An Interview with
Historian James McPherson
Sixty thousand years ago, a man, to whom we are all related, lived on the continent of Africa. Though scholars still debate exactly where he was born (either Eastern or Southern Africa), the general region itself is beyond dispute.
In fact, geneticists can trace every strand of human DNA back to the birthplace of our ancestors in Africa where our family tree (for we really are only cousins separated at most by 2,000 generations) began.
Besides wanderlust, something else gradually emerged in this unique breed of animal an urge to comprehend and hold onto the meaning of our lives, the names of our mothers, the trespasses of our enemies, the leaders of each and every generation. This profoundly human need led elders to memorize complex lineage patterns, decipher tribal boundaries, and property rights through a practice now called oral history.
Historians held the most venerated of positions in many social groups because their knowledge strengthened family and community bonds, and resolved property disputes. When it came time for battle (and medical emergencies), the community’s collective wisdom, learned over many generations, figured largely in matters of life and death.
Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, as we watch the news on our computers, record the minutiae of our daily lives in blogs, and snap pictures with our cell phones. All kinds of information (and distractions) rest at our fingertips, and yet, we are perhaps more confused than ever about (and feel oddly disconnected to) the past.
“A lot of Americans are, at best, historically semi-literate. Many of them, unfortunately, are historically illiterate,” he says sadly.
Like many professional historians James McPherson strives for the gold standard of objectivity in uncovering historical fact and applying analysis. He prefers the careful methodology of Ancient Greek historian Thucydides (circa 460 BC-400 BC), whose major work, The History of the Peloponnesian War, is still read today in college history seminars, to the looser and hyperbolic writings of the man often referred to as the “father of history” Herodotus (circa 484 BC-425 BC). Like both Ancient Greek historians, McPherson has devoted much of his career to studying human conflict war (in his case the American Civil War) and its complicated legacies.
WRR: When did you first become interested in history?
In undergraduate school. I didn’t have any idea when I started college what I would major in, but as a freshman I took the usual introductory course to what was called in those days History of Western Civilization and was really challenged for the first time to think.
WRR: What drew you to the Civil War?
I was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in the late 1950s and early 1960s during the time of the Civil Rights movement, which was very active in Baltimore. As graduate students, many of us got involved in picketing, sit-ins, and other kinds of activities. But more important was what was going on in the deeper south, the sit-ins in Greensboro, the freedom rides through the Deep South, the events in Birmingham.
I was suddenly struck by the parallels between the events of my own time and the events exactly one hundred years earlier: confrontation between the federal government and southern political leaders vowing massive resistance; federal troops being sent into the south to enforce national law. The race issue, of course, was at the center of both periods.
Martin Luther King tried to get John F. Kennedy to issue a second Emancipation Proclamation on the hundredth anniversary of the first. So I decided I needed to know the historical roots of these events. I think a lot of historians are attracted to their specialization by the events of their lives and that was certainly true for me.
So I did my doctoral dissertation on what I called the civil rights activists of that era, the abolitionists. It became my first book and that was sort of my entrée into the Civil War. My interest broadened out from looking at these reformers, the issues of slavery and the abolishing of slavery to the political leadership of the era, and then to the military dimensions because they were all interconnected.
Well, the 620,000 soldiers who lost their lives in the Civil War represented 2% of the American population, as of 1861. If we translated that into modern terms, 2% of the American population being killed in a war fought by this country today that would be 6 million war-dead.
So, one can imagine the huge consequences of that in every aspect of American life. And it would be natural for us to ask: Is it worth the loss of life, whatever our war aims might be? We ask about that in respect to Iraq when the amount of American war dead in Iraq is over 3,000. Think of what we might ask if it were nearly 6 million.
In the case of the Civil War, I came to the conclusion that the costs were worth it, because the results were huge in their implications for all of American history since then. First of all, they preserved United States as one nation. The consequence of the United States dividing into two and maybe more countries after 1861 would have been incalculable. And the war also abolished the institution of slavery, which had been an enormously controversial and divisive issue ever since the Constitution. So the costs were great, but the results were great as well.
WRR: In your new book This Mighty Scourge, you write: “For at least the past two centuries, nations have usually found it harder to end a war than to start one. Americans relearned that bitter lesson in Vietnam, and having apparently forgotten it, we’re forced to learn it all over again in Iraq.”
Your essay describes the huge difficulty of negotiation when regime change is a war aim on either side of a conflict. How do you see what’s happened in Iraq as another example of that lesson?
Clearly, American policy and military strategy in Iraq was intended to accomplish regime change, and of course did precisely that. But what regime will replace Saddam Hussein in the long term is not yet clear.
Northern policy and military strategy in the Civil War likewise aimed for regime change, and inspired a determined and, for nearly four years, a successful resistance by the government and armies of the Confederacy.
Similarly, Confederate policy aimed at regime change in the United States-an independent Confederate States of America would have meant a truncated and discredited United States, and therefore provoked the determined and eventually successful Northern response that finally restored the United States as a single indivisible nation.
The chief difference between the two cases is that the American Civil War was mainly a contest between regularly constituted armies (though with a significant guerrilla component in the Confederacy), while Iraqi resistance has been almost entirely in the form of guerrilla operations. The Civil War lasted exactly four years. In a couple of months, the Iraqi resistance will have gone on longer than that. It is more difficult to put down guerrilla resistance than to defeat regularly constituted armies.
WRR: Are there criteria that we can use to measure when war is a necessary and appropriate response from the lessons of the Civil War?
From the lessons of the Civil War, I think we can derive some sense of the kinds of issues that are likely to be so polarizing as to lead to war and the kinds of consequences that are likely when one makes the choice for war or makes the choice against war.
I think that kind of thinking wasn’t present in the minds of Americans in 1940 or 1941, in the mind of let’s say President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He would have been giving a great deal of thought and using history at least as some kind of context for what the consequences might have been if the Germans had won the war in Europe that started in 1939. So in Roosevelt’s mind and in the minds of a lot of Americans, it was worth going to war to prevent that from happening. Sometimes the issues are so important, and the possible consequences of not going to war or losing a war are so horrifying, that one has to make that choice.
That was the choice made by Americans in 1861 as well in 1941. In both cases I think it was the right choice to make. If, in the future, we’re faced with the kinds of serious consequences that faced the country in 1861 or 1941 I think we could learn from those experiences about how to think about it and what choices to make.
WRR: Can you talk a little about the ideological shift that took place in the middle of the Civil War, the changing of the war aims, because at the onset of the war abolishing slavery was not a Northern war aim.
Well, at the beginning of the war abolishing slavery or even moving against slavery in a limited way was not a Northern war aim.
President Abraham Lincoln was very much concerned with maintaining a united front in the North in support of the war effort. If he had made it a war against slavery, two significant parts of his coalition would have bailed out: Northern Democrats, who adamantly said this should be not a war against slavery; and border state Unionists from slave slates that remained in the Union. So Lincoln could not make this a war against slavery and at the same time maintain united support in the Union for the war effort.
But, as the war went on, it became increasingly clear, as Fredrick Douglass once put it, that fighting a war against a slave-holders’ rebellion without touching slavery was just not going to cut it. The slave labor force was the principal support for the Southern economy and the Confederate war effort. To strike against slavery would be to strike against the Confederate war effort.
In addition, Lincoln and his party, the Republicans, had been founded on an anti-slavery platform. So they were inclined toward making this a war against slavery, and as the war escalated in scope and in fury, it became increasingly clear that slavery was the principal sustaining force both economically and ideologically for the Confederacy.
WRR: And African Americans took part in the war.
People should understand that of the 360,000 Union war dead, 37,000 were black, African American soldiers who fought for the union. They gave their lives not only to free fellow members of their race, but were also risking and giving their lives to preserve the United States, the same cause for which white soldiers were fighting.
WRR: In your most recent book, This Mighty Scourge you point out that Harriet Tubman would have been surprised to find herself at the center of a heated political controversy about school textbooks. You point to the dispute unleashed by the National History Standards released in 1994 when conservative critics, namely Lynne Cheney (then head of the National Endowment of the Humanities) attacked revisionist standards, which gave equal attention to George Washington and Harriet Tubman.
Can you talk about the strange, sometimes uneasy relationship, between the role of the historian and the pressures exerted by any given political environment?
As a historian, I find myself taking note of the pressures exerted by a particular political environment mainly as a way of pointing up the way in which the past and present interact. Our view of the past is influenced by the social, cultural, and political environment in which we live. The rising interest among historians in the story of previously neglected categories of people in the past-ordinary people, slaves, racial and ethnic minorities, women, etc.-was a response to such developments in the 1960s and after as the civil rights and women’s rights movements shaped the milieu in which the story of Harriet Tubman became so popular.
Lynne Cheney’s criticism of the National History Standards was, in turn, an example of the negative conservative reaction to those modern movements and also a belief that an emphasis on such previously neglected people somehow demeaned the reputations of traditional heroes like George Washington. In my judgment it did nothing of the kind. Knowing more about Harriet Tubman does not in any way diminish the greatness of Washington. In my own choices of subjects to study and in my perspectives on those subjects, I also am influenced by the general cultural context of my times. But I consciously and explicitly try to ignore the pressures of a particular short-term political environment and try to immerse myself in the perspectives of the people a century or more ago about whom I am writing.
WRR: Let’s talk a little about your role in Princeton’s Writer’s Block, which celebrated Princeton’s writers. What was your reaction to your final exhibit or “folly”?
Well I thought it was wonderful. It had a sense of humor, but also a sense of symbolism. Civil War songs played through a sound system. There were flags along with symbolic representations of the Union and the Confederacy. The structure kind of looked like a slave cabin. It was in the middle of this corn that they planted. There was a kind of Uncle Tom’s cabin sensibility about it. But at the same time the theme of the abolition of slavery by the outcome of the war was carried through in some of the construction and some of the broadsides that were on the inside of the walls. And excerpts from a couple of my books were taped up there.
WRR: Both Writer’s Block and Quark Park featured the world of writing and science in a community setting. Could you envision something like that for history?
History is full of all kinds of themes that can be symbolically represented by architecture, as mine was. So I could see a whole park like that with a dozen architectural designs that would represent, let’s say the French Revolution or the Roman Empire or whatever it might be. That’s a highly intriguing idea.
WRR: What are you working on now?
I’m working on a book about Abraham Lincoln as commander-in-chief of the Civil War. The way in which he really invented, in some ways, or certainly defined and expanded, presidential war powers an issue very much in the news today in order to cope with the great crisis of the American Civil War.
Lincoln expanded presidential powers far beyond any of his predecessors because the crisis he faced was greater than that confronted by any of his predecessors. He conceived of his role, his Constitutional role as commander in chief in time of war, as being much broader than merely the commander of the army or navy of the United States. And indeed he based his Emancipation Proclamation and his Emancipation policy on his war powers as Commander in Chief to seize enemy “property” being used to wage war against the United States, namely slaves.
In many other ways he vastly expanded the powers of the presidential office in ways that turned into precedents for subsequent presidents. The book is not just about Lincoln and his generals, although it discusses the kind of strategy needed to win this war, but it’s also going to be about Lincoln’s use of presidential war powers in areas considerably beyond merely military areas. Actually, I have to go at 4:30 to a panel discussion where I’m going to talk about just that. (See the lecture here.)
WRR: Who’s your favorite author, in general?
I think my favorite author is Mark Twain. His Huckleberry Finn is deservedly considered to be the classic American novel. But I like a lot of his other writings, as well. I can go back to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court every five or six years and just be delighted all over again by the humor of that book, but also its dark side and deeper meaning. I think Twain had a unique genius to get at deep issues in a vernacular way that was accessible to everybody.
WRR: In an article in The Atlantic Monthly, writer Robert D. Kaplan contrasts the styles of Herodotus and Thucydides. He writes, “As a historian, Thucydides is more trustworthy. He is also more limited. Thucydides gives us a distilled rendition of the facts. Herotodus, a sparkling impression of what lies just beyond them.” And he continues later... “Herodotus fills the same need that great novels do; he allows us to see the world whole.”
You prefer Thucydides’ avenue of historical analysis. Why?
I prefer Thucydides precisely because he is a more careful, precise, and trustworthy historian who does not try to go beyond the evidence (which is not always entirely reliable). Herodotus might go into more depth about what lies just beyond the facts, but does not always resist the temptation to invent further facts, or speculate about them, in order to plumb those depths. He would have made a good historical novelist. I have nothing against good historical novels, so long as the reader is aware they are fiction.