religious liberty. Bancroft alone focused on the US, but, believing that its existence was preordained, he wrote more about events before 1776 than after. He also portrayed the American Revolution as a world-historical event. After researching European archives, he insisted: “From these and other materials, it has been possible to place questions of European as well as of American history in a clearer light.” “For a time,” he wrote,” the Civil War “was thought to be confined to our domestic affairs, but it was soon seen that it involved the destinies of mankind; its principles and causes shook the politics of Europe to the center, and from London to Pekin divided governments of the world.”

Counter to today’s stress on transnationalism, the romantic historians imagined a dialectic between nationalism and internationalism. Marked by God with natural boundaries, fully developed nations could achieve global harmony through peaceful agreements under international law that would eventually ensure the unity of humankind. Bancroft’s faith that humanity’s “growing consciousness of unity” would snap “the bonds of nationality” and “know itself to be the spirit of the world” was shared by President Grant who defended Dominican annexation to Congress with: “I believe that our Great Maker is preparing the world in his own good time, to become one nation, speaking one language, and when armies and navies will be no longer required.” For Grant and others, the US helped make way for that unity. Anticipating later proponents of the “Teutonic germ theory,” the romantic historians believed that the seeds of liberty were planted in Germanic forests in resistance to Roman rule. Through translatio studii they were transplanted first to the British isles and then to North America, where they sprouted and flourished under republican forms of government.

The world did not, however, progress smoothly toward republicanism. Fallible human beings constantly blocked God’s preordained end. As a result, history needed to be read typologically in relation to eternal principles rather than chronologically. Drawing on the skills of Motley’s friend Charles Lyell to decipher geological patterns, the romantic historians saw history unfolding as an uneven spiral. Caught in that spiral, human beings did not know whether history was advancing or retreating. William the Silent was the Washington of the Netherlands, but his assassination left a confederation of small independent states not Washington’s more perfect union.

The typological imagination put the present in a closer relationship to similar events in the distant past than ones in closer temporal proximity. In the midst of the Civil War, for instance, Motley remarked, “We are living again the days of the Dutchmen or the seventeenth-century Englishmen.”

This view of the present's relation to the past was widely shared. In 1868 Frederick Douglass wanted to expand the repertoire of his speeches. He turned to Motley and delivered one on William the Silent as an American precursor. Francis Lieber enthused: “Congress and Parliament decree thanks for military exploits, rarely for diplomatic achievements. If they ever voted their thanks for books—and what deeds have influenced the course of human events more than books?—Motley ought to have the thanks of every American.” Such a view of history is not only different from today's chronological understanding, it also had an effect on how people acted.

If--and I should emphasize "if"--there is such a difference between how most scholars of the Civil War era understand history and how many at the time understood history, the task of doing justice to the past is even more complicated than differences in the meanings of some keywords--although, guided by the Cambridge School, I think careful attention to how language was used at the time can help give us a better sense of how those in the past understood the past.

Sorry to go on for so long.
Brook Thomas

Dear Brook,

Thank you for those comments and your patience while I responded. My note here is short because I find myself agreeing with your suggestions and appreciating their details.

I came across the Cambridge school during graduate courses on colonial North America and the American Revolution. I have tended to find that, in comparing scholarship on the Revolutionary / colonial era with that on the Civil War, the former has a more pronounced and more fully fleshed out thread of scholarship in this vein. Your nudge encourages me to dig deeper into this body of scholarship, especially as I draw from this conversation in my research into the concept of Reconstruction and how it has evolved over time. Some here may be interested in the History of Concepts Group, which maintains a helpful webpage and journal: https://www.historyofconcepts.net/. Also helpful is the New Dictionary of the History of Ideas: https://www.gale.com/ebooks/9780684314525/new-dictionary-of-the-history-of-ideas

A work like Williams’s Keywords that focused on the Civil War Era would indeed be helpful, especially for students. That point, along with Lois’s earlier one about our own historical moment and the climate crisis, prompts me to add one quick qualification to my original post. In it, I focused on the analytical gulf between present-day historians, who are an idiosyncratic subset of living people, and the more general population of the denizens of the Civil War era. The asymmetrical nature of that comparison raises the question of how to characterize and describe the broader cultural gulf between our times (not just historians) and the Civil War era. That’s another very large question, and one that I think Hugh’s comments on teaching also help to address.

In terms of the romantic historians and their conceptualization of the relationship between events in the past and present, thank you for this suggestion. You’re more familiar with this topic than I am, but I certainly agree, based on your description, that the romantic historians’ conceptualization of time and events provides us with another instance where there is a real gulf between then and now. What I would add, to underscore one of my earlier points, is that our own terminology, because it is at moments so like theirs, can end up obscuring from us how different our perspectives are from those common in the past. We call ourselves historians, as did Prescott, et al., but the common label, used incautiously, can hide some profound differences in what we think history is. I should also note, however, that part of me wonders whether some present-day historians aren’t in fact comfortable with typological readings of history, especially in terms of eternal principles such as individual freedom and agency. I mean that as an invitation for further discussion, not a criticism.

Best wishes, 

Dave