The Past: Through A Contemporary Glass Darkly


When I was down in Springfield last week, go here to read about my family’s annual pilgrimage to the Lincoln sites this year, I purchased several books at The Prairie Archives.  That bookstore is a treasure trove for those interested in the Civil War and/or Lincoln.  Two of the books were written by James G. Randall, the first volume of his four volume study of Lincoln as President and his Constitutional Problems under Lincoln.  Randall, who died in 1953, was a history professor at my alma mater, the University of Illinois, for three decades.  The foremost Lincoln scholar of his day, his body of work on Lincoln demonstrates how historians are influenced by the contemporary history they live through, and how the march of history after they are dead can make their interpretations obsolete, at least until history shifts again.

The formative event in Randall’s life was World War I.  He viewed the immense carnage as a huge waste, a war fought over issues that were unimportant compared to the huge loss of life involved.  World War II confirmed his belief in the futility of war, as he interpreted that conflict as being brought on by fanatics, this time Fascists, who caused millions of deaths in a completely unnecessary conflict.

In regard to the Civil War, Randall saw it too as an unneccessary conflict brought on by fanatics, fire eating secessionists in the South and, especially, abolitionists in the North.  Randall viewed the abolitionists as earning most of the blame for bringing on the War, turning political differences over slavery to be settled by compromise, into a crusade that could only be resolved by rivers of blood.

Randall summed up his argument in a paper entitled The Blundering Generation delivered to the Mississippi Valley Historical Society on May 2, 1940 at a conference in Omaha, Nebraska.  Randall’s thesis was that the War largely came about over a controversy over slavery that was merely a phantom.  There was never a question that the Western territories were going to be free territories due to the greater numbers heading for the West from the North, and the unwillingness of slave holders in the South to risk their slaves in the West on land not suitable for large scale plantation crops such as cotton and where they would be without the legal protections afforded by slave states to slaves as a species of property.

Randall’s argument found considerable support during his lifetime, but now is rarely presented as a viewpoint held by contemporary historians.  Why?

Leaving aside problems with Randall’s thesis, and I find it unconvincing since it completely misses the deep passions, and the causes for those passions, that slavery was stirring up on both sides in the decades prior to the War, it is rarely heard today because of a major historical event after Randall’s death: the modern civil rights movement.  This movement and its success has largely transformed the view of abolitionists and abolitionism in pre-Civil War Americans.  Largely regarded as uncompromising fanatics in the eyes of Randall and many other historians in his day, in the light of the success of the civil rights movement of the mid to late 1950’s and 1960’s, the consensus among historians largely shifted to view them as heroic and far sighted champions of human rights.  Rather than an unneccessary war, the Civil War was now viewed as an essential conflict that finally ended slavery.  The historical record has not altered to any significant extent, but the contemporary political and moral landscape when it came to racial relationships and attitudes in this country certainly had, and thus the Blundering  Generation thesis of an avoidable war has largely itself been relegated to history rather than as part of the contemporary analysis of the Civil War.

How we view the past is ever influenced by how we view the present, and the study of the Civil War over the past century and a half is a clear example of that truism.  We can summon the facts of the past, and in movies and plays give a semblance of life to what has been, but ever our view of the past will be colored by our contemporary experiences, no matter how skillfully we attempt to make the dead speak to us.



  1. This was a very interesting post. Thank you. It’s nice that the film clip actually came through instead of a message that youtube would not allow it like other film clips in your posts. Lincoln is always a fascinating subject.

    • Beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to Youtube clips Doreen, and I am at the mercy of the restrictions placed on the original Youtube posting. The clip from Abe Lincoln in Illinois has always been my favorite screen presentation of Lincoln, with Raymond Massey doing an uncanny job as the Great Emancipator.

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