How Revisionist History Works


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey, Candace.

Candace Gibson: Jane, we have alluded to revisionist history before when we talked about Rosie the Riveter and did the Chinese beat Columbus to America, the idea being that as new evidence is found and new facts revealed - or we start to look at history in a different way - we can see that it is an evolving thing.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. And it's always a very popular subject to talk about anything relating to revisionist history. And I find it very interesting just because it touches on the idea of the history of history itself, basically how we view history. And it's always important to go over your own assumptions and make sure what you believe isn't based on something not right.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. And that's what makes revisionist history so controversial. And it's not always controversial. Sometimes it's as simple as fixing a date in a history textbook. But back in 1931, the American Historical Association president, Carl Becker, made this landmark speech in which he clarified that history wasn't a static list of dates and names and a very fixed chronology of our global culture. He said that it is an evolving living thing. And I like to think of history as going to an art museum, and you look at a painting, and the way that I interpret it is dependent upon my life experiences, the environment in which I was raised, the values I have, and what I've been taught. And you may come along and look at the same painting and have a totally different interpretation. And I think that around that time, people were starting to learn that it was okay to think of history that way. It didn't have to be a very fixed subject. It could be reinterpreted and reevaluated.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. And I think Becker himself actually compared it to looking over your own history. If you think about your own past, there are certain things you do skew and you do choose to forget. You obviously can't remember everything. And the idea of relating history is necessarily picking out facts and ignoring most of the other facts. And so you necessarily - objectivity is difficult. So just the way that you pick out facts can alter how someone understands it.

Candace Gibson: And we know that historians, as early on as Plutarch and Tacitus were doing this. They were revising history, but it didn't really become a major subject of discussion until World War II when historians had to go back and think about, "How do we write about the war? How do we write about the Nazi soldiers?" And that's when revisionist history became a hot topic. And in the decades that followed, all of these volatile movements began - not just in the United States but around the world. Even globalization itself was a volatile topic, as well technology, events like the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the cold war, and the feminist movement. All of these things happening that made people realize that different names and different motivations needed to be included in history textbooks.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And so textbooks start incorporating looking at marginalized people of society. Like you mentioned the feminist movement, so they looked a famous women and their work in the feminist movement. And the civil rights movement, in America at least, after that people started paying much more attention to landmark African Americans or marginalized races in general.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. So before we go any further, I think it would be a good idea to warm you guys up or get you familiar with revisionist history - to tell you a little anecdote. We have a great article on our website about revisionist history, and the author of this one begins by telling the much beloved story of George Washington and the cherry tree. And it is a fun simple little anecdote that we're told as schoolchildren - or we used to be, rather - that George Washington went and cut down a cherry tree on his parents' property one day. And when his father asked him whether or not he had cut down the tree he said, "Father, I cannot tell a lie. I cut down the cherry tree." And it was meant to reaffirm in the early Americans minds that George Washington was a man of valor and truth, he could be trusted and he was a good leader. And it wasn't true. And we know, even today - archeologists went out and surveyed the land where he would've grown up and there were no cherry trees on the property. But it was a story that made him a larger than life figure in our minds. And so one of the things that revisionist history does is correct specific facts. And with a case like this, it doesn't detract from George Washington's character that that story isn't true. We still have many of the same assumptions that we did about him before.

Jane McGrath: That's right. Correcting facts is something that every historian should be open to. If there is new evidence that is revealed, go back and fix it. And if that means altering how we think of someone in our history, we should do that. But a lot of people think of revisionist history in a more radical way. Charles Beard is a famous historian who challenged how we thought about the founding fathers in general. He looked particularly at the American Revolution and he said these people stood to gain mone y because they had debt they bought very cheaply - and after the Revolution they would make out. So Charles Beard was like, "Oh, they're not interested in what they said they were interested in - the liberties and all the meanings behind the Constitution, but rather they were just after money."

Candace Gibson: And that brings to mind a very important perspective that revisionist history takes as well. And if the fact checking perspective is the most cut and dry, we'll call that number one. The number perspective we would say, like Jane is referring to now, applying specific lenses to history. And there are four that are primarily applied - economic, like with the Charles Beard theory; political; racial; and sexual. And so these social or theoretical perspectives can completely alter the way we view a group of people. But it's again like you were looking at a painting in an art museum or even reading a book - you can read these different theories and you can appreciate the lens that's being applied to it. But you don't have to agree with it. It just gives it a new shade of meaning.

Jane McGrath: That's true. And one thing to consider when these new ideas come out, these radical new ideas about did the Chinese discover America before Columbus, that these books do sell. So there is that motivation just to take these new theories with a grain of salt, that academics have this motivation, they have that temptation, to come up with these new radical ideas for their own purposes.

Candace Gibson: And that's when thing get dangerous. And we'll call that perspective number three, and that is taking a negative perspective and looking at revisionism as an opportunity to put your agenda onto history and to get people to believe a certain factor that's not exactly true. And in some instances, if it's just dead wrong and that's apparent to everyone, it's not called revisionism, it's called negationism.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And one example of this I think you were going to lead to is the Holocaust denial.

Candace Gibson: Yeah.

Jane McGrath: And the revisionist claim, "Oh, we don't want to be associated with something like Holocaust denial because the facts are there and it did happen." And these radicals who are saying that it didn't shouldn't be associated with us.

Candace Gibson: So let's take a look at some other examples of revised histories and revised historical narratives that can in fact alter our perspectives of the past. It's the same old song for me, I'm going to bring up my favorite man, Thomas Jefferson.

Jane McGrath: I knew it.

Candace Gibson: Jane could feel it coming. I had that sparkle in my eye. The Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings affair didn't come to light until well after DNA tests conclusively proved that he had fathered children with her. There were several generations of Jefferson children who had black blood in them. And I think that complicates the Jefferson image, because we know that he had slaves on Monticello. And we know from some of his slaves' narratives that were written down, that he was, I guess, in certain terms, a good master - but he was still a master of slaves. And he did not believe in the dissolution of the institution of slavery. He stood up very strongly for the fact that the thought it was an institution that would phase itself out. And I believe he had a selfish motivation in that.

Jane McGrath: Really.

Candace Gibson: I think that Monticello was run completely off of all the hard work of slaves and he knew he had a good thing going. And despite the fact that he was kind to them or he was a good master, it would've fallen apart. And how complex and difficult to grapple with the fact that he supported slavery and yet he fathered children who wouldn't be accepted as equal members of society. So that's a really strong point of view about a founding father whom I do love for his ideas and what he contributed to our nation. But revisionist history doesn't just look at people specifically, it can also look at periods of time.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And it's interesting if you look at the different periods in history. They were obviously named, and these names were invented by certain people who had certain perspectives on history. So you look at a name like the Dark Ages or the Enlightenment or the Renaissance - and whether it was through intention or just the connotation of the name of the word, it does shape how we think of them. So it's always good. At How Stuff Works, we have this great motto of keep asking. And it's always good to always be questioning how we think about history in general. And one personal story of mine that I - I'm young enough to have gotten revisionist history when I was taught. When I was learning about the American Revolution, my textbook would give a lot of defenses for the British. I was taught America, but my textbooks was like, "But the British had their reasons. And this is why they did those taxes. They were just defending America." So you can see it seeping into American schoolchildren today.

Candace Gibson: It's so interesting to think about. I think that there's one particular county in Florida that has outright banned any interpretive or revisionist textbooks. And again, we see that revisionist history can be a nasty term. Even George W. Bush used it to describe the media covering the war in Iraq. Back in 2003, he called them revisionist historians. And again, deepening on whether you look at revisionist history as an opportunity to bring a greater truth and a greater state of understanding, or some sort of ulterior motive to get people to correspond to your agenda, it can go either way. One of the most important reasons to study revisionist history, and even history, is that we've been told time and time again that history repeats itself. And a hot topic right now with Obama getting ready to come into the White House is the idea of a new New Deal. But two UCLA economists are claiming through their research that the original New Deal wasn't so hot after all, and that it actually might've put the United States back seven years in terms of economic recovery. And what they're saying is that the policies that were part of the National Industrial Recovery Act actually made the Great Depression continue on until about 1943 when the economy could've naturally corrected itself by '36. So what FDR did essentially was revoke any sort of punishment for big corporations that were trusts, and he encouraged employees to be paid 25 percent more than what their salaries and their jobs were really worth. And so we're looking now, and these economists are saying we really need to think twice about any sort of new stimulus plan to help boost the economy.

Jane McGrath: That's true in how it applies today. You're very right. And I have heard that theory before. If you look at FDR, a lot of people say the depression didn't end until the war, and the war is really what ended the depression and not FDR's policies. So it is very relevant today to decide on what we're going to do.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. And I think a lot of us think of FDR as a bigger than life President. He certainly has one of the most memorable monuments in Washington. Certainly, he's a very beloved figure. He had an incredibly long term. He had people who followed and listened to the fireside chats. And they were also very big fans of Eleanor. And so these economists who are putting forth this new theory are really shaking up our perceptions of a President who people heretofore thought led our nation through a hard time.

Jane McGrath: Now they're questioning that.

Candace Gibson: They're questioning that. And I think some theorists are even going so far as to question what FDR's ulterior motives may have been. Perhaps he genuinely thought he was doing the right thing for the nation and for the economy. Or perhaps it was a power measure. Maybe he wanted to hold his office and he knew that he could if he continued to keep the people under his thumb.

Jane McGrath: And he was elected more than twice.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. So revisionist history. Who knows what will be revealed next. But there's so many opportunities for you to go in and look at historical narratives and revise them and bring your own point of view to them. And we would encourage you guys to do that with many of the history articles on our site. So be sure to check them out at howstuffworks.com.

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