Antedating Quote "history is written by the victor" (1919)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Thu Dec 17 11:45:43 UTC 2009

On Wed, Dec 16, 2009 at 10:48 AM, Jonathan Lighter
<wuxxmupp2000 at> wrote:
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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject:      Re: Antedating Quote "history is written by the victor" (1919)
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Though 1903 calls it "an old saying," GB turns up nothing earlier in this
> form.  I can't find anything in American Periodicals Series or Nineteenth
> Century American Newspapers either.
> 1903 Henry W. Thomas _History of the Doles-Cook Brigade, Army of Northern
> Virginia, C.S.A._ (Atlanta: Franklin) ix: It is an old saying, that the
> victor writes the history of a struggle. This is nearly true of many wars
> where the resistance of a people to superior force where the resistance of a
> people to superior force failed of success. Lands overrun by conquerors have
> been blighted, their resistance defamed and their heroes maligned in story,
> and the records made up to suit the conqueror's policies. But the South was
> never conquered. It was not understood by Lee and Johnston on the
> Confederate part, nor Grant and Sherman on the Federal part, that surrender
> meant subjugation.
> 1904  W. J. Murray, MD _History of the Twentieth Tennessee Regiment,
> Volunteer Infantry C.S.A._  (Nashville: Pvtly. ptd.) 10 : The victors write
> the history of the vanquished and control public sentiment whether it be
> true or false, until it finds a lodgement in the public mind and becomes
> settled as historical facts. Such is the course that our enemies at the
> close of the war, and since, have attempted to pursue.
> 1930   William H. Allen _Rockefeller: Giant, Dwarf, Symbol_ (N.Y.: Institute
> for Public Service)  529: "Victors write the history" applies to industrial
> as well as military warfare.
> JL

Many thanks for these superb citations!

The quote does suggest a skeptical view of written history that may be
more commonplace in modern times. Yet the implied cynicism is often
undercut by a curious paradox. After invoking the maxim many writers
immediately work towards its refutation by presenting alternative
historical perspectives. Gimlet-eyed realism, dispassionate
objectivity, and the overt championing of the defeated are each
offered as didactic correctives: new histories with new flaws. Perhaps
the aphorism is not irreverent enough.

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