Ask the Historian #2 – History in the Wild

Welcome to the second installment of the Ask the Historian Series! Before you dive into the article, check out these two recordings. The first is my approach to applying history to the present day, and the second is my sister’s.

Tara’s Approach
Hannah’s Approach

If you’ve listened to the audios that pair with this blog post, you have already heard our approaches to applying history to the modern world.  I thought this aspect of approaching history broadly would be useful to pair with this article, which explores the more narrow topic of what it’s like for the average history lover in the wild, sifting through mountains of information and opinions.  The audios show a broad theoretical approach, and the post gives practical advice for getting into the nitty gritty. Here, I wanted to talk a bit about the intellectual side of approaching studying works of history.

For me, what has always been a thief of the full joy of exploring history is any sort of cap on independent thinking.  We sort of receive through osmosis this impression that we have to think about history or historical figures or events in one of two ways—one that pushes us to look at things only in the way they have always been looked at, and one that says that if we don’t look at things in this particular nuanced and often new way that has been developed based on recent scholarly research, we don’t really have it right.  Both put incredible pressure on history lovers as we are sifting through the information we receive.  Somewhere in this process, we begin to think that the way we approach history is somehow reflective of our morality.  So, again, farewell to the joy of history.

One thing that I’ve learned from listening to (and learning from) just about every side of the historical coin is this: no one is ever totally right.  Your instincts are often good.  It’s okay to have your own opinions outside of what anyone else says you should think and to trust yourself.  It’s also okay to get it wrong and then learn and increase your knowledge as you go.  

I think every good historical journey begins with questioning everything.  Does what you’re hearing “wash” for you?  Does it sound reasonable and legitimate?  Can you think of an opposing point of view? An example that comes to mind is a phenomenon thoroughly explored by Annette Gordon-Reed in The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family and Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.  For years, historians had taken the word of Thomas Jefferson’s descendants from his marriage, who had numerous reasons to claim so, that there was no relationship between Sally Hemings and Jefferson.  Then Gordon-Reed entered the body of historical research and started asking pertinent questions like: why would historians take the word of Thomas Jefferson Randolph (Jefferson’s grandson) as unimpeachable fact but completely disregard an interview with Madison Hemings (Jefferson’s youngest son with Sally Hemings)?

Once her lawyer-like historian’s tactics were introduced to me, my mind opened up to numerous avenues of historical exploration.  I even tried it myself.  While I was reading Grant, by Ron Chernow (an otherwise magnificent book which is a landmark achievement for Chernow), I noticed that Chernow disregarded out of hand a statement by a Native American woman that Grant had fathered her child while he was stationed as a young man in the West.  Chernow’s evidence was: that none of Grant’s friends believed it to be true.  Putting on my Gordon-Reed cap, I started to ask: is this dismissal based in biases such as the belief that a Native American woman would want to curry favor with the broader society by associating herself with Grant once he was a national hero?  Why did Chernow believe the feelings of Grant’s army friends but not the Native American woman?  Could this be based in biases, too?  And if we are going to allow in weak evidence, as Chernow did, why don’t we allow in weak opposing evidence?  Could I think of any?  What about the fact that Grant seemed to have a sympathy for Native peoples that was far beyond his time and certainly not expected by the general public?  What about the fact that one of the highest-ranking officers on his staff during the Civil War, who was actually in the room playing an active role during the surrender with Robert E. Lee, was a Native American?  What sort of sympathies could be created by having a child who lived as a Native American?  Now, of course, I’m no closer to knowing whether Grant actually had a Native American child.  I wouldn’t try to opine on that either.  Broad speculation is just that and shouldn’t be given the weight of truth until proven. But I have acknowledged that Chernow could be wrong, that historians are only human, and used my own logic to assert that there could be a different answer.

But can we go too far when usurping the “expert status” of historians?  I do see trends towards believing one has a broad understanding of something with minimal study.  History is an academic discipline, like psychology, or mathematics, or neuroscience—and it always seems like the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know, which makes it dangerous to draw certain conclusions based on minimal research.  Developing a small historical thesis takes months of research; making a large claim can take years or decades.  Needless to say, the field of history is a broad, trained field which requires deep study prior to forming any conclusions.  That is why I can’t opine as to whether Ulysses Grant fathered the child of a Native American woman.

At the same time, the enormity of the field of history shouldn’t limit our study of history.  And historians should be held accountable to the basics of logic. You are absolutely capable of doing your own analysis of the argument presented based on the facts given in the manner that I have discussed.  

You are also absolutely capable of of getting up to speed on any topic you would like, just acknowledging that it is going to take time and great effort.  I have done it myself on several different topics without a formal history degree. It just takes diligence, good sources, and using logic to sift through historical arguments. I think, for the reasons we discussed in the videos, that history is vital to the modern world, and a layman’s thoughtful analysis of history (which is what I do) plays a huge role.  At the same time, remembering there are experts, and not being afraid to learn will keep your research on track and prevent your viewpoint from being self-indulgent in the sense that you are just trying to get from history what you need.  Balance, and the willingness to be objective, is key.