Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Consider the Source

The process in which historians engage when reconstructing the past is known as, believe it or not, Historical Thinking. It is the process of reading, analysis, and writing that historians must do in order to tell the story they are researching. One of the steps in this process is what is known as "sourcing." When analyzing sources a historian must consider their origins. Two of the important questions that must be answered are "who wrote this?" and "what is their perspective?"  In other words, who wrote the document is important when considering the content of the work and the message they intended to send. The words contained in their message are subject to the author's biases and experiences which can often distort or skew their view of a situation.

Here is a practical example of how this works. I was perusing the stacks at my local library today and in the religion section I came across a book titled Is Religion Dangerous? by Keith Ward. The book provides an excellent opportunity at a mental exercise showing how important the "who" which writes the book is to the "what" that the book contains.

All we know by looking at the cover is the book's title and the name of its author. We obviously also know the intent of this book is to answer the question that the title poses. We are not provided clues to the author's view by a subtitle that might explain where they stand on this question. Thus, in order to know how the author might answer this question before we even begin to read the book, we can probably gauge what their stance will be based on who they are. Their background or academic credentials are almost certain to guarantee us what answers we can expect from this book.

If we knew that Keith Ward was an atheist in the vein of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or Christopher Hitchens we could safely be about 100% certain that the answer to the author's question would be, "Yes, religion is dangerous."

However, if Keith Ward is a Baptist minister, a Catholic Bishop, or a professor of religious studies, we could be almost as certain that they would answer, "No."

In both instances much of the content of the book could be influenced by their beliefs about the institution of religion. Their own personal experiences with religion, for good or bad, will to some degree have helped them formulate a view of the merits or faults of religion. This places them in position to defend their position by selecting information that confirms their biases while they may ignore facts that undermine their argument.

This is not to say that we cannot trust any authors or creators of historical documents to be honest and that everything you and I read is carefully crafted to deceive us. I like to assume the best of each author and believe they have good intentions. However, it is to our disadvantage to believe that facts or statistics in documents, articles, or books are placed there completely independent of the personal opinions and experiences of author who selected them.

Monday, July 3, 2017

George Washington: Assassin

In May of 1754, George Washington, the 22 year old future American patriarch, was serving as Lieutenant Colonel in a regiment of soldiers assigned to protect English settlers in the Ohio territory. They were on a mission to help secure an area on the site of present day Pittsburgh.

English soldiers had begun to build a fort on that spot, but French soldiers had seized it and renamed it Fort Duquesne. An Indian ally named Tanacharison (a.k.a. The Half King) sent Washington word of what had happened. According to Joseph J. Ellis in his book, His Excellency,

"Washington decided to build a makeshift fort near Tanacharison's camp, rally whatever Indian allies he could find, and wait for reinforcements. Tanacharison promised his support, but also warned that the odds were stacked against them."

What happened next is arguably what led to the start of "The Seven Years' War" (or as we call it in the U.S. "The French and Indian War.") While trudging through the woods Washington and about 40 men came upon a group of French soldiers camped in a small clearing. Washington's soldiers and their Indian allies quietly surrounded the group. It is not clear which side began shooting, but someone did, leading to a short battle between the two forces. Washington himself provided a brief description of what happened next in a letter he sent to Virginia governor Robert Dinwiddie.

"I there upon in conjunction with the Half King (Tanacharison)...formed a disposition to attack them on all sides, which we accordingly did and after and engagement of about 15 minutes we killed 10, wounded one and took 21 prisoners, amongst those that were killed was Monsieur De Jumonville, the commander."

Washington failed to provide a detailed account of the fighting. Based on eyewitness accounts of what happened next, Washington may have omitted the facts to protect himself. After the firefight ended, Jumonville presented a letter, in French, that stated that the French soldiers were on diplomatic mission. The letter was sent by a French governor in Canada warning the English that their presence in the Ohio River Valley would not be tolerated. According to Kenneth C. Davis in his book America's Hidden History, here's what happened next...


"The chief who had guided and advised Washington, the Half King [Tanacharison] moved beside Jumonville. Without warning, the Half King swung his hatchet, burying it in the wounded Frenchman's head, saying in French, "Thou are not dead yet, my father." Reaching into Jumonville's shattered skull, the Half King pulled out some brain matter and smeared it on his hands. As if on signal the rest of the Half King's warriors fell on the wounded French captives. The Indians methodically scalped and stripped the Frenchmen as they were killed. One French soldier's decapitated head was then impaled on a stick."

The Half King's actions were apparently to avenge his father who had been killed by the French. It was alleged that he was boiled and eaten as well.

Washington was an inexperienced soldier and this was his first taste of combat. The shock of what was happening left him feeling helpless and too frightened to intervene. He surely realized he had no control over the situation. 

On July 3, Washington would surrender his makeshift fort, dubbed Fort Necessity, to the French. As a condition of his surrender he signed Articles of Capitulation. The papers essentially stated that he and his troops were responsible for the assassination of a French emissary. On July 4 Washington and his men shuffled away from the fort headed for home. For the rest of his life Washington denied realizing that the document he was signing was an admission of guilt. However, it is more likely he was fully aware of their contents and signed them as it was the only guarantee that he could walk away alive.