Part 2: Bettersworth & Summersell–A look at two neighboring historians

Click here for part one of this post.

Napoleon Bonaparte, probably the foremost figure of the 19th Century, once cynically observed: “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” Sir Winston Churchill, arguably with Hitler the central figure of 20th-Century history, similarly said that “History is written by the victors.” Why, then, do many people today regard the study of history as an essentially irrelevant memorization of static facts and figures, dates and disasters, wars and woes? History and, more to the point, the study of history, whether academic or casual, is an ever-changing discipline, a moving target, if you will. Historical understanding is rarely firmly fixed.

Consider the following excerpt from the standard Bettersworth 1964 school text account of the forced removal of Indian tribes from Mississippi in the 1830s:

“The Indian cessions had an electric effect upon the state. In just two years, Mississippians had managed to secure for white settlement a tremendous expanse of desirable land in the northern part of their state. At a great banquet staged in Natchez in October 1830, President Andrew Jackson was toasted as a man who ‘found our territory occupied by a few thousand wandering Indians. He will leave it to the cultivation of thousands of grateful freemen.’”

History, like the Bible, never changes, but our own knowledge, appreciation and understanding certainly may, and should. The quest for historical knowledge is ongoing, and only the most intellectually narrow cling to a close-minded, unquestioning certitude.

It is unimaginable that any mainstream historian writing today would reference the Choctaw “Trail of Tears” in the optimistic language employed by Bettersworth. Indeed, even within his own lifetime (mid-1970s), Bettersworth’s increasingly archaic account was challenged by a new generation of historians, James W. Loewen and Charles Sallis, in Mississippi: Conflict & Change, their own school textbook considered highly provocative when first published:

“Americans resented the fact that relatively few Indians controlled much more land than they ever used for farming. White Mississippians were accustomed to the idea that one person owned a definite piece of land. They could not understand the Indians’ idea of the entire tribe owning all the land together. Whites considered the land almost vacant, unowned and unused. They did not see—or if they did see, did not care—that land to the Choctaws and Chickasaws was more than just a farm. It was their homeland, the resting place of their ancestors and the center of their religion. Finally, many Americans simply wanted the chance to grab part of the new land, resell it at a profit and become rich.”

Same facts, but assessed from a strikingly different cultural perspective, and obviously yielding a vastly different interpretation. Was Bettersworth right or wrong in his assessment, interpretation and presentation? If wrong, how wrong was he? Is judging right or wrong even an appropriate inquiry to make at all? Unless the study of history really is the stale, static exercise many assume it to be, these always are pertinent and timely questions (among many) by which to vet any historian’s body of work.

History, like the Bible, never changes, but our own knowledge, appreciation and understanding certainly may, and should. The quest for historical knowledge is ongoing, and only the most intellectually narrow cling to a close-minded, unquestioning certitude. Curiosity and humility in equal parts are essential if one truly intends to understand the present through the ever-shifting lens of the past.

Summersell knew well the truth of this, as I personally can attest. Bettersworth did as well, I suspect. All of us, bar none, necessarily are limited by our own life experiences–our innate and acquired prejudices, if you will. Though molded by past eras, history’s writers and readers alike, not less than history’s participants, ultimately are the products of their own time.

New learning and fresh understanding becomes available to us every day, even (perhaps especially) in the study of history. Prepare for it, seek it out, embrace and cherish it. This is history’s gift, and God’s, to you and to your children.

For further reading: You may enjoy “Much More Than A Textbook,” an article by Richard Coles in the Spring 1976 issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review, available online here.

Written by: Greg S.