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The Skeptic's Guide to American History

The Skeptic's Guide to American History - Mark A. Stoler Living through an era is much different from reading about the history of it. The more one learns about particular historical happenings, the more complicated their causes, occurrences and consequences become. Thus, there are plenty of misconceptions, myths and half-truths about American history to examine for accuracy and completeness.

These twenty-four lectures provide a fresh examination of American history to see what really happened as opposed to what many believe happened. The lecturer repeatedly observes that when historians interpret the past they often impose the values and understandings of their own day on to the past events. This can lead to incorrect conclusions.

People well read in American history will probably not learn much that is new from these lectures. Nevertheless the lectures do provide a concise articulation of how different people can arrive at different understandings of history. The following quotation is a good example of this from Lecture 8 titled “Did Slavery Really Cause the Civil War?” The Lecturer has just finished reviewing numerous causes of the Civil War that have been proposed over the years by different historians. Then the lecturer wraps it up as follows:
"Interpretations are usually tied in some way to the era in which they were written. It’s far from accidental that the generation that fought the war would come to view it in the North as a moral struggle over slavery, and in the South as a more defensible support of state’s rights. Similarly it is far from accidental that the economic interpretation gained great popularity during the 1930s, the years of the great depression. Nor is it surprising that interpretations emphasizing fanatics and incompetent politicians should arise as people in the 1930s began to see World War I as an avoidable conflict, and who were simultaneously witnessing the rise of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Nor should we be surprised that all these alternative views to slavery as the cause of the war emerged in the decades of intense racism in the United States. Nor should we be surprised by the reemergence of slavery as a moral issue, and the question of race relations in the era of civil rights and in the years since World War II and the full revelation of Nazi racial atrocities. .... The emphasis of psychological interpretations in this same time period should not surprise us either. ...

Nor should the emphasis on ideology that developed in the years of the cold war, which was an ideological conflict [be a surprise].... . It is important to realize that if is one accepts the ideological approach then all the previous interpretations retain their validity. For even if there were no conspiracies in reality, no truly irreconcilable differences in economies and cultures, no basic disagreement over the nature of the Union, and no chance of slavery establishing itself in the territories; Americans North and South believed otherwise because of their ideology, and they acted on the basis of those beliefs.

Furthermore, ideology and perceptions are themselves products of all the general factors previously sited as causes of the war--Economics, culture, politics, political theory, moral values. And the common denominator linking all of these previously sited causes is SLAVERY. It was the base of the southern economy, southern culture, the conspiracy theories north and south, the fanaticism, politics, moral arguments, racism, conflicting definitions north and south of rights, and ensuing ideological conflicts. It is therefore the basic cause of the war. ..."
In other words, slavery was the cause but not in the simplistic way that one would usually think of it.