Some people wonder why an academic like me is so hard on academia. I suppose it is because academia often claims to be pure, beyond bias, able to think critically as opposed to the idiots out there among the common people. Knowing that all those claims are false makes academia a hypocritical institution. This is seen in a number of fields, but one of them is history. Below are some examples of how historians distort history.
I once read a book on the attempt of the Confederate government to arm slaves near the end of the War between the States. The author claimed that very few, if any, blacks fought for the Confederacy and that those who were in support position were generally slaves. However, there are articles from the era of the war in the New York Times and Harper’s Weekly (check the May 10, 1862 issue for an artist’s drawing of blacks helping load a cannon) by reporters who witnessed a large number of blacks in the Confederate camp, some of whom fought fiercely against Union troops. There were free blacks who fought for the Confederacy, not just slaves; estimates of the number of free black Confederate soldiers are at a low of 5000, with some estimates much higher. With slaves included, who could have easily revolted or fled to the North with so many of the men off to war, 100,000 helped in the war effort in support units. While the Confederacy did not formally include blacks by law in the army until 1865, de facto from the beginning they were served the army, perhaps not formally, but in support positions that involved combat when units encountered Union troops. The units were integrated, unlike Union units. Authors who deny that evidence of such is totally missing are either ignorant of it (and thus are guilty of bad scholarship), explain it away (which is difficult to do, given that there are multiple eyewitness accounts of black Confederate soldiers), or ignore it (which is dishonest). Most of the time it’s probably the latter, since I can’t imagine a good researcher missing the references in Harper’s. Thus ideologically driven dishonest is the only reasonable explanation for historians denying a fact of which they have clear evidence.
Another example is Reconstruction after the War between the States. Earlier historians recognized the corruption that permeated Reconstruction, but lately revisionists, mainly of a Marxist bent, have claimed that the reports of corruption and violence were due to biased Southern writers. Given that there are number of newspaper accounts from the time period of rapes and murders as well as letters from ordinary people detailing their fear of walking the street due to Carpetbagger-agitated gangs, this “historians'” conclusion seems more due to ideological bias.
In a conversation I had at an academic conference with a Marxist historian, he denied both the atrocities of Stalin and Mao. Given the overwhelming evidence for the brutal system of gulags, mass purges and executions, the starving of the people of the Ukraine, and the misuse of psychiatry in Stalin’s era, such denial is incredible. As for Mao, around 35,000,000-45,000,000 people died from the effects of his rule, directly through execution or brutality in prison or indirectly through failed agricultural policies. Did this Marxist forget about the Cultural Revolution? Again, this seems to be an integrity matter rather than sloppy scholarship.
While I am not a Classical Liberal, the claims of Classical Liberalism about what worsened the Great Depression should be taken seriously, and yet they are dismissed by most historians I have read with little or no argumentation. Usually the dismissal carries with it a tinge of sarcasm. Such a response, again, is due to ideological bias.
Many historians claimed that Alger Hiss was unjustly charged with espionage, as well as the Rosenbergs. KGB files opened after the Cold War ended have affirmed that Hiss was a Soviet spy, as well as Julius Rosenberg (his wife may well not have been involved). In fact, a number of people the much maligned Senator Joseph McCarthy accused of being Soviet spies turned out to be Soviet spies. The “anti-anti-communism” of leftist historians came into play rather than looking at evidence for or against the guilt of Hiss or Julius Rosenberg. To be fair, many historians have corrected earlier positions based on this new evidence, but the dogmatism with which historians held the earlier position is, at the least, fascinating.
Other events go unsaid by historians:
A number of prominent politicians believed succession was legal before the War between the States, including northern politicians.
Some early feminists opposed abortion on liberal grounds that forced abortion was one of the ways men would try to control and take advantage of women. Susan B. Anthony was opposed to abortion.
The Crusades began as a defensive war–vast swaths of the formerly Christian Mediterranean world had been conquered by Islam, and there were Islamic colonies throughout Europe, especially in Moorish Spain. The Crusades were an attempt to re-take the Holy Land which was lost when the Muslims defeated the Eastern Roman Empire’s troops in the seventh century.
Focusing on violent protests in the South against integration, historians often ignore the many incidents of peaceful integration and the growing grassroots movement for civil rights which may have been more successful with less bitterness resulting than the massive federal and military intervention liberals support.
Historians often play up the atrocities of Christians and downplay the atrocities of Muslims. By the way, I am sure the troops of the Eastern Roman Empire discovered that Islam is a religion of peace. My sarcasm is obvious.
Now there are some fine historians, especially among those who have studied intellectual history. Shelby Foote has written a masterful narrative history of the War between the States. Thomas Molnar, Modris Eksteins, John Lukacs, and Jacques Barzun have written some splendid intellectual history. Thomas J. DiLorenzio has written some works that bring more balance to the study of Abraham Lincoln. David McCullough is a fine historian who is fair who has a flair for style, a rare trait among academic writers. Paul Johnson is a good writer, though his own classical liberal bias gets a bit thick — he’s not a trained academic historian, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Michael Grant is a fascinating writer. I know there are many others, and when I get overly cynical, when I say “There are liars, damned liars, and historians,” I think of these individuals. May more like them come along.