With the Internet, Every Man's His Own Historian

Roundup: Talking About History

Edward L. Ayers, author of The Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863 and professor of history at the University of Virginia, where he created the Valley of the Shadow Project, writing in Newsday (Jan. 25, 2004):

Unlike any medium before - from books and museums to film and television - the World Wide Web is profoundly changing our relationship to history. Unlike a museum, the Web is open all the time to people everywhere. Unlike a television show, movie or book, it does not tell only one story. Unlike a textbook, it encourages exploration, challenge and dissent.

Most radically, the Web allows every person to be his or her own historian. By giving easy access to a deep set of historical records, people can handle the pieces of the past for themselves. The Web puts diaries, letters, newspapers, censuses, military records, memoirs, photographs and maps into the hands of visitors, letting them go as far into the details of individual lives as they choose.

Everything from the founding of Jamestown to the Civil Rights movement, from the witchcraft trials of Salem to the inventions of Thomas Edison, from the Lewis and Clark Expedition to the history of television news has been opened to this experience. Historians have built large projects on women's lives, on Abraham Lincoln, on Harpers Weekly, on the Mississippi River, on the Great Depression and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on the histories of Los Angeles and Chicago. Historians constructed an instant archive on the attack of Sept. 11, 2001, chronicling personal responses to tragedy in real time.

In the process, the doors of the historical record are opened. Individuals can wrestle for themselves with some of the great questions of American history, such as what caused the Civil War.

I cite the Civil War not just because that period happens to be my specialty. No part of American history has seen more action on the World Wide Web. Hundreds of sites document every facet of the conflict. The Library of Congress has mounted famous photographs and official documents, while distinctly non-academic sites trumpet their political beliefs under waving flags.

The Valley of the Shadow project, which I originated at the University of Virginia, displays the records of every person in two counties, one in the North and one in the South, throughout the Civil War era. These records cover the lives of blacks as well as whites, females as well as males, deserters as well as heroes. Political, economic and military history is documented alongside the history of emotion, intimacy and death. Thus it is possible for anyone with Internet access to study, for example, what difference slavery made in leading to the Civil War in greater detail and precision than has ever been possible.

This ongoing study is causing us to re-evaluate the conventional story of the war as a conflict between a modern, industrialized North and a backward, agrarian South. This standard interpretation, it turns out, is misleading and evasive.

White Americans found it possible to reconcile slavery with technology, towns, white democracy and profitable business - all considered key aspects of modern life in the mid-19th century. The Civil War was not the inevitable clash of the future against the past, as many of us have been schooled - and might prefer - to believe.

Slaveowners took out insurance policies on the people they claimed as their property. Slaves worked in factories as well as on farms. The Confederacy gathered the confidence to leave the United States, forging a new nation based on slavery, in part because of its network of railroads, newspapers, telegraphs and steamships. The history of the 20th and 21st centuries has shown all too clearly that forms of modern life can easily co-exist with forced labor and racial domination. The American South pioneered in this fusion.

Americans like to think that slavery was merely an accident in our development as a nation, a brief mistake, a wrong turn. But in 1860 slavery already had been established for two centuries. Slavery drove much of the American economy, providing more than half of all the nation's exports. Slavery generated the war against Mexico of 1846-48 and thus the addition of a vast part of our territory. Before the Civil War, slaveholders held the presidency more often than not.

These are uncomfortable facts that contradict our sense of ourselves. But it does no good to ignore them or brush them aside. The point of studying the past is not merely to make us feel good about ourselves, but to let us view ourselves honestly. The Civil War did end up ending slavery, of course. The challenge is to see how that profound good grew out of a war that did not begin with that purpose in mind.

Documents have a way of making that challenge come vividly to life. Already over the past 10 years, we have had millions of hits on the Valley Project Web site - from students in middle and high schools, in community colleges and graduate schools, and from some people who have not been in a classroom for a long time.

Of course, not everyone has the time or the interest to study the primary sources, and the Web does not remove the responsibility of the historian to make sense of the past, any more than government documents on the Web make journalists who interpret them obsolete.

Those who study history carefully have conclusions to make that casual browsers of documents cannot. Historians still need to tell stories that dramatize the most important meanings of the past, as they always have.


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