What’s Happening In History

July 2017

Over any extended period of time, the state of historical thinking about the great national topics changes in both subtle and dramatic ways. New facts and interpretations are being debated, written about, and taught. To keep you informed, AMERICAN HERITAGE introduces the first of a series.

THE PAST ,” the great French historian Marc Bloch once wrote, “is, by definition, a datum which nothing in the future will change.” This seems so obvious as scarcely to merit mention. Is not the common expression “That’s history” another way of saying that something is finished, over, dead and gone? Yet Bloch also wrote that history “is constantly transforming and perfecting itself.” This is not so obvious, yet anyone who reads knows that history is constantly being rewritten. New books on old subjects pour from the presses in an unending stream.

The reason Bloch’s apparently contradictory statements are both true is that the word history has two meanings. History is indeed the past, “what actually happened” as another great historian put it. But history is also what people have written about the past. To make the distinction clear in what follows, I shall refer to the past as “history” and to writing about the past as “History.”

Why is History constantly changing? If historians are any good at studying history and finding out “what actually happened,” why do they have to retell the story over and over again? Basically the answer is that every History, no matter how detailed and comprehensive, recounts only part of the history it purports to describe. It is a selection of facts and opinions chosen by the author to make sense out of the past. Just think what a jumble would result if one tried to write the history of the United States in its totality, or for that matter, even the history of one town or a single citizen.

Still, one may legitimately ask, after a certain number of competent historians have studied the history of any time or place or person, won’t all the important, significant aspects of “what happened” have been brought to light, explained, and recorded in definitive form? To an extent this does indeed occur, yet the History of these significant facts remains always subject to amendment.

In the first place the complex events about which History is written are not reducible to exact definition and expla- nation. What we think of as history is usually only History. Consider the Civil War. We can all agree that a civil war took place in America in the 186Os and that certain events and people played essential roles in it. But defining that war in the sense of putting a limit on the history that it is made up of is not possible. The battles are part of the war; the production of supplies and other home-front activities, North and South, are part of it; and so are the politics of the Union and Confederate governments and of the states, as well as the foreign relations of the two sides. The difficulty is that there is really nothing that “happened” that can not in one way or another be seen as part of the History of the Civil War. Even if we examine the history of smaller parts of the conflict, such as the military campaigns or one battle, the resulting History will be only part of that history.

The need to select in order to make history intelligible is not the only reason why History is always being rewritten. For one thing, new sources (more history) frequently become available. The opening up of the papers of well-known persons enables historians to write fuller, more accurate accounts of their lives and of events their lives touched. The spate of new books about such twentieth-century Presidents as Harding and Eisenhower are recent examples of this. New materials are constantly coming to light, even for persons and events in the distant past. An early El Greco painting recently found in Crete undoubtedly will cause that seventeenth-century artist’s life and work to be reevaluated. Archaeological discoveries have repeatedly made us aware of the history of whole civilizations previously unknown.

New ways of evaluating evidence lead to new historical writing. The development of psychoanalysis has caused hundreds of biographies to be written. Most of these are of little worth, but psychoanalytical knowledge has also caused historians to pay more attention than they did in the past to childhood and child rearing, to family life, and to many other subjects, often with valuable results. Statistical techniques such as multivariant analysis, which provides a method for evaluating the relative importance of different factors in determining why voters back one or another candidate or party, have changed a great deal of History. And of course the computer, with its capacity for assimilating and manipulating enormous masses of data, has made it possible to use such sources as census reports in ways that previously would have consumed more time and energy than any historian could muster.

PROBABLY THE main reason why History is rewritten is that new history causes us to ask new questions about the past. In seeking to understand why things are the way they are, we turn to History. When, as is often the case, History does not provide satisfactory answers, we search the history of these things and end by writing new History. In other words we select different facts, facts that provide answers to the new questions we are asking. The postwar civil rights movement sent historians scurrying to the sources and has resulted in a vast outpouring of black History. The modern demands of women for equal treatment have resulted in research on women as workers throughout history, on sexual mores, and on many other topics in addition to women’s rights movements and other obvious issues.

The following article explains how and why the History of the Reconstruction period after the Civil War has evolved—has been revolutionized- over the years. It is the first of a series intended to make readers aware of the latest trends in the writing of American History and to illustrate what Marc Bloch meant when he wrote that history “is constantly transforming and perfecting itself.”