Reading History (Introduction to Western Civilization 1.3)

Although reading history and reading works of fiction like novels are similar in that both involve reading stories, there is one very important difference: reading history involves reading stories that true. Because of this difference, history should be read differently from other sorts of books you might read. Reading history involves reading carefully. We are trying to get to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In order to do that we have to read historical texts and texts about history in a way that lets us notice all of the details and allows us to tell when a source might be wrong or might be leaving out something important. It will be helpful here to recall the three kinds of sources discussed in your previous reading and take a look at an example of each.

A primary source is a historical text written by an eyewitness or someone very close to an eyewitness. These are the texts that get us closest to the actual historical event we want to learn about. Primary sources might be books, letters, or nearly anything else; historians even use pictures students have written on their desks as primary sources! Here is an eyewitness account of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, from a letter written by a doctor to his friend:

That night was the only time that I have been to the Theatre since I came here and then partly to see Mr. Lincoln and Gen Grant.  I took a seat in the dress circle near the Presidents Box.  Saw Booth enter the box   heard the report of the pistol   then saw him jump from the box with his draw[n] dagger and rush across the stage  I immediately ran to the box and there saw the President sitting in the arm chair with his head thrown back   on one side was Mrs. L. and on the other Miss Harris.  The former was holding his head and crying bitterly for a Surgeon while the others there were standing crying for Stimulant water etc not one going for anything.  While going towards him I sent one for Brandy and another for Water, then told Mrs. L. that I was a surgeon.[1]

As you can see, Dr. Leale, the author of the letter in which this paragraph is found, was not only present on the night that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated but was also the first doctor to try to help Lincoln after the President had been shot. You can probably tell that Dr. Leale is very emotional as he writes about what happened that evening. The emotions he is feeling have an effect on how he remembers the events.

Now, let us take a look at a secondary source. This is part of the description of Lincoln’s assassination in a book written in 1995 by David Herbert Donald, a historian:

Though the draperies concealed the President so that he could only be seen when he leaned forward, the Lincolns appeared to enjoy the play. When the actors scored hits, Mary applauded, but her husband simply laughed heartily. A man seated in the orchestra observed that Mrs. Lincoln often called the President’s attention to actions on the stage and “seemed to take great pleasure in witnessing his enjoyment.” Seated so close to her husband that she was nestled against him, she whispered: “What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so?” With a smile he replied: “She wont think anything about it.”

One of the most predictable crowd-pleasers of the play came during the second scene of the third act, when Mrs. Mountchessington, learning that Asa Trenchard has given away his inheritance, denounces him for not knowing how to behave and makes a haughty exit. Asa’s lines read: “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal – you sockdologizing old man-trap.” The laughter and burst of applause almost covered the sound of a shot in the presidential box.[2]

In these paragraphs, Donald has taken a few different primary sources and brought them together to tell a story that is all his own. He repeats the description of “a man seated in the orchestra,” who saw Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln whispering to each other during the play. He also is able to tell us what sorts of things they were saying to each other. He could not have gotten this information from the man in the orchestra, who would have been down near the stage and not up on the balcony with the Lincolns. Perhaps he read about it in something Mrs. Lincoln herself wrote about that night. He also quotes a line from the play that the Lincolns were watching that evening, a comedy called Our American Cousin. He probably got this information by reading a copy of the script. That is at least three different primary sources that Donald put together in those two short paragraphs. He used these primary sources to make his own story out of them and to write what he believes happened that night. Like a detective, he put together all of the clues and, like a storyteller, he wrote about his conclusions in a way that is interesting and informative.

Finally, we will take a look at a tertiary source. A tertiary source is usually a dictionary or an encyclopedia. In fact, what you are reading right is a tertiary source. These types of sources take the stories that historians write and bring them together to present a very simple version of things that gives just a few facts without much detail. Here is what the Chambers Dictionary of World History has to say about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln:

He was re-elected in 1864; after the final Northern victory he proposed to reunite the nation on the most generous terms, but on 14 Apr 1865 he was shot at Ford’s Theater, in Washington DC, by an actor, John Wilkes Booth, and died next morning. He immediately became a national hero, and is regarded as one of the finest symbols of American democracy.[3]

You may have noticed that the entry in the dictionary is very short and to-the-point. The purpose of dictionaries, encyclopedias, and similar sources of information is not to give you a lot of detail or to provide an entertaining story, but to give you just a few facts to get you started. This is why dictionaries and encyclopedias are okay to begin with but primary sources, the real historical documents, and secondary sources, the things historians have written about those historical documents, are what a person who reads about history should be spending most of their time with.

You will be reading a number of primary and secondary sources in this course, as well as a few tertiary sources. As you read each of these texts, try to figure out what category of sources it fits into: is it primary, secondary, or tertiary? This will help you figure out how to read it. With all of these sources, read carefully. Remember to keep an eye out for detail. Think about all of the things that might have an effect on how the person is telling the story: their emotions and beliefs about it, what they were able to see from where they were, and so on. Keep in mind that everyone, whether an eyewitness or a historian, has beliefs. These beliefs lead them to understand things in different ways. We have to consider the beliefs of the people whose writings we are reading in order to understand them better.

You should also keep in mind that when reading history some of the beliefs you will encounter will seem strange to you. When you read about people who lived a very long time ago in places very far away the way they lived their lives can see like something from another world. In order to understand them, however, we should be careful about judging them too harshly. While we can disagree with them, we should also try to understand why they believed what they did and appreciate those beliefs as one way of living a human life, no matter how different from the way we live ours now.

What is especially important is that you try to bring all of the information from your sources together to be able to tell the story in your own way. This is where being both a detective and a storyteller comes in. Figure out how different facts fit to together and create your own story that you believe is the closest to the truth. Then, tell that story.

 

Review Questions

1.  In your own words, explain how reading history is different from reading other stories.

 

Notes

[1] Charles Augustus Leale to Dwight Dudley, May 28, 1865, Shapell Manuscript Foundation, http://www.shapell.org/manuscript.aspx?earliest-first-responder-report-doctor-leale-abraham-lincoln-fords-theatre-assassination.

[2] David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 595-596.

[3] Chambers Dictionary of World History, s.v. “Lincoln, Abraham.”

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