With each passing year conventional books seem to become less important sources of public knowledge and opinion. Increasingly, Internet sites assume that role and none is more influential to the casual learner than the Wikipedia.
Theoretically a publicly-edited encyclopedia is self-correcting and includes the most comprehensive knowledge. It works well on non-controversial topics, but historical narratives are often conflicted with differing interpretations. As Napoleon asked rhetorically, “What is history but an agreed upon fable?” Many Civil War Wikipedia entries underscore his point.
Unfortunately, many such entries are locked. Two examples are Generals Grant and Lee. Only a priesthood of mostly pseudonymed editors can make corrections or add anything. Theoretically, anyone can prompt changes and additions by discussing them with the authorized contributors.
But based upon recent experience with a publicly editable entry for Andrew Johnson’s 1868 impeachment, I have my doubts. The Johnson impeachment contributors had an agenda, simplified to: Johnson Bad – Congress Good. Facts inconsistent with that agenda were generally missing.
Johnson was portrayed as dishonorably manipulating votes to keep the final tally short of the two-thirds majority needed to convict him. Ultimately, he was acquitted when the final 35-to-19 vote fell one short of conviction .
Wikipedia noted that the chief prosecutor, Benjamin Butler, conducted hearing after the trial finding evidence that some of the seven Republicans voting for acquittal were bribed. But Wikipedia’s contributors failed to add that none of the seven were ever charged with a crime, much less convicted. Moreover, the editors failed to mention that Butler’s investigations also revealed that one senator voting for conviction wrote Johnson’s Postmaster General suggesting that $40,000 could get him to switch his vote—and those of two or three others in his caucus.
Additionally, Wikipedia failed to disclose that the president pro tempore of the Senate, Ben Wade of Ohio, refused to abstain from voting even though he would become President upon Johnson’s conviction. His response to questions about his conflict of interest was that he would vote his conscience. His conscience led him to vote for conviction.
When I added that fact, Wikipedia’s editors rejected the edit because my source (Robert Henry’s The Story of Reconstruction) was condemned as “white supremacy and neo-Confederate” trash. One editor implied that I was also a white supremacist for citing it. But facts are facts and the editors reluctantly accepted the correction when I cited Eric Foner’s Reconstruction (p. 335).
The Wikipedia also failed to mention that Wade told Butler that Butler would be Wade’s Secretary of State once Wade became President upon Johnson’s conviction. Shortly before the trial started, Wade tried unsuccessfully to get Colorado admitted as a new state because he knew it would likely provide two more senators for a conviction vote. After the trial was in progress another prosecution leader, Representative Thaddeus Stevens, attempted to get Arkansas’s carpetbag government admitted for the same reason.
The Wikipedia article on Ulysses Grant provides a separate example. Although it admits Grant was attacked by surprise at Shiloh, it says that afterward the press criticized him “for high casualties” and “alleged drunkenness.” Since the cited source is obviously skeptical of the drunkenness charge, the article’s slant implies that the newspaper criticisms were unmerited. Wikipedia fails to mention that the newspapers also correctly criticized Grant for being unprepared and taken by surprise.
Wikipedia editing and contributing can be a gigantic time sink when trying and add content that disagrees with the consensus viewpoint of the authorized contributors. Perhaps the registered Wikipedia editors should be required to use their real names and disclose their credentials. If they wish to remain anonymous they should not be given special priesthood privileges.
Wikipedia bias in the matter of Johnson’s impeachment is not a small matter. The chief offense hurled at him was that he dismissed a member of his own cabinet without getting Senate approval. If impeachment had succeeded the independence of the executive branch would be impaired and future Presidents could not fire any cabinet members without Senate approval. Neither Obama, nor Bush, nor Clinton nor Trump would tolerate such restrictions. Johnson made a stand on solid constitutional grounds for the benefit of all future Presidents. The Wikipedia’s anti-Johnson agenda is wrong, factually and practically.
My Civil War Books
To be released in May and available for pre-order: The Confederacy at Flood Tide