A fundamental feature of historical thought is the distinction between “the past” and “history.” What we call “the past” is just that: It’s what happened at some point before now. Once it occurs, “the past” is gone forever—beyond repeating, beyond reliving, beyond replicating. It’s recoverable only by the evidence, almost never complete, that it leaves behind; and that evidence must be interpreted by individual humans—historians principally, but archaeologists, anthropologists, and others, all of whom differ in all sorts of ways.
Distinct from “the past” are the narratives and analyses that historians offer about earlier times. That’s what we call “history.” History is what people make of the forever-gone past out of surviving documents and artifacts, human recall, and such items as photographs, films, and sound recordings. Indeed, history is created by the application of human thought and imagination to what’s left behind. And because each historian is an individual human being—differing by sex and gender; origin, nationality, ethnicity, and community; nurture, education, and culture; wealth and occupation; politics and ideology; mind, disposition, sensibility, and interest, each living at a distinct time in a distinct place—as a community of professionals, they come to hold different views, have different purposes, create different interpretations, and put forth their own distinctive understandings of “the past.”
A second fundamental fact regarding historical knowledge is that those who commit themselves professionally to writing and teaching history are normal individuals who just happen to be historians. And as the world in which they live changes, historians change as well. Historical interpretations tend to grow and adjust in some synchrony with the times into which human existence has moved so that previous historians’ interpretations are likely to yield to ones more comprehensible, compelling, and relevant to those who are alive. As time passes, new evidence and new methods for examining old evidence emerge, and new subjects of historical inquiry make their appearance. Consequently, historians’ histories change. Works that don’t speak to the times in which they’re created are likely to have short shelf lives.
It’s therefore a mistake to think that historians can fully isolate themselves in majestic, objective, intellectual solitude from the world around them. As hard as they may try to keep their own hopes and views out of what they write, historians, like others, try to find meaning in the past. And when they find it for themselves, they wish to share it with others—their students, readers, and viewers. If they don’t, they fail in one of their principal aims: to make knowledge of the past illuminate, deepen, and enrich the present.
All of these realities provide the general context for the existence of revisionist history. Yet to understand revisionist history fully, we need to take ourselves up to 35,000 feet—high above historians’ specific disputes about specific issues—and examine as a distinct phenomenon what historians are routinely up to down below. When, from that height, we look at what historians have long engaged themselves in doing, what do we find? How should we understand shifting interpretations of the past?
What we call revisionist history appeared at the very birth of written history. It wasn’t, as many allege, the product of the radicalism of the 1960s, nor did it spring up on the political left. Instead, starting with Herodotus and Thucydides, the celebrated Greek founders of extended historical writing in the West, it dates from 2,500 years ago. Since then, it has occupied no settled position on the ideological spectrum and in fact has gained as many interpretive wins for conservative arguments as for liberal ones.
When, in around 430 BCE, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, “the father of history,” wrote his great work, titled simply The Histories, about the wars between the Greeks and non-Greek “barbarians” from the east, he took the first steps toward distinguishing historical inquiry from myth. That shift in emphasis must be considered the first fundamental revision in ways of conceptualizing the past. Purposefully avoiding the fables of the bards, the greatest of which were Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, Herodotus made history a subject of rational analysis and explanation. To do so, he had to rely on existing evidence and its analysis. As an omnivorously curious man, he drew on available written sources, what he observed on his travels, and his interviews with those who’d participated in or recalled the wars of which he wrote. He also began to banish gods as causal agents from human affairs. He subjected his sources, Homeric tales included, to critical evaluation and raised his eyebrows at some of what he learned during his research. In seeking to explain the causes and outcomes of the Persian Wars, he ventured into what today we know of as social and cultural history. The result was a vast, somewhat unruly, wonderfully engaging history—the West’s first.
Yet it took no time for Herodotus to come under attack. His younger contemporary Thucydides curtly dismissed Herodotus’s pathbreaking work as “a prize essay to be heard for the moment, . . . attractive at truth’s expense.” What, to Thucydides, constituted the deficiency of his elder’s work? An Athenian general, Thucydides believed that, instead of being appealing in its art and capacious in its explanatory reach, history should maintain a tight focus on warfare, statecraft, leadership, and politics, its chief method being reliance on written texts and the direct observations of participants, its aims to instruct and, only secondarily, to please, its readers. In addition, he thought, it should be entirely secular; gods were of no use for explanatory purposes. His differences with Herodotus were philosophical in the sense that they put into contention what historians should study, why they should study it, and the uses to which they should put what they learn. We venerate Thucydides’s great History of the Peloponnesian War because of its gravity and the brilliance of the speeches he had his historical figures, like Pericles, deliver. His work continues to instruct everyone who reads it.
What’s relevant here is that Thucydides’s subjects, methods, and aims held the field of historical study effectively unopposed for the next 2,300 years. Thucydidean history, in the works of Polybius, Xenophon, Sallust, Livy, Tacitus, Plutarch, and Josephus, was the kind of history that the founders of the United States absorbed in their youth. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams discussed Thucydides in their lifelong correspondence but never once mentioned Herodotus. Until recently, most Americans were the children of Thucydides in that they studied Thucydidean subjects in school and college. Only recently have those subjects been joined by others with which Herodotus was more comfortable—those of social and cultural history, through which the history of women, laboring people, African Americans, Latinos, gays and lesbians, and others have been given greatly enlarged attention. Needless to say, the emergence of all people as historical subjects has been a source of public and political friction. It also lies at the roots of the negative use of the otherwise neutral term “revisionist history.”
Yet there’s irony in the triumph of Thucydidean history. As Donald Kagan, the late, celebrated, traditionalist historian of the classical world, argued, Thucydides’s sharply drawn distinction between his own and Herodotean history made Thucydides “the first revisionist historian.” That is, the history of warfare, politics, and statecraft—the traditionalist, male-oriented history that long held the center of Western education—originated as a fundamental break with the kind of Herodotean history that preceded it. In addition to being revisionist, Thucydides’s History was “conservative” in that, in the context of today’s world, it turned historical thought away from broad coverage toward a set of subjects that until late in the twentieth century were considered the only ones legitimate and significant enough to examine and to teach. In doing so, Thucydides created an enduring tension within historical studies between the kind of subject-limited history he wrote and the more universalistic set of topics that Herodotus pursued. We are inescapably the inheritors of that tension, our arguments about the appropriate historical subjects to study encased in an intellectual mold two and a half millennia old. The fact that that tension has endured so long suggests that the kinds of interpretive differences that constitute historians’ arguments with each other are part of history’s ineradicable genetic makeup.
These arguments and that tension, however, are not the only constituent elements of history’s DNA. So is its variability—the changes, increasingly frequent and sometimes seismic, in the way history is conceived and expressed. In the West, the most transformative historiographic shift—conceptual, philosophic, religious, and cultural—was the one brought on by the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312 CE. Not surprisingly, Constantine’s conversion engendered an immediate, revolutionary adjustment in historical thought to explain and justify the Christian faith’s emergence as the favored belief system of Constantine’s empire. It was an adjustment that was destined to put classical, pagan historiography on the defensive in the West ever after.
The principal author of Christianity’s historical claims was Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, whose world-historical achievement was, in his Ecclesiastical History, to create an account, written and published after 313 CE, of the history of Christianity and the Christian Church. No greater transformative revisionist conception of the Western past has ever appeared. Working from documents and fighting with polemical ardor on behalf of what soon became theological orthodoxy, Eusebius provided the West with the historical claims and the Western Church with the historical underpinnings from which subsequently grew most Westerners’ understanding of their world. Not even the Marxist worldview and the more recent introduction of women into the historical record have proved as powerful, permeating, deep, and enduring as the reign of Christian concepts, chronology, and subjects on the way we consider the past.
Here, again, it’s worth noting that, like Thucydides’s success in pulling historiography in a direction that would endure as historical orthodoxy for 2,300 years, so Eusebius’s Christian history has served as a traditionalist anchor of Western historiography ever since its emergence. Its incorporation of Jewish monotheism into Christian faith in place of pagan polytheism; its substitution, for older more fatalistic circular historical schemes, of the hope of future deliverance; and its claim that history had a datable origin, whether in Genesis or the Incarnation, were innovations of Eusebian thought. Since then, they’ve served as the secure mooring of the Western historical consciousness. For a second time, revisionist history became traditional; what once was a challenge to pagan orthodoxy turned into an orthodoxy of its own.
Of course, few changes in historical interpretations cause such deep and enduring revolutions in understanding of the past as the world-historical Christian historiographic transformation. Most revisionist history is normal in the sense that it’s embodied in the histories that all historians write; unlike Eusebius’s, it doesn’t create the intellectual foundations of a new religious faith and culture. Accordingly, all new historical arguments and perspectives must be assessed as to their impact on existing knowledge and convictions and in relation to whatever else they are about. Here, consideration of scale is essential. The reassessment of, say, a minor Civil War battle may seriously alter the understanding of that encounter without having a wide or deep impact on understanding of the larger Civil War. But other reinterpretations of other subjects can carry much greater consequences because they affect more significant issues. Take the change of view caused by the 1946 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which sharply altered knowledge about early Judaism; or take the detection in the 1960s of the site at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, which offered strong support for the existence of a Norse settlement in the “new” world a millennium ago—that is, before Columbus stumbled upon and “discovered” the Western Hemisphere. All such shifts in interpretation, while of lesser impact than the emergence of Eusebian Christian history, force a reconsideration of the subject to which they relate.
It does not, however, require new evidence to shift historical understanding. Sometimes, a deepening of historical knowledge originates in the application of newly available methods to long-existing material. Such has been the recent case regarding the venerable, if long suppressed, charge, one originating in his lifetime, that Thomas Jefferson had fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings. While Hemings family lore about the relationship between the two had long existed (and been ignored) and while historians’ analyses of the timing of Hemings’s pregnancies had lent fresh circumstantial weight to some of the claims, it was only when genetic information could be supplied by Hemings’s living lineal descendants and examined by geneticists that Jefferson’s relationship with his enslaved concubine could be firmly established.
The most common source of revisionist thinking arises from shifts in perspective. The classic American example of repeated shifts of this sort concerns the enduring, complex, and deeply consequential debates over the causes and consequences of the Civil War. Since 1860, interpretations of that vast contest have mutated in concert with changes in American politics, law, attitudes, and society, changes especially relating to race. Similarly, over the past half century the emergence to political, economic, cultural, and social authority of women, African Americans, and other people previously omitted from historical consideration, plus the appointment of members of those groups to academic faculties and senior positions in other cultural institutions, have led scholars to learn more about those groups’ histories. The results have been profound. Historians now take it for granted that it’s impossible to understand any part of the past without taking into account the realities of all, and all kinds of, people.
Historians routinely put their own and others’ understanding of the past into question. They don’t do this for the fun of it. Rather, they believe it’s their responsibility to create an understanding of the past that speaks to the living. There’s nothing novel to them about arguing, then reaching at least a temporary consensus, about everything from why a Civil War battle turned out as it did to why the North won the entire conflict. There’s nothing unusual about debates among historians of women about how to frame and understand the historical suppression of women’s agency in human affairs. Arguments over the causes and consequences of such momentous events as the American, French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions never abate. Historians are currently in the midst of reevaluating the peopling of the Americas, the result of which is to leave in tatters the colonial history of the United States long taught to American school students.
It’s in the context of that reevaluation that we recently experienced a furor over which date to assign to the beginning of American history. There are many candidates to consider: the first settlements of people from Asia dating back at least 20,000 years in the territory now comprising the contiguous United States; the 1565 Spanish settlement at today’s St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest continuously occupied site of European habitation in the lower 48 states; Spain’s establishment of an outpost on Tewa people’s lands near today’s Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1598; the 1607 English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia; the 1619 introduction of race slavery in that colony; and the Declaration of Independence. Such debates, arising from different perspectives on the same evidence and constituting classic instances of revisionist history, are unlikely ever to be fully stilled because they have to do with the origin story of the United States, with national identity, and with current circumstances. History can never be walled off from the present.
It should thus occasion no surprise that many people find it difficult to accept such frequent challenges to what they were taught to think of as unalterably fixed and true—whether it concerns the rise of Christianity, the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the causes of the American Civil War, the role of women in the historical past, or the birth date of American history. It’s not surprising that they ask in bewilderment: If the past can’t change, then how can the history about it do so? They’re offended to learn that at least some of what they were taught early in life as “history” is no longer fully accepted by historians and is instead taught in different ways. Like all humans, families, peoples, and nations—like many historians, too—they want to believe what they learned when young, especially since it long served as an adhesive of their identity. You mean to tell me that the Constitution was written in part to protect slavery and not only for its, and the Declaration of Independence’s, lofty stated ideals of independence, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the general welfare of all Americans? You mean to say that a historical case can be made against the use of atomic bombs on Japanese cities to end a ferocious war in which hundreds of thousands of American lives were lost and perhaps an equal number saved by the bombs? Many people are ready to dismiss all such interpretations as no more than “revisionist history”—the result of ideology, politics, and misbegotten negativism.
Many people also resist accepting the simple truth that historians, whom they consider experts, disagree about the facts and what to make of them. To be sure, everyone can agree that the Declaration of Independence was approved on July 2, 1776, and was adopted two days later. Those are the facts. But what do they mean? That independence was a summer event? That it came suddenly? That it capped at least 11 years of increasing turmoil? That it inaugurated five years of brutal warfare? And so on. Mere facts don’t have meaning. They must be given that meaning by human beings. And those human beings very well may disagree among themselves about their meaning. But, for many non-historians, disagreement among experts fits uneasily with their desire for certainty. Many condemn historians’ changing interpretations as evidence of political bias. Still others see challenges to historical orthodoxies as threats to the historical tales congruent with their political aims and thus to their power. They ask themselves, too, since historians themselves often don’t agree about the past, why anyone should have confidence in historians’ professional claims to be experts. Why should anyone cede to historians authority over what happened when those historians challenge what was long taught as gospel truth? Of course, nothing requires people to cede anything to historians. But just as it’s best to hire a licensed electrician to wire a new house rather than to do it on your own or to visit an experienced orthopedic surgeon rather than a carpenter to set your broken leg, so it’s probably preferable to turn to an experienced historian for authoritative current understanding about a particular subject as well as knowledge about currently existing disagreements over it.
Professional historians view their roles and contributions in a different light than non-historians. They consider their debates not simply as intellectual exercises but as a contribution to understanding and to the welfare of an open society. To them, revisions in knowledge about the past serve society much as a gyroscope serves to help maintain a ship’s even keel. It’s their conviction that adjustments to existing knowledge, adjustments grounded as much in known evidence as in new thought and new perspectives, allow for the potential increase and deepening of knowledge about human existence for everyone. Historians take in stride the differences among themselves, try to learn from their interprofessional disputes, and endeavor to incorporate into their own investigations what makes the most sense to them. Most importantly, they’re of the strong conviction that battles over the past are inescapable because they’re hard-wired into human nature and existence. All of this means that rarely, if ever, can “Case Closed” be stamped on a historical subject.
But if no subject is immune from reconsideration, what about the widespread conviction that history can and should be objective in the sense of being an accurate and full account of what actually occurred? It’s likely to surprise most people that today’s historians believe that it can’t be. On what grounds do they believe that?
The first reason, both existential and epistemological, grows from the impossibility of knowing all that happened in the past. In addition to being beyond re-experiencing, no past event, whether as small in scale as an auto accident or as vast as a revolution, can be recorded in its entirety while taking place or understood in its entirety afterward. Only some, never all, evidence of an event—say reports of witnesses, physical remains, and films and sound recordings—remains behind, doesn’t deteriorate, or isn’t purposefully destroyed; and what does remain is a result of such factors as its collectors’ partialities, their speed and intent in saving it, their point of view when reporting it, and sheer accident. What’s missing would tell us more, but it doesn’t exist to do so. We’re thus left to interpret what remains as best we can by using all the evidence available and subjecting it to examination for authenticity, accuracy, and meaning. But since there are likely to be different ways to interpret the surviving evidence, the results of even the most experienced historians’ interpretations will often differ. That’s because each historian, indeed all people, will bring distinct interests, sensibilities, and minds to bear when they examine the same evidence. Here is where differences over interpretation—the opportunities for revisionist history—enter the picture. Whether they arise from disputes over evidence and what it means or, as is sometimes the case, from different social or ideological views, all such differences must be, as they always are, subjected to hard-headed examination by any and all who enter such interpretive battles over the past.
Take, for example, the storming of the Bastille in Paris on July 14, 1789. Some people witnessed it from outside that fortress, others from inside. Some were guards, some prisoners, some liberators. Because none of them could observe and record everything that occurred, much evidence was simply lost. In addition, as neuroscience and memory studies demonstrate, much of what participants and onlookers perceived was selective; their eyes and ears were subject to “inattentional blindness”—the inclination of our senses to take in only what they’re focused on, not all that they might apprehend. Furthermore, the more distant in time witnesses are from an event, the less dependable is their memory of it. The result is that what historians know of anything in the past is only a part of what occurred, was witnessed, and was reported; and some of that may be inaccurate. But even were an event’s missing evidence available, our knowledge of it would remain disputable.
Because these are the realities that historians face in their day-to-day endeavors, they’re reconciled to the general proposition that it’s impossible to achieve a history of any subject that is complete, certain, accurate, unchanging, final, eternally valid, proven beyond dispute, and accepted as such by everyone. Since that’s so, it means that every history of every subject, no matter how insignificant, will differ in some respects from its predecessors—through addition, subtraction, the use of new evidence, differences in points of view, or distinctive arguments. Yet this should be no cause for despair. Each new contribution to deeper and fuller understanding of anything ought to be seen as closing in on, even if it can never reach, a meeting point at which historians will agree that all that can be said about the subject has been said so that an enduring consensus as to what probably occurred and why it did so is reached. With robust commitment to that goal, even without hope of ever fully reaching it, historians press on in confidence that, as existing evidence is reevaluated, new evidence discovered, and new minds put to work on a subject, the gap between what is known and what remains to be understood narrows bit by bit.
We should keep in mind, too, that there’s nothing novel in the interpretive variety of historical knowledge. When compared with, say, different interpretations of works of classical and jazz standards, distinct productions of operas and plays, and the multiplicity of styles in art and architecture, historical interpretations don’t seem much different. Nor do the sources of such diversity—conductors’ temperaments, instrumentalists’ styles, stage directors’ and opera producers’ visions, and artists’ take on the world around them—seem to differ much from those at work in the creation of works of history. Just as in other human activities, no two historians will, or will be able to, approach an identical subject in identical ways out of identical interests for identical purposes. For that reason, historians live easily and calmly with disagreement and argumentation.
In the end, a strong case can be made that the concept of “revisionist history” is so widely applied and the realities behind it so deeply infused into historical thought that it’s useless as a distinctive feature of any work of history. All written history is—in one respect or another, on one scale or another, and with one impact or another—revisionist in intent or consequence. Revisionist history is a universal phenomenon. Historians’ debates and shifting views of their subjects are the principal means by which they approach, while never reaching, their goal of understanding the extraordinary complexity of human life in times before their own. In fact, their arguments about the past and their varied ways of going about their work should be celebrated as signature characteristics of a democratic culture. Where enforced orthodoxy exists, there lies totalitarianism.
A democratic culture, in which different views and different “truths” are allowed to coexist and share billing in the public forum of thought, ought also to be seen as a glorious storehouse of ideas, many of them cast off in one era yet always available for reuse in another. In no case does a new way of viewing the past annihilate older ones. On the contrary: Discarded historical interpretations, like strata of ancient sedimentary rock, lie buried atop each other, out of sight until they’re made visible again for study and use. Renewed, reconsidered, and repurposed, they can then fuel fresh struggles to understand the past. Revisionist history ensures the unending renewal of knowledge of what came before our own days on earth. We should celebrate as well as accept that fact.