The Dangers of Determinism

In my recent post entitled, “Making a Lasting Tribute,” I discussed the dangers of presenting history as a series of inevitable events.  Professor Michael T. Bernath describes this issue in his essay, featured in the Journal of the Civil War Era.  He commits a paragraph to the topic of determinism: “Since we know what is going to happen…we are predisposed to view nineteenth-century nationalist projects within certain contexts and as part of certain narratives.”  This phenomenon can be easily applied to the vast stretch of history, although I would argue that the issue becomes increasingly evident as the subject matter under consideration grows older.  Recent events are – comparatively speaking – fresh in popular memory, and as such, it is easier to recall the emotions of the moment, the concern over outcomes, and the dissension surrounding important decision-making.  For example, most Americans could probably speak to the intense disagreements over the interpretation of the Iraq War of 2003.  Whether the issue at hand is the origin of the conflict, the management of the troops deployed, or its aftermath, almost everyone is certain to have a position on the subject.

In sharp contrast, events dating back several hundred years (say, the War of 1812) are more frequently viewed as “done deals,” or events that, once completed, are beyond the kind of scrutiny we regularly apply to current events.  For the modern American, the War of 1812 is a conflict that “sits” somewhat awkwardly between the Revolution and the Civil War, two wars that have such tremendous historical resonance, they make the War of 1812 seem fairly insignificant in comparison.  The United States faced a deeply trying time during the war, with a navy that struggled to counter the British pre-eminence on the sea.  This was, after all, the war during which the White House was burned to the ground.  However, with the benefit of hindsight, all the distress over the nation’s future is difficult to appreciate.  A similar story can be told about the Civil War time period.  Read about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and you are likely to subconsciously recall its legacy, warm reception among modern historians, and lasting impact on the nation’s presidential history.  The idea that the Address was once the target of both praise and intense criticism would seem unfathomable.

What can we glean from this phenomenon?  As always, the more contextual information we have absorbed, the easier it is to assess the relative importance of various historical events.  To take a medieval example, having a broad awareness of the Mongol invasions of the mid-13th century allows the reader to realize that disagreements among western European nobles at the time were minor in comparative relevance.  This “situational awareness” is a double-edged sword, however, for the benefit of such context can also lead us to downplay the emotions expressed by historical characters.  Returning to a Civil War example, our interpretation of Sherman’s March to the Sea will depend on our familiarity with the use of scorched-earth tactics in military history.  Knowing that this approach had been used by many armies previously, we could mistakenly downplay the portrayal offered by American contemporaries.  Balancing the historical experience (e.g. what people felt) with our comparative knowledge (e.g. a general’s tactics were similar to those dating back to the Middle Ages or beyond) is one of the great challenges in scholarship.  How do you tackle this dilemma in your experience, whether in the classroom or in other spheres?

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