How Wide Is The Gap Between Professional Civil War Historians And The General Public?

Fellow blogger David Woodbury responded to my last entry and I thought it was such a thoughtful response that it deserved its own post.  Here is his response:

You wrote:"There is no doubt that most Civil War enthusiasts assume
a set of assumptions that carry little weight within the academic
community. Just take the "debate" over the cause of secession; while
most non-academics continue to push the states’ rights, tariff,
fundamental regional differences line of thought there is general
agreement among professional historians that slavery was the salient
issue driving the national debate one the eve of and especially
following Lincoln’s election in 1860."

Kevin, I think you make too much of this divide between the academic
community, and what you imagine are the assumptions of the general
public. Or maybe, you’re just referring to a "general public" that’s
unlike the one with which I’m familiar. Maybe you’re not referring to
the United States at-large, but to the parts of the South with which
you have personal experience.

In fact, in my own experience, I couldn’t disagree more with the
statement quoted at top. The overwhelming preponderance of
non-academics I know have always embraced the prevailing academic view
that slavery was the central, overarching issue at the center of the
sectional rift, that it was what made the great Compromises necessary,
and that the perceived threat to it — the dimming prospects for
expanding slavery westward into the vast territories covering the rest
of the continent — directly precipitated secession, which in turn
precipitated an inevitable war.
The reason most non-academics take that
view is that it is the view handed down to us by academics. That was
the perspective I was inculcated with as a child in Iowa, and as a
college student in Indiana.

If anything, you might argue that the general public has adopted
assumptions that are oversimplifications of what is being pushed by
academics. But even these oversimplifications must be said to carry
weight with academics, because they are borne out of academic
arguments. For example, we might say that Lincoln’s position with
respect to emancipating the slaves was more complicated and nuanced
than the popular elementary school notion of Lincoln as the Great
Emancipator — a single-minded crusader for equality among the races.
And yet, the oversimplification folds nicely into academic histories
because the root elements are true: Lincoln was opposed to slavery, and
did more than any other man to effect emancipation. In the general
public I grew up in — and the one I live in today in California —
widespread assumptions hold that the Civil War was about slavery, and
that Lincoln freed the slaves.

If you find a disconnect between academia and the general public
with respect to secession or root causes, I’d wager it’s a regional
issue, and doesn’t apply generally.

I agree that my reference to the "general public" is vague and I am not sure I want to commit myself to trying to unpack it.  Of course I did not do any kind of survey; I based it on my own experience over the last year tracking online news items, reading letters to the editor in magazines, my students, etc. Admittedly, this is not scientific.  Anyway, perhaps other readers would care to comment on this.  Thanks David.

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1 comment… add one
  • Ken Noe Nov 1, 2006 @ 9:47


    My Perryville book received a strong, positive review on H-Net. The reviewer, among other things, compared it favorably to an older work on the subject. Not long afterward, a second reader complained about the H-Net review on an internet chatroom, alledging that the H-Net reviewer had shortchanged the earlier work because (to paraphrase) “those academics all stick together against the rest of us.” My sense is that those views are in a minority–I’ve heard a lot over the years from non-academics who liked the book–but they’re out there. And at some point they blend into the larger bias toward acdemics and “PC” that has now become some entrenched in American culture. Note the criticism of people like Eric Foner (“liberal”) and Nina Silber (“feminist”) on that Petersburg blog you discussed the other day. “Liberals” and “feminists” apparently aren’t allowed to discuss Gettysburg.

    But it’s not all one-sided. I know quite a few academics who hold a great deal of disdain toward “buffs” as well as people like me who “pander” to them by “popularizing” history. A couple of my colleagues remain appalled that I “abandoned” social history for a battle. Ultimately, I still agree with McPherson: academics and non-academics are both responsible for the bifurcated nature of Civil War, both have a lot to offer each other, and it’s time we do so.


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