Should We Admit We're Getting History Wrong?

Lois Leveen's picture

In this post for the H-CivWar Author's Blog, Lois Leveen asks historians to share their thoughts on the inevitability of getting history wrong.

Two years into H-CivWar's Author's Blog, perhaps it's time to address the octopus in the room. Wait, no, not the OCTOPUS! How could I have thought, let alone typed, nevermind hit "publish post" on anything including such an erroneous claim? Surely no one wants to claim the elephant in the room is actually an octopus! That would be wrong. Isn't the point of our work NOT to get it wrong?

Or is the belief that we aren't getting history wrong the most octo-proposterous idea of all?

My fellow H-CivWar bloggers and I have used previous posts to ponder a series of related concerns:  whether to deem a particular primary source reliable; what do about numbers we find in historical sources that don't add up; how much conjecture is kosher for a biographer or historian to include; and whether the language we use to conceptualize and discuss the historical past is inevitably muddled by differences between the period we write about and the contemporary moment in which we are writing. All these posts, and the responses they've garnered from readers, reflect our efforts to "get history right." As integral as these efforts are, our discussions of them skirt the octopus elephant in the room: the inevitability that we are getting history wrong.

During a recent stint in the National Archives, I came across a document I hadn't known existed. Although only tangentially related to my project, it revealed that I had, in an article published a few years ago, gotten the name of a key figure I was writing about wrong. Whoops! This was more than a mere erratum. Once I learned the correct name, I was able to dig around and find more about this individual, turning up information about his life that complicates my earlier analysis of his interactions with the woman I'm writing about.

This wasn't the first time I got something related to my current book project wrong. I've been researching and writing about the subject of this biography on and off for decades; a few months ago, I realized that I'd been interpreting some of the first "substantiated facts" about her life entirely incorrectly. These are instances in which I've long known what happened, but only recently recognized I'd been completely mistaken about why those things happened. The facts themselves haven't changed. But my future publications will inevitably involve correcting my own previously published misconceptions of how she came to be in particular places, doing particular things, at particular moments -- and what those experiences would have meant to her. 

The process of tracking down sources, gathering evidence, piecing together findings, and interpreting them (in part through the lenses provided by the work of other scholars) is, of course, exhilirating. But it's also a bit terrifying. Because no matter how hard we try, what we produce will be flawed.

Last fall, Vincent Carretta kicked off a seminar at the Massachusetts Historical Society about an article Cornelia Dayton published on the later years of Phillis Wheatley's life by noting that in his biography of Wheatley, he had accounted for this same three-year period, with “an explanation . . . which I thought was plausible and actually somewhat elegant. Unfortunately, as as Professor Dayton has demonstrated, it was simply totally wrong.” Dayton hadn't set out to correct Carretta's work on Wheatley; she'd been researching a seemingly unrelated topic (intellectual disability in early America) when she came across a court case involving Wheatley's husband, John Peters. These newfound documents provided information no Wheatley scholar ever knew existed; as Carretta joked, now he knows what he'll do in his retirement: revise his previously published book.

I find Carretta's gracious and self-effacing mea culpa both reassuring and daunting. His enthusiasm for Dayton's findings is a reminder that ours is a collective effort, and that each thing any of us publishes inevitably makes only a partial contribution to the whole. As someone who works primarily outside the academy, in the public humanities, I regularly stress to audiences that part of what historians grapple with is newly emerging evidence and nuanced interpretation.

Nevertheless, at a moment when the teaching of U.S. history (particularly the history of race and racism in the U.S., which is the focus of my work) is under political attack, it feels more imperative than ever to get things right. Indeed, it seems almost dangerous to get anything wrong, as though it can undo all our credibility.

And, to be totally honest, I also simply don't want to accept that I might be overlooking anything, that I might miss some potentially revealing source, or gravely misinterpret one I've found. I don't want that to happen because I care about my subject and want to do justice to her fascinating, complicated life. But also because I don't want to get something so wrong I end up with egg, or octopus, or elephant on my face.

Thus, my question for readers of this post: How do we simultaneously strive to get history right yet acknowledge the inevitability that we are getting history wrong? How do we proceed with writing books and articles (and even blog posts), when we know we can never really know whether what we're saying is -- and always ever after will be -- all quite right?


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Dear All, 

We're lucky to have such a forthright discussion of the challenges of getting history right. As per usual for me, I'm not sure I have an answer to Lois's question, but would like to unpack what I see as some of the aspects of her excellent post. 

1) I found Hugh's comment in our previous discussion that: 

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.

to be particularly apt. By his standard, correcting previous research in light of new discoveries is where we make our collective progress.  

2) I've long thought that a wiki-esque website that catalogs factual errors in published works would be helpful to, if deeply unpopular among, historians. There would be questions about what editorial processes would need to be in place as well as conceptual ones. What, for example, is the difference between an error of fact and one caused by perspective, since facts don't speak for themselves? The absence of such a webpage in modern academia suggests to my jaded soul that there is little institutional support within the profession for thinking through exactly the kinds of essential questions that Lois raises. 

3) I think it would be genuinely interesting to hear what people think are the most substantive and important cases in which new archival leads / kinds of evidence have led to major corrections. The most obvious, but perhaps also idiosyncratic, case to my mind is the ways in which DNA evidence changed appraisals of Thomas Jefferson (and if the readers here haven't ever taken a look at Jennifer Jensen Wallach's, "The Vindication of Fawn Brodie" from the Massachusetts Historical Review [Summer 2002], it is an excellent study in how historians can get things so wrong). But no doubt there are more conventional cases, meaning not involving DNA forensics, where views change as new evidence comes to light. One interesting case, although again it pertains to an earlier period, is Joseph P. Kelly's article on Henry Laurens from the April 2006 issue of the South Carolina Magazine of History and Biography. For what it's worth, I assign both of those articles to the undergraduates in my upper division course on slavery in colonial North America and the United States. 

4) Lois's comments about how these issues are heightened when dealing with topics of race and slavery, especially when engaging with the public, are certainly worth pondering. Way back when I did a discussion forum for the JCWE on the public history and memory of Reconstruction (that's here), one participant suggested that there was little point in focusing on those who deny the level of white supremacist violence during Reconstruction*. I think one can extend that line of thinking to suggest that being attuned to how racists might capitalize on occasional factual errors in scholarly works gives them a metaphorical seat at the table that they do not deserve since their is no real effort on their part to approach modern scholarship or the past more generally with an open mind. Clearly this isn't Lois's intent, but I do worry that we might end up saddling scholars who are making good faith efforts to understand the past with the burden of dealing with those who are not. 

Best wishes, 


* That passage can be hard to locate in the un-paginated online copy of the forum, so here I provide the relevant excerpt of the exchange by way of offering documentation: 

DP: "How do we, for example, both critique arguments that deny the pervasiveness of Klan violence and engage with people who do not know much about it? What advice would you offer about how to tackle these issues in practice, how to prioritize them, or how to conceptualize them in the first place?"


"BB: We can keep arguing with those who deny the pervasiveness of racial violence during Reconstruction, but I don’t think we’ll ever convince them. Instead, it’s important to give the public, especially students, a basis for questioning these flawed perspectives. We can encourage them to ask why, in southern communities, particularly, there are so many monuments and memorials to the losers and so few to the winners? How could the Union win the Civil War, then lose Reconstruction?"

If she's done her due diligence Lois needn’t worry about “getting it wrong” for the simple reason that like everybody else she’s not perfect or the last word on the subject, but part of a continuing conversation.  So, sure, new evidence could counter her claims, or someone might offer new and more persuasive insights into her evidence.  That’s what we do.

Dave’s syllabus of historian errors mentions the Jefferson/Hemings fracas as a prime example of “how historians can get things so wrong.”  He wishes for a wiki that lists errors in published histories — isn’t that what book reviewing is for?  How about Mark Summers’s devastating takedown of Heather Cox Richardson’s tendentious How the South Won the Civil War, or Dan Feller’s criticisms of factual errors in Edward Baptist’s and Walter Johnson's books on slavery, and the discussion that follows it, on "Standards of Accuracy in Historical Scholarship," both right here at H-Net.  Or consider Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode's piercing critique of Sven Beckert, Johnson, and Baptist in "Cotton, Slavery, and the New History of Capitalism," (Explorations in Economic History, 67:1 Jan, 2018, 1-17), arguing that "the new literature makes spectacular but unsupported claims, relies on faulty reasoning, and introduces many factual inaccuracies. Historians should be concerned because many of the factual errors are being reproduced, spreading much as a contagion."

The Jefferson/Hemings story definitely needed searching, serious, and highly public correction, but the very nature of Jefferson’s contradictions on race, rights, and slavery was already a feature of public discussions about him long before DNA evidence demonstrated the extent of his exploitation of Sally Hemings.  But maybe we should add in the historians’ criticisms of the 1619 Project, whose main author now claims it was “journalism” not “history,” yet still made unfounded and debunked historical claims about the Revolution and slavery?  The debate over TJ has been in the schools for some time; is a similar challenge to 1619, considering its ubiquitous place in the curriculum, available there, too?  I hope so. Maybe that would be more relevant, accurate, and timely than pointing to unnamed grey ghosts of the confederacy who “deny the pervasiveness of Klan violence.”

I hope Dave’s classes haven’t attracted creatures who “question the pervasiveness of violence in reconstruction,” but I’m confident that if they show up he makes short work of them.  In 35 years of teaching the subject, I never had that problem but my classes have debated the conditions under which violence either intensified or merged into forms (intimidation, boycotts) that the rest of the country was willing to tolerate. They read Tourgee, examined the remarkable online Freedmen’s Bureau records of violence in the mid to late 1860s, studied local accounts of massacres like Colfax, without anyone ever raising a voice to question the “pervasiveness” of it all. Some likely were benumbed by and tired of following that sad drumbeat of violence but that’s a different kind of feeling from one that questions the pervasiveness of violence in reconstruction, and in some rather tortured way, that feeling mirrors contemporary weariness about the “Southern question.”  19th century America was not a peaceful place — when the violence in the postwar South receded to a point where to all but its victims it became background noise blending with gang violence in the cities and vigilantism, ethnic cleansing, and war on the Plains and Southwest, it became as “pervasive” as it was elsewhere.

I have had students who had imbibed bits and pieces of Lost Cause adoration for Lee & Jackson, claims about state rights and the war, etc., most likely from their grumpy uncle, a wayward teacher in East Rancid Flats, Alabama, or late-night exchanges on Fortnight chat.  But I don’t see that as a result of historians “getting it so wrong.”  Academics who pushed those buttons are long gone; no historical school has been so thoroughly and roundly defeated, routed, overturned, and banished to the far corners of the universe as the Dunningites and their revisionist offshoots. You can’t find their ideas in any school curriculum anywhere (if you do, please post here — my searches turned up empty.  It’s the paradigm of civil rights, not Lost Cause denials, that dominates school US history curricula).  They lack an institutional redoubt, even if such ideas appear on social media in very different forms, so maybe we can finally accept their exile and relieve ourselves of concerns that some modern representative of them somewhere needs to be reeducated lest he or she gain a foothold with the next generation, especially when so many other illustrations abound in today’s historiography?

Out on the public square I see too many neoconfederates and their extremist allies who justify, not question, the pervasiveness of violence during reconstruction, and maybe that crew is Dave’s target.  But that’s a different, and serious, problem that reflects our country’s deep polarization and the tandem, long-term effects of the great migration and deindustrialization, not of historians getting it wrong.  Those characters who are actuated by race hatred don’t sit around reading JG de Roulhac Hamilton or attempting to be scholars.  I know of no academics in their ranks, let alone historians who are getting it “so wrong.”  They have more important things to do, like wave rebel flags in the capitol rotunda.

Professional history writing is most likely to be wrong when it becomes punditry, is warped by ideology, or is contradicted by entirely new evidence. The journalists, film makers, and court historians who pop up conveniently, and lucratively, on cable news, public TV, and late-night gabfests — the Beschlosses, Burnses, Meachams, Goodwins, Hannah-Joneses, etc. — touting their Pulitzers despite their trouble with sources (and the deployment of armies of research assistants) but with plenty of opinions to offer and tweets to tweet, who write speeches for presidents and politicians, and are lured by proximity to power and the media spotlight — they have more influence over public opinion than stragglers who “question the pervasiveness of violence in reconstruction.”  Let’s get them in the dock for a bit of “questioning,” eh?



Dear All,

Thank you Peter, for those additional thoughts. I think some of your comments read a bit too much into my own—for example, I did not have a “target” in mind when writing my post.  In fact, I think that we probably agree about some of your main points. By way of clarification, allow me to add the following, with some urging that I hope Peter and I chattering with each other does not distract from Lois’s original post, which no doubt many here may feel inclined to agree with / reflect on.  

  1. Peter’s point about reviews is well taken… I don’t have any real argument with him here and we may share a concern that too often the process of academic reviewing has become colonized by promotional rhetoric. The point of the wiki-esque page would be to compile factual errors, and perhaps also criticisms, into a single, easily accessible and searchable space and structure it around some kind of formal editorial process. His own listing of sources containing powerful criticisms of recent works suggests how scattered such commentaries are across multiple publications. Indeed, only one of the examples he offers (the Summers’s review of Richardson’s book) is a traditional academic book review. Peter’s reference to the 1619 Project strikes me as affirming my point—there have been several criticisms of the work, scattered across multiple venues and with varying levels of editorial oversight. Digesting those and compiling references to them in one place would, minimally, be convenient for those coming late to the discussion, whatever view they take of the debate.  
  2. For those interested in criticisms of the new history of capitalism, including its handling of slavery, I can also recommend Eric Hilt’s multi-book review essay, available here. I’ll make sure to add the Olmstead and Rhode’s essay to my reading list. I’ve used the Feller commentary in class before, assigning it alongside Baptist’s The Half has Never Been Told. Those interested in the critical reception of The Half should also consult Trevor Burnard’s review in Slavery & Abolition, which includes the statement that “it is a poor book…. it is sloppy, indeed scandalously deficient, in its referencing” (Vo. 36, no. 1, pp. 180-185, quotation from 180). There was, in my view, a major split in reactions to the book in terms of those reviewing before a popular audience and those writing for scholarly journals. Again, a page digesting and referencing those reactions, as well as citation errors, factual errors, etc., might be helpful, esp. if constructed with editorial oversight.
  3. Please note that the comment from the JCWE forum about people questioning the pervasiveness of klan violence did not pertain either to people in the historical profession or classroom. The intent of referencing the material was not to get lost in an argument about a passing comment from me but to call attention to the advice from an experienced public historian, teacher, and researcher to focus on those who are actually listening. In the context of Lois's post, I found it worthy of consideration, if by no means the last word. Even if we concede Peter's point about the non-existence of klan-violence deniers, Bond's advice is still worth pondering. 
  4. I agree with Peter that the Dunningite interpretations of Reconstruction (meaning, to make the point more precise, racist ones) are long since banished from mainstream professional history (and did not say otherwise in my post). Indeed, one of the weaknesses of Reconstruction historiography is its tendency to lapse into a Dunning vs. Foner framework when in fact Dunning has long been vanquished (and indeed had been by 1970). There are far more interesting things to say about how Reconstruction scholarship has changed over time (for those interested, I recommend Michael Fitzgerald’s essay in Thomas Brown, ed., Reconstructions, which asks what will come after the civil rights histories of Reconstruction). For anyone who reads the Wallach or Kelly articles, you’ll see their arguments are not narrowly about how racism led past historians astray, although they do certainly touch on that topic as well.  

I’ll ask pardon from the readers here for my tendency to digress upon digressions. As Lois’s original post suggests, doing history can be an angst-ridden and humbling process. No doubt there are other opinions in the room. It may be that others here do not share my or Peter’s faith that over time we get things right, for example. It could also be that there is an underlying issue--the relationship between factual accuracy and how historians accrue or claim moral authority before their readers, academic otherwise--that Peter and I are both skirting. Perhaps in the long-run we get things right, but then again, in the long-run, we're all dead. If our scholarship matters beyond academia--one of Lois's key concerns--presumably it needs to be accurate in the here and now. 

And I’m still curious about what others see as cases where specific archival discoveries (or other forms of evidence) have upended seemingly sturdy points of scholarly consensus in the scholarhship of the Civil War Era.

Best wishes,


To Any Still Interested in This Exchange:

Many points have been covered, but I want to pick up on David's reference to Hugh's earlier recognition of the "important and necessary epistemological limits to our discipline that make it impossible to fully 'capture' the past."

I know I do not have to tell anyone on this list serve that Charles Beard ("Written History and an Act of Faith" and Carl Becker addressed those limitations years ago or that Peter Novick offers an excellent account of the response to the so-called "historical relativists." But, just in case, it is not clear, I do want to emphasize that, as important as correcting factual errors is—I know I have had to correct many of my own—doing so is not enough to ensure what David calls the profession's "collective progress" in "correcting previous research in light of new discoveries." Indeed, there are times when “fact-checking” historical scholarship is about as effective as the liberal media’s effort to counter right-wing conspiracy theories by “setting the record straight.”

In his still up-to-date "Explicit Data and Implicit Assumptions in Historical Study" (1963) David Potter focuses on one reason. Differences in interpretation are not just about facts; they are also about forces. "Every historian will recognize, no doubt, that subjective factors are certain to influence his colleagues, and conceivably, even himself. But what we do not always recognize perhaps is that what appears to be argumentation about a specific historical problem may really be a controversy about the nature of forces that operate in human society. Insofar as it is the latter, it could not possibly be solved in terms in which it was being discussed--which is one reason historical controversies are so seldom resolved."

Dunning claimed that his goal was to put the "facts and forces" of Reconstruction in their "true relation." He not only got “facts” about race wrong, he and other progressives had a different understanding of the influence of economic and racial forces from most scholars today. Before he became an historical “relativist,” Beard saluted historians who prepared “the way for a more accurate and more realistic description of the movement of social forces” by clearing “the ground of huge piles of naïve prejudices masquerading as ‘fact.’” But, a strong proponent of an economic interpretation of Reconstruction, he too had racial prejudices, although not as extreme as his former colleague Dunning.

To me it is not 100% clear that scholars have yet gotten those race and economics in their true relation. Adding new facts, can make the effort more rather than less complicated.

The complex relation between race and economics brings me to a point Potter does not touch upon, but William McNeil and others once did--the role of myth in historical understanding. In many ways the profession still operates according to what Hans Blumenberg called the "myth of the enlightenment": the belief that getting facts right would put an end to myth. But, I would argue, we need get away from the idea that myths are no more than falsehoods that can be corrected by telling the truth. Instead, as Blumenberg argues, I see our task as learning to work on/with myth. We need to do our best to counter prevailing myths, but also recognize the anthropological role they play. As the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss pointed out, myths are stories that people tell themselves to try to make sense of social contradictions or complexity that they cannot understand.

Let me start with a myth that has had a recent impact, before turning to what I would call some prevailing myths within Reconstruction studies.

Today there is almost universal agreement that BROWN V BD OF EDUCATION overturned the legal precedent of PLESSY V FERGUSON. In fact, if it, had BROWN would not have been unanimous, since a number of justices would not have gone against STARE DECIS. The legal principle of PLESSY was that, in their use of police powers to ensure the public good, states could take race into account so long as doing so was reasonable. BROWN never overturned that principle. Instead, it cited new evidence—footnote 11—showing that segregated schools were not a reasonable use of the states’ police powers because of their psychological effect on children of color. BROWN reversed to effect of PLESSY on the basis of new evidence, not by overturning a legal precedent. Since BROWN, the standard required to take race into account has gone from reasonable to “strict scrutiny.” But if BROWN had overturned the legal precedent of PLESSY, there could be no affirmative action.

And here things get complicated, because the present Supreme Court majority swallows the myth, and used it to justify overturning the ROE V WADE, comparing the DOBBS decision to BROWN in overturning a case wrong from the day it was decided. Very likely, when the COURT hears an affirmative action case this session, it will rely on the myth to rule out affirmative action or severely limit it, thus using a myth to create new facts. Whatever one’s politics are on these issues, my point is the role of myth.

Why do I call this misinterpretation a myth? Because widespread correction of misinterpretations that are also myths is almost impossible. A story in which the Civil Rights era corresponded with a total rejection of a the logic of the legal regime of Jim Crow segregation is an extremely compelling story that helps make sense out of a complicated past. People will continue to tell this story, even if confronted by “facts.” Either the new facts will be ignored or incorporated into a new version of the myth. Republicans and Democrats share it. Even the dissenters in DOBBS did not correct it, either because they believe it or because they assumed that rhetorically they would lose much of their audience if they challenged it.

Reconstruction historiography is full of myths that arise from trying to make sense of an era full of contradictions and complexities. The most frequently cited myth in Reconstruction studies is the Myth of the Lost Cause, which is rightly condemned by scholars. But that myth has produced a myth of the Myth of the Lost Cause, such as when, because he is a racist, Thomas Dixon is said to worship the lost cause, when in fact his hero was Lincoln. He even wrote a play called A MAN OF THE PEOPLE, that takes place during the 1864 presidential campaign, with Lincoln the hero, and a character based on the copperhead Vallandigham and Jefferson Davis are villains.

Perhaps a recent example of the myth of the Myth of the Lost Cause is Heather Cox Richardson’s HOW THE SOUTH WON THE CIVIL WAR, which is a sincere, if flawed, effort to put race and economics in their true relation for a new generation. Correcting its numerous factual errors, as Mark Summer’s review tries to do, won’t, I venture to guess, prevent new iterations of the myth of the myth.

Here are a few other prevalent myths.

1) Greg Downs has written eloquently about the "myth of Appomattox" ending the Civil War. But the description of a course at Stanford recently described the "peace treaty at Appomattox." The symbolism of Grant and Lee shaking hands and all of the iconography of Appomattox is more powerful than facts. Also, Lincoln was still alive when Lee surrendered. There is poetic—if not historical-- justice in having the war end under his rein and just before his assassination.

2) Another myth is that, after Union victory, Andrew Johnson wanted to restore the Union as it was without slavery while Radicals demanded Reconstruction. In fact, both wanted both. The issue was how much of both and how quickly to bring about restoration. Johnson presided over a phase of Reconstruction. The Reconstruction Acts had provisions for restoration. Even Radicals did not agree on when to bring about restoration, not to speak of more moderate Republicans.

But this myth persists because a binary opposition between Johnson and Radicals makes for a better story than dealing with the complexities.

3) Time and again, the 15th Amendment is described as giving Af Am males the right to vote. That possibility was contemplated when Congress proposed the amendment, but it was rejected, Instead, the amendment is prohibitive, not affirmative. It grants the right to vote to no one and leaves control of suffrage in the hands of the states, simply prohibiting them from denying US citizens the right to vote on the basis of “race, color or previous condition of servitude.” (What about the non-citizens allowed to vote in 13 states when the amendment was ratified? Could states today give them the right to vote but deny the right on the basis of race?)

Albion W. Tourgee, Plessy’s lawyer, considered the Fifteenth Amendment almost “worthless for the purposes for which it was devised” and lamented that if the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments “had been drawn with some knowledge of actual conditions and not with the idea that a stump-speech in the belly of a statute was a reliable specific for national cramps.” they “might, at least, have been severed from the humiliation of having people suppose we have law enough if it were enforced.” But most historians, even those who know the facts, prefer to quote Frederick Douglass that the Fifteenth Amendment was a “revolution.”

4) An old, but persistent myth is that, after his contested victory in 1877 Hayes withdrew federal troops from the South. For years, scholars have tried to correct this myth, but other scholars continue to perpetuate it. I recently was asked by a press to review a chronology of events in the period. For 1877 it repeated the myth. Among numerous other errors, I corrected this one with an elaborate account of Grant's previous reductions of troops and how even for the three states where in 1876 troops were still helping to support Republican administrations, Hayes did not remove troops from the South; he returned them to their barracks. The book just came out. The listing for 1877 now reads: “Federal troops withdrawn to their barracks (March). Final federal troops withdrawn from the South (April.)”

The myth of Hayes winning the presidency in exchange for selling African Americans down the river by removing troops is too good a story to be bothered by facts. It also provides what Frank Kermode once describe as a "sense of an ending." There was no official proclamation that Reconstruction ended, as there was when Johnson and Seward proclaimed, not in 1865, but in August 1866 that the "insurrection ended." Even so the myth of 1877, ending Reconstruction with a withdrawal of troops will persist, even with some academics, not to speak of the people who make our laws.

Trying to work on/with myth by no means undermines the need to get facts right or to try to find new archives to learn more about the past. But considering the possibility that some persistent “misinterpretations” may also be myths does suggest that the problem is not simply that scholars distort the past because they get facts wrong or because their political biases color their interpretations.

Plenty of partisan distortions continues to occur, but the persistence of myths suggests that many “misinterpretations” are linked to a less blameworthy motivation. People seek compelling stories that make sense of overwhelming complexity or social contradictions. That quest will not disappear. Indeed, isn’t that what much of the best scholarship on Reconstruction tries to so?

Yet often that scholarship includes so much complexity that when grad students are trained to give an account of the field, they frequently rely on now-required 150-to-250 word abstracts that cannot possibly capture the complexity of most good scholarship. Or they lump scholars together who are often in conflict. For years, we have been told that Claude Bowers’ THE TRAGIC ERA (1929) popularized the “Dunning School.” But Bowers was a partisan Democrat who decried the economic policies of Republicans during Reconstruction. Dunning’s mentor, John W. Burgess, was a partisan Republican who championed those policies. Bowers called Hayes’s election stolen; Dunning and Burgess celebrated Hayes’s victory. What unites the three is racism, not political affiliation.

But the myth of the “Dunning school” has become a crucial part of a “useable past” about Reconstruction historiography. Maybe, in addition to finding new information in new archives—which we certainly should do—we should also consider what gets left out in persistent myths that have contributed to today’s “useable past.

My apologies for being so long-winded. My thanks to anyone who has had the patience to make it this far.
Brook Thomas

Dear Brook, 

I definitely appreciated your comments alongside all the others here. I particularly valued your enumeration of myths. I'll admit I find it scandalous how often even very good historians describe the 15th amendment as granting the right to vote and thereby gloss over the very real limitations that moderates embedded within it.

One question I'd have about your comments on myths is whether they apply with equal force to the monographic scholarship as they do to popular and/or textbook narratives. Many of those monographs are of course from scholars who have enough formal training--at least the occasional history and theory course, for example--to be cautious around these issues. One of the things that scholarly communities do, at least when they function well, is create norms, practices, and institutions that encourage scholars to deal with rival interpretations and contrary information. This goes beyond merely having to suffer through the peer review process to include as well some kind of conditioning to ask where one's own beliefs come from and whether they hold up to scrutiny. Surely that at least somewhat limits the influence of myth in shaping historical scholarship. In fact, one could make a case that the historical profession has been very good at subjecting mythic renderings of the past to withering cross-examination, at least given a few decades to get the research done and into print. Look at how a host of scholars had dismantled the old racist interpretations of Reconstruction by the mid 1960s, for example. That work may have eventually led to new myths, but the original criticisms of the old racist school came out of what were often closely-argued, tightly-focused technical pieces of scholarship. Or at least this is the issue I had in the back of my head upon first read of your post. 

Coincidentally, I'm currently reading Greg Down's Second American Revolution for a class I'm teaching, and found its first chapter to be thought provoking on the theme of myths surrounding the Civil War, viz. its non-revolutionary in nature. 

I think it would be interesting to connect your comment back to Lois's concerns about the stakes of getting factual information wrong when it comes to the history of racism in America. I'll admit I'm still scratching my head about how to do that.  

Best wishes, 



Thanks for your thoughts. I will try to respond to some of the points your raise.

I agree that collectively the profession has very effectively demystified many harmful myths about Reconstruction. I hope my message was read as fully endorsing continued "work on myth."

But it also claimed that the profession--not just the general (educated???) public has not eliminated all of them, and has even spawned myths of its own, especially ones having to do with race, such as the myth of the myth of the Lost Cause. I also raised the possibility that the commendable scholarly goal of producing compelling narratives that make sense of sometimes overwhelming complexity has affinities with the motivating force behind myths, which also tell compelling narratives (at least to some) in the face of overwhelming complexity or social contradictions.

A few more examples of persistent myths perpetuated by scholars.

Almost every account of PLESSY that I read describes Louisiana's 1890 Separate Car Law that prompted the PLESSY challenge as mandating separate accommodations for "Blacks and whites." In fact, it mandated separation of "coloreds and whites." Does this matter? Yes. The New Orleans group that initiated the legal challenge consisted mostly of people of color who did not consider themselves "Negroes." To understand the complexities of the PLESSY challenge and the racial conditions out of which it grew, we need to recognize that the legal understanding of race at the time was much more fluid than today. And yet, when I have written about this, I have had copy-editors correcting my use of "coloreds and whites" and insisting that I use "Blacks and whites." I do not envision many scholars adjusting their accounts to honor historical accuracy and complexity.

Related is the myth that at the time of PLESSY the legal definition was the "one-drop rule." In fact, at the time of PLESSY the legal definition of what constituted a person of color varied from state to state, but no state had a one-drop rule. Daniel Scharfstein and Arielle Gross have both written books de-mystifying that myth, but it persists in the works of many scholars.

Back to Reconstruction.

In the important correction of previous scholarship, scholars have, as I suggested in my first post, created a myth of the "Dunning school" that has come, as you noted, to be shorthand for all scholarly accounts of Reconstruction that are racist. That myth merges with the myth of the lost cause when Dunning and his mentor J. W. Burgess are labelled advocates of the lost cause. But Burgess, who despite Du Bois calling him an ex-Confederate, fought for the Union. He insisted that for North/South reconciliation to occur the South needed to admit that there was "not one scintilla of justification for secession and rebellion. . . . Chewing the bitter cud of fancied wrong produces both spiritual misery and material adversity, and tempts to foolish and reckless action for righting the imagined injustices."

I do not want to be perceived as defending either Dunning or Burgess. Their racism is egregious. But the fact that both of them felt more affinities with Grant's Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, who was President of Columbia University's Board of Trustees, than any Democrat during Reconstruction should encourage us to explore the complexities of their views, not perpetuate new myths.

On the Fifteenth Amendment. The myth that it conferred the right to vote on African American males has recently been perpetuated by some major scholars advocating what could well turn out to be a new myth: that of Reconstruction as a Second Founding that redeemed the First Founding's compromise with slavery. Elsewhere I posted a short blog on recent proponents of a Second Founding.

For this post I will add these details. In THE BROKEN CONSTITUTION, acclaimed Yale law professor Noah Feldman writes that the Fifteenth Amendment "extended voting rights to African Americans." (Feldman's book also works with the longstanding, and ever-evolving, myth of Lincoln.) Major legal scholars Joseph Fishkin and William E. Forbath have commendably tried to link legal questions of race and economics in THE ANTI-OLIGARCHY CONSTITUTION (Harvard UP). Their chapter on Reconstruction is called "The Second Founding," which they describe as a "short-lived" moment of "constitutional redemption" with racial and economic equality promoted in the Reconstruction amendments until a conservative Supreme Court undermined their promise and the Comprise of 1877 created new conditions in the South "after the troops had left." The Fifteenth Amendment, they write, "would confer Black male suffrage." Eric Foner's THE SECOND FOUNDING does not make such errors. He acknowledges that compromises leading to ratification of the Reconstruction amendments left them open to “conflicting constructions.” But to bolster his claim that the amendments created a "constitutional revolution," he urges us to “embrace” their “ambiguity” because it creates “possibilities.” Unfortunately, the Supreme Court interprets ambiguities.

I think that the task of working on/with myths in Reconstruction scholarship will remain ongoing, especially as the nation continues to reckon with its unredeemed racial past.

My post culminated with some rather challenging questions:
"How do we simultaneously strive to get history right yet acknowledge the inevitability that we are getting history wrong? How do we proceed with writing books and articles (and even blog posts), when we know we can never really know whether what we're saying is -- and always ever after will be -- all quite right?"

In the ensuing month, several list members have posted some very lengthy replies, yet none of them seem to engage these questions.

In his reply, Dave Prior hypothesized about WHY that might be the case: “there is little institutional support within the profession for thinking through exactly the kinds of essential questions that Lois raises.” True enough — although I think this more than a lack of “institutional support” (as a public historian, I have no institutional support at all). Rather, reading the other voluminous replies, I’m struck by how resistant list members seem to be the kind of honest (and humble) self-reflection necessary to address such questions. Indeed, the extent to which responses dodged my questions entirely was unnerving to me … not merely because I was hoping we could engage them in meaningful ways that would be of use to all of us, although that certainly was disappointing. Reading through the “replies” much of the didacticism and overconfidence seemed all-too-confirming of the stereotype of historians, and academics in general, as bombastic, pompous, unwavering, and, ultimately, engaged in conversations that are completely irrelevant to anyone outside academia. The latter group, it may be worth reminding ourselves, includes the vast majority of Americans. Speaking contemptuously about people “Out on the public square” and indulging the type of narrow-minded, anti-rural stereotyping demonstrated in the phrase “East Rancid Flats, Alabama” might be one academic’s way of trying to unquestioningly assert his intellectual superiority, but it is so flawed and disturbing an approach as to leave quite the opposite impression.

One list member did contact me directly saying, “one of my mentors in graduate school told me, essentially, that no work is ever finished. All we produce are drafts in various states of completion. We release our books and articles to the world when they are good enough to advance the field, he said, but there is always more that we could have done if we had more time. And that’s the problem; we don’t have enough time. We aim, then, for progress, not perfection in a conversation among experts that lasts forever. The problem is that many people outside of the profession don’t understand this point. Either through ignorance or willful misunderstanding, they point out that different works contradict each other or suffer from this mistake or that in an attempt to discredit the whole endeavor.” This is useful to remember, but I think we are doing our own part in inhibiting the whole endeavor if we aren’t being more willing to reflect honestly on the process, even in a space like this, entirely among ourselves.

In another response to the list, Brook Thomas noted, “Differences in interpretation are not just about facts; they are also about forces.” True enough — yet the rest of his extremely detailed response focused entirely on the process of poking holes in other people’s interpretations. Still not a whit of the wit I was hoping for, the kind of wit that includes the courage to engage in that honest, humble self-reflection.

As useful as it may be to assign students articles about “substantive and important cases in which new archival leads / kinds of evidence have led to major corrections” as Dave does, I wonder how people use those articles to shape their pedagogical engagement with students, i.e. to help students truly understand the work of historians. It’s tricky business, of course, because likely most of you who teach in any formal settings still design course assignments in which students are graded on whether they get things right or wrong — how then to frame for them the challenges we face (and seemingly don’t want to admit we face) about truly knowing how right or wrong our own work may prove to be?

In short, it is somewhat disheartening to read such lengthy responses in which historians critique (or laud) the work of other historians, but do not really reflect at all on themselves.

Notably, in the time since my initial posting, I have been to five different archives, in one of which I came across the most astounding — and quite honestly the most confounding — source related to my subject that I have yet encountered. It will make it impossible for me to ever be certain about some rather substantial matters regarding her life. I am glad to have found it, glad for the work it will force me to do, but quite sorry that the Civil War Author’s Blog does not seem to be a place where we are choosing to do this kind of work together.

During the same time, I also learned that Kevin Costner is creating a miniseries which will create a whole new round of horrid misrepresentation of the woman whose life I am trying so hard to de-mythify. It is being posited as true history, as the studio press release, now being circulated via online “news” sites, reports: “Much like the women in the 2017 film Hidden Figures, in which Costner co-starred, The Gray House focuses on the unsung women who turned the tide of the American Civil War in favor of the North. A Richmond Socialite and her daughter, a formerly enslaved African-American, and a courtesan build the first successful female spy ring, operating right under the noses of the Confederate High Command. They risk life and liberty to help win the war and preserve American Democracy.” Just in case you felt *Dances With Wolves* hadn’t done enough to help us understand race in nineteenth-century America . . . But rather than ceding the field of public opinion or dismissing the need to engage the public, I still think the best role for historians is to give more individual and collective attention to what it means that there is real audience for American history, and to be more honest about the unknowability and uncertainty, as key to the way we position ourselves to engage those audiences.

Sorry for the very tardy intercession, but serving as department chair, sitting on the faculty senate, and teaching an overload for a colleague who has been struck down by long Covid is not conducive . . . to anything. Since I have been quoted--a truly rare event--I thought I would make a couple of observations about the "completeness" (for lack of a better word) of historical work. My sources are not nearly so elevated as those that have already been quoted in this thread, but David encouraged me to post.

A year or so after I started my graduate program, I ran into my old college track coach at a wedding. He had received a PhD in Sociology years before, and when I told him what I was up to, he rhapsodized about the feeling of “completion” and “closure” that overcame him when he finished his dissertation. I remember him saying something to the effect that he felt he had obtained complete “mastery” of his topic. Although I smiled and nodded, I felt out of sympathy with this paean. First, I had just begun my program, and I hadn’t started anything let alone finished it, so he might as well have been talking about what living on Mars was like. Second, I had this instinctive feeling that there really was no such thing as total “completion,” “closure,” and “mastery” (which probably says something about me).

Lo and behold, several years later, one of my mentors in graduate school told me, essentially, that no work is ever finished. All we produce are drafts in various states of completion. We release our books and articles to the world when they are good enough to advance the field, he said, but there is always more that we could have done if we had more time. And that’s the problem; we don’t have enough time. We aim, then, for progress, not perfection, in a conversation among experts that lasts forever. The problem is that many people outside of the profession don’t understand this point. Either through ignorance or willful misunderstanding, they point out that different works contradict each other or suffer from this mistake or that in an attempt to discredit the whole endeavor.

In recalling these incidents, I remember a story I read in a comic book when I was a kid (yes, I know, hardly the kind of source I should cite with a straight face on H-CivWar). A scientist had produced an elixir that granted immortality. Determined to help the world, he gathered a group of other world-beating scientists on an island and gave them this elixir so they could advance science for eternity. The problem was that since these scientists knew they had an eternity before them, it literally took them forever to produce anything of value because they were constantly trying to perfect whatever it was they were working on. In retrospect, I don’t think this story accurately represented how science works, and I’m not sure if it’s good psychology either. But it’s an interesting thought experiment that shows what would be gained and lost if we had more time.



I agreed with much of Brook Thomas’s discussion of myth and fact in Reconstruction historiography, although I’d quibble with him on some, and on others the distinctions make little difference (surely not to African Americans as to whether federal troops went to their barracks or left the state).  On "myth" and the Lost Cause, I suggest Gary Gallagher's discussion of the factual underpinning for Lost Cause mythmaking about Lee and others, in his "Shaping Public Memory of the Civil War: Robert E. Lee, Jubal A. Early, and Douglas Southall Freeman," in The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture, Alice Fahs and Joan Waugh, eds. (Chapel Hill, 2004).

But then Brook gives us an interlude about the Dobbs Court, Plessy, Brown, and affirmative action that is so full of assumptions and unsubstantiated assertions that I’m at pains to sort it all out and end up wondering why we even need to go there.  Dobbs in particular is fraught with controversy and still waiting definitive historical analysis, so pardon my nervousness when historians opine about it, especially on a discussion network dedicated to the history of the American Civil War.  In the act of denominating something as “myth,” one must start with demonstrable falsehoods that then become the foundation for a larger architecture of stories that mix fact and fiction.  On the matter of Dobbs, Brown, and Plessy, Brook’s chain of events doesn’t persuade me.

In a series of counterfactuals, double negatives, and evasive statements, Brook engages in a game of deflection, turning our attention away from what we thought Brown overturned to what he says it did not overturn. The “legal principle of Plessy” was “that, in their use of police powers to ensure the public good, states could take race into account so long as doing so was reasonable. Brown never overturned that principle.”  Instead, he says it “reversed the effect of Plessy on the basis of new evidence, not by overturning legal precedent.”  Do we get any direct citations to jurists on this statement?  I take it that the “effect” of Plessy wasn’t any kind of legal standard, doctrine, or precedent, it was just an “effect” refuted by “new evidence” in the form of social scientific studies cited in Brown’s Footnote 11, declaring that segregated schools stamped black children with inferiority. So where is the “myth” here? Apparently it’s that Brown overruled a “legal precedent” in Plessy that in truth it left intact, and I guess by extension that "separate but equal" was a "legal precedent" instead of being just a sociological statement by a racist court.  That’s the only way I can translate his convoluted prose, and it makes little sense to me. In his telling, Brown shrinks from a landmark decision overruling segregation in the schools to a technical finding about “reasonableness” as a standard for this particular use of the state’s police powers.

Nobody would dispute that Brown at the least rejected segregation as an “unreasonable” application of the state’s police powers in education.  But Brook takes a “myth” that Brown “overruled Plessy” and assigns it to the Dobbs Court’s decision to overrule Roe, as if Dobbs really needed the Brown “myth” to justify setting aside stare decisis.  And then, by extension, he uses that characterization to predict that the Dobbs crew will use the same device to take a wrecking ball to affirmative action, as if no other legal strategy or precedent concerning AA is available.  In no case does he quote or cite a source for these assertions.  What did the Dobbs Court think Brown was overruling?  He doesn’t say, so let’s look.

In all of its references to Brown the Dobbs Court referred to a different “precedent” than the one Brook says is the “legal principle” of Plessy.  Every reference there, by majority, concurrence, and dissent, refers to the overturning of a “doctrine” or a “decision” (e.g. p40, Brown “overruled an infamous decision” in Plessy “along with six other Supreme Court precedents that had applied the separate-but-equal rule.”)  So sure, Brown didn't overrule the concept that race can be taken into account when legislating, but that doesn't mean something else of real legal significance was left alone as well: separate but equal.  Nor did the Dobbs majority rely on Brown alone in setting aside stare decisis.  It also cited a number of other famous overrulings of legal doctrines like Lochner, and reminded colleagues that “every current Member of this Court has voted to overrule precedent.”  The “doctrine” or “decision” here was “separate but equal” — enunciated by Plessy and “overturned” by Brown.  That “doctrine” wasn’t just an “effect” of Plessy.  It was Plessy, and that seems to be how subsequent courts have seen it.  Kevin H. Smith’s “The Jurisprudential Impact of Brown v Board of Education,” North Dakota Law Review 81 (1) Article 4 (January, 2005), reviews over 2000 cases citing Brown, and devotes special attention to stare decisis.  Nowhere is there mention of Brook’s “legal principle” as the cornerstone of Plessy, while practically everywhere court after court referred to Brown as “overruling” or “overturning” separate but equal as the core “precedent” of Plessy.

And how narrow was the Brown Court’s finding that segregation was “unreasonable”?  If the Brown Court didn’t specifically overrule Brook’s “legal precedent” it sure did take a sledge hammer to it by overruling the separate but equal doctrine not only with Footnote 11, but with statements of principle as well as precedents from other court decisions that undermined racial segregation in education.  The Brown Court was also well aware that the Plessy Court had expanded its explication of the doctrine beyond transportation to any state legislation, including public education.  With that door opened, the Brown Court did the same: it used public education as an opportunity to denounce the entire “separate but equal” doctrine and its subsequent application in a half-dozen Court cases — a clear indication that this doctrine had no future in American law, even in the face of social scientific studies casting doubt on Footnote 11.  In declaring that under the XIV Amendment as interpreted before Plessy “that the law in the States shall be the same for the black as for the white; that all persons, whether colored or white, shall stand equal before the laws of the States” (Footnote 5) Brown was reviving a legal principle independent of social scientific findings, specifically excluding segregation from “usages and customs of the people” that influence any legislation, and not just education.  Isn’t that what “overturning” is about?  That’s surely no small potatoes, and in the scale of “precedents” in need of overturning, it outranks Brook’s Plessy principle.

Brook goes further, sighing that having “swallowed” the Brook myth, the Dobbs majority will soon build on this fiction to go after affirmative action, because “if Brown had overturned the legal precedent of Plessy, there could be no affirmative action” presumably because “taking race into account,” as AA does, would be illegal.  But that’s a twisted counterfactual.  The Bakke majority argued that without Plessy’s blessing for segregation and a generation of Jim Crow built upon it, affirmative action wouldn't be necessary: “Most importantly, had the Court been willing in 1896, in Plessy v. Ferguson, to hold that the Equal Protection Clause forbids differences in treatment based on race, we would not be faced with this dilemma in 1978” and it concluded “that racial classifications are not per se invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment.”  “Differences in treatment based on race”  — segregation, the keystone of Plessy and Jim Crow — created the necessity for AA: “a legacy of unequal treatment” means that “we now must permit the institutions of this society to give consideration to race in making decisions about who will hold the positions of influence, affluence, and prestige in America.”  With the doctrine of segregation overruled by Brown, the country still had to implement it by grappling with the residue of de facto and de jure discrimination such that “taking race into account” continued, subject to degrees of scrutiny.  Meanwhile AA cases had plenty of other precedents to work from: esp the Civil Rights Act of 1964, specifically Title VI, but also a huge edifice of subsequent case law, a powerful bureaucracy to deal with residual discrimination, including a massive architecture of civil rights legislation, anti-discrimination laws, executive orders, Great Society transfer payments and community development grants, and corrective programs including affirmative action that have literally reshaped the structure of American law and domestic policy.  The Court that decides future AA cases will work with all of that because a mass of American jurisprudence since Brown continues to account for race. A future decision might try to unwind this matrix of laws and cases by declaring that any legal classifications based on race are inherently discriminatory, but it doesn’t need the Plessy “myth” to do that or sidestep stare decisis.  My guess is that the issue for future decisions on AA will likely concern whether it works, discriminates or stigmatizes, ever ends, is subject to any limiting principle, or is now permanently etched in the country’s legal and constitutional fabric.  As for Plessy, its core doctrine is dead, dead, dead, killed by the Court and decisions consequential to Brown.  No “myths” there.  Irony? Plenty of it.

Finally, Brook tells us that a “story in which the Civil Rights era corresponded with a total rejection of a the logic of the legal regime of Jim Crow segregation is an extremely compelling story that helps make sense out of a complicated past. People will continue to tell this story, even if confronted by ‘facts.’”  What on earth does that mean?  What unnamed person wrote and advocates this story?  Is Brook implying that the “story” is  mythical?  If so, where are the original errors by historians in this “myth,” and what “facts” “confront” the story?  I would agree that a narrative of ever-expanding rights with its pantheon of heroes and villains has moved to the center of school curricula.  Any synthesis is necessarily liable to revision and challenge concerning details, but that doesn’t automatically classify it as a “myth.”  Is he saying that the landscape of American law and social customs changed little in the “Civil Rights era,” and the long march of the Thurgood Marshalls and Martin Luther King, Jrs is just another soothing story that ignores “facts” that get in its way?  If so, here’s a classic example of tossing “myth” and “fact” around as rhetorical ping pong balls and not as useful categories of historical analysis. 

Historians have been claiming to act as debunkers for generations; ok, but they should expect that their chosen red line between myth and fact is likely to become a boundary dispute when it wanders through today’s headlines.

Thank you,


For strategic reasons, in Brown the NAACP did not seek to overturn Plessy. It was enough to win the point that in education separate but equal had no place.

There were lots of good factual and legal reasons for this. Education is full of intangibles. Just a few years earlier in Sweatt v. Painter the Court made it quite clear that in education "equal" might be impossible to achieve in a separate institution. If anyone want more on this, see Paul Finkelman, Breaking the Back of Segregation: Why Sweatt Matters, 36 THURGOOD MARSHALL LAW REVIEW 1-37 (2010) (happy to send a PDF to anyone who wants it. ).

On the other hand, In theory, at least, a separate railroad car could be equal.

The Court was equally strategic. Taking on schools was a enough of a huge issue without going to public accommodations. And in this period the Court ducked marriage cases.

However, two years after Brown, in Gayle v. Browder, the litigation over the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Court very quietly overturned Plessy. This was a transportation case, and the right kind of case to overturn Plessy.

This all ties to memory of the War since it was at this time that the Confederate flag made its reappearance on some state flags.

After reading Lois's latest contribution, let me say that the blog is a conversation that develops points made in replies; my replies generally have been to comments by Dave and Brook because I don’t have a problem with many of the points Lois has made.  I think she misunderstands me, for which I take the blame.

I agree completely with Lois that the profession needs “self-reflection.”  My post began by directly addressing her question about getting it “right” or “wrong”:  I believe that historians are imperfect, make mistakes, and if they stick to the profession’s basic canons concerning corroboration and debate, are likely to be revised by others in the end.   That’s why I referred to our work as part of a continuing conversation. But she left some confusion behind concerning “right” and “wrong.”  Her example concerns her realizing that she had made an error about the name of a key figure in an article she published — which is a simple factual mistake, something that is “wrong” in that it is inaccurate, not some moral or ethical failure, that is different from her other example, that she determined she had misinterpreted the reasons behind events that she had substantiated.  These kinds of revelations are common in this profession, so I’m not sure what the readership here can do about them except acknowledge errors, correct the record where we can, learn more from the experience, and continue to exercise due diligence in research and sourcing.  It takes some self-reflection to understand that there’s always an alternate explanation of the facts. IMHO this has nothing to do with “myth.”  When I think of “myth” I think of Gilgamesh, not of a historian’s honest misinterpretation of a chain of established facts.

Here’s an example.  In the mid-1840s Emma Willard found herself in a public spat with  an upstart textbook writer, Marcius Willson, who published a “review” of Willard’s and seven other history textbook writers that excoriated them all for hundreds of chronological “errors.”  All these writers had gotten the dates of events in the colonial era wrong because they hadn’t converted them from Old to New Style.  Willard’s scathing reply to him directly addresses Lois’s query about getting things “wrong”:  

“It matters as little whether the day kept in honor of the Pilgrims’ landing, is or is not the actual anniversary, as it does whether Christmas, which is celebrated by so great a part of Christendom, is or is not the real anniversary of our Lord’s nativity. If the events, with their consequences, be duly and gratefully apprehended, that is all which is essential.”

Willard was a published chronographer who argued that at some point, the exact date of an event was less important than the event itself if we know that the event occurred.  So, we know that a man named Jesus was born, but on a date certain?  If we don’t know his precise birth date does that make Christmas, or the story of his life as recorded in secular and religious texts a myth? An error?  Getting it “wrong”?

I also agree with her that the conversation strayed from her original questions.  I do get “bombastic” when historians needlessly start tossing “myth” and “fact” labels around.  So it’s unfortunate that Lois is offended by my remarks and doesn’t give this bombastic old windbag the benefit of the doubt.  Without naming me she disapprovingly quotes me as “speaking contemptuously about people ‘Out on the public square’ and indulging the type of narrow-minded, anti-rural stereotyping demonstrated in the phrase ‘East Rancid Flats, Alabama’ might be one academic’s way of trying to unquestioningly assert his intellectual superiority, but it is so flawed and disturbing an approach as to leave quite the opposite impression.”  My satirical metaphor originated with an Alabamian when my band was playing a bluegrass festival in the south of that state, and referred to a fictitious place and mindset well known to folks who live there.  People who live in and love the country can be pretty merciless self-critics about the insularity and remoteness that can come with life in some places, but that self-inspection is a cautionary tale, not a trumpeting of “intellectual superiority” over others.  The music I love to play originated in the backcountry, has been subject to more hayseed stereotypes than I can count, and has become suburbanized and revised to the point where debates rage within it between traditionalists and progressives while northerners like me need a passport to get into a Georgia bluegrass festival.  Perhaps Lois was distracted from my phrase’s target: the few students in my classes who “imbibed bits and pieces of Lost Cause adoration for Lee & Jackson, claims about state rights and the war, etc.” and not at everybody who happens to live in the country, where some of my relatives also happen to live.  And perhaps my reference to “grumpy uncle” might be taken as a contemptuous reference to uncles everywhere; as an uncle myself, I do get grumpy on occasion, and my kids would agree (and often recommend) that I need self-reflection.  The public square isn’t some exclusion zone.  It’s a metaphorical space that any person traverses.  After teaching public and applied history for many years, even publishing in JAH about one such teaching adventure I’ve spent enough time on the public square and in K12 classrooms to see what many nonhistorians think of our profession.  Still, in her case, the phrase fell flat and missed its intended meaning, so I hope she’ll accept my apology.

Good wishes,


A few additional comments and then I am done with this discussion.

I enjoyed reading Hugh's post. James Joyce once said that he never finished ULYSSES; he simply abandoned it.

I am sorry that no one directly addressed Lois's crucial concern. Perhaps these will be a better response--probably not.

1. I am in the process of revising an essay that in part deals with changes in the basis for on-going appeals to the "court of history" or frequent statements that "history will judge." Romantic historians, like Bancroft, Prescott, Parkman, and Motley trusted the court of history because they believed that God ultimately balanced the scales of justice. It seems to me that historians (or others) who appeal to history's judgment without a belief in judgment day are either reifying "HISTORY" or are simply acknowledging that existing views are always prone to revision with the passage of time--with no guarantee that new interpretations are necessarily better. I share the second view.

2. Early on in an essay on "ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN and Reconstruction" I write: "One reason I am on a mission to demystify myths about Reconstruction is that I once shared some--and perhaps still do. Whenever I read the simplified summary of the period in my textbook on PLESSY V FERGUSON, I cringe, knowing that it continues to mislead students. When, as I must, I cite similar examples from Twain scholars, my intention is not to single them out. The fact that some of Twain's best critics are under the sway of these myths indicates how misunderstood this crucial period in US history remains. Because HUCKLEBERRY FINN has itself taken on mythical status, a willingness to reassess its relation to Reconstruction might help undo some of that misunderstanding. Indeed, a community of Twain scholars willing to reassess what it got right and wrong about that relationship might serve as a model for a nation still needing to reassess what went right and wrong in its 'unfinished Revolution.'"

Is this mea culpa anything close to what Lois is asking for? Perhaps not.

Peter clearly has some very strong views. If he wants scholarly confirmation of some of my claims about BROWN's relationship to PLESSY, he might want to read, among others, Charles Lofgren's THE PLESSY CASE: A LEGAL-HISTORICAL INTERPETATION. Lofgren carefully researched Supreme Court history and found that only one case had officially been overturned as unconstitutional. It is the antebellum case of SWIFT V TYSON, not PLESSY. Now ROE and the cases relying on it can be added to that list. I try to raise some of these points in the following post, but the editors cut all of my citations to support my claims with reference to existing scholarship.

“What Alito Gets Wrong by Comparing his Opinion in DOBBS to BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION in SLATE
On the myth of the lost cause, I have indeed read the piece by Gary Gallagher that he recommends. Gallagher's work is always helpful. Gallagher cites Edward Pollard, whose THE LOST CAUSE (1866) popularized the phrase. But, like many who cite Pollard's title, he has not closely read all of the works of Pollard. I try to provide a more detailed reading of Pollard and others in "Complicating the Myth of the Myth of the Lost Cause: The Calhoun Monument, Reconstruction, and Reconciliation" in READING CONFEDERATE MONUMENTS. (Pollard denounced Jefferson Davis; wrote an essay whose hero was someone from North Carolina who sided with the Union during the Civil War; and published a pamphlet urging that members of the Klan should be "ruthlessly hunted down, and exterminated without compunction and without mercy." I am not sure that those beliefs fit comfortably within our understanding of what the "lost cause" stands for.)

If Peter reads the essay, I am sure he will find numerous unwarranted assumptions and prejudices. I no doubt harbor many.


I tend to think that this is less complicated than we are making it. All history is at best a fuzzy approximation of reality and while we might strive to focus it as best as possible, we never quite manage. There's no shame or problem in a straightforward acknowledgment of that situation -- the value of history is not in its perfectly accurate rendition of the past, it's in the careful delineation of the past as best as possible *with* the sources and methods of that delineation mentioned and marked. The binary reduction of "right vs. wrong" is not only impossible but aims down the wrong path.

I think "myth vs. reality" is also too sharp a reduction. It may not be legally correct to say that Brown "overturned" Plessy but most ordinary people do not use overturned with all the technical legal implicatons of that word but in the sense of radically changing how American law worked. I don't think that's a problem.

Historians should probably be more precise than that, but -- while I might like a general history of the United States to acknowledge that technically Brown didn't overturn Plessy, I also wouldn't accuse it of egregious myth-making for not mentioning that specific distinction.

And that highlights another problem -- a too tight focus on accuracy obscures, I think, larger truths. The endings of wars are a good example -- we take 1945 to be the end of World War II, but Japan and the Soviet Union have never signed a formal peace treaty. Technically, the war continues. Is it a myth to nonetheless say that the war ended in 1945? I don't think it is.

I have no idea what Brook means by this, or what Lofgren meant. "Charles Lofgren's THE PLESSY CASE: A LEGAL-HISTORICAL INTERPETATION. Lofgren carefully researched Supreme Court history and found that only one case had officially been overturned as unconstitutional." I also have not idea what Lofgren meant by "unconstitutional." Or what Brook means? Does he mean the decision itself was "unconstitutional" which in effect is an impossibility, since a Court decision cannot be unconstitutional. But the holding or constitutional determination can be reversed or rejected, which is functionally the same thing. Insittuionally the Court

In West VA Board of Ed v. Barnette Justice Jackson noted: "This case calls upon us to reconsider a precedent decision,
as the Court throughout its history often has been required to do." He then proceeded to overturn the Gobitis decision.

In Gayle V. Browder the District Court said: "the separate but equal doctrine can no longer be safely followed as a correct statement of the law. In fact, we think that Plessy v. Ferguson has been impliedly, though not explicitly, overruled, and that, under the later decisions, there is now no rational basis upon which the separate but equal doctrine can be validly applied to public carrier transportation within the City of Montgomery and its police jurisdiction. The application of that doctrine cannot be justified as a proper execution of the state police power." Here there was nothing "implied." The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed this opinion and therefore Plessy was unanimously reversed. In other words, Separate but Equal in transportation was no longer constitutionally permissible. It was "unconstitutional," unlike in Plessy where it was consistutionally permissible. .

The history of the court is full of cases where the court overturns a precedent or holdings. It may not overturn a previous case, because the "case" is not before the Court. But, sometimes it does. As Justice Kennedy said in Lawrence v. Texas. "Bowers was not correct when it was decided, is not correct today, and is hereby overruled."

Dear All, 

If I might, I’d like to venture a few of my own takeaways from the discussion to date as a means of suggesting that it isn’t quite so disconnected or fatuous. In fact, there are a number of points that speak to Lois’s concerns, if sometimes indirectly. As always, pardon my love of bullet points.


1) Lois, I think there is an underlying hesitancy to emrbace the issue quite as you've framed it, especially in your key questions of: 

How do we simultaneously strive to get history right yet acknowledge the inevitability that we are getting history wrong? How do we proceed with writing books and articles (and even blog posts), when we know we can never really know whether what we're saying is -- and always ever after will be -- all quite right?

The hesitancy particularly concerns the first question, which is starker than the second. In the first case the conclusion is that what we’re producing is guaranteed to be bogus, in the second merely that there is a risk that it’s imperfect. My read on the responses is that some are skeptical that the first is true, and that with the second they are familiar with the risk of imperfection and can point to some procedural safety rails (for ex. footnotes, peer review, subsequent scholarship, a professional culture that recognizes imperfection is part of the business). These safety rails do perform at least some minimal work that increases the odds that scholarship will lead over time to the accretion of knowledge and revision of arguments. I’m not sure this confidence reflects a lack of humility as much as a familiarity with the risks involved and cognizance of a certain amount of mitigation work that the historical profession does through norms, practices, etc. It may be that the limitations of the craft are so baked into professional training that many historians are reconciled to them.

But as with other comments, I don’t mean that to be the last word, proverbially or literally. Part of what I find striking is that while the authors here in fact have a wealth of competing and cross-cutting ideas about these issues, we do not have an industry-standard language for identifying classes of factual errors and their interpretive implications. That is interesting. Other fields of study have well-codified lists of fallacies, sampling biases, statistical errors, etc. Why don't we? Our recourse to digressions in response to Lois's post may reflect a profession-wide failure to consolidate our own understanding of what we do. I do faintly remember similar sentiments expressed by David Hackett Fischer in his Historians' Fallacies, although I read it a long time ago. Likely my own knowledge is limited--reading recommendations are always welcomed.


2) Lois also raises a more personal question about how scholars deal with questions about the significance or value of their work: if what we write isn’t true, why do we write it? I think the implied response from many is that we’re not so far off the mark, and we collectively tend towards getting things right over time, and that this means we can still get up in the morning and march forward with our work. We might phrase this as questions back to Lois: you do have some faith, don’t you, that your book will get things more right than the last one on the subject, not to mention all the pop-coverage of the story? And certainly you envision that your final work on the matter will make those who read it better informed on the subject than those who don't, no? For what it’s worth, I can certainly admit that doing historical research and publishing has been anxiety-inducing for me in the past. The first time I submitted an article to a historical journal I barely slept for a week. I did not sleep before my first conference presentation. Much of that reflected dread about looking like a fool--with the specter of that tied vaguely, in my own mind, to a sense that my work wasn't good enough. That isn’t exactly the same issue you raise, but I did want to mention that by way of conveying that I think we should continue to address how individual researchers / authors handle some of the stresses of the craft, even if my own personal experiences don’t align tightly with the doubts Lois feels herself confronting with her current project. 

Also, there remain some important questions to ask that might explain why some scholars’ experiences are different from others. Lois is better placed to address being an indepedent scholar than I am, so I'll call attention to two issues. 

i) The first is whether the risks of factual errors are heightened for biographers. Peter's point about dates may be right, but what if you were writing a biography of the historical Jesus? Presumably you'd need to provide a best estimate of when he was born, or at least be cognizant of the issue. I don't want to dismiss Peter's general point, but do want to suggest we not apply the principle too liberally. In my original response, I raised the prospect of identifying cases where single archival discoveries upended prevailing interpretations. That the two references I could provide (on Laurens and Jefferson) pertained to biography may suggest that the genre brings with it heightened implications for factual errors (think also of Equiano). So it may be that some of the disconnect in the conversation reflects in part what kinds of history people are researching and writing. A single factual error on a monographic study based on a broad survey of sources, such as a typo in the name of one individual in a study of why soldiers fought in the Civil War, for example, may seem less glaring or significant than a similar error in a biography, especially if the error pertains to the subject of the study. In a sense, the topical focus of biographies may create interpretive bottle-necks where an author's overarching point is particularly exposed to being muddled up by a single errant piece of information.

ii) The second pertains to the moral obligations of historians, especially when engaging with the public. Lois writes with a passionate concern for the history of racial injustice in the United States. Indeed, consider just how messed up, if predictable, it is for Hollywood to be capitalizing on the much-misunderstood history of the oppressed historical agent at the center of her present work. There are multiple aspects of the story that Lois is researching that both raise the stakes and no doubt make for a much more anxiety-inducing set of choices. I think we’d do ourselves a disservice if we were to hold that all historical topics are freighted with the same burdens and/or potential implications. So, I think Lois is certainly entitled to her concerns. Personally, I just don’t have a straightforward answer to her about how to manage these issues, assuming I fully understand them, since I don’t do a lot of public engagement--but I might ask that she not take my lack of an answer as evidence of a lack of concern. At any rate, in research-and-writing time, a month is the blink of an eye.


3) Also, as with my earlier points, I think the present conversation has offered points to think about relative to Lois’s opening post. If you follow Brook’s line of thinking, then the main questions for publicly-minded historians might be:

i) under what circumstances do factual errors actually get sucked into the broader politics of race in the United States? That would depend, to follow his line of thinking (or as rendered by me), on how those errors relate to prevailing or incipient myths. Even if you don’t buy Brook’s definition of myths, I think you can see how that mode of thinking can inform the discussion. Which errors matter depends a lot on things that are outside of the texts we produce--and perhaps lie beyond our control. And... 

ii) under what conditions can historical work shape popular myths (or call them narratives, beliefs, or another term that best suits your views) about the past in ways that inform politics and culture? Again, even if you don’t embrace Brook’s myth theory, there is merit in thinking through the broader question of when our works variously change, affirm, magnify, or give pause to popular beliefs. There is of course no unitary public to which we speak and write, further complicating any attempt to answer the question.

At any rate, there are, I think, two distinct, and perhaps competing, sets of authorial ethics at play in this discussion. One focuses on traditional best practices in a profession concerned with depth of research, careful documentation, and clarity of expression; and another which attempts to gauge and intervene in the making of public attitudes. So I think there is a lot to ponder there. 


4) From the humble vantage point of my personal experiences, the present state of knowledge among historians leaves us with little other than anecdotes and hunches to answer these questions. In my view Peter’s point about punditry is well taken but doesn’t go very far to illuminate the real challenge of understanding the reception of our collective works. There is a world of difference between going on MSNBC for a four-minute segment and producing a high quality hour-long public lecture for an audience that is opting in to the format. No doubt Peter already knows that--my point is that railing against talking heads does not answer the much more difficult question of when and how our work informs public views. We have trade books, public lectures, and open-access resources, but very little sense of how our works culminate in shaping public opinion. There is, in fact, a very broad interest in the profession in public engagement, but also a lack of serious empirical research to examine how it works, or doesn’t, to shape attitudes and beliefs. How does reading / listening to rigorous scholarship shape people’s values? Under what conditions do people change their minds about the past and its relation to the present? And by implication, what are the costs of factual errors in accomplishing either of these? I am fully confident that profound insights on these topics lie in the future, but I’m not sure the state of training among historians is anywhere near adequate to answer them now. But I would urge Lois not to see the absence of what she sees as the right kind of answer as indicating that people aren’t cogitating on the underlying issues.


5) I would encourage everyone to pump the brakes on taking offense / being disappointed with each other’s posts. Peter routinely misunderstands where I’m coming from, but I still find value in his comments--most recently those on teaching the history of violence during Reconstruction. No one is immune from error or confusion. Lois, for example, reads my reference to “institutions” as meaning academic employment, when in fact the institutions of the historical profession are not faculty jobs (those belong to universities) but things like conferences and peered journals. Few of those create space for the kinds of introspective practices that I’ve seen at work, if as a layperson, in cultural anthropology, where scholars will describe what their ideological and cultural starting points were when the began a study. In the rush to get my earlier post off I could have explained that, but then again, I did not say institutional support meant employment.

There are some truly monumental problems that historians face with things like the fate of our professional organizations, public engagement, and the tension between commercial modes of publishing and communication and professional standards. Hitting pause to listen for the signal in the static is within our own reach. I've benefited from our discussion, I hope others have to. 

I said that I had posted my final comment on this issue. But seeing that Paul and David have been put into the position of trying to clarify the confusion I provoked, I will make one more stab at articulating my point about BROWN’s relation to PLESSY.

As the discussion of Lois’s initial post developed, I sensed a consensus that, collectively, professionally trained historians do a relatively good job of correcting previous misinterpretations. I agree, but I also thought that it was worth noting examples when some misunderstandings persist even with specialists.

The belief that BROWN rejected STARE DECIS to overrule PLESSY as a legal precedent seemed to me such an example, especially because in the recent DOBBS decision a five-Justice majority stated: “But STARE DECIS is not an inexorable command. . . Some of the Court’s most important decisions have overruled prior precedents. See, e.g. BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION (overruling the infamous decision in PLESSY V. FERGUSON and its progeny.”

The fact is that, if BROWN had disregarded STARE DECIS, the decision would not have been unanimous. Chief Justice Warren knew this and felt that, because the issue at stake was so politically contentious, a unanimous decision was highly desirable. Thus, he found a way to get a unanimous decision. (See PS below.)

Given those historical complications, I was hopeful that the often-repeated statement that “BROWN declared the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ unconstitutional by overruling the legal precedent of PLESSY” would be modified to the more accurate “For complicated historical and political reasons, BROWN did not overrule the legal precedent of PLESSY; nonetheless, through creative legal argumentation, BROWN did declare the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ unconstitutional.”

It does not seem to me so difficult to share with the public and students the second, more accurate, statement. It also seems to me that the second sentence gives the BROWN Court more credit than the first, since it is a reminder of how much pressure the Court, especially members from the South, faced and how ingenious the Court was.

But obviously some historians disagreed with me.

As for my use of “myth.” There is no reason why anyone need agree with me. But I did not simply throw the term around without any scholarly basis. I was building on the work of the historian William McNeill (“The Care and Repair of Public Myth”), the philosopher/historian Hans Blumenberg (WORK ON MYTH), the political scientist Rogers Smith (who contrasts “civic ideals” with “civic myths,” a contrast I do not fully agree with because Smith calls “myths” lies), and the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss.
Another scholar whose work has influenced me is the historian Alfred Kelley, the author of an excellent essay “Clio and the Court: An Illicit Love Affair.” Kelley describes how the Court often maintains the "myth of historical continuity" through an extended historical essay that uses an appeal to history "to achieve a paradox: breaking precedence while rendering obeisance to the doctrine of constitutional continuity." As Kelly notes, "In quoting history, the Court made history, since what it declared to be history was frequently more important than what the history might have been." A case in point for him was DRED SCOTT. Writing in 1965, Kelley also provides enlightening analysis on appeals to history and "reapportionment cases," that created the "one man, one vote" doctrine. Kelly's essay is worth reading for anyone interested in the Roberts' Court's controversial SHELBY CO decision and a new challenge before the Court about the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

I have long been interested in the Court’s use and abuse of history; its use of metaphors, like “a color-blind Constitution,” “badges/brands of servitude” (it matters which is used); “stigma,” etc., and even quotations from literary figures (Shakespeare is quoted the most; Sir Walter Scott second most.)

Please excuse me if I am misrepresenting anyone, but it seemed to me that what provoked strong responses was not the term “myth,” but what gets labeled a “myth.” It was not I, but Gregory Downs, who wrote a NYTIMES op-ed piece about “The Dangerous Myth of Appomattox.” I do not think that anyone objected when I mentioned the “myth of the lost cause.” Nor did I detect any objections to the “myth” that Hayes withdrew troops from the South in exchange for assuming the presidency in 1877, even though that belief is widespread in the educated public. But I did sense impassioned objections to labelling a “myth” the belief that BROWN overruled PLESSY as a legal precedent. The mistake may well be mine. Nonetheless, I felt that there was some kinship between that widely held belief and some of the other so-called “myths.”

PS. This is what Justice Warren actually wrote in BROWN: "Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of PLESSY, this finding [of segregation affecting the self-worth of Af AM children] is amply supported by modern authority.” He then added a footnote citing a psychological experiment as modern authority and concluded:

“Any language in PLESSY to the contrary is rejected."

The "language" in PLESSY to which Justice Warren refers is Justice Brown's "We consider the underlying fallacy to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction on it." [After all, whites were prohibited from sitting in colored cars, just as coloreds were prohibited from sitting in white cars. So why didn't whites protest?].

I think that Brook Thomas undersells himself -- his first posts were clear on the points he was making.  The clarification is appreciated but not really necessary.

I won't repeat my earlier posts disagreeing with his argument, but I did want to add something to the problematic binary of "myth" vs. "reality" (which, despite his claims, suffuses the language he uses in the discussion: "use and abuse of history," eg):  the additional implied binary that something is either a myth or it's not, with no room inbetween.  It seems to me rather that there's a spectrum of myth that is shaped not only by its relationship to (what we might call) truth but also to who the speaker/writer is, who the audience is, and the entire context.  Confining that broad spectrum to one yes/no category seems sadly limiting.