Historians are expected to interpret what they find. That’s part of the job description. It’s also one of the most misunderstood aspects of the job. Where do we draw the line between “interpretation” and “speculation”? What relation does either have to the popular buzzword “hypothesis”? At what eventual point does interpretation qualify as “proof”?
Intellectual pickpocketing. Stealing a ride on someone else’s train of thought. Taking something from someone and making it worse. Larding your lean work with the fat of others.1 Wits and sages, through the ages, have described plagiarism in many ways—not one of them flattering. The P-word is a label none of us want the world to attach to us. Yet it can happen so easily when we are inattentive, naïve, or beset by a bout of laziness.
Petitions to the president. Petitions to Congress. Petitions to the governor. Petitions to the legislature. Petitions to mayors and local commissioners. Petitions can be found at almost every level of government. As students of history, how do we use these? What value do we squeeze from them? Do we systematically seek them? Or, do we occasionally stumble upon one that has a name of interest and think: Hmhh, could this be my person-of-interest?
Evidence can be messy. Because it is a mental construct, it rarely gives us the clear and simple answers that we seek. Sources, by contrast, are physical; we can touch them, see them, smell them, hear them. Information is also physical, visible, audible. Evidence, however, is intangible. It’s only what we think certain information means. That’s all it can be―until we make something concrete from it by processing it and molding it into a meaningful and convincing form.
How do we do that?
You’re puzzled. An online writer has provided a link of interest. There, you see an image of a record. But it is presented out of context, leaving you unsure of what you have or how much credibility you can give it. The URL suggests that it is posted at a respectable site—a state archives, no less—so you’re inclined to trust it. Still, you hear the echo of a thoughtful teacher: Do you really understand what you have found? If not, you may miss something critical.
Biographical research on people from the past is a gamble. Our person of interest may or may not have been literate. Even the schooled may have left few traces of their existence. Many documents we expect to find for the place and time will have suffered destruction. The answers we seek to specific research questions may not appear in any surviving record created by our person.1
Originals. True originals. Duplicate originals. Counterparts. Facsimiles. Photocopies. Scans. Digital copies. Image copies. Official copies. Record copies. Clerk’s copies. Certified copies. Certificates. Transcriptions. Translations. Extracts. Abstracts. Nutshells. Indexes. Databases. Reprints. Are we confused yet?
Some assembly required. Please read instructions! Historical documents don’t come with this label, but they should. Students, scholars, and family sleuths who work with the nuts and bolts of past societies love the challenge of assembling history’s raw materials into Wow! moments. Like DIY-ers everywhere, many also scoff at the thought of reading instructions.
Proof is not a document. It’s a body of evidence. As biographers or historians of whatever ilk, we do not ‘prove’ a point by discovering a record that asserts something. That assertion could be wrong. If so, any further work we do on the basis of that misinformation will likely be wrong or irrelevant.
Most Southern families have their tales of Princess We-no-not-who. Typically, she was Cherokee. Sometimes Choctaw or Creek. Rarely Chickasaw or Seminole. Traditionally, the tale was a whispered one, something to regale the children but not for public knowledge—at least not until the 1970s when a shift in social ideals made minority ancestry both chic and profitable.