A Civil War Historian’s Talking Points

1950lemans

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3. Just as we cannot impose 21st century values back into the 19th century, we cannot and should not teleport our ancestors of the 19th century into our own time. Our ancestors certainly passed down cultural baggage to the following generations and thenceforward through the decades on to us. But that does not mean we should be defined today by plucking people out of the past and using them to make us good or bad people today.

Again, aren't we defined by the individuals from our past? Don't they have an effect on who we are today?
Aren't they the reason who and what we are today? Don't they - the "good" and "bad" guys - in some way contribute to our good/bad actions today?
How did they get the "good" and "bad" label? Isn't that through history?
Could that be why we study someone like Lincoln?
Could that be why we're always analyzing CW-era leaders, groups and events and judging them?
 

jgoodguy

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1. People in the 19th century thought about the world differently than we do today. This is especially true for matters of race, slavery, labor, freedom, economic class, gender and citizenship. We need to understand what people back then thought and avoid the temptation to impose our 21st century values upon 19th century people.

Why can't we impose our 21st century values on previous history?
Did't these values get formulated by studying our past? Isn't that's why we have "good" and "bad" past?
Yes we study the past on its own terms but don't we judge those events?
Is that why we say slavery was evil? Look at how we view the people and events that propagated slavery.
Are we neutral in our views concerning the end of slavery? Wouldn't that be the result of just "reading" about 19th c. people?
Are we neutral in viewing the conflagration and host of characters involved in the demise of slavery?
Messes up interpretation of the evidence.
 

jgoodguy

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Then how do we go about trying to get the best interpretation?
Historian states the facts. What do we do with them? Just reading them isn't enough. Why read history at all?
Just a thought.
Historian presents the facts with analysis. What you do with it on you. If you want to think Southern slave holders kept slaves as pets for an example that is also on you. If you want to understand the mindset that drove the slaveholders, Southern society and politics, then you have to minimize preconceptions.
 

gary

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Re: #6 about Northern whites opposing slavery because they believed in racial equality, I'd give that a big no. They opposed slavery because they thought slavery was morally wrong. They didn't necessarily want the blacks to be treated as their peers. Racism in the North against blacks was evidenced by the Draft Riots especially in NYC where innocent blacks were lynched and an orphanage burned.

The author of the book, What this Cruel War was Over, argues that Northern soldiers' attitude towards slaves changed as the war progressed. From the initial desire to preserve the Union and defend the honor of the flag, they grew to understand that slavery brought about the evil of the war and that it must be stamped out. This did not necessarily mean they wanted equal rights for blacks though.
 

Pat Young

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White men could vote, hold elected office, and serve in the military in 1861. White women and non-whites, with some exceptions, could not.

White men aren't the whole story, but they held the power.
Here is the talking point in question:
1. People in the 19th century thought about the world differently than we do today. This is especially true for matters of race, slavery, labor, freedom, economic class, gender and citizenship. We need to understand what people back then thought and avoid the temptation to impose our 21st century values upon 19th century people.

The author writes about "people in the 19th Century," not "the people who held power." When I see discussions of how "people" thought about race in the 1860s, too often the speakers are discussing how white people thought about race. Taney may have not thought blacks were people, but modern historians should not buy into that piece of racist claptrap.
 

Pat Young

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3. Just as we cannot impose 21st century values back into the 19th century, we cannot and should not teleport our ancestors of the 19th century into our own time. Our ancestors certainly passed down cultural baggage to the following generations and thenceforward through the decades on to us. But that does not mean we should be defined today by plucking people out of the past and using them to make us good or bad people today.

Again, aren't we defined by the individuals from our past? Don't they have an effect on who we are today?
Aren't they the reason who and what we are today? Don't they - the "good" and "bad" guys - in some way contribute to our good/bad actions today?
How did they get the "good" and "bad" label? Isn't that through history?
Could that be why we study someone like Lincoln?
Could that be why we're always analyzing CW-era leaders, groups and events and judging them?
A lot of the folks around here who say you can't judge people from the past go around judging them all the time. We constantly see threads asking who was better, this guy or that. If we did not want to judge the people of the past, that would be a meaningless question. All we could ask is "How did people in that time view that person."
 

Joshism

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When I see discussions of how "people" thought about race in the 1860s, too often the speakers are discussing how white people thought about race.

I guess I have always taken it for granted that non-whites didn't accept that they were racially inferior to whites.
 

Joshism

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A lot of the folks around here who say you can't judge people from the past go around judging them all the time. We constantly see threads asking who was better, this guy or that. If we did not want to judge the people of the past, that would be a meaningless question. All we could ask is "How did people in that time view that person."

There is more than one kind of judgment.

Don't privilege the present, judging everyone in the 19th century as terrible people because pretty much nobody in that time had 21st century views.

But if we refuse to judge the past at all - if X or Y was the better decision, or who was the better general among A, B, and C - then we squander the wealth of knowledge that we possess, wasting our greatest advantage over those lived events as they happened with incredibly limited knowledge. We must remember that we have a hindsight that they could not so as not to skew our conclusions, but to ignore that hindsight leaves us at a severe disadvantage in learning from history.
 

jgoodguy

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There is more than one kind of judgment.

Don't privilege the present, judging everyone in the 19th century as terrible people because pretty much nobody in that time had 21st century views.

But if we refuse to judge the past at all - if X or Y was the better decision, or who was the better general among A, B, and C - then we squander the wealth of knowledge that we possess, wasting our greatest advantage over those lived events as they happened with incredibly limited knowledge. We must remember that we have a hindsight that they could not so as not to skew our conclusions, but to ignore that hindsight leaves us at a severe disadvantage in learning from history.
Good points. As I see it.

If we bias the evidence that is not good. If we use our judgement as a short cut or excuse for not looking at the past people as a people with their independent morality, that is not good. If we cannot learn that in the past good people with good morals of that time and place and good intentions were led into actions held despicable by future generations. If we cannot not learn that then we have no hope of imagining how future generations will see us.
 

chucksr

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"We need to understand what people back then thought and avoid the temptation to impose our 21st century values upon 19th century people."

Hate to be the naysayer but this is simply impossible. After over a century and a half of racial prejudices, demographic changes, universal education, individual experience both positive and negative, social dynamics, etc. NO ONE can "understand", really "understand" what people back then thought.
The most enlightened of us, the most educated, the most intelligent can never recapture a common ground with the average, or above/below average person thought, felt, intuited about themselves or races.
We can read reports, we can read contemporary evaluations and opinions but to "think and feel" like a 19th century person is beyond our reach. I'm not sure "close" counts either--we all simply have to approach the past with all our modern prejudices and experiences intact and accept that we have no choice. We will always put, in some way, our personal stamp on all understanding.
 

jgoodguy

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"We need to understand what people back then thought and avoid the temptation to impose our 21st century values upon 19th century people."

Hate to be the naysayer but this is simply impossible. After over a century and a half of racial prejudices, demographic changes, universal education, individual experience both positive and negative, social dynamics, etc. NO ONE can "understand", really "understand" what people back then thought.
The most enlightened of us, the most educated, the most intelligent can never recapture a common ground with the average, or above/below average person thought, felt, intuited about themselves or races.
We can read reports, we can read contemporary evaluations and opinions but to "think and feel" like a 19th century person is beyond our reach. I'm not sure "close" counts either--we all simply have to approach the past with all our modern prejudices and experiences intact and accept that we have no choice. We will always put, in some way, our personal stamp on all understanding.

If impossible, then the study of history is impossible, just ask the nearest philosopher or theologian for a judgement and get on with life. It is difficult for sure, but not impossible.
 

chucksr

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If impossible, then the study of history is impossible, just ask the nearest philosopher or theologian for a judgement and get on with life. It is difficult for sure, but not impossible.
the study of history is never "impossible" only imperfect--like almost everything else save daughters and granddaughters.
But, just getting on with it is what we do--aware that all our perceptions are, understandably warped by who we are, where we are.
 

jgoodguy

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the study of history is never "impossible" only imperfect--like almost everything else save daughters and granddaughters.
But, just getting on with it is what we do--aware that all our perceptions are, understandably warped by who we are, where we are.
Somehow I sense that the daughters and granddaughters exceptions are a prejudice influenced by personal perception.

In any case it is difficult, studying the economics of slavery was very heartbreaking for me, but I can understand the mindset. The study of slave law needs antidepressants for me. IMHO We will have arrived when someone says slavery and their opponent says so what, typical human history and get into a study of how a society can be composed of folks thinking they were good, informed by competent theologians,historians, philosophers and led by godly leaders can integrate such a thing into the very fabric of society.
 

chucksr

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Somehow I sense that the daughters and granddaughters exceptions are a prejudice influenced by personal perception.

In any case it is difficult, studying the economics of slavery was very heartbreaking for me, but I can understand the mindset. The study of slave law needs antidepressants for me. IMHO We will have arrived when someone says slavery and their opponent says so what, typical human history and get into a study of how a society can be composed of folks thinking they were good, informed by competent theologians,historians, philosophers and led by godly leaders can integrate such a thing into the very fabric of society.
I think you are right, how does a modern man even begin to "relate" to a codification of rights of slaves? It is beyond our power to comprehend, it would require being immersed in a society that no modern man, except of course for a few, could function in. I think good historians have to be aware they can't know the "why", really know it but they can accurately tell us the "what". That's what makes this particular subject so prone to old tired arguments about the morality of the two sides--both were pretty strange, one side engaging in the practice of slavery and the other tolerating the practice for so long.
Oh yeah, I'm plenty prejudicial when it comes to my daughters and especially my granddaughters! Think of those three monkey's with hands on eyes, ears, and mouths.
 

Pat Young

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Sorry guys, but books on Hamilton and Washington are on the bestseller list, and those on the Tories go begging because we know how it turned out and we value what the Patriots did.

Modern values inform every aspect not just of our opinions of the past but also what we even bother to study about it.
 

jgoodguy

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Sorry guys, but books on Hamilton and Washington are on the bestseller list, and those on the Tories go begging because we know how it turned out and we value what the Patriots did.

Modern values inform every aspect not just of our opinions of the past but also what we even bother to study about it.
History by marketshare
 

chucksr

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History by the devilish and capricious nature of the human mind--oh yeah, and the arrogance of that mind. Let's all just pretend we can regress our selves into back to the future.
 
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