Historian Ed Ayers explains the moment we’re inHistorians in the News
tags: Ed Ayers
... How can we reconcile the rise of Donald Trump with to the long view of American history? Why do so many Americans still fight about the real causes of the Civil War? What explains the Confederacy's enduring allure for many white Americans? Should the statues and other monuments honoring the Confederacy be removed from public spaces? If so, what should be done with them?
In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with historian Ed Ayers. He is a professor at the University of Richmond and the author of numerous books including the Bancroft Prize winner "In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859-1864." His book "The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction" was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Ayers' new book is "The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America." Ayers is also a co-host of the popular podcast series "BackStory."
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. A longer version of this conversation can also be heard on my podcast.
What is history, and why do we study it?
It’s all the information we have about everything that happened before today. It has no intrinsic shape or form. It’s not just a bunch of stories that we’re told. It can be anything. In the same way, I don’t know about you but I’m nothing other than my memories and my experiences. If you took those away, I would just be a blank slate. A large part of my work has been to try to gather together a way to see all those stories, those memories, those experiences and those interactions.
How do you reconcile the rise of Donald Trump with a longer view of American history?
My instinct is that we are at the beginning of a new Progressive Era in American history. I think what we are also seeing is a great mobilization of people who had been complacent under the Obama years, when it seemed like progress was just going to continue to unfold naturally. Now people realize that progress will only continue when you fight for it.
One thing about history is that the thing that people expect to happen never does. If there was a poll in the United States during 1860 which asked, “Who thinks that the largest and most powerful system of slavery in the modern world is going to be gone in five years?”, nobody would have said yes. Nobody thought it was possible to destroy something that big that quickly.
I think you’ll see, however, that as the Trump administration ends, the amount of energy that’s been spun up among young people, people of color, the gay community and other groups now has a focus in a way it did not before. ...
[T]here is a great deal of rhetoric in the editorial pages of many major newspapers, as well on right-wing conspiracy websites, that America is in the midst -- or soon will be -- of a new Civil War. As a Civil War historian, when you hear such language do you just dismiss it out of hand?
I try to think very thoughtfully about what it is that they’re saying. In a new Civil War, if it happened today, the equivalent of eight million Americans would be killed. Are we really looking at something like that? I don’t think so.
On the other hand, in my books I show that there was a Civil War because people didn’t believe there could be one. They just kept calling each other's bluff and drawing new lines in the sand. They ended up basically talking and voting themselves into a war that nobody wanted. It is always good to be alert to the danger, but it’s also important to have some sense of historical perspective about what true war looks like. America is not there yet.
Yes, things that are much worse than we can imagine can happen. You have to be alert. But that same vigilance can also allow you to see the possibilities for hopeful change that surround us as well. ...
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