History Lesson

by David Crabtree


Just before Thanksgiving I received an email from a mother whose daughter had been disturbed by her teacher’s negative comments about the way the Puritans had related to the Native Americans. The teacher had recently become aware of information that prompted his comments. The mother voiced her concerns to the teacher, and the teacher cited a couple of websites to justify his statements.

American history is not my field. I have no familiarity with the primary source materials pertinent to Puritan/Native American relations, but I am not entirely uninformed on the topic. I have long had an interest in the history of Native Americans. When I was in grade school, I read every book in the school and city library about Native Americans. I remember being shocked and ashamed when reading about the numerable injustices that whites inflicted on the Native Americans. I was particularly outraged by the treatment of the Nez Pierce at the hands of the white settlers. I was also struck by the nobility of Chief Joseph in the face of a whole series of wrongs done by white settlers and government officials.

My interest in Native Americans continued into my college years. As a freshman I took a course about Puritan society in New England. When I read the mother’s email, I consulted the only course book I had saved from my freshman year in college—New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians 1620-1675 by Alden T. Vaughan.

I read the information that the teacher had consulted and compared the websites’ perspectives with those expressed in my book. The websites contained information by multiple authors, but the views of the Puritans’ relations with the Native Americans ranged from extremely critical to moderately critical. My course book, while making clear that the record was not pristine, generally approved the Puritans’ dealings with the Native Americans. How can historical assessments differ so dramatically?

Historians often disagree with one another in the reconstruction and evaluation of past events. This should not surprise us. Human affairs are complex. They are so complex that different people will inevitably assess them differently. We have probably all seen this same phenomenon in our everyday life. Take, for example, a marriage that degenerates into a divorce. Predictably, observers will locate blame for the dissolution of the marriage differently. Some might place the blame primarily on the husband; others might place the blame primarily on the wife. Even in those rare instances where all observers agree that one person is primarily to blame, observers will differ in the amount of blame they assign. It should not surprise us, then, if historians would disagree as to who was responsible for the tensions between the Puritans and the Native Americans.

To assess an event that takes place right before our eyes is difficult; to assess historical events is even more difficult. Continuing with the example of a divorce that occurs in our circle of acquaintances, we can be in a position to know both the husband and the wife personally. We may know a lot about their traits and characteristics. But still there will be facts of the situation about which we are not certain. In all likelihood, there will even be facts relevant to the dissolution of the relationship about which the husband and wife themselves are not certain. If this is true of events that are happening in and around us, think about the difficulty of gathering facts about events in the past. And the more distant the event, the harder it is to establish the facts.

Once we have all the relevant facts, the task does not become easier. Facts alone are not very interesting. As human beings we want to make sense of the world in which we live. This leads us to want to make generalizations and identify causes because if we can learn from history patterns of behavior or causes of certain effects, then we have the possibility of learning something that can help us navigate the challenges of the present. But, returning to the divorce analogy, even observers who have all relevant facts are bound to disagree as to the exact causes of the dissolution of the relationship. Accurately identifying causes is an art.

Establishing causes with respect to history is just one kind of abstraction that makes the study of history rewarding. Accurate abstractions are hard to make, however. Let me use another example. Let us say we want to determine whether the city where I live, Eugene, is a racist city. For the sake of our example, let us assume we can identify racism when we see it. (Please note that this is no small assumption.) We could interview hundreds, even thousands of people. We would get all kinds of responses to our questions. But how would we assess those responses, and how representative would those responses be? And surely we would want to examine more than people’s responses to our questions. We would want to get some kind of sampling of their behavior. How would we interpret that behavior, and how would we determine how representative it is? Clearly this is a difficult task, even when dealing with an issue right in our midst about which we have abundant information. The task is even more difficult when the issue is in the distant past.

We must also keep in mind that when it comes to generalizations, a piece of counter-evidence is not necessarily significant. If, on the basis of our research, we decide that Eugene is not racist, someone could parade two dozen card-carrying Eugenean racists in front of us without shaking our conclusion one bit because the evidence on which we originally based our conclusion was so compelling that two dozen counterexamples are not enough to alter our generalization. The one who brought us the counterexamples may very well be exasperated at our intransigence and accuse us of not basing our conclusion on the evidence, but such a charge is not necessarily warranted. It is simply the nature of generalizations about human affairs that there will be aberrations.

The generalizations we reach as we look at the world around us, including historical data, are largely based on what we think likely. And what we think likely depends largely on our worldview. For example, any historian will embark on a study of the Puritans with some preconceived notion of what the Puritans are like and what kinds of things they are likely to do and why they are likely to do them. A lot goes into creating that picture: an understanding of Puritans as people, an understanding of the time period in which the Puritans lived, an understanding of Puritan theology, an understanding of human beings in general, and so forth. The more accurate one’s understanding of these things, the better one’s sense of what is likely.

This creates an obvious problem. Any historian has a sense of what is likely before he examines his first piece of evidence. And given that much of the work of a historian is the formation of generalizations, any piece of evidence contrary to the historian’s preconceived sense of the likely can be dismissed as exception. It would seem that any preconceived sense of the likely would be impervious to change no matter how much contrary evidence comes to light. This is a danger. It can happen, but it need not.

As the historian unearths more information, the historian will interpret that information in accord with his preconception. Nothing is wrong with this. The historian should try to make sense of the information in light of his preconception. As the historian uncovers information that challenges his preconceptions, he will probably hold to his preconceptions and dismiss the challenging data as aberrational. This, too, is as it should be. But as counter-information mounts, the historian needs to be willing to abandon his preconceptions and make the necessary adjustments in his thinking. If he has an emotional or psychological attachment to his preconceptions, he will hold on to them longer than is warranted. A willingness to give up even our treasured preconceptions, if the data warrants it, is the hallmark of integrity. In order to have integrity, one must have humility (a willingness to change perspectives when called for) and one must know oneself, including one’s inner drives. If a historian has this kind of humility and integrity, the historian’s preconceptions will not be impervious to change. His views will slowly change as the evidence dictates.

A historian needs special skills and special knowledge to do his craft, but the way a historian comes to know the past is fundamentally the same as the way we come to know anything. And the same qualities of integrity and humility are necessary for any person to come to know reality accurately. It is important to recognize, however, that coming to know what is true—whether in the realm of history, science, or any other field of knowledge—is not a matter of mechanical computation; rather, it is a matter of making sound judgments. The process of coming to know what is true is an art, not a method.

Some historians have played fast and loose with the facts. But in general, historians make a genuine attempt to base their accounts on facts. I rarely find grounds for questioning the facts that a historian presents. I am much more likely to question the picture of the past that a historian paints with those facts. Using only facts, it is possible to depict past events in a way that does a gross injustice to reality. I liken this to the difference between a painting of a person that has all of the appropriate features in correct proportion and a painting that has the appropriate features, but they are out of proportion. We call the first a portrait. We call the latter a caricature. Historical accounts can be caricatures of the past. And caricatures are most misleading when they are passed off as portraits.

In our time, it is not uncommon to find historical accounts written in advocacy of an agenda. These are instances where the historian is so intent on furthering his agenda that he ceases to be evenhanded in his assessment of the historical data. The critical accounts of the Puritans’ relationship with the Native Americans that I read on the websites had all the earmarks of being agenda-driven. Certainly, the Puritans were not faultless in their dealings with Native Americans, but my reading has lead me to conclude that in comparison with the way the whites related to Native Americans in other places and in other times, the Puritans were remarkably humane.

Copyright January 2011 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

David Crabtree