Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The historical times, they are a-changin'

I was working on a Wikipedia article on an obscure historical figure yesterday and I encountered a very odd but illuminating thing.  I was able to read what was basically the same account from the same scholar about the same figure repackaged three different ways, for a 1970s scholarly paper, a 1980s introduction to a book from a university press, and a 1990s entry in a specialized encyclopedia.  It was interesting to see a glimpse of how the sausage is made, how the same scholar repackages and re-updates the same material for multiple audiences.  It also brought to mind more complicated issues, of race and politics and changing times.

I don't want to be more specific about this scholar or this historical figure for two reasons:  I don't want to reveal my Wikipedia identity by discussing the specific article, and I don't want to call out this particular scholar, even though he is deceased, permanently on the internet for some obscure points in some obscure writings, when what I'm really interested in discussing are general trends that have nothing to do with this specific individual or the historical figure he was writing about.

This historical figure, though a northerner, spent over fifteen years as a newspaper man in the antebellum south, vigorously penning partisan attacks (he was a Whig) by the ink barrel.  This included eagerly participating in the racist attacks against Martin Van Buren's Vice-President, Richard Mentor Johnson, who had a slave, Julia Chinn, whom he openly treated as his common law wife, and two mixed-race daughters by her who bore his last name.  Slave mistresses were common, a relationship like this, even if Chinn was barely black (she was an octoroon, 7/8ths white), was enough to outrage the racist establishment.  This particular editor shouldn't be singled out for "vent[ing] his racist spleen" and laying "on his lash with a generous hand" on this topic, as he was one member of a large chorus, but it was a favorite topic of his and thus perhaps deserves more space devoted to it than a mere three sentences.  The same with this editor's anti-Catholic position.  Anti-Catholic "nativism" was common in the 19th century, to be sure, but again, a mere sentence is devote to his "participat[ing] actively in the nativistic movement".  

The fact that these things are mentioned at all I suppose is an improvement.  With all the fuss about revisionist history and social history at the university level, much of this doesn't always filter down to the regional level, where figures of minor or local importance are talked about in terms of being a pillar of the community, or a successful businessman, or what offices he held.  Monticello aside, and even there if you don't tour the slave quarters, many historical homes are a tedious exercise in hagiography and antique wainscoting.  What a person stood for, what he advocated, how he contributed or fought against human progress, goes largely unremarked.  Politics that stirred people to hate and kill each other become, through the soft focus lens of this kind of history, become apolitical bullet points in a resume.

I suppose it comes from a reluctance to "judge" a person in the past.  When you bring up things like this, the kneejerk reaction is often to say that someone is a "product of their time" and that you cannot judge them by our contemporary standards.  But presenting the facts is not judging.  Pages and pages of discussion of someone's newspaper career, the details of partnerships and foundings and closings, but almost no discussion of the content of those newspapers?  That's judging that the content of those newspapers is unimportant, and that certainly wasn't the case for those viciously partisan papers which fought each other tooth and nail.   It isn't revisionism to say that these things are important, it's revisionism to say that these things don't matter, when the certainly did to the people at the time.

The practice of history has changed, even if it hasn't filtered all the way down to local and regional history, which is often practiced by enthusiasts and amateurs.  But this is an experienced, celebrated historian we're discussing here, albeit one whose career started well before the civil rights movement.   But even here, we see the changing times.  This newspaper editor wrote favorably something like (definitely paraphrasing here) "wherever the Anglo-Saxon foot trod, progress followed".  In the 1970s the historian presents this man's life as triumphant evidence of this statement of progress, in the 1980s this statement is mentioned, but not as triumphantly, and in the 1990s, it is entirely absent.