Historical Revision in Perspective

At the heart of historical revisionism is distrust… a lack of faith in previous interpretations of the historical record.  This blog has bitterly observed the crass consumerism and intellectual vanity that often drive outlandish revisions in our history.  But, a closer examination reveals the true divide between revisionist and traditionalist- trust.

Gordon Wood historian 2006
Gordon Wood, Brown University professor of History.

As historians rush to laud Alan Taylor’s new revision… of the American Revolutionary movement, the distrust is laid bare.  If revisionist historians refuse to come out and proclaim all previous work wrong, then there must be a lack of trust.  Was Gordon Wood trying to deceive us when explaining how radical our Revolution was?  Did Dumas Malone wish to hide Jefferson’s feelings on slavery and freedom?  Was Edmund Morgan deliberately distorting history when explaining racial diversity in Colonial Virginia?  All revisionists will say is that works like Taylor’s are now “the standards.”   To hell with what came before…


There is no mass historical conspiracy to disregard… races or classes of people.  Gordon Wood should be read in first year graduate courses and beyond.  In their zeal to legitimize controversial interpretations, revisionists like Taylor and Annette Gordon-Reed propagate the distrust of these noteworthy predecessors

5 thoughts on “Historical Revision in Perspective

  1. I look at revisionism like Hegel, and, I hate to say it, Marx. Thesis: Antithesis: Synthesis. So, I tend to embrace Wood and Taylor at the same time because they force me to deal with the things that each chooses to leave out when making their main arguments. Because of that, I had never thought about it in terms of trust and more in terms of simple disagreement about what’s important. As often as not, what’s important among historians reflects the tastes and beliefs of the day in which they are are writing. Two cents worth, anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I generally agree with you. Professionals ought to be able to meet higher standards of argument and behavior. But, then I remember our national heroes often got down in the mud with one another, so my standard may be too high. What’s the rule? The viciousness of academic debate varies inversely with the stakes or importance? Something like that.


  2. I feel there is no way we can look back and say what they were thinking. By using 21st Century eyes and mentality, we see a different world than what actually existed at the time.


  3. Hear, Hear!! Gordon Wood’s “The Purpose of the Past” is a must read for writers and consumers of history. Revisionism is the norm. Unfortunately, when I completed my BA in History at the age of 57 I found the works of Zinn, Taylor, and Charles Beard (still) were promoted. While the few mentions of Wood characterized him as “cantankerous.” When nearly half of a room of 25 future History Undergrads state that they intend to use their History degrees toward activism, we have a problem.


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