We all want to be remembered as good people. If you’re like me and don’t believe in an afterlife, then it feels even more important to have future generations love us. If the only thing that’s going to last forever is our reputation then we better make sure it’s good!
So when we fight other people, in war or in politics, we tell each other that history is on our side. We’re going to be remembered as heroes and our opponents will be remembered as villains or simply forgotten. We’re made by confident by the knowledge that our values will persevere and the rest will be consigned to the ash heap of history. There’s a problem with that, though.
History never makes up its mind.
Sure, at some points in time the majority of historians have settled on one view. Contrary to popular opinion, this isn’t always because “history is written by the victors.” We don’t usually think of the fall of Rome as being the triumph of the noble Germanic tribes against the oppressive Roman Empire, nor do we study the glorious victory of the North Vietnamese against colonialist capitalists. We think of these defeats in more diffident ways.
But even when historians reach a consensus view, it’s not written in stone.
The Bright Ages
Most of us think of the years following the decline of the Roman Empire (around the 5th century) to the start of the Renaissance (the 14th century) as the Dark Ages, a time of ignorance, superstition, and barbarism. This isn’t completely wrong: the collapse of the Western Roman Empire did do a lot of damage to societies around Europe. It’s not completely accurate, either, and we’re mostly influenced by a historical consensus that developed in the Renaissance and became more extreme during the Enlightenment. It’s only relatively recently that historians have started to challenge this view.
The fall of the empire fractured governance into many smaller states. The central power uniting them became the Church. This was damning to Renaissance thinkers, who embraced humanism and rejected the view that mortal life was fleeting and temptations of the flesh should be resisted. The blossoming of art, philosophy and science that happened under the Church was minimized as it was inconvenient to their view of history.
Protestantism and the Enlightenment put more nails into the coffin of the Dark Ages’ reputation. Protestants wanted more reasons to condemn the Catholic Church, so they interpreted the Dark Ages as a time of the Church oppressing people and causing societal stagnation. Enlightenment thinkers needed to see themselves as triumphing over persecution, so they interpreted the Dark Ages as a time of ignorance and superstition that was encouraged by an anti-science Church. This was despite the fact that virtually all science was conducted under the Church, and that scientific works were preserved by the Church.
Even today many people believe these distortions, though most historians reject them. Does that mean history is on the side of the Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers who dismissed the Dark Ages, or on the side of the people of the Dark Ages?
The Found Cause
Today nearly all historians agree that the American Civil War was over slavery. But this was not always so. Explanations of the war have shifted over time and, though it seems unlikely, they might keep shifting.
When the South first declared secession, their declarations and the speeches by their leaders made it clear why they were seceding. They said, over and over, that they wanted to preserve the institution of slavery. They seceded in response to the election of Abraham Lincoln, a member of the staunchly anti-slavery Republican Party. Though Lincoln himself was a moderate on the issue he still represented a party dedicated to ending slavery so was unacceptable to Southern leaders.
Then the South attacked Fort Sumter and the war began. Lincoln, and most Union soldiers, initially saw the war as an attempt to put down a rebellion threatening the United States. As the war continued their attitudes would change and they would see it as a war to end slavery. Southern leaders continued to defend slavery until they lost the war, at which point many would change their tune and say the war was about defending their way of life. The attitude of the Confederate soldiers fighting the war is less clear: only 20% specifically mentioned defending slavery, but the others did talk of opposing the North’s attempt to change their society, which, in the end, meant they were defending slavery. Maybe they didn’t personally love slavery, but they saw themselves as defending a society with slavery as a key part.
So, during the war, it was generally seen as a war over slavery. After the war ended, that changed. People (mostly Southerners) framed the war as a noble “Lost Cause” against a greedy industrialist North trying to destroy a chivalrous, pastoral South. Slavery was downplayed. A pro-Confederate person alive at that time could have said “look! History was on our side the whole time!”
As time passed, the Lost Cause explanation has fallen out of favor. Historians overwhelmingly see the war as being caused by the South’s secession which was caused by the Republican Party’s opposition to slavery. The war, therefore, was a war over slavery. Now, a pro-Union person could say “look! History was on our side!”
Both people are right. History was on the Confederate’s side until it was on the Unionist’s side. It’s possible that history will change its mind again and again. It’s unlikely, as there’s such a strong argument that the war was about slavery, but history is always viewed through the lens of historians. If a future society wants to tell a story about a war about honorable farmers fighting hordes of industrialists, then they might repurpose the Civil War again.
Don’t Count on History’s Hindsight
It’s tempting to think that future generations will look back on us and applaud our side as being on the vanguard of progress. Tempting, but unwise. It’s most likely that we’ll be forgotten by future generations, exempting niche historians. If we are part of a rare movement that makes the history books, then history will have a fluid view of us, as history is always a story told by historians, and the perspective of historians never becomes a timeless constant.
That’s a dispiriting message for those of us whose only afterlife is in the memories of our descendants. We aren’t going to be shuffled into a reputational Heaven or Hell for eternity. All we can do is believe in our actions today and hope that we’re not judged too harshly for them tomorrow.