Author Interview--Rachel Shelden (“The Politics of Continuity and Change in the Long Civil War Era”)

Niels Eichhorn Discussion

Hello H-CivWar Readers:


Today we feature Rachel Shelden to talk about her Civil War History state of the field essay “The Politics of Continuity and Change in the Long Civil War Era” (CWH December 2019, Volume 65, No. 4).


Rachel Shelden is a graduate of the University of Virginia. She serves as the Director of the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center at Pennsylvania State University, where she is also an Associate Professor. She previously published Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, & the Coming of the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2013) and co-edited A Political Nation: New Directions in Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Political History (University of Virginia Press, 2012).


Your essay is part of Civil War History's "State of the Field" series and you are looking at the political history of the Civil War era. I found it interesting how you start with a paradox of some historians claiming that academic interest in political history is declining, but public interest in the subject on the rise. What are the central issues you point out in the article?


RS: It seems like every few years we are treated to a new oped or scholarly work nostalgic for some earlier era when academics were committed to political history. The one that got me thinking about this state of the field piece was a 2016 New York Times oped by Fredrick Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, who argued that we in the profession no longer teach, hire, or concern ourselves with what they call an old-fashioned attention to elections, policy, and parties. I think Logevall and Osgood and their compatriots (whom I call the "handwringers") are misguided for a good number of reasons but one that I talk about in my piece is that their view of politics is needlessly narrow. The handwringers themselves know that elections are nothing without the voters who show up at the polls, policy is nothing without the people it affects, and parties are made up of competing ideas, personalities, and coalitions. Jettisoning a book as "not political history" because it looks at the nitty gritty of how governance works on the ground and among constituents is a kind of gate keeping we should resist as a field. A second problem with their formulation that I point to in the piece is that the handwringers seem to be describing a golden age of U.S. political history that didn't really exist. Political historians have been borrowing from other fields and disciplines to inform their work for generations. To give just a couple of examples, the New Political History of the 1970s relied heavily on social science methodology such as regression analysis to draw conclusions about voters and in the 1980s, political historians became enmeshed in cultural studies to better understand how cultural practices in places like the home informed political habits. Just because our methodology has changed, however, does not mean we've stopped doing political history--even the kind of political history Logevall and Osgood want more of. As I point out in my piece, the scholarship on politics in the Civil War era is incredibly robust, including a large number of books on parties, elections, policymakers, and policy.


Although I am primarily concerned with political history scholarship in my piece, I also think it's important to evaluate Logevall and Osgood's concerns that extend beyond what we write to what we teach and, perhaps most jarringly, who we employ at colleges and universities. They point to the number of job ads and listed positions in "political history" to prove their point. This is a pretty odd way to measure the number of political historians working today or how much political history shows up in the classroom. Are political historians confined to jobs that search for political history? That hasn't been my experience and I would doubt that most political history practitioners have been confined by these search terms while on the market. Logevall and Osgood seem particularly concerned by how much is lost among students and the public when political historians are no longer employed. But perhaps the best evidence that we haven't abandoned political history is the very big public presence of political history and historians in the Trump era. Political historians run the Washington Post series "Made By History," History Twitter's most popular account is a political historian (Kevin Kruse), and the podcast Backstory, which has featured five different political historians over the years, was an innovator in history media. Within the Civil War world, political historians remain central to both the field and to public-facing commentary. Just in the last few months, amid the Trump impeachment, historians who have written important books on political history of the era have been featured in numerous opinion pieces. Just a few examples include Stephanie McCurryManisha Sinha, and Greg DownsHeather Cox Richardson's “Letters from An American” newsletter is also hugely popular.


Political history is healthy. Civil War-era political history is especially healthy!


This is great, Rachel. As tempted as I am to go with your last paragraph and put you into conversation with a previously published piece in CWH, let's stay focused on political history. You mentioned the New Political History already and in your essay, you also have "fundamentalist," "revisionist," "post-revisionists," and "neo-revisionists." What broadly distinguishes these different schools of thought and their interpretations?


RS: Anyone trying to make sense of the scholarship on Civil War-era politics has a tough task ahead in parsing the various iterations of "revisionism" out there. One of the big reasons for this, as I explain in the piece, is that there is very little scholarship that deals with the period as a whole. So the self-proclaimed "revisionists" of the pre-Civil War era and the self-proclaimed "revisionists" of the post-Civil War era are not necessarily making the same kinds of arguments and, in fact, many of these "revisionists" of the post-Civil War period are the very same people who argue against the revisionists of the pre-war period. One prominent example of this was Kenneth Stampp, a critically important voice in our field on subjects throughout the Civil War era. Stampp was a key member of the "fundamentalists" of the pre-war period, arguing forcefully against his revisionist counterparts. For him, there was an irrepressible conflict over slavery, not a repressible war brought on by extremists as the revisionists argued. But when it came to Reconstruction, Stampp was a revisionist. He argued against the Dunning-ite narrative of Republican oppression and malfeasance in the South, instead focusing on the promise of Reconstruction for freedmen and women and the revolutionary efforts of the Radicals. Some of Stampp's colleagues, however, questioned his conclusions. These "post-revisionist" historians instead argued that Reconstruction was fundamentally conservative. In other words, there is no consistency in our term "revisionist," in large part because even scholars who investigate both the pre- and post-war period write about them in fundamentally different ways.


It's also hard to make sense of the various arguments because, while there remains a debate within the pre- and post-war scholarship about causes and effects, the terms of disagreement have changed in important ways from the 1930s to today. To give one example, among the pre-war folks, as I explained in regard to Stampp, the divide is primarily between "fundamentalists" and "revisionists" over why the Civil War came. But the meanings of those terms have shifted both as a result of new research and of the moment in which scholars are writing. So, in the 1930s and 40s, revisionists pushed back against the argument that there was a "fundamental" divide between northern and southern states that produced an inevitable Civil War. Writing at a time of high skepticism of war and its brutal outcomes, these scholars argued the war was not inevitable but repressible, caused by the extremism of fire-eaters on one side and abolitionism on the other in a country that was otherwise fairly united. Central to this argument was the belief that slavery would have died out on its own, something that most nineteenth-century Americans had believed at the height of slavery and its aftermath and that white historians continued to accept. Scholars like Stampp, writing at mid-century, however, began to question the conclusions of the revisionists, returning to the fundamentalist argument that North and South were deeply divided. Examining the pre-war period during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, these new fundamentalists (or neo-fundamentalists) emphasized that slavery was the central, dividing factor in producing an inevitable Civil War. The debate among revisionists and fundamentalists continued on in this way until 1974, when Time on the Cross and other important scholarship on the history of slavery helped shift the conversation. While Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman's book was widely criticized for its description of how enslaved people were treated by their enslavers, the research these scholars conducted on the economic efficiency and adaptability of slavery strongly influenced coming of the war revisionists. These revisionists no longer focused on skepticism of war--for if slavery would not have died out on its own, a war was surely necessary to end the peculiar institution. Instead, post-1970s revisionists emphasized the inevitability question: if slavery existed in the United States since before it became a nation, why did the war happen in 1861? For them, contingency was key to answering this question.


What interpretations and argumentative differences do these various revisionisms embrace today?


RS: Just as "revisionist" evolved over the twentieth century and in relation to different historiographies (as in the pre- and post-Civil War types), it is a label with a good number of meanings today. For some, it is a dirty word, emblematic of bad history and poor motives. Members of the Trump administration who claimed, "if only the Civil War could have been avoided" or who call Reconstruction "corrupt" are labeled "revisionists" in headlines penned by critical scholars. Describing someone as a "revisionist" as a form of insult appears to have public purchase. One (anecdotal) indicator of this is that Villanova historians have spent the 2019-2020 academic year holding a public lecture series to try to demonstrate that the idea of "revisionism" in American history is something positive (after all, are we not all engaging in historical revision?). Despite the public criticism of revisionism, for others, being labeled a Civil War-era "revisionist" is a badge of honor. Some folks writing about the post-Civil War period who are interested in the ways in which a brutal war produced continued suffering proudly think of themselves as "neo-revisionist." According to a 2013 review essay by Yael Sternhell in the Journal of the Civil War Era, these scholars, who have also been called part of the "Dark Turn" in Civil War-era scholarship, see themselves as raising some of the anti-war questions of the 1930s and 40s pre-war revisionists, though their work focuses on the post-war period. And simultaneously, scholars who are continuing in the tradition of the post-Time on the Cross revisionists have also produced "neo-revisionist" work on the coming of the war. As I explain, much like earlier generations of scholarship, these modern historians writing about the pre- and post-war period are not the same and, in fact, are not likely to agree on much. It's confusing, right? So, all these different meanings have led quite a few political historians (myself included) to eschew labels like fundamentalist, revisionist, or post-revisionist and instead to think about ways to combine the arguments in each camp by looking more deeply at moments and subjects within either the pre- or post-Civil War periods.


Now, I don't mean to suggest that we should simply ignore the self-described labels of current and past historians. Knowing the historiography--including how and why it evolves over time--is really important for understanding many of the claims we still debate today. If generative works by scholars like Kenneth Stampp remain foundational in our discussions of the period (and I think they do), we have an obligation to understand the context of the arguments they contain. And, crucially, I think we do have to describe that historiography accurately. Flattening the meaning of "revisionism" so that it's the same in the 1930s and the 2010s or by conflating it with Dunning-ite rhetoric about Reconstruction, produces continued scholarly and, especially, public ignorance. 


The various schools of revisionism are indeed extremely confusing, but you mentioned in your previous answer that pre-Civil War and post-Civil War revisionists are also two very different groups, and that is a major aspect of your essay. You ask us to understand "continuity and change" over the Civil War era, not just the antebellum and separately Reconstruction. How do you envision bringing these narratives together and creating a new, unified political history for the Civil War era as a whole?


RS: As I mentioned, I believe we are in the midst of a tidal wave of excellent work on the political history of our period. In the piece I touch on a lot of terrific books that deal with really pressing topics, such as anti-slavery political activism, wartime and post-war constitutionalism, Confederate political economy, and Reconstruction policy. And since my piece went to copyediting, several more excellent books have come out that deal with antebellum political parties, Unionism, the Radical Republicans, and other political issues. But what you'll notice about this work is that nearly all of it is chronologically confined: very few of these books deal with the chronological sweep of what I call the long Civil War era, from the 1830s to the 1890s. Instead, our work tends to either start or end with the Civil War or Reconstruction. I think one key reason for this is actually the sophistication and creativity of the political history we've been doing for the past fifty plus years. What I mean by that is, political historians of the long Civil War era are incredibly well versed in other types of history--military, cultural, gender, economic, racial, medical, legal, and more. By acknowledging the importance of the War--the conflicts and oppressions undergirding it, the way it was fought, and the consequences it wrought--political historians have been more attuned to how politics interacts with everything else. Our work cannot and does not operate in a vacuum of political behavior. In practice what this means is that anyone setting out to write Civil War-era political history has a large literature to tackle. If you add that large topically-broad literature to the complicated historiographical debates of the era that include the different versions of "revisionism," then you've really given yourself a task. In fact, I'd argue that the different historiographical revisionisms of the pre-and post-war periods have helped solidify the somewhat artificial boundaries of when we start and end our scholarship.


Still, by breaking up the era into two halves, we have not yet fully understood the continuities in American politics in the long Civil War era. Historically these continuities must have mattered to the many Americans who actually lived across the period. (They might even matter to those of us who teach courses on the Civil War Era!) And because we are at a moment in which Civil War-era political history is so healthy I do think we can begin to produce more work that tackles this broad chronological sweep. In the article I give three suggestions for how more of us can think about approaching the period as a whole, both while maintaining our commitment to non-political contexts and giving credence to the historiographical conversations of our predecessors. One is through biography and community studies; a second is through institutional history; and a third focuses on synthesis and political ideology. All of these approaches allow for focused and nuanced interrogation of important political actors and ideas that might lead us toward that clearer understanding of both continuity and change in the politics of the long Civil War era.




Considering the vast number of works you mention in the essay and the many different schools of thought, which would you suggest as the best works on Civil War-era political history?


RS: There are so many excellent books that have come out on politics in the long Civil War Era of late so it's hard to narrow things down. But a few must-reads of the period are Manisha Sinha's masterful work reconstructing anti-slavery activism in The Slave's Cause, Adam I.P. Smith's nuanced portrayal of the idea of conservatism in the period before Reconstruction in The Stormy Present, and Nicolas Barreyre's sophisticated evaluation of the economic and sectional divisions within the Reconstruction-era North in Gold and Freedom. Among the books I think of as a model for crossing the era are Steve Kantrowitz's study of black politics in Civil War-era Boston in More Than Freedom and Matt Mason's political biography of Edward Everett, Apostle of Union.