If you’re not a professional historian and you’ve ever heard the term “revisionist history” before, I would bet it was used in a negative way (though at the moment Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast eats up most of the results on Google, so maybe we’re moving away from the negative connotation?) Pundits often use the term “revisionist historian” to claim that historians deliberately bury or suppress historical evidence to support their own political goals.
For instance, people who want Confederate statues removed are deemed revisionists who want to erase the history of the South (and the Confederate defenders are engaging in some convoluted “revisionist” history of their own, but more on that later.)
But here’s the thing: This isn’t only an inaccurate description of revisionism; it also ignores the fact that, at the core of the profession, all historians are revisionists. Historians study history to make new observations and interpretations of the past. This has always been part of the profession, and it always will be.
So let’s have a look at where “revisionist history” came from and how, overall, it’s been a positive development in the field of history.
Where Did Revisionist History Come From?
First let’s go to the beginning. When did we start using the term “revisionist history”? It’s actually quite easy to track. A quick Google Ngram search shows that the term took off in the 1950s and 1960s, and has increased dramatically since then.
Revisionism initially referred to a collection of scholars that were quite literally revising how we interpreted the past. Earlier generations of historians wrote about politicians, kings, businessmen—essentially, prominent white men. There were some exceptions of course, but overall this characterized the study of history until at least the 1950s. Then, new generations of historians started looking at other voices. They went back to the archives and found other primary sources that told alternate stories. A slew of works in the 1960s and after looked seriously at the lives of African Americans, women, the working class, immigrants, and other groups deemed unimportant by past scholars.
In the United States’ case, this seemingly rapid change had a rather clear cause. The rise of revisionism coincided with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left of the 1960s. These movements called for recognizing the rights of minority groups within American society. There was accordingly a new demand for histories of these minority groups. Scholars coming of age in this environment took these calls seriously, and began looking at all of the groups previously written out of history.
You might even argue that revisionism is the most important historical trend of the last century. It broke the disproportionate focus on prominent white politicians or businessmen and let us explore voices that had been left out of the story. Because of the revisionist trend, we understand far more about the past than we ever have before.
But I said this change was seemingly rapid. That’s because interpretations of the past are never quite as monolithic as you may believe. I’ll use an example I know rather well: The Dunning School of Reconstruction. Named for Columbia Professor William Dunning, the Dunning School was essentially a white supremacist retelling of Reconstruction after the Civil War. Dunning and his followers depicted former slaves as lazy and stupid, and argued that such a race wasn’t worth the effort of Reconstruction. They praised the end of Reconstruction and the conservative takeover that resulted in the rise of the Jim Crow system. The Dunning interpretation remained the prevailing view until the 1960s, when early revisionists like Kenneth Stampp started picking it apart. Finally, in 1988, Eric Foner published Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, still accepted as the authoritative text on the period.
But the revisionists of the 1960s weren’t the first to challenge the Dunning School. In fact, another interpretation had existed for 30 years before: W.E.B. DuBois’. In 1935, when the Dunning School was at its height, black intellectual, activist, and historian W.E.B. DuBois published his masterpiece, Black Reconstruction in America. The nearly 800-page opus shreds the Dunning School and its practitioners, presenting an entirely different outlook on Reconstruction. DuBois argued, extremely well, that black Americans were activists in shaping their own destinies during the Civil War and Reconstruction. He pioneered the “self-emancipation” interpretation, the viewpoint that slaves abandoned plantations in such large numbers that they effectively forced northern generals and politicians to confront the idea of emancipation. DuBois continues this interpretation throughout Reconstruction, demonstrating that former slaves were not degraded and incapable of self-sufficiency. DuBois was practicing historical revisionism. He was challenging the prevailing interpretation with new evidence and perspectives. Most of all, DuBois was largely correct. Historians now accept substantial parts of DuBois’ thesis and follow his lead in their understandings of Reconstruction.
And what happened when DuBois offered this masterful challenge to the Dunning School? Not much. It took decades for historians to rediscover DuBois’ contributions to history. There’s a simple reason why DuBois’ interpretation wasn’t influential — he was black. In the pre-Civil Rights United States, a black man’s word simply held little weight. This is instructive on how social conditions and power have a considerable influence on whose historical interpretation is accepted. At any given time, there are numerous interpretations of historical events, but not all practitioners have equal influence and power.
Revisionism vs. Negationism
All that said, there are people who distort history for political ends. But rather than revisionists, we usually call them negationists (or sometimes negativists). These are the people who cherry-pick evidence, ignore sources that don’t support their point, and use flawed historical interpretations for political ends.
This is where you get your Holocaust deniers, Neo-Confederates who think the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, those who argue that there was no party realignment in the 1960s, and so forth. Almost all of these conspiracy theories have a political point. Practitioners then hijack history, as I like to say, in an attempt to justify whatever political motives they have in mind.
I recently wrote about some historical negationism by telling the story of a Southern professor who lost his job in 1911 by arguing that the Civil War was about slavery. The powers that be in the Jim Crow South wouldn’t tolerate this viewpoint, and instead espoused the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War. This viewpoint, which has no evidence, is still the prevailing view among Neo-Confederates and white supremacists.
So how do we distinguish between revisionism and negationism? Easy: evidence. Revisionists have made some provocative arguments in their efforts to revise our understanding of the past. But the bottom line is, can they back it up with sufficient evidence? If so, they’re still operating as responsible historians.
Negationists use thin evidence at best. They may have a handful of scattered quotes, a letter, a newspaper article. Then they inflate the importance of this evidence and make claims that this evidence can’t support. At worst, they make up evidence and peddle full-on conspiracy theories. For instance, in one of his many Twitter arguments with historian Kevin Kruse, pundit Dinesh D’Souza once actually made up a US senator who never existed to try and prove his point (I’m searching for the tweet where Kruse called him out on this and smacked it down, will link when I find it!)
So if you’re accusing someone of distorting the past, the term you want is negationist, not revisionist.
We’re All Revisionists
This quick review of the root and meaning of historical revisionism leads to my main point: all professional historians are revisionists. There is a potentially apocryphal story from the 1990s of Eric Foner being lambasted by Liz Cheny for being a “revisionist historian.” (Which is a silly accusation because Foner is a revisionist, but that’s besides the point.) When a reporter asked when revisionist history began, Foner reportedly answered, “Probably with Herodotus.” Since this particular ancient Greek historian has been dead for about 2,500 years, the point was that revisionism has always been part of the historical discipline.
Foner is right: History is about revisionism. That’s pretty much the point of being a historian in the first place. Why would we enter a profession to repeat the same things over and over again? Why would you deliberately choose a career and say, “I’d just really like to memorize old textbooks from 1950 and repeat what they say”? You wouldn’t. Historians enter the field because they want to intervene and present something unique.
That’s the discipline of history in a nutshell. It’s about consistently reinterpreting the past. This could be because new evidence is discovered, or because society shifts its values. There will always be historical revisionism because society is constantly changing. We change what we value and the perspectives we deem important. The initial revisionist wave happened because Civil Rights and the New Left started amplifying minority voices. Society changed and so did the study of history.
So not only is revisionism a key aspect of writing history. It’s what writing history is all about.