Kevin Levin on HNN

Blogger Kevin Levin has posted an essay on HNN that places himself firmly in the revisionist camp of the great Lincoln biographers J.G. Randall and Richard Current - adopting a position James McPherson has spent his life fighting. Levin:

I agree with the late historian William Gienapp that the "outbreak of war in April 1861 represented the complete breakdown of the American political system. As such the Civil War constituted the greatest failure of American democracy." I wish more people would approach the study of the Civil War from this perspective.

"Complete breakdown" - it's the reasonable and natural argument. Kevin should prepare himself for the counterblast: "irrepressible conflict," "inevitability of sectional conflict," "one nation cannot remain half free and half slave," etc. I'll be watching HNN for these Hegelian counterarguments.

Randall once mocked them handsomely. Looking at contingency in history he told the AHA, no less: "Suppose such a war had happened—for instance, a misguided war between the United States and Britain in the 1890’s concerning Venezuela. One can imagine the learned disquisitions that might have poured forth to 'prove' that that Anglo-American war was 'inevitable.'"

Kevin makes the interesting observation that we look at the nightly news and its parade of foreign civil war horrors as tragic and regressive - no upsides there. Yet in considering our own history, we lapse into this national satisfaction.

The Whiggish historians interpreted English history as a march of progress with setbacks on the way. The American Whigs, foremost among them James McPherson, follow suit. The nation is better, stronger, more just, more united after this awful but inevitable bloodbath.

Let me quote Edward L. Ayers from an earlier posting here:
The current [ACW] interpretation contains these tensions in an overarching story of emergent freedom and reconciliation. While acknowledging the complicated decisions people faced, Burns and McPherson resolve these through narrative.
And of course, you cannot resolve deep questions of history and philosophy through storytelling or literary devices. More Ayers:
McPherson is so vigilant [in protecting his conclusions] because he recognizes that this interpretation [that he champions] has become established only after a long struggle. The elegance and directness with which he and Burns tell their stories can lead us to forget what a complicated event the Civil War was.
Finally, Ayers once more:
While vestiges of older [ACW] interpretation still crop up in people's vague recollections, no one has stepped forward in a very long time to offer a popularly accepted counterargument to the explanation codified in Burns and McPherson.
Kevin has done so, and in the lion's den of HNN. Let's see how vigilant McPherson and friends remain in quashing this "older interpretation" of the origins of the ACW.