Revising history, renewing ideas


The new year always brings renewal, as do new historical ideas. Revisionism usually occurs in the academy. But not always. Its most recent manifestations have taken place in public.
Take, for example, updates to the Thanksgiving holiday. According to The Times, David Two Arrows Vanderhoop, an Aquinnah Wampanoag, explained to an Island audience in November that Thanksgiving Day commemorates an “ungrateful taking,” reminding native people “about what has been taken from us.” He said it was “a day of mourning,” not celebration, for his people. Revisionism has also sparked a huge controversy with the publication of “The 1619 Project,” now in book form and on the bestseller list.

The brainchild of Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times journalist and now a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., the project reframes the American origin story. Its focus is how the enslavement of black people, beginning in 1619 when the first slave ship arrived on colonial shores (Virginia), set the tone for America’s history, culture, politics, and society. It challenges the conventional view that American idealism and eventual independence from Britain in the American Revolution was led by heroic, idealistic men who believed in freedom, equality, and justice.

Virginians like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison may have written essays and given speeches that make them appear enlightened, honorable, and righteous. But the project argues that they were hypocrites who owned hundreds of slaves, compelled to do their bidding on their plantations, which Hannah-Jones calls forced labor camps.

Soon after, a group of historians of the old school, led by Gordon S. Wood of Brown University, claimed that historical facts fail to prove colonists wanted independence to preserve slavery. Hannah-Jones asserted the statement was based on a proclamation issued by Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, who declared that any slave who escaped to British lines would be free.

In a letter to the New York Times signed by other historians and in later interviews, Wood argued that the statement “is not true … [E]very statement offered by the project to validate it is false.” For the letter and the Times’s response, see
This argument spurred conservative politicians like Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas to join the attack. School boards controlled by conservatives tried to ban the book from the curriculum. They claimed it was un-American. Wood was appalled that his evaluation became associated with critics on the right.

The book version adds a single word to satisfy Wood and his colleagues: only “some” colonists sought independence to preserve slavery in America.

Wood’s comments riled other historians. This past October at a meeting of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Woody Holton of the University of South Carolina confronted Wood at a session that was supposed to focus on their recently published books on the Revolution. Holton blurted out, “You are a founding father, Professor Wood, of a massive campaign of censorship.”

One reason for their quarrel is that they follow two different historical schools. Wood focuses on the ideas, life, and writings of great thinkers, whereas Holton concentrates on the role of the working poor, Blacks, women, Indigenous people, and other often overlooked groups.

Revisionism has also concerned the Civil War. Conventional histories emphasize the Constitution’s longevity and continuity. The first sentence of my recent study of constitutional history declares that “the United States Constitution is the oldest, continuous, national republican document in existence today.”

But in his new book, Harvard Law Professor Noah Feldman objects: “It is commonplace today,” he complains, “to speak of the U.S. Constitution as the world’s oldest, continuously operating since its ratification in 1789. But this claim is patently untrue.”

The conventional argument holds that the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, the Fourteenth, with its equal protection clause, and the Fifteenth, guaranteeing to the newly freed slaves the right to vote, amounted to “the second American Revolution,” part of a title of a book by James McPherson of Princeton (McPherson was also a signer of Wood’s letter).
Or “the second founding,” the title of a book by Eric Foner of Columbia, who writes that “the second founding began during the Civil War with congressional passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.” It “can only be understood as part of a much longer debate about rights, democracy, and equality, one that continues to this day.”

Yes, the second American Revolution or a second founding of the Constitution, but decidedly linked to the original document. Feldman of Harvard Law says this is all wrong. He seems to view the document like the Old and New Testaments: the “old” Constitution “ruptured” (his word) and was “broken” because it was “a compromise.” Its framers allowed slavery to persist. After the Civil War, a “new” Constitution, the “moral” one, emerged. It was not a second founding, but a “refounding.”

So historical revisionism has now reached the public press, civic discourse, and school curricula, thanks to the likes of Vanderhoop, Hannah-Jones, and Feldman. They are not alone, as historians continue to shine new light on the past.

Jack Fruchtman, who lives in Aquinnah, has completed work on the second edition of his American constitutional history.