In 1862, Lancashire suffered a devastating cotton famine. The apparently obvious cause of it was the acute shortage of raw cotton brought about by the American Civil War. Yet a few contemporary writers, animated by prejudice against the mill-owners, declared that the famine was in fact due to a gigantic over-production of cotton goods in the years before the civil war. It was this that allegedly caused the lay-offs at the mills that led to the famine, not a shortage of cotton. They said this despite the demonstrable fact that, for four consecutive years, Britain received only 40% of the cotton it required.
My doctoral thesis at Liverpool University on the effects of the American Civil War on the British cotton trade is at long last nearing its final stages. I hope it will disprove the overproduction claim and establish, once and for all, the true cause of the Lancashire cotton famine. But the astonishing thing is that, at the latest count, the overproduction claim has been repeated in books by 12 historians and I have not found one book that has challenged it. More astonishing still is that 11 of the 12 did not research the issue themselves: they relied entirely on what previous historians had written. Each has assumed that someone else must have done the research.
The same is true of another topic that falls within the scope of my thesis: the claim that Liverpool was so overwhelmingly pro-South in the civil war that it might as well have been in the Confederacy. Unlike the other claim, this one does have a grain of truth in it, but not enough to justify the absolutism of the claim. There was also a strong pro-North element in Liverpool and an even stronger element in favour of neutrality and non-intervention. Yet, so far, I have found five historians who have gone with the pro-Confederacy claim, and not one who has contradicted or qualified it.
In both cases, the books in question were written by serious, in some cases eminent, historians. How is this possible? Very easily.
Any work of history (and my thesis will be no exception) contains primary areas of study where the historian does, or should, research the evidence meticulously and then present conclusions. But it will also contain secondary areas, incidental to the main theme, but needing to be referenced, and there will be dozens of them. As I have discovered, it is impossible to research each and every one of these secondary issues. Instead, one relies on one’s own research for the primary questions, and on the opinions of others for the secondary questions.
But this pre-supposes that someone, at some time, has thoroughly researched these secondary questions. If they have not, as in the two cases outlined earlier, then no opinion on them is to be trusted. I am quite sure that there will be statements in my eventual thesis that will be just as inaccurate as the ones mentioned, and for the same reason.
The principle at stake is a great deal broader than the abstruse detail of history. Each of us has been presented with an inherited version of all sorts of events: inherited from our parents, from our teachers, from the media, from conversations, from our own temperamental choice as to what we want to believe and what we do not. Each of us has formed a composite view on all sorts of issues that we think is related to the facts. No two people have the same composite view of every issue.
Sometimes the differences are minor. Sometimes they are the product of different perspectives: opposing opinions can both be sustainable if they are the product of opposing viewpoints. But sometimes our views are plain wrong. Wrong because, although we assume them to be founded on reliable facts, they aren’t.
A sane person would probably desist from having a firm view on anything. But none of us can live that way. It would drive us insane. Our certainties are what define us. But, from time to time, it is worth reflecting that our certainties may be worthless, that the whole edifice of contemporary thought on a particular subject may be erroneous, and that we are as pig ignorant as the idiots who disagree with us.