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Evaluating & Acknowledging Uncertainty in Historical Texts

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Explore the challenges facing historians who write stories about the past. Discover advantages and difficulties in writing history and learn strategies used to account for ambiguities in historical texts.

History is Like Time Travel

One of the many reasons I love history is because it makes me feel like I'm traveling through time. Until the day when some inventive scientist figures out a way to actually travel through time, reading historical documents is the closest we can come. In historical texts, we can meet important figures who have long since passed away. They can offer us a way to see the world as they did.

How can we be sure that certain events in the past happened the way people said they did? Today, we have videotape, audio recording, and access to data like GPS and phone records that help us verify the events that happened in the recent past. But when we reach farther back in history, before modern electronic technology, all we have to go on are texts. These texts are written by people with different agendas, so, as historians, we have to keep these factors in mind when evaluating the events and actions represented in historical texts.

Evaluating Bias

Reading historical documents is a lot different from watching a historical documentary or a historical reenactment. Texts seem to present the world as it is, but we need to always remember that they are written from a certain perspective and for a certain purpose. Without knowing it, authors often convey bias, or personal opinion about controversial subjects, in their writing. Understanding a historical text as a picture of the world requires us to also recognize how the picture is taken from the author's particular perspective.

This is especially true for political documents. Take the Declaration of Independence, for example. The founding fathers were reacting against the British government with a strong feeling of persecution, and proclaiming that their new American government would foster freedom. Its cry of freedom sweeps the reader away. As time travelers, we bring our special perspective to the table by recognizing that in declaring all men free, it silences the voices of women and those who were bound by slavery.

Declaration of Independence
declaration

Powerful historical figures write their stories from a certain perspective. Our job is to look for the gaps in the stories they relay. There is no such thing as a purely objective account.

If I were to ask you to explain what happened in the Boston Marathon bombing in April of 2013, you would probably do so from your own perspective. You would draw on your personal experience to contextualize the event. This is, after all, how we make sense of the meaning and relevance of current events. Can you imagine a way that anyone could be completely unbiased about an event they experienced first-hand?

Evaluating Sources

What are some strategies you can use to go about reading historical texts?

1. Identify the author - Consider the voice of the author. His or her opinion is integrated with the text and may offer a hint of bias.

  • Does this author have an agenda?
  • What is the thesis statement?
  • How are they supporting the argument?

2. Identify the audience - Remember, the author probably isn't writing to us. We live in the future. Try to imagine who would have been reading such a document and how they might have reacted. Thomas Jefferson was addressing a nation on the brink of independence. He wanted to communicate with others who felt the same way he did about breaking away from the British Empire.

3. Evaluate bias - This is the tricky part where we take off our thinking caps and put on our time traveling caps. Imagine yourself in 1776 on a ship headed to colonial Virginia. You're escaping religious persecution in England. From this perspective, the claims of liberty, equality, and religious freedom call out like a beacon in the storm. But also consider who else is on the ship with you. What would the Declaration's claims mean to them? Perhaps there are enslaved Africans on the ship or indentured servants. By declaring 'all men are created equal,' we time travelers need to recognize the bias in this statement. Reading for bias in historical documents allows us to recognize the voices silenced as those in power claim objectivity and universal truth.

Let's return to the example of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson is known to have written the document, and 56 members of the Continental Congress agreed to sign it in support of its message. Now that we know who wrote it, we can continue by questioning who they were addressing, what their intended meaning was, and whose voices were excluded.

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