Gingrich is a Terrible, Terrible Historian

He used to teach a history class at Kennesaw State College in Georgia. Among a wide variety of inaccurate nonsensical non-history…

Gingrich’s historical selectivity and outright errors are, well, revealing. He manages to get through the entire Civil War without ever mentioning slavery.

Ugh. Talking about the Civil War without mentioning slavery is like talking about the Civil War without saying the words “civil” and “war.”

Don’t let anyone tell you differently: Slavery was the reason why the Civil War was waged. The only reason. Lost Cause Mythologists like Gingrich have been trying to say it was all about states’ rights. Fine, but the states’ right to do… what? To base their economies on African slave labor is what.

By the way, the Lost Cause Mythology was manufactured and rose to prominence in order to unify the nation by glorifying the south and demonizing African-Americans as the common national enemy within. One way to glorify the southern cause was to make it about liberty — state sovereignty.

So the whole states’ rights justification for the war arose out of this highly revisionist and racist effort, and in order to give white America a scapegoat for all of the bloodshed (650,000 dead), white mythologists proceeded to paint African-Americans as lazy, shiftless, drunken rapists. Early silent movies were loaded with this kind of imagery. See also The Birth of a Nation. The North and the South had something they could agree about. Black people are dangerous! Hide your white women!

To this day, African-Americans continue to suffer the consequences of this myth. In fact, modern racism was born in the Lost Cause.

This, of course, is the very short form explanation because I could go on and on for hours about the repercussions of the Civil War and how the origins of modern racial issues rose from the aftermath.

Either way, Newt Gingrich, one of the Republican frontrunners, is perpetuating this racist myth. And he calls himself an historian.

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  • some_internet_person

    I absolutely agree that the reason people like Gingrich take the “State’s Rights” or “Economic Differences” route is to gloss over and dismiss the impact of slavery, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t something amiss.

    Consider: the top markets for those slave-produced crops was the textile mills of the north. And to whom were they selling between the fields and those mills? The 1860 version of the 1%. Do you think they were bending over backwards to give those 10-20%ers on those plantations the best deal? Or skinning them for every penny they could on every bale?

    Now, that’s a big-time over-simplification that I’m not going to bother going all the way into, because we pretty much agree on the overall picture. I just wanted to point this out because, imho, the full analysis should include both the “states’ rights” arguments, in both their mythological and substantial contexts, as well as the full impact of the Slave Power.

    (Also, almost as an aside, the further we get from that era, the better John Brown comes out looking. Just sayin’.)

    • Clancy

      bd, not sure what you were trying to say with everything else, but I agree completely with your statement on Brown. His public reputation has taken quite a strange route over the last 150 years.

      • some_internet_person

        Just saying that, when deployed from responsible lips making the appropriate qualifications, the “States Rights” or “Economic Differences” thing is a genuine factor to consider.

        That those lips aren’t Gingrich’s isn’t really worth dwelling on too deeply, because obviously his comments are aimed towards his audience, for whom these arguments have long since become received wisdom.

        Actually, HolyReality may have worded it even better below.

        • Clancy

          Okay. Thanks for the clarification. I also agree with the sentiment that jmby stated below.

      • jmby

        I think bd was pointing out that no wealthy hands were particularly clean, in either the North or South, when it comes to the issue of Slavery. Being fortunate enough to work on the Smithsonian-affiliated Tredegar museum project, which takes visitors on a very deep look into the Slaves’, North’s and Southern perspectives and reasons for entering into war, I learned so much about those wealthy men who owned cotton mills in my native “North” that shocked and appalled me. I believe what bd was writing was that the wealthy will always look after their own interests – morality be damned. In both the North and South, “states’ rights” was a by-word for “thr rich’s rights”.

    • holyreality

      Wars are about money, more than any other reason. Slaves were certainly an integral part of the equation.

      Lincoln did not particularly care about the “negros”, he preserved the Union at great cost for a larger picture than only freeing the slaves.

      Geopolitically, France was threatening to take Mexico, and would have made a formidable ally for the Confederacy. Splitting the Union would have carved a door for European Bankers to get their bloody claws in after decades of failure since Jackson threw them out.

      Every Cinco de Mayo, I thank every Mexican I see for whipping the French at Puebla, ending the Confederate’s last hope.

      But then a USA superpower may not have ever gone on to our current empire, so I judge slowly, and momentarily wonder what if the Mexicans lost, the French allied and won the awful war?

      Alaska would still be Russian, the continent fragmented in small states, and when would Chattel Slavery have possibly ended?

  • nyama2

    As a historian who pulls her hair out every time I see Gingrich referred to with unquestioning reverence by some media-types because he is a “historian,” let me say THANK YOU for this blog!! Good, concise explanation. There’s a reason why the Newt wasn’t successful at that profession, you know? While he’s probably a shade better than a pseudo-historian like David Barton, that’s not saying a lot. Nothing but an egotistical revisionist.

  • Clancy

    My favorite part of the original piece by Allan Lichtman is that Gingrich based his lectures more on fiction than original documents or secondary source material created by historians. Oddly, Gingrich used scenes from contemporary films to illustrate how events that supposedly happened well in the past resonated with audiences in the present. Seriously. A movie made but a couple of years ago somehow still holds up in this day and age. . . it’s message still has meaning to Americans?

    Bob, I know this was just a short piece, but it’s difficult to imagine what you mean by “modern racism” being born from the Civil War. It’s far easier to attribute the characteristics of American racism to the legacy hundreds of years of slavery than four short years of war (however terrible it may have been). The racism that permitted one group of people to place another group into bondage and treat as chattel is the same racism that continues to the present. The mechanisms and character of that racism is different, but the underlying doctrine is roughly the same. I am assuming that you were using “Lost Cause” as a direct reference to the war itself, rather than the romanticism of the war that followed. If the latter is the case, then I would agree with you that much of the structure of racism that remains in the U.S. (especially institutionalized racism) was crafted as a result of the war, or more specifically, the period immediately following postwar Reconstruction.

    Still, thanks for posting this. It’s important that we speak out against the ahistorical musings by influential jagoffs like Gingrich. It’s sad that his political influence and connection ever permitted him to teach at a reputable school in the first place. (I’ve skimmed his dissertation. While hardly trailblazing or the product of a fantastic mind, it’s not terrible. It’s sad that he abandoned his training and profession.)

    • Clancy

      I take that last sentence back. As I thought about it, I realized that what I believed to be Gingrich’s dissertation belonged to someone else. I’ve never read his on “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo: 1945–1960.”

      • kushiro -

        I haven’t read it either, but I think it went something like this:

        “The Belgians said, ‘Let’s just educate the lighter ones, because they’re better than the darker ones. Then they can get all the jobs, and do whatever they want to the darker ones. There, now we’ll just leave them to it and go home. Everything will work out fine.’ As someone who hopes to one day lead the Republican Party, I think that’s just a very good strategy.”

    • http://drangedinaz.wordpress.com/ IrishGrrrl

      “….but it’s difficult to imagine what you mean by “modern racism” being born from the Civil War.”

      I would say that it wasn’t just the years of slavery and the Civil War but equally crucial would be the Lincoln Assassination and Reconstruction. Lincoln was a very strong advocate for bringing the southern states back into the union fold as properly chastened prodigal sons. Congress on the other hand wanted to keep punishing them and when Lincoln died there was little opposition to their plans.

      The Reconstruction solidified hard feelings in the South. When they discussed it in school in the 1970’s (Tenn), they really spent quite a lot of time on Reconstruction as opposed to the war itself and how unfairly the southern states were treated. I think that made a very big difference and opened the door for the “southern strategy” that the GOP has played to their advantage since.

      Also, we should note how this “states rights” and “southern strategy” is now being used in the Southwest against Mexican immigrants. Make no mistake about it….the GOP will lock down the vote in the Southwestern states for several more decades until 1 of 2 things happen…non-white voters outnumber white voters OR we successfully nip this BS strategy in the bud. I’ve been calling it the Southwestern Strategy on my blog.

  • Robert Farmer

    have you read any of his fiction? Trite, overblown, tired re-workings of the Great Man theory of history.

    All of his historical fiction is a re-working of ideas that were better done by multiples of people prior to Newt’s doing it. Kinda like writing Friday the 14th.

  • GrafZeppelin127

    I’m not sure that everyone who dusts off the “states’ rights”/10th Amendment/1850s-secesh talk whenever there’s a Democratic president is necessarily masking latent (or kinetic) racism, let alone support for slavery and Jim Crow and such. Eventually, people start to believe their own bullshit, even if their bullshit is just a front for other bullshit.

    So far no one’s been able to explain why any particular federal law is tyrannical and represents the utter destruction of freedom while the exact same state law, with identical provisions, requirements, and enforcement mechanisms, would not. Either you’re “free” to do something or you’re not; who or what is stopping you is immaterial.

    I have a hard time trying to converse with people making 10th Amendment/”states’ rights” arguments not because I don’t agree with them, because the law says they’re wrong, or because they lost that argument 150 years ago at the cost of over 600,000 American lives, but because I just think they’re completely, utterly and entirely full of shit. They don’t think, talk, argue, or care about states’ rights and federal intrusion therein during Republican presidencies (although they do claim to have done so, make excuses for not having done so, or claim post hoc that they never supported such presidencies).

    It’s common knowledge over here how the GOP and its propaganda machine have managed to de-legitimize and demonize the Democratic party in recent decades, to the point where having a Democratic president causes a series of irrational and unhinged freakouts including, but not limited to, a revival of 1850’s “secesh” talk based on the feeling that the entire federal government, which was lauded and worshipped at every opportunity between 2001 and 2008, suddenly became illegitimate, evil, threatening, destructive and targeted for complete abolishment, practically overnight (or, to be more accurate, at precisely midday on January 20, 2009).

    • http://drangedinaz.wordpress.com/ IrishGrrrl

      Graf, Amen can I get a witness!

  • http://twitter.com/dondrennon Don Drennon

    Lost Cause mythology lives on in the south, although it seems far less pervasive now than in my youth (I’m 54). I have no hard data to prove the assertion, but I’d bet the farm that the “states rights” adherents are far more prevalent in folks who never went to college.

    It typically is a waste of time, but I point to the South Carolina Articles of Secession (as close to a founding document as can be found for the Confederacy) as proof-positive that the only casus belli was slavery. One need only search the document for the word “slave”, and count number of times it appears.

    • http://drangedinaz.wordpress.com/ IrishGrrrl

      “I have no hard data to prove the assertion, but I’d bet the farm that the “states rights” adherents are far more prevalent in folks who never went to college.”

      Quite a few of my cousins that live in Mississippi are all the evidence you need, anecdotal though it may be. :)

  • http://www.twitter.com/bobcesca_go Bob Cesca

    We have the smartest commenters on the blogosphere. Great discussion, everyone!

  • JMAshby

    Few things are more offensive than the idea that slavery had nothing to do with the civil war.

  • D_C_Wilson

    Gingrich is a Terrible, Terrible Human Being

    FIFY