What Is History?


What Is History?

Historians attempt to give meaning to the facts by explaining the connec- tions among them. The job of the historian is to evaluate, organize, and interpret a wide variety of facts from a wide variety of sources in an effort to understand the past. While the analysis, evaluation, and organization of historical evidence has many aspects of a science, many historians would argue that the recon- struction of the past, especially in narrative form, is also an art. Many of the great historians of the narrative style would agree with the comment of Bernard De Voto: “There is no boundary between history and literature; each holds a large part of its field in common with the other.”

Is history a science or an art? This interesting philosophical question cannot be resolved here, but it helps us explore the issue of what kind of history the AP History exam requires. It does not require or even encourage a narrative style of historical writing. What the AP readers hope to find in a student’s essay is some awareness of the complexity of history, of conflicting interpretation of the facts, and of the kind of decisions that historians make about the evidence.

The sarcastic observation of Samuel Butler, “God cannot alter the past but historians can,” was a reflection not on divine power, but on the limitations of historians and the nature of history. The influential African-American historian John Hope Franklin, writing about the era after the American Civil War, identi- fied the tentative and changing character of history.

If every generation rewrites its history, then every generation since 1870 has written the history of the Reconstruction. And what historians have written tells us as much about their own generation as about the Recon- struction period itself.

The practice of historians to revise and rewrite history is not a perverse plot to confuse students, but a result of changes in society, changing perspectives of historians, the discovery of new sources and information, and, above all, the asking of new questions.

The history of the American Civil War, for example, was obviously influ- enced for years by the regional origin of the historian, but in time, contemporary events, such as World Wars I and II and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, had more influence on historians than their place of birth. Historians were also encouraged by the active role of African Americans in the civil rights movement to ask new questions about African Americans’ role in their eman- cipation and in the Civil War itself. Historians asked whether Lincoln freed the slaves by proclamation or whether the slaves freed themselves by escaping to Union lines and forcing the issue of emancipation. Historians’ views of Abra- ham Lincoln, the most analyzed subject in American history, also continue to undergo change. The recent discovery and study of Lincoln’s early legal work in Illinois gives historians new insights into the man.

New questions have often led to significant revision of our understanding of the past. Charles A. Beard, one of the most famous “revisionist” historians, created a lasting controversy in the early 20th century by asking what were the economic interests of the nation’s Founders. In An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of United States (1913), Beard concluded that the writing of the Constitution was motivated by the economic self-interests of the framers, not by political idealism.

In our own time, there has been renewed debate over the U.S. govern- ment’s decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945. The traditional interpretation accepted President Truman’s public explanation that the atomic bomb was used to shorten the war and to save lives. In a later era, a few histo- rians suggested that the bomb may have been intended as the first shot of the Cold War. Revisionist historians argued that the bomb was aimed at stopping Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union from overrunning Eruope and Asia. The debate over the decision to drop the bomb goes on, and in fact this issue became the subject of the document-based question on an exam:

The United States’ decision to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima was a diplomatic measure calculated to intimidate the Soviet Union in the post- Second-World War era rather than a strictly military measure designed to force Japan’s unconditional surrender.

Evaluate this statement, using the documents and your knowledge of the military and diplomatic history of the years 1939 through 1947.

Obviously, it would have helped the students dealing with this question if they had some knowledge of the controversy among historians.

The AP History exam is designed to measure students’ knowledge and understanding of the issues, controversies, and complexity of history. The “cor- rect” answers to essay questions and DBQs cannot be found in any answer booklet, no more than ultimate historical truth can be found in any one history book. The quality of the students’ demonstration of their understanding of his- tory is the issue. Part of the understanding of any historical era is knowledge of the differing perspectives both of the participants and of later historians. AP candidates should have some awareness that historians differ in their interpreta- tion of events. The study of the works of historians and their changing method- ologies and interpretations is called historiography.

Each chapter of this text concludes with a section headed Historical Per- spectives. Its purpose is to introduce you to some of the issues and questions raised by historians, both traditional and revisionist. The AP history exam does not call for advanced knowledge of historiography, or “the History of history.” Nevertheless, the richness of historical thought can provide added depth to stu- dents’ analysis of historical questions.

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