Much Ado About Revisionist History

The following article originally appeared at Keith Harris History.

I spend a lot of time scouring the Internet for people discussing America history – usually of the 19th-century variety – but I will have a look at nearly anything that piques my interest. YouTube and Twitter are of course my favorite virtual forums – they never disappoint.

I have noticed something that, as a historian, I find really, really, really disconcerting. The word “revision” seems to carry a negative connotation. And individuals all over the place hold the so-called practitioners of “revisionist history” with the greatest contempt.

Now this comes from both ends of the political spectrum. Those who finger point and accuse don’t necessarily fall into any easily defined category.

But the way I understand things, people who are screaming about revisionism are kinda missing the point. The words “revision” and “revisionist” have simply been reduced to a code for analytical conclusions that disgruntled would-be historians disagree with. (Bitter??? Table for one).

Here’s the deal my angry f-bomb dropping friends. Revision is what historians do. If we didn’t revise, there would be one history book that would cover the whole enchilada. We would all read it, and that would be it.

Oh sure – historians can write with a bias, and what they write can certainly be a reflection of the times in which they live. But is this by definition a bad thing or something that we simply must come to terms with and be aware of? What we learn about history and historians can tell us a lot about ourselves as interpreters of the past. If you really want to impress your friends at parties – get in to historiography. Now that’s some revision we can talk about. Are there noticeable differences in books written before and after the Vietnam era (to use one sorta obvious example)? You betcha.

But all of that aside, I believe that revision is the essential ingredient to reconstructing the past. New evidence always surfaces somewhere, differing analysis produces thoughtful conversations, new insights lead us to reconsider something we may have thought we knew…but didn’t.

In other words – you can get all bent out of shape if someone challenges your precious beliefs. But instead of dismissing that person as a “revisionist” in derogatory fashion, why not just have a look at what they are saying, weigh the arguments in terms of credibility, see if their evidence holds water. Do you really want to learn anything – or do you just want to hold fast to what could very well be long outdated?


Keith Harris, Ph.D., is a public historian and blogger who runs Keith Harris History. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Virginia where I specialized in nineteenth-century American history with a special emphasis on the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the era of Reconciliation. Follow him on Twitter.


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