John Fea: All Historians Are Revisionists






John Fea chairs the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, PA, and is the author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011). He blogs daily at philipvickersfithian.com.

In last week's column I mentioned, among other things, that I thought David Barton was a practitioner of revisionist history. I wrote that "all history is revisionist" and added that "revisionism is the lifeblood of history." Several readers thought I was wrong about this and they did not hesitate to tell me so in the comments section, on Facebook, on my blog, and via personal e-mails. It seems that the word "revisionism" continues to carry a negative connotation.

Yet, despite my detractors, I continue to believe that revisionism is absolutely essential to the study of history. In fact, there would be no history without it. In his book Who Owns History?, Columbia University 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, who lived in the 5th century B.C. and was the author of the History of the Peloponnesian War, is considered by many to be the first "historian.")

Those 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 to help us reconstruct the world in which they lived. Revisionists don't just make things up....



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