Kevin Roberts is the Chief Executive Officer of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He has a Ph.D in American history from the University of Texas. His 2003 dissertation was titled “Slaves and slavery in Louisiana: The Evolution of Atlantic World Identities, 1791-1831. His adviser was James Sidbury.
Roberts was the president of Wyoming Catholic College which, he boasts, The New York Times said was full of “cowboy Catholics” for refusing federal student loans and grants. His bio says that Wyoming Catholic is one of the “top Catholic schools in the nation.” Roberts’s bio also reads: “As a scholar of America’s Founding, Roberts approaches every public issue with the desire to increase self-governance and decrease government overreach.”
Here is Roberts talking about critical race theory and the 1619 Project:
He also does not believe in revisionist history. He is apparently very unhappy about the new book on the Alamo discussed in my last post.
Yesterday Roberts mixed-it-up with Princeton historian Kevin Kruse:
Just for the record, all historians are revisionists. As we will see below, Roberts seems to understand this concept, but he knows that throwing around the phrase “revisionist history” will stoke his political base. In other words, Roberts’s use of this phrase has nothing to do with the study or practice of history. Again, I think he knows this.
So what is “revisionist history?”
Historians are in the business of resurrecting the past. Yet, because we live in the present, far removed from the events of the past, our ability to construct what happened in by-gone eras is limited. This is why the doing of history requires an act of the imagination. Sometimes we do not have the sources to provide a complete picture of “what happened” at any given time. As historian Peter Hoffer notes, ‘History is impossible. Nothing I have written or could write will change that brutal fact.” Historians must come to grips with the fact that they will never be able to provide a complete or thorough account of what happened in the past.
Even the best accounts of the past are open to change based on new evidence or the work of historians who approach a subject with a different lens of interpretation. In this sense, history is more about competing perceptions of the past than it is about nailing down a definitive account of a specific event or life. As historian David Lowenthal notes, “history usually depends on someone else’s eyes and voice: we see it through an interpreter who stands between past events and our apprehension of them.” While the past never changes, history changes all the time. Think, for example, about two eyewitness accounts of the same auto incident . Even if we assume that the drivers involved in the accident believe that they are telling the truth about what happened, it is still likely that the police will receive two very different accounts of how the accident occurred and two different accounts of who is to blame or who caused the accident. It is thus up to the police officer in charge, or perhaps a judge, to weigh the evidence and come up with a plausible interpretation of this historical event. But let’s imagine two weeks after the paperwork is filed and the case is closed, a reliable witness to the accident emerges with new evidence to suggest that the person who the judge held responsible for the accident was actually not at fault. This new information leads to a new historical narrative of what happened. History has changed. This is called revisionism, and it is the lifeblood of the historical profession.
The word revisionism carries a negative connotation in American society because it is usually associated with changing true facts of the past in order to fit some kind of agenda in the present. But actually, the historian who is called a “revisionist” receives a high compliment. In his book Who Owns History?, Pulitzer Prize-winning history professor Eric Foner recalls a conversation with a Newsweek reporter who asked him, “When did historians stop relating facts and start all this revising of interpretations of the past?” Foner responded, “Around the time of Thucydides.” (Thucydides is the Greek writer who is often credited with being one of the first historians in the West.) Those, like Roberts, who believe “revisionism” is a negative term often misunderstand the way it is used by historians. Revisionists are not in the business of changing the facts of history. Any good revisionist interpretation of history will be based on evidence–documents or other artifacts that people in the past left behind. This type of reconstruction of the past always takes place in community. We know whether a particular revision of the past is good because it is vetted by a community of historians. This is called peer review. When bad history does make it into print, we rely on the community of historians to call this to our attention through reviews.
A few examples might help illustrate what I mean when I say that revisionism is the lifeblood of history. Without revisionism, our understanding of racial relations in the American South after the Civil War would still be driven by what historians call the “Dunning School.” William Dunning was an early twentieth-century historians who suggested that Reconstruction–the attempt to bring civil rights and voting rights to Southern Blacks in the wake of the Civil War–was a mistake. The Northern Republicans who promoted Reconstruction and the various ‘carpetbaggers’ who came to the South to start schools for Blacks and work for racial integration destroyed the Southern way of life. In the end, however, the South did indeed rise again. In Dunning’s portrayal, Southerners eventually rallied to overthrow this Northern invasion. They removed Blacks from positions of power and established regime of segregation that would last for much of the twentieth century. These so-called redeemers of Southern culture are the heroes of the Dunning School, an interpretation of Reconstruction that would inform D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), one of the most popular, and most racist, motion of pictures of the early twentieth century. In the 1930s the Dunning School was challenged by a group of historians who began to interpret the period of Reconstruction from the perspective of the former slaves. Rather than viewing the blacks in the post-Civil War South as people without power, these revisionist authors provided a much richer understanding of the period that included a place for all historical actors, regardless of skin color or social standing, in the story of this important moment in American history.
One of the more recent developments in the historical profession has been the way historians have turned to religion as a category of explanation. During the 1960s and 1970s, many publishers of American history textbooks responded to a host of Supreme Court decisions that limited religious expression in public schools. For example, in the wake of cases such as Engel v. Vitale (1962), which made any prayer in school unconstitutional, and Abington v. Schempp (1963), which prohibited school-sponsored Bible reading, publishers began to downplay the role of religion in American history. Things got so absurd that several popular textbooks avoided the mention of religion in discussions of the Pilgrims and the Puritans. Scholars of the First Amendment have universally argued that many textbook companies, and their clients in the public schools, misunderstood these Supreme Court decisions to mean that religion was not permitted in the curriculum. Because they feared that schools would not purchase their books if they had too much religion in them, textbook companies chose instead to take religion out. After Vitale and Schempp, school districts and textbook companies became unnecessarily paranoid about violating the First Amendment’s religious clause and thus erred on the side of caution.
In the last several decades, revisionist historians have been correcting this problem. They are making religious belief and practice an import ant part of the stories that they are telling about the past. Historians are taking seriously the way religious faith shapes behavior. In fact, the recent membership statistics of the American Historical Association, the largest and most important organization of professional historians in the country, reveal that religion is now the most popular subject being explored by practicing historians. American religious history is one of the hottest subfields in American history. While the Christian Rights continues to complain about the apparent lack of religious content in textbooks, this revisionist revival promises to give faith a prominent place in the American history curriculum.
One more example. In his University of Texas Ph.D dissertation, Roberts focuses on slavery in the state’s western frontier, rather than in New Orleans. By turning his attention away from New Orleans, Roberts argues, we get a better understanding of Louisiana’s plantation life. (His work tries to resuscitate, at least in part, the argument of Frank Tannenbaum in his 1947 book Slave and Citizen:, the Negro in the Americas). Roberts also attempts to explain Louisiana slavery through its connection to the larger Atlantic World. The goal, of course, is to offer a better and more thorough understanding of slavery in the state and in the early republic as a whole.
So it looks like Roberts is also a revisionist. Other scholars of American slavery or the American South will need to read his entire dissertation to know whether he is a good revisionist or a bad revisionist. But his dissertation committee must have thought his revisionism was good enough to award him a Ph.D.
In the end, all historians are revisionists. The Christian historian R.G. Collingwood wrote that “every generation must rewrite history in its own way; every new historian, not content with giving new answers to old questions, must revise the question themselves.” This may mean that a historian will challenge the cherished myths of a particular culture or uncover evidence that does not bode well for a patriotic view of one’s country. (At other times, of course, evidence could strengthen the public bonds of citizenship). As new evidence emerges and historians discover new ways of bringing the past to their audiences in the present, interpretation of specific events change. This makes history an exciting and intellectually stimulating discipline.