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

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; the “winners” 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 white 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” aimed to eradicate alternate historical interpretations that didn’t fully conform to the desires of those in power. 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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32 thoughts on “Bad Historical Thinking: “History is Written By the Victors”

  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. 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.”

        1. If you’re talking about history being demolished because of confederate statues being removed then your argument fails. Statues of Hitler and Saddam Hussein has been removed, does that mean history won’t remember them?

          Remember, Robert r. Lee himself did not want confederate statues or flags being flown. We know this because of HISTORY written by him.

  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.

  3. How often are we taught in schools that maybe the Confederate States were right? The United States is one of the few places left on earth where you’re even LEAGALLY PERMITTED to challenge the idea of 6 million jews being killed in a holocaust. People can look into the writings of the losers and form their own opinions, but if someone says, “The losers have a point,” they’re automatically deemed as hateful, ignorant, tinfoil hats, etc. A prime example of this is how statues of confederate leaders are being removed to further advance the idea of, “Anyone who thought the confederacy was justified is a racist whose opinions are not tolerated here.”

    There are already people who have read this post and are ready to call me a hateful bigot for having a different opinion than the standard that is taught by our education system. Hopefully this will enlighten people enough to say, “What if I was wrong to think that? What if I just don’t see the other side of the coin?”

    1. I have very little sympathy with this point of view. As you correctly state, Americans can hold any viewpoint they wish to hold, no matter how odious it may be. You can even start your own blog, newsletter, etc. and create a platform to share those views. But your views are not entitled to respect from others or immune from criticism. Your views don’t entitle you to a speaking engagement at a college campus, they don’t entitle you to an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, they don’t entitle you to a spot in the marketplace of ideas, nor do they entitle you to really anything else besides your freedom of conscience and speech. Having freedom of speech means living with the consequences of your speech. If you want to engage in Holocaust denial, you must face the consequences for your unfortunate and inaccurate views.

      Regarding your first question, there’s a long history of students in the U.S. being taught that the Confederacy was a noble experiement and that the people who fought that cause were honorable. That particular interpretation being taught in the public schools partly explains why so many Cofederate monuments have been erected in the first place. I suggests you consult books by Joseph Moreau and Jonathan Zimmerman on the teaching of history in the U.S. classroom to see how the Civil War has been taught.

      1. Why do you say that people can hold any viewpoint they want, then criticize Anonymous for his/her viewpoints…? Also, regarding your second paragraph, I know from first-hand experience how history in taught in schools in the past few years, and they are very biased.

          1. I’m not saying you’re not entitled to an opinion, what I’m saying is that you say people are entitled to their own opinion, and then you tell Anonymous that his opinion is wrong (“unfortunate and inaccurate views”), so you are basically telling them that they are not entitled to an opinion and they are completely wrong.
            Schools are biased in that they tend to downplay things often. For example, I remember a project I did on slavery and what really happened vs. what was in textbooks. For this, my class used various accounts from former slaves, and what we learned was that slavery was much, much worse than textbooks have said it to be.

          2. I’m not interested in continuing this conversation because it appears we don’t seem to be understanding each other, but I will reiterate what I said above. You are entited to your opinions, but your opinions are not automatically entitled to respect and deference. I am not saying Anonymous isn’t entitled to an opinion – I AM saying I don’t have to agree with it and I don’t have sympathy for it. You can have an opinion and I, conversely, can beleive it’s wrong. Simple as that.

            Regarding point two, yes, there have been plenty of textbooks that have downplayed the history of slavery, which is wrong. What I hope this essay exposes is that when we look at primary and secondary source documents, we consider the power structure behind the claims and what their agenda is. And once we do that, we’ll see that many people—some of them “losers”—still manage to write history and get their point across.

  4. Thanks Nick for the info on the Lost Cause. I’ve been stunned over the past two weeks (since the Charlottesville protests) to discover just how many confederate monuments and symbols remain (1500), but also how recently they’ve been erected. I’d assumed they were leftover from the civil war era itself, but it wasn’t until 50 years later that a huge proliferation showed up, then 50 years further another surge during the civil rights movement. The research from SPLC is really enlightening (https://www.splcenter.org/20160421/whose-heritage-public-symbols-confederacy)

    Hope it’s ok that I footnoted you on my essay about these monuments, thanks for your input. https://weekendswell.wordpress.com/2017/09/01/lost-cause/

  5. I don’t think that the U.S. Civil War is a good example of this, because the outcome of that conflict was so atypical – the immediate response to the opposing soldiers wasn’t an attempt to humiliate or invalidate. They were allowed to keep their weapons, a symbol of their dignity as soldiers. They were not required to renounce the pride of their statehood, but only its existence independent of the Federal government. In short, the initial efforts were focused on reuniting the states as a cooperative whole, rather than subjugating the rebel states to those who had remained loyal throughout – indeed, even though elements of the latter were later introduced, there was still an overall intent to allow the Southern states to retain their identity, which inevitably means retaining some of their own historical perspective. Contrast this with, say, William the Conqueror, who took measures to undermine Saxon cultural prevalence, because the prevalence of that culture lent support to the legitimacy of the Saxon nobility, and creating a more Romanized Norman culture implicitly asserted the superiority of William as king, and of his high officers established as nobles, supplanting the Saxon nobles. As a result, while there are some Saxon sympathetic accounts of the Battle of Hastings still extant, and even some Saxon sympathetic cultural threads, history overall remembers William as the Conqueror, not the Invader, and the legend asserted on the Bayaux Tapestry has most remembrance.

    Perhaps the French Revolution might be a better example of the losers still having a voice, as the purgation of its enemies is still referred to as the “Reign of Terror” (although I might counter-argue even that being a “loser’s” position).

    1. I think this is an excellent comment and you make some great points. I am not an expert on European history but can see the differences in what you describe – one example representing the desire for political reunion and the other representing something more akin to the destruction of an entire culture. My studies of Union Civil War veterans suggest a very complex picture where memories of the war and what direction the country should go are all over the place. Some veterans–black AND white–were never reconciled to the idea that “both sides were right” or that the Confederacy and its leaders were worthy of honor. They actively fought the assigning of history textbooks that they believed misinterpreted the war, and in some research I’ve done recently I found some protests against the 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” from Union vets over the way it represented Reconstruction and African Americans. It’s that sort of perspective that underlies a lot of my thoughts here. You are of course right, however, when discussing other Union soldiers and their supporters who valued reconciliation and allowing former Confederates “their own historical perspective.” I still think the U.S. Civil War is a valid example, but you’ve got me thinking that there are better ones out there to reinforce my argument.

      Also, just a really nitpicky thing, but only Confederate officers were allowed to keep their weapons. Enlisted soldiers did have to turn in their weapons. Thanks for your comment!

  6. Where it is true that all history could not be completely manipulated by the victors it is true that the victors could change minor details or certain details especially if said details would undermine the losers in some way.

          1. As a matter of fact, I did. I understand what you’re saying, but the problem is the majority of the writing of textbooks and other materials students learn from is that there isn’t really too many historical accounts, and the majority of the textbooks are actually written by the winners. So what happens is that the winners do really have the power since their voice overpowers others.

  7. Haven’t people of European descent been ‘The Victors’ for most of the last 500 years? Does anyone really believe that “history” is objective? We have Europeans telling other Europeans what is rational. Starting World War I because an archduke got assassinated in the Balkans was SO rational. So now we have Global Warming without economists talking about the CO2 produced due to Planned Obsolescence. But that ain’t history, right?

    The depreciation of all of automobiles manufactured in he 20th century is not history. LOL

    http://www.toxicdrums.com/economic-wargames-by-dal-timgar.html

  8. History is written by the facts. Popular conception and misinformation are written by many different sources. It is up to us as the individual to decide which we choose to support and reiterate.

  9. Interesting. Let me start out with saying that English is my second language. Just incase of critics. I kind of like this saying. Maybe it doesn’t apply to nowadays, but it sure makes sense for example with the native Americans or China. What’s your thought on that?

  10. I find the point made in the article of losers having their say in history as spot on in the case of the confederacy. However, there are several issues that must be addressed. First, the only thing the confederates (TRADERS TO THE REPUBLIC) lost was the war. They gained: control to a point that they were seen as the victims; allowed a seat at the governmental table; passed laws after the chains were taken off of their captives and put on written ones (LAWS) that started another form of slavery (Jim Crow). This continued to allow them to become wealthy off the backs of those they once enslaved. The acceptance of the confederates gave them the opportunity to manipulate opinion up until this very day. Therefore, I agree that in America this particular set of losers (confederates) have definitely had their chance at writing a form of their history with the effectiveness that has made them the victors. Just consider the totality of what their descendants and sympathizers have accomplished.
    With that said, the focus changes to those who truly lost. Those who were enslaved and their defendants are still feeling the effects of the confederacy ultimate victory. Their stories and descendances voices are minimized. This is the direct result of the demonization, systematic racism, and psychological warfare imposed by those so-called confederate losers having done their job (telling their warped perspective of history). This was only possible by allowing them the freedom to glamorize their story as they told it without any push back. It is axiomatic that it has shown its affects in our current climate in America. Thus, in this case the losers did write a warped perspective of history that actually turned out giving them the victory.

    1. Additionally, I think it is hypocritical when people keep bring up the history of the confederacy, yet tell those who speak of slavery, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement to stop looking in the past. Only in America. Again, the article is spot on.

      1. Thanks for your comments, Al. I agree that America’s collective memory is very selective. We are told to “never forget” certain events but then we hold a collective amnesia towards things like Jim Crow, lynching, and slavery.

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