U.S. Intellectual History Blog

David M. Potter and the Problem of Presentism

Editor's Note

The following guest post by Erik B. Alexander, assistant professor in the Department of Historical Studies at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, is yet another response to our roundtable on David Potter’s The Impending Crisis. 

The recent roundtable, “Reflections on David Potter’s The Impending Crisis,” organized by Michael Landis, offers assessments and critiques of Potter’s work from several different perspectives, and from a range of scholars at different stages of their careers.  It is interesting that this collection of essays has produced several divergent—even contradictory—views of Potter’s arguments.  Most of the essays comment on Potter’s place in the extensive historiography of the coming of the Civil War, with at least two claiming that “Potter sides with the fundamentalists: he recognizes that slavery caused the Civil War” and that he “puts a very heavy emphasis on the issue of slavery as responsible for” the emergence of the Republican Party.  Frank Towers also points out that “Potter recognized the centrality of slavery” because it was “the focal point for political polarization.”  Yet, in a different essay, Potter simultaneously “underemphasizes slavery” and “deflects attention from the institution of slavery as the primary catalyst for the war.”  Some of the essays laud Potter’s influence and relevance for current questions about antebellum politics and the coming of the Civil War.  Others sharply reprove Potter’s staying power in modern scholarship and classrooms.  How are we to reconcile some of these conflicting views?

Scholars rightfully recognize Potter’s The Impending Crisis as his posthumous opus (though as my friend Rachel Shelden pointed out to me in conversation recently, any serious evaluation of the book must account for the substantial role Don Fehrenbacher played in shaping its final form).  Interestingly enough, however, it may not actually be Potter’s most important piece of writing.  Rather, that honor arguably belongs to Potter’s 1962 essay “The Historian’s Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa.” [1]  Many of the themes that would come to dominate Potter’s later work and thinking—especially The Impending Crisis, but also his 1968 The South and the Sectional Conflict—first appeared in that earlier essay. [2]  There, he explored some of the ideas so central to his scholarship, in particular questions of nationalism, and how the problem of hindsight can affect the historian’s craft.  The essay subsequently became enormously influential in a wide range of fields, particularly in shaping the current scholarly consensus that has identified the shared commitment among white Southerners to Confederate nationalism during the Civil War. [3]

The article is a tour de force of pure logic, and a notoriously challenging read.  Potter pointed out a number of paradoxes and problems of circular reasoning in the ways scholars then approached questions surrounding nationalism.  Some of these problems were small, such as “the historian who defines all the land within a given national jurisdiction as a ‘common territory’ and then uses the concept that is a common territory to prove the validity of the national jurisdiction” (Potter pointed out the irony that Detroit and San Francisco are connected by common territory, while Detroit and Toronto are not). [4]  Others were more basic problems, such as the hindsight of historical perspective determining whether one views a revolution as a war of independence carried out by patriots, or a rebellion and insurrection carried out by traitors.

Parts of the essay now seem quite dated, as cultural anthropology and other fields have substantially expanded our understanding and definitions of nationalism.  Yet, there are also parts of Potter’s arguments that now seem more relevant than ever.  Potter was particularly concerned with the problem of hindsight.  Even more specifically, Potter cautioned against the ways in which applying morality and evaluative judgments to the past can lead to inconsistencies in historical analysis.  As Potter argued, allowing the hindsight of moral judgments to cloud historical thinking “sometimes impels the historian to deny nationality to groups of whom he morally disapproves, even though the group may in every sense fulfill his theoretical criteria of nationality.”  Potter found this approach “questionable” because it “makes it difficult for the historian to attribute nationality to movements of which he morally disapproves.  For the attribution itself would imply that the movement has a kind of validity.  This factor has certainly influenced the treatment of the question whether the Confederacy was a nation, for the issue between the Union and the Confederacy also became an issue between freedom and slavery.  To ascribe nationality to the South is to validate the right of a proslavery movement to autonomy and self-determination.” [5]

Thus, in my estimation, Potter’s interest in nationalism was twofold.  First, as Dan Crofts notes, Potter “had a special interest in the glue that holds societies together,” and particularly in why that glue lost its adhesive power in the United States during the 1840s and 1850s (here, Michael Landis raises an important question as to whether or not that glue was always as strong as Potter believed—it certainly would not have been from the vantage point of the enslaved).  Second, Potter was deeply apprehensive about applying hindsight to nationalism.  For Potter, combining historical analysis with moral judgments could lead to inconsistent and faulty reasoning, and the application of double standards.

Though, to my knowledge, Potter never used the term, the fundamental problem he was describing was presentism—interpreting the past through the lens of modern values and standards.  This problem presents itself in the essay by Michael Landis.  Landis rejects Potter’s emphasis on Unionism, and the importance of the concept and value of pro-Union sentiments to so many Americans living in the mid-nineteenth century.  Indeed, for Landis, Unionism was, “by implication, the rule of the Slave Power.”  The problem with this approach rests with Landis’s clear suggestion that historical actors who adhered to anything but strict anti-slavery sentiment and modern standards of racial equality were, by definition, part of the pro-slavery side, and therefore unworthy of anything but immediate and utter condemnation, much less any kind of serious consideration or analysis.  Further, Landis dismisses any historian (or historical figure for that matter) who does not agree with this approach as a Southern sympathizer.

David Potter spent much of his scholarly career contemplating the hazards that accompany this very style of thinking, correctly emphasizing that such an approach is fraught with logical pitfalls.  In The Impending Crisis, Potter’s interpretation combined elements of both the fundamentalist and revisionist approaches to the debate over Civil War causation.  He recognized the centrality of slavery and reasserted that the sectional conflict contained an inherent disagreement over the institution’s morality.  At the same time, he also rejected the fundamentalists’ logical slippery slope of inevitability, and instead embraced a neo-revisionist emphasis on the importance of historical contingency and timing to explaining the causes of the war.  Indeed, it is that latter focus on historical timing that influenced the thinking of so many important scholars who followed him, as Frank Towers’s thoughtful (and in my estimation, accurate) essay suggests.

Lamentably, like so many of the original revisionists and other scholars of Potter’s generation, race and emancipation were not as central to his understanding of the past as they are for historians writing today.  Yet, rather than condemning his views for falling short of our own, is it not preferable to attempt to put them in context?  Much of the point underlying the original revisionism was the view of its proponents that the Civil War was not something we should celebrate.  This was not because Potter and others were unabashed racists or pro-slavery apologists.  They viewed the war as “needless”—and therefore a tragedy—because the most current scholarship at the time argued that slavery would have disappeared on its own (indeed, it was only the revelation of slavery studies in the 1970s that slavery was in fact growing stronger that pushed later neo-revisionists to abandon the idea that the Civil War was unnecessary).  Instead, for Potter and others writing at midcentury, the Civil War was a tragedy because the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans was not something they took lightly.

I wonder if this is a point that should continue to weigh on our minds, even as we rightfully remain focused on the destruction of slavery.  For Potter and others, writing in the midst of two world wars, the value of Union was simply not the same thing as the acceptance or celebration of pro-slavery sentiments.  Potter’s “middle ground” was not “pro-slavery Unionism” and compromise was not the appeasement of enslavers.  Rather, the importance of Union was an acknowledgment of what disunion would come to mean: a profound loss of life and limb.  Perhaps we are seeing a partial return to that view, with the recent scholarly turn among military historians to the “dark side” of the Civil War. [6]

Nevertheless, equating compromise with appeasement, and pro-Union with pro-slavery, prevents us from recognizing the uncomfortable reality that there were many Americans in the 1850s—likely the vast majority of white Northerners—who strongly opposed slavery, yet simultaneously valued the Union, and were willing to accept—and even defend—the contradiction of a Union with slavery (a point clearly demonstrated in Elizabeth Varon’s 2008 Disunion!). [7]  David Potter recognized that they did not equate pro-Union with pro-slavery.  Potter’s emphasis on Union and compromise was the consequence of his attempt to see the conflict from their perspective, and that perspective is lost when we impose our own moral standards on the past.

Admittedly, that perspective did not always include the marginalized and enslaved.  While it may be unfortunate that Potter and others were not as attuned to problems of race, or to the many roles that four million enslaved African Americans played in the very historical problems he spent his entire career studying, lost in this sustained critique of Potter is any sense of the historical context in which he was writing.  Potter did not benefit from the incredible explosion of scholarship in the last fifty years in social and cultural history, with the added perspectives of race, class, and gender, which have so fundamentally transformed our understanding of the past.  So, yes, our understandings of the South, the institution of slavery, African-American agency, the Underground Railroad, and the abolitionist movement have all been dramatically revised by the fine work of so many talented historians, including Stephanie Camp, Edward Baptist, Eric Foner, and Manisha Sinha, to name just a few. [8]  Yet, to fault Potter for failing to anticipate the insights that would come nearly a half-century after his death strikes me as grossly unfair.  Questioning whether Potter’s work should still receive pride of place in our scholarship and classrooms given what we have learned in the forty-one years since its publication is an important, and legitimate, discussion.  I would argue, however, that it makes better sense to frame that conversation around the insights later work has provided, rather than the ways in which Potter’s work fell short of those insights.

The duality presented by the Civil War is the celebration of the end of slavery accompanied by the simultaneous recognition of the cost in human life that came with it.  David Potter was well aware of this dilemma.  He did “not mean to deny the priority of moral values” as he acknowledged the war “may well be justified by the emancipation of 3,950,000 slaves.” [9]  Rather, Potter suggested that whatever standards we choose to use when we evaluate the past, we do so impartially.  Ironically, much of what this roundtable on David Potter could have used, is a heavy dose of David Potter himself.

[1] David M. Potter, “The Historian’s Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa,” The American Historical Review 67 (4) (July 1962):924–950.

[2] See David M. Potter, The South and the Sectional Conflict (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968).

[3] On this point, see Gary W. Gallagher, The Confederate War: How Popular Will, Nationalism, and Military Strategy Could Not Stave Off Defeat (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997), chapter 2, esp. 69–70.

[4] Potter, “Historian’s Use of Nationalism,” 933.

[5] Ibid., 932, 940.

[6] On this point, see the helpful review essay by Yael Sternhell, “Revisionism Reinvented?  The Anti-War Turn in Civil War Scholarship,” Journal of the Civil War Era 3 (2) (June 2013):239–256.

[7] Elizabeth Varon, Disunion!  The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789–1859 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008).  Echoing Edward L. Ayers, Varon also does a masterful job of pushing the question of Civil War causation beyond the constraints of the fundamentalist/revisionist debate.

[8] See Stephanie M. H. Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014); Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015); and Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2016).

[9] Potter, “Historian’s Use of Nationalism,” 941n16.

35 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks to Erik for this thoughtful contribution and to USIH for allowing such an important discussion to continue. One question that appeared in a previous post is whether The Impending Crisis is worth reading today beyond its historiographical value. To my mind, the answer is yes, because the book is a meticulously crafted narrative of what happened in the political arena during the 1850s. That the book’s status as a definitive political narrative of the period has not been challenged in the forty-one years since its publication is remarkable–and even lamentable.

    As Erik points out in this essay, Potter was a master logician. That skill made him a master narrator. Given the explosion of monographs since the publication of The Impending Crisis, the time is ripe for historians to craft new narratives. A heavy dose of Potter, alongside all the new insights we have gained, will help them write for our generation.

  2. Crofts and Alexander have taken issue with my assessment of Potter’s TIC, but neither of them has even addressed my central argument that Potter is biased against abolitionists. Just because a book is well-written and historiographically important, does not mean it should be used as a source after it has been proven to have deep conceptual flaws.

    • Michael, I posted this response to your point yesterday at the end of Dan’s piece but you may have missed it. Just in case I am copying and pasting here:

      I think you’ve set up a false dichotomy here, Michael. To begin with, many folks who admire Potter (myself included) are not, in fact, “loathe to recognize” Manisha Sinha’s masterful The Slave’s Cause (it’s true David Potter himself did not, but I would think that would be hard to do from the grave). I cannot speak for all of Potter’s “adherents” as you call them, but I personally think Manisha’s book is among the 4 or 5 best monographs of the last year. In other words, it is not difficult to see the benefits of Potter’s thinking and scholarship (particularly on nationalism and southern-ness) while also recognizing major moves in the field over the course of the last 40 years. Which leads to the second point, that Potter was a master thinker and logician, but he was also very much a product of his time. I don’t agree that he is “biased against abolitionists” but even if you did assume that premise, it is wise to consider the historiographical context in which he was writing. In other words, Potter himself was not a scholar of abolitionism and therefore no doubt relied on the work of his fellow scholars so as not to reinvent the wheel (as we all still do). Thus, understanding his approach to the abolitionists also requires understanding what the dominant themes within abolitionist scholarship were in the 1960s (as Potter died in 1971) — and much of this literature (though of course not all) painted abolitionist motives in a lesser light. The turn in antislavery scholarship may have begun in the 1960s, but solidified mostly in the years after Potter’s death (eg: Walters, The Antislavery Appeal (1978); and Stewart’s important book, Holy Warriors (1976)). Undoubtedly the scholarship on abolitionism itself has changed so much even since then — all for the better — that we cannot ascribe our improved modern understanding to a book written almost half a century ago. All of us rely on other scholarship that defines our moment; 50 years from now we will be judged in similar terms. Are we to stop reading old books simply because they are outdated or wrong in some ways, in part because the supporting literature has changed? I think Potter must be understood in context but his skill and logic are worthy of our admiration.

      • Hi Rachel. Thank you very much for reading the pieces, considering our ideas, and offering comments. I am very pleased to have you join the discussion. I have replied farther below.

  3. The notion that a book written in the early 1970s–a full 35 years after the publication of Du Bois’s BLACK RECONSTRUCTION–can’t be faulted for its views on race and abolitionism strikes me as weird.

    • I did not not mean to suggest that we can’t identify shortcomings in Potter’s analysis–I in fact explicitly state that questioning whether his work should still be central to our understanding of the period is a worthwhile discussion. But “faulting” him on this point rests on the premise that one agrees with Michael’s read of TIC. For that, I will defer to the excellent comments by Rachel Shelden and Frank Towers, on Dan Crofts’s prior post. But yes, we can all agree that Potter’s ideas about slavery, race, and abolitionism have been superseded by better and more recent scholarship, as I also state in my post. I don’t agree that makes him “biased against abolitionists,” however.

      The profession now unanimously agrees on the importance and power of DuBois’s interpretations and analysis. That was not the case at the time Potter was writing (he had been working on the project since at least 1954, and most of the book was likely written in the mid-to-late 1960s, prior to his death in 1971). To fault Potter for not embracing the ideas that we now deem to be correct, 45 years later, is the very problem of hindsight and presentism I was attempting to identify.

      • I’m not sure if you were directing that at my comment, Andrew. But if so, a few thoughts. First, no one has argued that Potter made the best contributions to the study of race and abolitionism in the Impending Crisis (least of all me). The book is outdated in those areas. The question is 1) whether Potter is as hostile to abolitionists as Michael has suggested (and which I think Frank Towers answers definitively he is not in a comment on Dan’s post); and 2) even assuming Michael’s claim, whether we throw the baby out with the bathwater because of those areas. Second, in addition to Erik’s point above, it strikes me as somewhat unfair to the historiographical context in which Potter was writing to suggest that he should have clearly used a book on African American agency and activism in the period 1860-1880 to discuss white abolitionists in the 1840s and 1850s. DuBois was the kind of scholar that today we all look to in informing our work throughout the Civil War era. DuBois work speaks to so many aspects of the period. And, as ably demonstrated by Manisha Sinha in The Slave’s Cause and other work, it doesn’t make sense to separate white abolitionism out from African American efforts for freedom. But this simply wasn’t how most historians operated in the 1960s.

  4. After just working through Nietzsche’s ” Uses and Abuses of History for Life” again with my students, this discussion of “detachment” “impartiality” and “presentism” is pretty welcome. It’s sometimes hard to believe this argument still winds us up, but here we have it. For Nietzsche anyway, any history attempting a remove from the “torrent” of our present experiences can potentially damage a culture. Nietzsche thinks it’s absurd and even damaging to suggest that the historian can somehow stand outside the tumble of events around them. That would mean doing history for reasons other than to serve life.

    Granted, in his own context–early 1870s–Nietzsche meant to critique the worst excesses of what might be called scientism, where one did history presumably with the aim of banishing uncertainty. I don’t think, in the wake of Einstein or certainly Thomas Kuhn, scientists necessarily think that way anymore, but Nietzsche was dealing with a vogue/mania for statistical thinking, along with positivism and its ilk. Seeing how Nietzsche was writing before Einstein and Kuhn then, does that mean the scientific-minded and impartial among us should let him off the hook for condemning impartiality? Or do we just go ahead and judge Nietzsche this time around in a vigorous defense of impartiality? I mean, we can’t just let him get away with it, right?

    I noticed the mention of C. Vann Woodward in a previous post, and was struck by how ambivalent Woodward was about these issues in the different editions of _Strange Career_: “The first who attempts to plot the course and explain the change will make mistakes in emphasis and interpretation that will probably seem ludicrous to those who will later have the advantage of hindsight and perspective. But someone has to make a beginning.” It’s hard to not to read a Woodward here goaded by the events happening around him. If he had insisted instead that he remain completely detached or impartial, then presumably he would have delayed in writing the book, because he knew at the same time his conclusions would be premature. I would argue that, rather than a failing of the book, which Woodward thought it probably was, his premature historical consciousness was what gave Strange Career its power. It was urgent, and, as it turned out, a history for life. Just some thoughts. Interesting debate.

    • I can’t help but think that our reflections on the Civil War’s causation in the coming years will be influenced by a newer torrent that consumes us today. We are asking vital questions about the viability of Constitutional democracy in our time and will need to rethink the perceived staying power of antebellum political institutions and habits. Why did it all fall apart in 1860-61 and not in 1850 or earlier? Why did 2016 unfold the way it did? What inferences can – or should – we draw from the Trump era to explain the collapse of the Union in 1861? (Which is not the same thing as saying that we are “heading for another Civil War”). And not just the top-level machinations of the Yanceys at Charleston. What of the popular swell of rage over the future of slavery that overran its banks and fed into mass mobilization for a catastrophic civil war?

      • Aaron, thank you for placing into sharp focus the reason why Potter’s magnum opus is so fresh and compelling today. He wrestles with the sudden and unexpected collapse of constitutional government in 1860-61, amid severe partisan polarization and a presidential election result that kicked the polarization into overdrive. We see something frighteningly comparable day after day just now.

        The outbreak of war was indeed a catastrophe then, just as it would be now. Even if the Civil War ended in a way that all today eagerly applaud, with the Union restored and slavery abolished, Potter correctly reminds us that nobody knew in advance (or while the war was happening) what its outcome might be.

        The Civil War killed upwards of 600,000 Americans, with recent estimates more in the range of 750,000. If you extrapolate this toll to the current United States, with more than ten times the population, the result would be ten or a dozen 9/11 equivalents per week for four years.

      • It is great to see a lively and respectful discussion on so many important aspects of the historical profession. I do not have the expertise to weigh in on many of these issues here, but when I saw the question posed, “Why did it all fall apart in 1860-61 and not in 1850 or earlier?” I was reminded of the introduction to Michael Holt’s book on the political crisis of the 1850s. As I recall, he was challenging not only Eric Foner’s book on the Free Soilers but in a more general sense, the historians who attributed the cause of the Civil War to slavery and slavery alone. Holt focused on the collapse of the Second Party System, which, because of its interregional and non-sectional character, had successfully swept slavery under the rug through compromise. He asked rhetorically, if slavery was the central cause, why did the union not collapse in 1850, 1832-33, or 1820 during the Missouri crisis? I’ll defer to others on how persuasive Holt’s argument was, but my general sense is that he certainly understated slavery as the chief cause of disunion. The collapse of the Second Party System, much like other explanations of the Civil War (honor, states’ rights, sectionalism, economic differences, etc), is not only connected to slavery, but almost entirely caused by slavery.

  5. Erik – I’m glad you called attention to Potter’s 1962 essay, though I don’t know his work well enough to concur that it’s his most important piece of writing, and many of its themes had been worked up in his “People of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the American Character,” 1954, especially chs. 2 and 3 – a classic work in American Studies at that time. Potter began the book by arguing that historians often give scant attention to the presuppositions and precise meanings of the concepts they employ, such as nation, nationalism, national character and culture. While the terminology is often different in other fields, such as culture and personality studies, they can be triangulated to produce better results. Here was a quite sophisticated comparative survey and analysis of how these concepts had been used across a variety of disciplines. [In 1998, in “National Culture and Communities of Descent,” at perhaps the peak of his own interest in group identity, David Hollinger said the essay was still “one of the wisest discussions of its topic.” 326n.1.]

    Perhaps the point in the book I found most intriguing, as one interested in the history of such concepts, was that in historical writings organized as national histories there are certain “compulsions of the medium,” in that the historian must assume that “the unit about which he writes is a real unit,” a coherent subject which acts and possesses rights to “self-determination” and the like. As he puts it, “the need for such a concept in historical synthesis is so great that, if it did not exist, it would, like Voltaire’s God, have to be invented.” [28-30]

  6. My point in making the Du Bois comment was in reference to how I read Michael’s criticism of Potter. If Potter’s book was the best of a generation of Civil War historians–as seems to be the case–then that whole generation deserves harsh criticism not only for its limited political and historical vision but also–related–for ignoring the best book that had been written on the Civil War (and Reconstruction) because it was written by a black man who was explicitly challenging dominant historiographical conventions. (And by the way Black Reconstruction is about much more than “black agency.”)

    • This speaks to my larger point with the Nietzsche example, that methodological assumptions like presentism or impartiality are just as historically contingent as questions about historical content. It might be interesting to try out being radically empirical enough to question the assumptions behind methodological assumptions. That might complicate these historiographical discussions a bit. The Potter we see in these essays appears both limited (historically bound) and a “master logician” (a presumably trans historical category). Why not see all of it as historically bound? Then maybe this historiographical discussion would jump out of the well worn rut carved out by the “presentism” and “impartiality” debate. If I understand you correctly Andrew, it’s possible that methodological fashion at midcentury meant ignoring DuBois. If that’s true, then we’d better consider the assumptions underlying the kinds of methodological perspectives which relegated DuBois’ text to obscurity at the time.

      • Without reference to the specific debate on Potter (or to the recent discussion of Haskell’s writings here), I would guess that most historians today assume, tacitly or otherwise, that there is no such thing as pure impartiality, since everyone comes to a topic with her or his particular conceptual frames, interpretive predispositions, etc., and to think one can get get free of them is illusory (you can switch from one set of predispositions to another, but you’re always going to have some).

        Given that, one tries to remain open to conflicting evidence, knowing that, as a practical matter, it may not wind up getting more than a footnote if it conflicts too much with the main argument one is trying to make.

        Now if one is interested in methodological and epistemological issues, one can spend a lot of time working through the philosophical and philosophy-of-science and related literature (Nietzsche, Weber on ‘objectivity’, Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, H. White, Koselleck, and the list is probably endless). But as a practical matter, I don’t think most working historians and historically-oriented social scientists necessarily have to do that.

        This sort of gets back to a discussion here a while ago, where Andrew H. wrote a post about his biographical approach to his Marx in America book-in-progress, and Dan Wickberg said in comments (I’m condensing) that Andrew hadn’t provided a good methodological or epistemological rationale for this approach, and I said (not in so many words) “f*** that and just write what you want,” and then Prof. Wickberg and a literature prof. named Patrick something (regrettably I can’t recall his last name right now) responded that this was being much too cavalier, if not worse. So here we are again, sort of…

    • Again, Andrew, you’re taking what you know to be true and and what the profession values today, and faulting the profession for not knowing or valuing that 45 years ago. I find that to be a very problematic critique.

      Moreover, Potter indeed does cite DuBois’s work on the slave trade. As Frank already clearly demonstrated, this characterization of Potter’s work doesn’t entirely hold up.

    • For the reception of Du Bois’ work by other historians, I highly recommend Ellen Fitzpatrick’s History’s Memory: Writing America’s Past 1880-1980 (2002). It complicates the pat judgment that Du Bois was ignored in his own time and thereafter by white historians and the professional associations they dominated. As I’ve tried to point out elsewhere in this series, there are criticisms of TIC (which cites Du Bois on the slave trade) that make sense and others that go needlessly overboard and thereby weaken the point.

      • I’ve been thinking about this comment about “pat” judgments being made regarding the reception of Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction ever since reading the Frank Towers comment above. Largely because I am currently working on a paper about this very topic–for the upcoming S-USIH conference, titled, “W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction and the New (Marxist) Historiography.” So with great anticipation I finally got a chance to read Fitzpatrick, and learned that there is nothing of the sort in it. Indeed Black Reconstruction is only mentioned once in the book, in an aside. So I will continue searching! I do know from my other research that Black Reconstruction was reviewed in many popular and academic journals when it was published in 1935 (though not the AHR), but that it never sold well. Some historians dismissed it, others praised it. But it still seems to have been largely ignored by professional historians thereafter until much later and will say so until I can prove otherwise.

  7. A couple of thoughts.

    I was interested in the reference to Potter’s 1962 essay on “The Historian’s Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa.” I haven’t read Potter’s work. However, I’m familiar with some of the literature on nationalism and related matters outside the U.S. context (e.g., Anderson, Imagined Communities; A. Marx, Faith in Nation; Brubaker, Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany, just to name three). I’m quite sure Potter’s essay isn’t mentioned or referenced in those three books, and my guess (which could be wrong) is that it isn’t mentioned in some of the other standard contemporary works on nationalism (e.g., Gellner, Hobsbawm, Breuilly). If the Potter essay makes general points about nationalism and the historical approach to it, as it apparently does, the question arises why it isn’t cited much (if at all) in much of the literature produced by historians and others on nationalism. A lot of that literature is based on European experiences, but that in itself is not a particularly good reason or excuse for not citing a piece that makes points about nationalism intended to apply beyond one national context (as was apparently the intent of Potter’s essay, if I’m reading the post correctly).

    The second thought has to do with the second para. of Bill Fine’s comment, above. I wonder whether an increasing recognition of some of the problems of writing ‘national’ histories partly accounts for the recent (i.e., last 20 or 25 years or so) spike or explosion of interest in ‘global history’. I’ll just throw that out there in case anyone wants to pick it up, so to speak.

    • I’ve read that Potter’s 1962 essay was quite influential among American historians, but I can’t provide support for that, other than a couple of references in Hollinger. Nor can I explain why it apparently hasn’t been cited by those you mention, or what that might mean. Perhaps a lot of his work has been too closely associated with the mostly debunked notion of national character, and with issues around Confederate nationalism. Do we need a field of non-citation studies?!

      Maybe global history could be seen as a sort of exaggerated end of the national subject that Potter apparently found inescapable.

      • “Perhaps a lot of his work has been too closely associated with the mostly debunked notion of national character, and with issues around Confederate nationalism”

        I need to read the Potter essay. I suppose that (i.e., what I’ve just quoted from you) could be part of the explanation. It may also be the case that some/much of the lit. on nationalism in the U.S. has not easily made its way into standard general accounts of nationalism, for one reason or another. I’m just speculating.

  8. Students pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of learning the standards and practices involved in the professional study of history. They take on mountains of debt which take years if not decades to discharge. Doesn’t the profession owe it to them to provide them with state of the art instruction? Would any of us take a loved one in need of medical attention to a physician advocating treatments from the 1970s, 1950s, or 1910s? In my opinion, if the “definitive” or “comprehensive” account we assign our students is decades old, it is an indictment of the profession. (SeriousIy, are there that many indispensable books? It seems every field has “classics” which are constantly assigned.) I love Charles Beard, Samuel Flagg Bemis, J.G. Randall, Dumas Malone, the Schlesingers, Hofstadter, Bernard Bailyn, etc., but unless the instructor is constantly modeling the critical skills in evaluating the strengths and weakness of secondary sources, the student is being failed because of the instructor’s decision to use materials past their expiration date. Eventually all classics must be relegated to being studied for just historiographical value.

    College freshman want their professor, TA’s, and textbooks to fill up their minds with the “correct” answers which they can regurgitate on their exams so they can get an “A.” A junior in history may have acquired the skills to understand that multiple interpretations are possible, but many lack the refinement, taste, or skills and are stuck believing that all interpretations are equally valid. Students might not be able to discern and evaluate how conceptual bias and author’s bias effect an interpretation without sufficient modeling.

    Perhaps academics need to fight harder against austerity and the adjunctification of the profession so that more modern materials are available.

  9. I’ve avoided commenting on this thread since I have not read Potter’s The Impending Crisis, there seemed to be several versions of it in the roundtable, and I had not way of adjudicating between them based on my own reading. The conversation has been very interesting, but now that it’s moved to a more general discussion, I thought I could throw my two cents in.

    There has always been a central contradiction in modern historicism’s ethic; on the one hand, we are abjured to avoid presentism, to not impose a later set of concerns (our own) on those of the past. On the other, it has become a cliche of the profession following F.J. Turner, to say that every generation writes its own history for its own purpose. The very premise of historiography is that as the social, political, and intellectual world changes, so follows the practice of history. So history is both committed to some form of presentism (insisting on the desirability of seeing the past through the lens of the present) and some form of anti-presentism (believing that the understanding of the past is distorted or falsified when measured by contemporary concerns). We reconcile (or fail to reconcile) these competing injunctions in a number of ways. One of them is at work in many of the comments here–a commitment to the idea that historical knowledge is progressive, and that our contemporary understanding is always an improvement on past understanding. Old books know less than new ones. We are not simply replacing our new found concerns with the concerns and points of view that animated earlier generations in their time and place, but our concerns represent an improvement on theirs, and therefore the knowledge we produce will supercede theirs. That seems to be the premise of many of the comments here (Andrew, Brian et al.). Brian’s comment that all “classics” will be swept away and relegated to their mere “historiographical value” assumes that we regard scholarship of the present as something we must read in a fundamentally and opposed way to the way in which we read “classics”–the latter are of their time and place, but the former rest on more solid epistemic foundations and are not to be read primarily as instances having historiographical value.

    At its most extreme, this position leads to the kind of critique that Michael Landis makes of Potter. As I said, I haven’t read Potter so I’m not qualified to judge whether or not he is “biased against abolitionists.” It does, however, seem like a strange position for a historian to take, as if historians are fighting a contemporary battle with past actors, and taking sides between them. The terms of Landis’s critique, it seems to me, are those of melodrama–there must be heroes and villains, and Potter gets his heroes and villains wrong. Since we all know without a shadow of a doubt what is morally right and what is wrong, it’s OK for us to judge the past by our contemporary standards in a way that will brook no ambiguity, while also not being guilty of the historical sin of presentism.

    I am not saying that we should remain morally neutral on the question of slavery–that is, of course, a position too, and one I (and hopefully most contemporary historians) could not take. I just don’t think history is doing its job when it pictures the past primarily as a morality play, and is certain that the contemporary point of view is somehow not beset by its own contradictions. If history has a “useable past,” it lies in a truth: this too shall pass.

    • Dan: I’m not making a universal claim about scholarship getting better–indeed in some areas of historical study I think it has gotten worse. Only a particular claim in this case.

      • Andrew–
        Looking at it now, my claim was overly broad, and implied that you were committed as a rule to the idea that contemporary scholarship in general moves progressively. So, sorry for tarring you with a brush too broad. I think that many historians are, if not exactly committed to this idea in an explicit way, acting with it as an assumption. I appreciate that you are in this instance saying that DuBois got it “right,” long before Potter and his ilk got it wrong. But what makes your statement progressive in the sense that I’m talking about here is that you are saying that the professional field as a whole has moved toward a truer understanding in recent years by recovering what it ignored: DuBois’s groundbreaking work. So, while DuBois clearly preceded the historiography of Potter and his contemporaries, the failure to recognize his work was because the field as a whole was not as enlightened as we are today.

    • Dan, this is a wonderful comment, thank you for weighing in. I think you are correct that there are two layers to this debate. The first is which assessment of Potter is more accurate, and those who have read Potter closely can decide that for themselves (on that point, I applaud your restraint in acknowledging that you have not read Potter, and therefore can’t weigh in).

      The bigger question is about whether or not the critiques of Potter that have been made make sense. On that point, your comment about heroes and villains is apt. Is it fair to condemn past historians for choosing the wrong heroes and villains only because our own heroes and villains have changed? More to the point, what I was trying to suggest in my essay is that we should avoid altogether framing these questions with heroes and villains in the first place (even more so if our critique of which heroes and villains a historian is choosing is inaccurate).

      Of course we all agree on the evils of slavery. Approaching the past as a morality tale where we only recognize historical actors (and scholars) who did the same does not serve us to better understand it. That idea was a major thrust of Potter’s scholarship which I tried to highlight in my essay.

      I hope none of us today believe that our own views are infallible. There are no doubt biases and assumptions that shape our own scholarship and inform the consensus views of the profession that will one day be seen by the majority of working historians as retrograde. I certainly hope future scholars correct those biases and assumptions. But I hope they do so while recognizing that none of us are perfect.

  10. Thank you all for your comments, thoughts, and feedback. I hope this discussion continues, and perhaps even makes its way to the SUSIH conference in October! I’ll be participating in a small-groups event, talking about the language of “compromise” in the antebellum era — directly connected to some of the topics on this thread.

    One of my primary goals in putting this series on Potter’s TIC together was to spark a discussion between my Civil War and SUSIH colleagues. My piece aimed to be inflammatory and to cause a stir. Thus, I am enormously pleased with the outcome. If nothing else, I have at least forced my esteemed colleagues to defend a book that I see as deeply problematic. Though many may not agree with me (but many others do, I might add), I have raised warnings about how we, as professional scholars, view “standard” books.

    Keri Leigh Merritt and I might reply jointly and formerly at another time, but please allow me to say a couple things here. First, I freely and openly confess to being a passionate foe of slavery. I am a board member of Historians Against Slavery and have a zero tolerance for unfree labor, then and now. But does my status as an abolitionist activist make me “presentist”? There were abolitionists in the antebellum era, so my feelings on slavery do not seem (to my eyes) to be forcing current values on the past. There were dynamic, vocal groups and leaders before and after the Civil War who said the very same things I have about a skewed version of history that favored “Unionism” and condemned abolitionists as unpatriotic radicals. (Andrew’s comments on Du Bois are right on point.) To go a bit father, much of the anger I see against my own critique of Potter reminds me of the backlash that antebellum abolitionists faced. (No, I don’t see myself as measuring up to their standards of heroism, and no I am not puffing up my ego here.) I mean I see myself as part of the larger challenge to a dominant narrative that favors “Unionism” over freedom. As many of you have shown, Potter is that dominant narrative, and my challenge to him has been received with frustration.

    Another point I want to make at this time is that it’s okay to disagree about authors and books. Frank Towers penned an excellent and thoughtful rebuttal to my charges, and I do not dispute his findings. I believe we can both be “right,” because we are different people with different eyes. He sees a nuanced, balanced approach to complex issues, while I see a one-sided agenda to place blame for disunion on abolitionists. What I reject is the idea that we must all agree. There is so much better scholarship on the antebellum sectional crisis, why do I have to stick with Potter? There seems to be some sense among some of the commenters that I am “wrong” if I reject Potter, that I’m missing something, or can’t quite understand his argument. I think we need to “agree to disagree,” so to speak, and not try to convince each other we’ve got it “wrong.” This discussion thread has revealed what many of us have already seen: that Dan’s “morality play” idea has become a dividing line between historians. On one side are those that believe morality should play no role in scholarship, and on the other are those that see morality as central. Manisha Sinha, Ed Baptist, and Keri Leigh Merritt are some of the best examples of the latter. And those of you who have read my book on Northern Dems know that I fit right in with that group (I am highly critical of Northerners who aided the Slave Power).

    Perhaps we should follow Dr. Wickberg’s lead by examining the role of morality, rather than arguing over which interpretation of Potter is “right” or “wrong.”

    • Michael: “On one side are those that believe morality should play no role in scholarship, and on the other are those that see morality as central.”

      I hope I wasn’t saying this, so just to clarify: History and all the Humanities, in my view, cannot but help being fields of moral inquiry, and neutrality on values is not an option–a commitment to “objectivity” as morally neutral is a moral stance. The line I would draw is between those who imagine that an absolute moral stand, in which the world is portrayed in terms of heroes and villains, absolute right and wrong is the right way to write history (which is what I meant by a “morality play” and history as melodrama), and those who think the study of the past reveals moral ambiguity and contradiction. Being willing to understand past actors in terms of their moral universe means that we learn something from the past; imposing an a priori scheme of moral certitude in which blame and praise is heaped on those actors only seems to me to indicate that we know before hand what is clearly right and wrong and have no interest in studying the past to reflect on our own moral contradictions and ambiguities. The difference might be summed up as a difference between moral inquiry and moral judgement.

      Thanks to you, Michael, for organizing this roundtable, which has created a very interesting discussion.

    • Michael,

      Thank you for the thoughtful response. I am glad you have welcomed the debate and discussion. I would like to add a few comments in response to your recent post, and then this will likely be the last I have to say on the matter for now, and will defer to you and others to have the last word and continue the conversation, if you wish.

      “But does my status as an abolitionist activist make me “presentist”? There were abolitionists in the antebellum era, so my feelings on slavery do not seem (to my eyes) to be forcing current values on the past.”

      I would argue that yes, it does, precisely because not everyone in the antebellum era was an abolitionist. The problem is not in recognizing the power of the abolitionists’ argument, or even in recognizing that they were clearly on the right side of history. On that (I hope) we all agree. The problem is that if we start from the point of view that the abolitionists were right, and anyone who opposed them was wrong, we dismiss those who did not agree with the abolitionists and run the risk of mischaracterizing their positions in such a way that any subtlety or nuance of their views is lost.

      “I mean I see myself as part of the larger challenge to a dominant narrative that favors “Unionism” over freedom.”

      I would argue that this is a false choice. To my view, nobody in this discussion, or the historiography for that matter, is arguing that we must choose one or the other, nor do I think that is an accurate depiction of the historiography, or of the choices facing Americans in the 1850s.

      This was exactly Potter’s point: we know the Civil War ended in emancipation (and thankfully so!). Nobody in 1850 or 1861 or anywhere in between could have possibly known that. By assuming that the choice in front of them was either Union or freedom, we completely misunderstand their world as they saw it.

      By consciously choosing to interpret the past through the eyes of the abolitionists, we paint with such a broad brush as to lose the perspective of anyone who was not an abolitionist. As I read your position throughout this roundtable and subsequent discussion, you would suggest that this is acceptable, perhaps because those who were not abolitionists do not deserve to be understood? As I pointed out in my essay, most white Northerners opposed slavery, yet also opposed immediatism while favoring the Union, and were willing to defend such a contradiction. Was their position really the same as John C. Calhoun or William Lowndes Yancey?

      “There seems to be some sense among some of the commenters that I am “wrong” if I reject Potter, that I’m missing something, or can’t quite understand his argument.“

      Nobody here has claimed Potter is infallible, or insisted that he must remain as a staple of reading lists no matter his faults. I certainly did not suggest this in my essay. The argument, as I read it, is that it is both possible to recognize the strengths of Potter, while also acknowledging that there clearly have been major advances in our understanding of a wide range of fields since his book was published. What I think many have urged, however, is that we should critique Potter while also understanding the historical *and* historiographical context in which he was writing, and how that context subsequently informed his arguments and interpretive choices. Most of all, we should strive to fairly and accurately represent the claims he was making.

      “On one side are those that believe morality should play no role in scholarship, and on the other are those that see morality as central.”

      I believe this is another false choice, and a mischaracterization of the position taken by those of us who have disagreed with the approach of parts of the roundtable. I think Dan Wickberg offered another excellent clarification in response to this point. It is not that we would suggest morality can play no role in scholarship. As I said in my essay, I very much admire the work of the scholars you list, and would agree they have offered important updates to aspects of Potter’s narrative.

      Moraliy in scholarship is not a matter of making sure we praise the good guys and denounce the bad guys. As I have argued, I think choosing good guys and bad guys—in our scholarship—limits our ability to comprehend the past (the personal and political choices we make outside of our scholarship is a different matter entirely). Yet, refraining from engaging in that kind of “melodrama,” as Dan terms it, does not mean we do not believe in morality in scholarship. The decisions we make on the questions we choose to ask, the subjects we choose to study, and the arguments we choose to make, are inherently moral.

      I would disagree at the suggestion that those of us who value objectivity, or maintain a commitment to clinical detachment, or refrain from choosing heroes and villains, are somehow amoral or morally compromised, or incapable of using our scholarship as advocacy to change the way we see the world today for the better. Rather, I think these choices simply provide for better and more wholistic understandings of the past.

      Thank you for the cordial conversation.

    • Thank you for this roundtable, this has been a great conversation. I do not see anger in any of this conversation. Instead, what we’re discussing is the purpose of history. Why do we do what we do? What are we trying to achieve when we spend years in archives to write books? What is the value that we’re creating for future generations if the work will only be cast as unuseful because we don’t hold the values or live in the context of the future?

      We work to understand what happened in the hope that lessons from the past can be helpful for the problems of today. As Dan Wickberg noted, there’s a difference between being objective (trying to understand the people we study in their own context) and neutrality (we can find slaveholders deplorable, admire abolitionists, etc.).

      Mythmakers want to see within historical narratives things that intentionally are not there. While Potter may not have focused on abolitionists on their own terms, he absolutely took abolitionism seriously as an idea because the slaveholders in his narrative certainly did (proslavery and antislavery ideas became fused with ideas about union, which is what I write about). Most Americans disavowed radicalism of any form, but yet, they fought a civil war. He’s trying to understand why and shows us that regular people who ended up picking up arms and fighting were all connected by this idea of union.

      Historians are not mythmakers. While there are always heroes and villains in life, both today and in the past, (and these heroes and villains are always in the eye of the beholder), there is little purpose to finding individuals who may have had a morality more similar to the present and using them as an authority to validate our moral certitude. Nor is there much historical value in filtering the past through a presentist worldview. We can find them to be great examples or role models for how we should view the world, but placing our moral stamp on the past will only create works of history that are fleeting and reveal little of what really happened in the past and why.

      Mythmaking is the tool of political and social leaders hoping to drive an agenda in the present by rooting it in past principles or examples. They take kernels of truth from the past and use them to build an agenda for the future.

      The job of the historian is to cut through the fog of myth and explain to the present what happened and why, regardless of whether we hate the morals of the subject or not. Potter discusses unionism because that was a major driver of the Civil War. He wasn’t worried about heroes or villains, and he wasn’t “biased against” anybody. He was aiming to learn the truth of what happened by understanding how the historical actors thought. He was practicing the craft of history and left the mythmaking to others.

  11. It has been about a half century since I read Potter (People, “Nationalism,” plus a skim of Impending) and wasn’t as impressed as I was supposed to be, less impressed than with DuBois. But I was young and ignorant, as I say without irony. So I’ll leave the specifics of his merits/flaws to others. Three points more generally–First, what you assign depends on how good your students are and how much you can assign. Even so, it is a disservice only to assign the simple, intellectually and moral, and the up-to-date. I still use CVW Strange Career in the frosh survey because it usefully makes the point of some–repeat, some–period of flux–after the Civil War and in last chapter shows a decent white liberal–CVW–wrongly drive half nuts by black power. More broadly, and I would think obviously, you can still learn from Parkman without hating the RC Church or from Gibbon without disliking Christianity. Second, I am, not for the first time, struck by how much historians of the Civil War in particular and race in general live in their contemporary moral AND intellectual bubble. Granted, slavery was the worst thing in US history aside from wiping out the Indians. So to condemn it is morally pretty simple. Unambiguously celebrating a war that ended it, and nothing more, is more problematic to put it mildly. As to the moral bubble, it should be noted that there are other things in history just as bad, maybe worse? Let’s take WWII, in which the anti-Hitler forces have all the moral credit on their side. But it is still important to teach that FDR lied persistently to aid Brit and the Soviets 1939-Pearl Harbor, as the so-called isolationists said; that Churchill allowed a famine killing hundreds of thousands of Indians minimum, that the mass bombing of civilians was monstrous, etc. etc. The Asian war is more complex since US entry and victory over Japan in the medium run (counting Maoism) ultimately cost more lives than the likely Japanese bog down in China. Lots of decent people in Asia, incl a large number of Indians, welcomed the early Japanese defeats of western imperialism. I’m not saying that the Japanese and Germans can legitimately think of themselves mostly as victims of WWII, which the Japanese always have and some Germans have started to since the 1970s, but that even so we should mull over Dresden, Hiroshima, etc. Third, it is hard to know the outcome of lots of wars at the start esp amid the “home by Christmas” rhetoric. Historians have the advantage of hindsight, which is not always 20-20 and itself changes over time. I opposed both Iraq wars for reasons which seemed obvious and in retrospect seem obvious even to some people I know who disagree. But if Iraq had been turned into a much better than much worse place, what would we say? Since I’m a chronic “isolationist,” I would still say the same thing but John Gaddis, the most prominent historian to favor the war, would be crowing all over the place. Fourth, to Landis, you know I love you dearly, but let me repeat what I used to say what I said when we round and round about this face to face years ago. You, like I, have never been closer to a war than a recruiting poster for the Marines in a post office. So we should be wary of celebrating even good wars judged by subsequent results.

  12. As an afterthought to this thread, I want to recommend a source that might be helpful to those interested in Potter’s views on abolitionists. It is David Potter, “John Brown and the Paradox of Leadership Among American Negroes,” in John H. Bracey, Jr., August Meier, and Elliott Rudwick, eds., _Blacks in the Abolitionist Movement_ (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1971), 149-159.

Comments are closed.