Time to change how we refer to American Civil War events and institutions?

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?

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15 Responses to Time to change how we refer to American Civil War events and institutions?

  1. Steve Morris says:

    I think the same as you. Words and phrases used at the time are literally true. Plantations were called plantations. That’s what they were. They may have been forms of labour camps, but they were still plantations. It’s a fact.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. ratamacue0 says:

    I agree.

    But as long as we’re considering changing our terms…

    Liked by 3 people

  3. James Pailly says:

    I think most people recognize these terms for what they are. I have never for one second had a romantic idea of what a “plantation” was, nor has the term “slave-owner” ever given me the impression that it’s in any way legitimate to own slaves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That was my reaction as well. It’s kind of like the terms “concentration camp” or economic “depression.” Originally those were euphemisms, but few have any doubt about what they mean today, and people create euphemisms for them now.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Wyrd Smythe says:

    Add me to the list of those above. The actual historic terms are descriptive and honest. Proper education makes it very clear how awful things were. His versions are deliberately emotionally loaded, and I think that’s worse.

    (This is one example of “progressive” thinking gone wild for me. It reflects a kind of politically correct groupthink that revolts me.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • “Politically correct” was the phrase that occurred to me too, although the term has become so abused in recent years that I’m now reluctant to use it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        Heh. PC is too PC? 😀

        Thinking about it, his terms are stupid. A “labor camp” is a type of prison, and while the slaves were prisoners, imprisonment wasn’t the main point. The term “labor camp” actually loses the specific (and horrific) meaning of “plantation.”

        Likewise, “slaver” corrupts the meaning of the word, which applies to those engaged in slave trade itself. “Slave owner” is fully descriptive and correct.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Hariod Brawn says:

    I live somewhere called The United Kingdom, a grouping of four countries, three of which have their own legislature so as to sustain a discreteness as to their needs, customs, identity, and to assert the will of its people, one of which (Scotland) is vehemently anti-royalist (so much for ‘Kingdom’, and any way, the king’s a queen), another of which is one of the most dis-united territories imaginable (Northern Ireland), a third (Wales) is only in it for the money, and lastly England, whose population wants to be rid of all obligations to the other three. Another name we have for three of these four territories is Great Britain, not Greater Britain, which would be factually correct perhaps in denoting one island, but Great Britain, which rather begs a question.

    Like

    • Haha. Every country seems to have its divisions. When you think about it, considering that many are old empires whose subjugated peoples just got used to each other, it’s amazing that any manage to hold together for centuries.

      On having multiple legislatures, we have 50, a sizable portion of which I’m convinced are crazy. (Indeed, our civil war was when a portion of them decided to secede so that they (the upper class, not the general population) could keep their slaves.)

      Liked by 1 person

    • Steve Morris says:

      Well, how politically incorrect can it get? Wales is only “in it for the money”? Speaking as a Welshman, I assume that’s a euphemism for “invaded and subjugated by the English”? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hariod Brawn says:

        I lived in rural Pembrokeshire for part of my life Steve, and know the country and its people quite well I think. Precisely because of the subjugation you mention, there is a certain antipathy towards the English, and which tends to increase as you move away from the Southern conurbations. The setting fire to English incomer’s homes appears to have abated, yet the Welsh remain proudly and fervently nationalistic, and rightly so. At this year’s General Election, 181,694 Welsh people voted for Plaid Cymru – the nationalist party – and although that was little more than 12% of the overall vote, it was a continuation of a broadly linear trend amongst the voting population, which itself is not necessarily representative of the populace. For that reason, it seems reasonable to form opinion by anecdote and personal experience, which I have. My view is that there is something of a begrudging acknowledgment that Wales needs the subsidies it receives from English taxpayers.

        “According to Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander, the figures are a reminder of ‘a funding system within the UK that provides additional resources to Wales to meet the many needs that Welsh people have and again shows that within the UK we can strengthen Wales, we can strengthen the Welsh parliament (sic) and make sure that Wales has the funding it needs to carry on with the important work of the Welsh government.’ For others, they will also be a reminder of how much the taxpayers of England subsidise some other parts of the UK – although supporters of Scottish independence argue that Scotland contributes more than it receives.”*

        http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-25039137
        Infographic: https://www.flickr.com/photos/hmtreasury/10975464175/

        Liked by 1 person

        • Steve Morris says:

          Of course! Wales gets a lot in return for being a part of a larger nation. All it costs is a little national pride, which is why some Welsh people get unnecessarily and foolishly militant. Fortunately the cottage-burning seems to have abated, as you say. Scratch beneath the surface though, and you will find quite a lot of anti-English prejudice, which I have always found to be silly, offensive and annoying.

          I’m not in favour of the Welsh Assembly. It seems to me to simply pander to prejudice and knee-jerk thinking and creates an additional layer of bureaucracy that achieves little.

          How long has Wales been united with England? About 800 years. Plenty of time to forgive what “their” ancestors did to “our” ancestors, I think.

          Of course, we do have the best national anthem in the world. I think that England should adopt it too. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • Hariod Brawn says:

            I love Haydn’s melody for the German national anthem myself Steve, although no nation sings their own with as much passion and commitment as the Welsh do theirs.

            “Ni all neb wasanaethu dau arglwydd.” 😉

            Like

  6. I’m with you on this one. Changing those terms erases a crucial aspect of history and does a disservice to future generations. Once we start getting into this sort of thing, we’re covering up the past and reinventing it on our own terms…of course, you can say we always are, but at least we preserve a modicum of objectivity in retaining the terms used at the time.

    Liked by 1 person

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