Historian Michael Todd Landis has a proposal at the Historical News Network advocating that we should change the names we use to refer to American Civil War related events and institutions.
The old labels and terms handed down to us from the conservative scholars of the early to mid-twentieth century no longer reflect the best evidence and arguments. The tired terms served either to reassure worried Americans in a Cold War world, or uphold a white supremacist, sexist interpretation of the past. The Cold War is over, and we must reject faulty frameworks and phrases. We no longer call the Civil War “The War Between the States,” nor do we refer to women’s rights activists as “suffragettes,” nor do we call African-Americans “Negroes.” Language has changed before, and I propose that it should change again.
…Instead of the “Compromise of 1850,” which implies that both North and South gave and received equally in the bargains over slavery, the legislation should be called the “Appeasement of 1850.” Appeasement more accurately describes the uneven nature of the agreement.
…In his 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books), he rejects “plantations” (a term pregnant with false memory and romantic myths) in favor of “labor camps”; instead of “slave-owners” (which seems to legitimate and rationalize the ownership of human beings), he uses “enslavers.” Small changes with big implications.
I’m not sure how I feel about this. Certainly, historians shouldn’t make any bones about what these events or institutions were. Southern antebellum plantations were slave camps and the owners were slavers. But whether we should change the names of these events or institutions depends, for me, on what they were actually called by people at the time.
If people during those times referred to them by “The Compromise of 1850”, “plantations”, and “slave owners”, then I think modern history books should call them that, again, while making sure everyone understands what they actually were. Yes, the terms used may have been misleading euphemisms. But misleading euphemisms used to cover ugly truths are everywhere, and I think there is considerable value in seeing the historical ones for what they were. It makes it much easier to recognize similar euphemisms in use today. Learning from the past is one of history’s key benefits.
Of course, if the terms were in fact created by biased historians decades after the events or institutions, then by all means, they’re fair game, and we should call them by what they were. But I think care should be exercised to make sure that’s what’s happening.
Or am I missing something? I know every generation sees history through the filter of its own cultural frameworks. Is it maybe just time to change the filter we use for those times?