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 email@example.com.
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. 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. 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?
 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.
 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.