Bad Historical Thinking: “History is Written By the Victors”

No.

No.

One of the most unfortunate and widely-accepted ideas about historical thinking is that “history is written by the victors.” This talking point asserts that the truth of the past is not shaped by reasoned interpretive historical scholarship or a factual understanding of the past, but by the might of political and cultural leaders on the “winning” side of history who have the power to shape historical narratives through school textbooks, public iconography, movies, and a range of other mediums. To be sure, these mediums are powerful venues for establishing political ideologies and shaping personal assumptions about the way the world works. And it’s definitely true that governmental or “official” entities can and do exploit this power to achieve their own ends. In his book Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century, historian John Bodnar discusses the concept of “official cultural expressions” that aim to shape how people remember the past. These expressions originate from social leaders and official authorities who seek to shape society’s historical understanding in ways that promote “social unity, the continuity of existing institutions, and loyalty to the status quo” (13). In other words, those in power have an interest in maintaining their power, and a “useable past” that conforms to their vision of present-day conditions can function as a strong tool in upholding their status.

It is a mistake, however, to assume that only the “winners” of history have the power to manipulate the past to attain their present-day goals. This is especially the case in an age where the internet wields enormous potential for a person from any walk of life to build a powerful platform for spouting their beliefs and opinions. We must do away with this fiction that history is only written by the winners. (I know that “Winners” is a vague and ill-defined term in this context, but I will set aside any long-winded attempt at a definition for this post).

There may be no stronger example of “losers” writing widely accepted historical narratives than those who have advocated for the Lost Cause interpretation of the American Civil War. The central argument of the Lost Cause, of course, is that the Confederacy was morally and constitutionally right in their efforts to secede from the United States. But loss is central to Lost Cause theory in that many of its advocates argue that the Confederacy was doomed from the very beginning of the war since United States forces had superior resources and military forces to overwhelm them. Although the historical reality demonstrates that there were several instances during the war when it appeared the Confederacy was on the brink of victory, the narrative power of young men patriotically putting their lives on the line for a doomed yet noble cause still appeals to a great number of Americans today.

In the years after the Civil War, Lost Cause advocates grabbed their pens and their pocketbooks in an effort to win the memory battle over the meaning of the nation’s bloodiest conflict. In 1866 Confederate General Daniel Harvey Hill established The Land We Love, a magazine that glorified Southern literature, agrarianism, and provided a platform for Confederate veterans to publish their reminiscences of battle. From 1884 to 1887 the popular Century Magazine published its famous Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, which included lengthy articles from both United States and Confederate military leaders about the war. Former Confederate political leaders like Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens wrote autobiographies and histories of the Confederacy that reflected their version of events. Many history textbooks in schools throughout the country, but especially those in former Confederate states, taught a Lost Cause version of the war that glorified the Confederacy. Later on a number of motion picture films like Birth of A Nation and Gone With the Wind further extended the Lost Cause’s reach. And for roughly fifty years (1880-1930) countless millions of dollars were spent through both donations and public tax revenues to support the erection of monuments glorifying the Confederacy all across the South (and elsewhere, I’m sure).

All of these expressions of memory and historical interpretation were readily accepted by many if not most of Americans all over the country after the war. The “Losers” succeeded in writing a history that gained popular acceptance in American society. And the Lost Cause interpretation of the war is readily available for those looking to study it today. Anyone can go online and read Davis, Stephens, and many other Lost Cause materials on Google Books or HathiTrust. Anyone can find the Declarations of Secession written by the various Southern states that chose to explain their reasoning for embracing disunion.

History is written by everybody, not just the “winners.” It’s true that there have been times in history when “official narratives” have aimed to eradicate alternate historical interpretations that didn’t fully conform to the desires of the nation-state, the Church, or what have you. But the bigger point that is equally true is that historical counter-narratives always exist to subvert “victors” history, both orally and in print. “History is written by the victors” is a lazy argument that is usually deployed in the absence of historical evidence to defend claims about the past. This is why it was so ironic to me when I heard the complaint that “history is written by the victors” when the city of New Orleans decided to take down their Confederate statues in December. Clearly that’s not a true statement once you see how former Confederates and their supporters succeeded in shaping NOLA’s commemorative landscape for more than 150 years following the end of the Civil War.

Cheers

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6 responses

  1. If “history is written by the victors,” then why do we have memoirs by the Confederate President and Vice-President, plus a small army of generals, common soldiers, and even bureaucrats?

      1. Fung Ung Chuck | Reply

        Memoirs are not history

        1. That is extremely debatable. As with all sources historians use, the usefulness of memoirs in a study is dependent upon the types of questions the historian hopes to answer. If a historians wants to do a study of how former Confederates remembered their wartime experiences, then yes, memoirs count as “history.”

  2. maybe the civil war was a little spat between two groups of the winners.. or was the history of the first nations, the blacks, and the women well represented? because y’all just ran over their stories in the rush to get to the ‘exciting’ bits. just saying..

    1. I don’t know who you’re referring to when you say “ya’ll ran over” the stories of women, blacks, and native people within the context of Civil War history. There’s a good number of books on those topics that have been published in the past 20 years. More work needs to be done, of course.

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