American Historians Today
“Our Union rests upon public opinion, and can never be cemented by the blood of its citizens shed in civil war. If it cannot live in the affections of its people, it must one day perish.” President James Buchanan, 1860
“A poll of American historians, not long ago, chose James Buchanan as “the worst” American president. But judgements of “best” and worst” in history are not eternal and indisputable truths. They are matters of perspective and values, even of aesthetics. They can change as the deep consequences of historical events continue to unfold and bring forth new understandings.
These historians show their characteristic failure to pursue balance and their subservience to presentism and state worship. They think Buchanan should have ordered a military suppression of the seceded Southern States during the last months of his term of office in 1861.
Not only do they have no sympathy for a desire to avoid civil war, but they totally fail to understand the context. There was only a small army, most of the best officers of which sympathized with the South, and there were eight States that had not seceded but were averse to the action against the Confederacy.
More importantly, there was an immense and powerful and even predominant States’ rights tradition that had its followers in the North as well as in the South. For most Americans, even many who had voted for Lincoln, coercion of the people of a State was unthinkable until it became a fact. These historians prefer Lincoln as our “greatest” president.
He had less than two-fifths of the popular vote, but he had an aggressive rent-seeking and office-seeking coalition behind him, and he did not hesitate to make war, though he had egregiously miscalculated, expecting an easy victory.
That there was much intelligent and respectable opposition to him in the North is perhaps the biggest untold story of American history. Ex-president [Millard] Fillmore said that Lincoln’s election justified secession. Horatio Seymour, the governor of New York, asked pointedly why Lincoln was killing fellow Americans who, indeed, had always been exemplary citizens and patriots ready to defend the North against foreign attack.
A New York editor wanted to know exactly where Lincoln got the right to steal the possessions and burn the houses of Southern noncombatants. On July 4, 1863, while the battle raged at Gettysburg, Buchanan’s predecessor, former President Franklin Pierce, denounced Lincoln’s war in plain words in an extended oration in the capitol at Concord, New Hampshire.
The predominant American historical perspective among American historians today is that imported by communist refugees from Europe in the 1930s. American history is now Ellis Island, the African diaspora and Greater Mexico, and Old America has almost disappeared from attention except as an object of hatred.
For today’s historians, unlike James Buchanan, Southerners are not fellow countrymen and real people, but class enemies who should have been destroyed.”
(Updike’s Grandfather. A Review of “Buchanan Dying: A Play”; Clyde Wilson, Chronicles, January 2014, excerpts pg. 24)