Tag Archives: Primary Sources

The Importance of Using Caution When Interpreting Personal Recollections of Historic Events

When historians collect primary source documents during research, they must determine which of these sources can be relied upon when crafting an accurate interpretation of the past. This challenge is harder than it might seem at first blush. Most historians would agree that finding primary sources that are contemporary to the historic event or person being researched is more ideal than something produced years later. For example, an official report, letter, or diary entry created during the Battle of Gettysburg is most likely a more reliable source for understanding what occurred during the battle than an interview conducted fifty years later with an aged veteran.

There are some benefits to hindsight, of course, and mistakes in recollection can be made at any time during the event itself. Knowing how the Battle of Gettysburg turned out and having a general understanding of that battle’s consequences has its benefits. Hindsight offers time for personal reflection and can help inform one’s understanding of their role in a historic event. But memories are fickle and finite. Fine details and particulars of an event fade with time and can be overwhelmed by the creation of new memories during subsequent moments of importance. A veteran’s recollections of Gettysburg fifty years after the fact straddle the line between history and memory, and between a reliable source and an unreliable one. They must be used with caution and taken with a grain of salt.

I think about this challenge all the time within the scope of my work interpreting the life of Ulysses S. Grant. While there is an abundance of primary source documentation from Grant himself and others chronicling his experiences as a Civil War general and Reconstruction era president, hardly any documentation exists about Grant’s life before the Civil War that was created at that time. The number of letters in Grant’s hand from his five years in St. Louis at the White Haven plantation (1854-1859) numbers around a dozen. The number of documents created by other family members around Grant at that time is close to zero. And nothing from the perspective of the enslaved people owned by Grant’s father-in-law was created during that time. How can a reliable interpretation of these experiences be crafted with such a paucity of documentation?

The imperfect solution offered by historians, Grant biographers, and public historians alike has been to look at Grant’s actions in the absence of his words. More imperfectly, they also look at the words of people who claimed to know Grant at the time and reflected on his life forty or fifty years after the fact. With regards to the latter there are a number of resources to rely on: Grant’s 1885 Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant barely discussed his St. Louis experiences, but his wife Julia Dent Grant wrote her own Personal Memoirs in the 1890s and dedicated a good portion of her book to the family’s experiences at White Haven; likewise, writers Hamlin Garland and William Conant Church both conducted interviews with people who claimed to know Grant and wrote biographies of him based on those interviews in 1898 and 1899, respectively. In the absence of primary source documents from the 1850s, these latter documents are frequently used by contemporary historians to provide insights into Grant’s life before the Civil War. These sources, however, sometimes contradict each other and are frequently ambiguous or outright wrong.

One such example of an ambiguous document is an interview with Mary Robinson, an African American woman in St. Louis who was enslaved at White Haven by Grant’s Father-in-law, Colonel Frederick Dent, at the time that the Grant family lived there. The interview was conducted by the St. Louis Republican on July 24, 1885, the day after Grant died of throat cancer. In it, Robinson recalls her interactions with Grant and makes the following claim about his views on slavery:

Grant was a very kind man to those who worked for him, and he always said that he wanted to give his wife’s slaves their freedom as soon as he was able.

This line has been used more than once by historians to argue that Grant opposed slavery before the war. As I pointed out in this essay, Julia Dent Grant did not actually have legal title to any of the enslaved people at White Haven, but her father did loan her four slaves to attend to her needs while at White Haven. One historian in particular has recently claimed, on the basis of the Robinson interview, that the reason Julia did not have legal title to those enslaved people was because her father feared that Grant would free them. Is that a reliable interpretation to make?

What little we have of the record from the 1850s is far more complex. Grant himself never espoused antislavery views in his letters before the Civil War. He made the decision to move to a slave plantation in 1854 and at one point even owned a slave of his own, William Jones, that he later freed in 1859 (see the above link for more info). Furthermore, when Grant made his views on slavery publicly know in an August 1863 letter to Congressman Elihu Washburne during the Civil War, he argued that “early in the rebellion” he had come around to believe that slavery had to be abolished, but that “I never was an abolitionist, not even what could be called anti-slavery” before the Civil War.

An important factor in determining the reliability of Robinson’s recollection is the context in which it was produced. Grant had died the day before. The white interviewer had no interest in learning about Robinson’s own experiences in slavery and probably edited her comments to paint Grant in a positive light. Would the article really be edited to point out that Grant had been a slaveholder? I doubt it. If one were to read this interview and know nothing else about Grant’s life in St. Louis, they’d have no idea that he owned William Jones. Can it be trusted as a reliable source in uncovering Grant’s views on slavery before the war? Many historians have cited it, but I’m not so sure.

The point here is not to determine whether Grant was truly antislavery or proslavery before the war. As we can see, the evidence is mixed, and in any case I think it’s far safer to argue that there was an evolution in Grant’s thinking over time. The bigger challenge here and in so many other instances during historical research is that the absence of definitive primary source documentation from the time in which an event took place makes the task of painting an accurate portrait of the past all the more difficult. When historians are faced with interpreting the recollections of people long after the fact, they must exercise caution and sharp judgement in determining that source’s reliability.



Good History Classes Need Primary AND Secondary Sources

Photo Credit: Kathryn Scott Olser and the Denver Post

Photo Credit: Kathryn Scott Olser and the Denver Post

To teach the principles of historical thinking in a classroom without the aid of primary source documentation is the equivalent of teaching someone to play guitar without giving them an instrument to practice on. During the G.W. Bush “No Child Left Behind” Era (and no doubt before that) education leaders in the United States preached the gospel of standardized testing. Through the use of history textbooks, pre-written tests (usually in the form of multiple choice scantron forms without any written essay questions), and pre-written classroom activities, a generation of historically-informed youth would acquire a correct and appreciative view of the nation’s past, which in turn would promote good citizenship and a healthy obedience to democratic values. As a high schooler in the early 2000s I was frequently treated to long-winded lectures about supposedly “important” dates, dead people, and dust, a barrage of multiple-choice tests, and assigned readings in history textbooks that would place the worst insomniac into a deep sleep. Primary sources–the “musical instruments of history”–were nowhere to be found in my high school education. My own teaching experiences in 2011 and 2012 were equally frustrating once I realized how little control I had in the design of my unit plans.

The No Child Left Behind (and President Obama’s “Race to the Top”) framework for teaching k-12 history is now being challenged by some historians and educators. The College Board recently drafted a new framework for teaching Advance Placement U.S. History courses that shifts the focus from rote memorization of factual information to the critical analysis and interpretation of primary source documentation. These proposed changes call for shifting the classroom experience towards teaching historical content and historical process. They also emphasize a broad view of history showing that our nation’s history is subject to multiple interpretations and perspectives.

If we adhere to the belief that history is a complex landscape composed of many viewpoints, however, the place of United States history within that landscape becomes more ambiguous than the NCLB framework would have us believe. The nationalist leanings of the American state–built largely on the foundations of a shared national history and the mythical stories we teach each other about that history–might be placed on infirm foundations. Beliefs in American exceptionalism could be replaced by a crisis of patriotism. The heroic can be challenged and criticized. Obedience to the social status quo transitions to questioning, dissent, and potential civil disobedience.

Unsurprisingly, there are critics who are concerned about teaching a complex form of American history that places our heroes, our “good wars,” and our heritage in limbo. Stanley Kurtz says the College Board’s revisions are “an attempt to hijack the teaching of U.S. history on behalf of a leftist political ideological perspective.” The Texas State Board of Education accuses the College Board of encouraging a “disdain for American principles.” And a Jefferson County, Colorado, School Board Member named Julie Williams is proposing that a new nine-member committee be formed to inspect U.S. history textbooks in the Jefferson County School District because, according to her, “I don’t think we should encourage kids to be little rebels. We should encourage kids to be good citizens” (high school students in the district are now protesting these school board proposals. Who says kids don’t care about history?).

Is there a better way to teach history, expose students to its “truths,” and remove its politics from the classroom?

One idea that is gaining steam throughout the country calls for the complete removal of history textbooks from the history curriculum. Public schools in Nashville, Tennessee, are removing textbooks from the classroom in favor of websites, “interactive” videos, and primary source documentation, all of which are being implemented through $1.1 million in funds for the 2014-2015 academic year. Historian and educator Fritz Fischer argues (but with a dose of skepticism) that these changes are welcome because “not relying on traditional history books cuts down on the potential for ‘textbook wars’ where residents object to certain conclusions.” Stephanie Wager of the Iowa Department of Education concurs, arguing that “you don’t really need to have the traditional textbook.” If we simply remove these politicized textbooks from the classroom, we can focus on primary sources and let students make their own conclusions from the historical evidence presented to them.

I agreed with this perspective a year ago, but I don’t agree with getting rid of history textbooks (or at least a selection of secondary-source readings) now. Here’s why:

For one, the notion that students will automatically learn more and prefer the use of fancy digital tools and “interactive” materials rather than print books is based on the faulty logic that today’s students are “digital natives” who are more comfortable using digital technology than older people who did not grow up around this technology. I addressed those claims here.

Secondly, removing secondary sources from the classroom prevents students from learning about the interpretive nature of history and how our understanding of the past is constantly revised as new questions about the present prompt new questions about the past. Jim Grossman is right when he argues that revisionism is fundamental to historical inquiry, and we lose that critical component of the historian’s toolbox when we simply throw primary sources at students without showing them how historians interpret and sometimes disagree with the meaning of those documents. If primary sources are the “musical instrument” with which historians conduct their performances, secondary sources are the “technique” we employ to help us competently perform with our musical instruments.

Thirdly, primary source documents are laced with their own biases, speculative claims, faulty memories, and political agendas. If you don’t believe that, just imagine what sorts of primary sources historians of the early 2000s will have at their disposal one hundred years from now. The best contemporary historical scholarship provides us strategies for assessing the reliability of a primary source, and that scholarship should be an integral part of the classroom experience. Again, just giving students the “facts” without giving them a framework for critically thinking about those “facts” does little to advance their own understanding of history’s complexities.

History is political and always will be. The United States has plenty of accomplishments to be proud of, but an unquestioning self-congratulatory narrative of progress doesn’t tell the whole story of this nation’s history. And it’s boring! We need to teach both content and process in the history classroom. We need more primary sources in the classroom, but we also need more secondary sources that do a better job of providing students with a framework for interpreting those primary sources. And we need to show students how the very nature of American identity and citizenship has changed over time, which means taking a critical look at both the good AND bad in American history.