Ayers v. McPherson or Another Straw Man Argument

While I appreciate that Dimitri mentions me in the same post as James McPherson and Ed Ayers it is not at all clear as to exactly how I fit in. More importantly, this supposed dichotomy between Ayers’s contingency and McPherson’s Whiggism is way off the mark. Dimitri would have us believe that McPherson assumes a broad view of American history as both inevitable and heroic. I couldn’t disagree more. There is indeed an element of this in Battle Cry of Freedom, but it is clear to me that McPherson maintains a distinction between the contingency on the battlefield and the outcome of the war more generally. Back up a little and a close reading of McPherson on secession and war reveals even more contingency. Even after the states in the Deep South seceded, McPherson does not conclude that war was inevitable. There is plenty of contingency in this book and others if you read closely. McPherson does celebrate the outcome of the war and why shouldn’t he; after all, the end of the war brought an end to slavery. It wasn’t inevitable that this should have happened; in fact, few people would have predicted the end of slavery as late as 1860. McPherson’s celebratory stance seems to me a function of contingency and not some whiggish view of history in general. Emancipation did bring this nation closer to its founding principles.

In reference to Ayers I think it is important to remember that his comments on McPherson’s work are meant for the field as a whole. Ayers’s “deep contingency” sinks deeper than McPherson’s grand narrative in Battle Cry. He is interested in the view from the ground, which means that broader conclusions about the meaning of the war take on a different tone. From this far down there are as many interpretations of what the war means as there are people to interpret. This in no way implies some fundamental disagreement with McPherson. They have different research agendas.

2 comments… add one
  • terry Jul 30, 2010 @ 17:55

    You say, “after all, the end of the war brought an end to slavery.”

    Correction: Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation did not end slavery.
    The end of the war did not end slavery.
    It took the Thirteenth Amendment to end slavery which was ratified by the states on December 6, 1865 long after the war ended.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 31, 2010 @ 1:03

      You are indeed correct. I was speaking loosely here. That said, depending on how one chooses to look at the war it is possible to point to that date as the end of the war.

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