In historical terms, what is a fact? Is there such a phenomenon? How can anybody with absolute certainty know what happened in the past? The media can’t even report factual news that happened on the same day. Now that we are living in the Information Age, knowledge is abundant. Just ten years ago, one could spout out “facts” and look real smart at your neighborhood party; now, you should be careful because Mr. Google is in everybody’s pockets.
Historical information that has become “fact” has been recycled over and over again. Just take a look at a high school history textbook. Where did that information come from? Well, it came from older textbooks, journals, online resources, primary sources, and more, which also came from even older textbooks, journals, online resources, primary sources, and more. Imagine—which is not hard to do—that some information of an event or an idea that was reported hundreds of years ago was biased, misleading, or simply inaccurate. This information, which might have been reported from a biased or deceitful source, made it in the newspaper or other written document, then eventually into a book, and finally into a textbook. Then textbook after textbook copies this information, then website after website copies this information, voila, a historical fact has been made.
Let’s take a look at an example. History textbooks often recall how John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day exactly 50 years after the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Second Continental Congress (i.e. July 4th). That is remarkable and almost unbelievable. Even more interesting, being that Adams and Jefferson were competitive with each other during and after their political careers, supposedly Adam’s last words were “Thomas Jefferson survives,” when Jefferson had actually died hours before (information travelled slowly in the early 1800s). Did this really happen? Is it a fact? Well, it could very well have happened in a similar fashion, or some parts could have been embellished to make the story more interesting and patriotic. At the same time, both men could have been close to death and did everything they could to hold on until the important, symbolic day.
How about Abraham Lincoln? He is often redeemed as the Great Emancipator. He is the president who who believed African American were equal to White Americans. Is this a fact? When it comes to the American Civil War, one naturally thinks of Lincoln and his contributions. But what were Lincoln’s views on slavery and African Americans, and why did he write the Emancipation Proclamation? In his younger years, he lived in Kentucky which was a slave state; however, he did move to Indiana at a young age which was a free state. He was not surrounded by African Americans at the time, but did grow to reject the “peculiar institution.” He argued, “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.” Many quotes have been attributed to Lincoln speaking against slavery, but in his early political years he didn’t feel freed slaves would be able to live amongst the white population. He is quoted as saying after the eventual abolition of slavery, “I cannot make it better known than it already is that I strongly favor colonization.” Colonization refers to sending African Americans to Liberia, a colony in Africa.
Though Lincoln did, at one time, support colonization, he did not publicly show support by the time he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Which brings us to the next point, why did he issue the proclamation? During his first inaugural speech, he stated he would not interfere with slavery in the south. This is contradictory to his proclaimed belief system and that of the Republican Party. Nonetheless, he would eventually abolish slavery, but not all states, only the states in the Confederacy. Slave states fighting for the Union (i.e. Maryland, Missouri, Delaware, and Kentucky) could still own slaves (until the ratification of the thirteenth amendment). The reason Abraham Lincoln issued the proclamation is complex. One reason clearly is because he despised the institution, it would be hard to argue otherwise. It wasn’t that simple though. It was also a strategy of war. By freeing the slaves in the south, the freedmen could join the Union army. At the same time, the south was trying gain financial and military assistance from Great Britain and France—two countries where slavery was already illegal. By shifting the war strategy from “saving the union” to “freeing the slaves,” it encouraged the British and French to not support the Confederacy.
History is not unequivocal, and absolute facts need to be critically analyzed. While some will argue Lincoln held racist views because he—at one time—spoke of colonization for freed slaves, others will point to his multitudinous anti-slavery views. Other facets of information need to be considered as well; for example, it is impossible to know exactly how Lincoln truly felt. Some of his actions could have been politically motivated.
This article does not aim to discredit historical writings—of course, some biased pieces clearly deserve a discrediting. It simply aims to point out that history is complex. Generalizations need to be treated as just that, generalizations. Consider the the source and motivation of the author. Scrutinize everything, including this article.