Don’t Get All Mad About It

by W. Todd Groce, Ph.D.

Recently, I was asked by someone who seemed angry about the direction of current historical scholarship, “When did all this revisionism begin?” “About 2,500 years ago,” I replied, “when Thucydides read Herodotus and exclaimed ‘That’s not how and why it happened!’”

For as long as humans have written history, there has been historical revisionism. By its very definition, history is revision. Any time someone writes about the past, they revise the story and give it a new meaning, making it relevant to the present. When in 431 B.C. Thucydides penned that second history of the Peloponnesian War, he set in motion a process that continues to this day.

The reason for this constant revision is because the past and history are not the same thing. While the events of the past don’t change, the telling of the story—history—does. We sometimes discover new facts that force us to reassess how we understand what happened, while recognizing that not all facts are created equal—some are more compelling and carry more weight as evidence than others. And every historian carefully selects the facts that bolster their argument. It’s not until the historian chooses and weaves them into a story that they become history.

But those facts, old and new, remain unaltered. It’s the meaning we assign to them that constantly evolves.

Why? Because history is the meaning the present gives to the past. As society changes and our attitude toward social, political, and economic issues evolves, so does the way we look at the past and the questions we ask about it.

For example, in the 1970s, Harry Truman was considered one of the worst presidents in American history. But during the 1990s, in the wake of David McCullough’s magisterial biography, Truman was transformed from perhaps the worst to one of the best presidents. Did Harry Truman change? No, but the way historians interpreted him did—and so did the country. By the dawn of the 21st century, with the US facing new challenges at home and abroad, Truman seemed a better leader than he did when the wounds of Vietnam were still fresh.

We can even see historical revisionism playing out in current events. Republicans and Democrats disagree about what happened on January 6, 2021, though many of us actually witnessed the events with our own eyes. Was it an insurrection or a “normal” tourist visit? As historians begin to write the history of that day, the interpretation and meaning will constantly change. How we see those events today is not how they will be viewed in10, 50, or 100 years from now.

One of the best books on this subject is James M. Banner’s The Ever-Changing Past: Why All History is Revisionist History (Yale University Press, 2021). The title is misleading—it’s not the past that changes but the writing about it that constantly evolves. But his point is still valid: all history is revision. Don’t expect it to be the same story each time it is written. It never has been, and it never will be.

That doesn’t mean we have to agree with the new version. Few historians do. Like revision, arguing about interpretation is at the heart of the historical process. As Banner observes, history is never-ending argument about what happened, why, and what it means to us today.

So, the next time you’re reading history and find yourself in disagreement with the author, don’t get angry or despair. Remember revisionism is part of an age-old, scholarly process in our never-ending quest to fully understand the past—and the present—in all its complexity.