Do all historians have bias and does it impact their doing history?

Part three in a series.  | Part One | Two

Sam Hood: I can’t speak for all historians, and although I don’t consider myself a historian, I certainly have biases, and assume everyone does. I love the ancient Roman historian Cicero’s quote: “The first law of the historian is that he shall never dare utter an untruth. The second is that he shall suppress nothing that is true. Moreover, there shall be no suspicion of partiality in his writing, or of malice.” Cicero would roll over in his grave if he knew of some of the books published on the Tennessee Campaign.

Steven Woodworth: Absolutely! All historians have biases (and so does everybody else). How it affects one’s interpretation of the sources depends on what the bias is. When someone is expected to have a very strong bias in a particular direction, other historians are going to discount for that.

Jack Davis: Of course historians have biases.  They are human, and no one is immune the bias or prejudice, however hard we may try to eliminate it from our work.  And it can definitely impact how they interpret documents.  Douglas Southall Freeman was notoriously humorless, and as a result his Lee is humorless, and Freeman completely misunderstood Lee when he wrote something tongue-in-cheek.

Wiley Sword: Bias is a very severe word – it suggests the lack of objectivity. Having long endured accusations of such from many of the Hood faction, I’m very familiar with this aspect. Contrary to much of what they have written in my case, when I originally began work on Embrace an Angry Wind, I had very little knowledge of John Bell Hood, and thus had no prior opinion or bias to promote as an agenda. Only through research of primary CONTEMPORARY materials did my opinions form. Thus when a statement was made critical of Hood in the book, it was based on a factual reference, fully documented as to source in the reference notes. Quite frankly, as I have long suggested, many of Hood’s men were his greatest critics, and I have been merely one of the means of their commentary. This same process has been used in many other of my projects, and my strong criticism of, for example, Braxton Bragg, P.G.T. Beauregard, and others has gone without the emotional response (including personal attacks and outright slander) from supporters of those generals. Certainly, Hood had his virtues as well as his liabilites, and as a complex personality with a dramatic role in the war he deserves further interpretaion, including such that the “new” papers might provide. As for other historians’ bias; this is an individual matter, and is not easily determined, but any qualified historian who seeks to explain history’s why and how events happened must be completely honest and write with integrity if the significant history of this nation is to be served.

Chris Losson: Historians live and operate within a certain era and cannot help but be biased.  The trick is to be aware of this bias as much as possible and try to write as fair and balanced an assessment of events and people as you can.  The amount of research material often dictates what you can do.  Before these Hood papers surfaced, biographers had to make do with what limited material on him they could find in public repositories and other scholarship.  Still, the times we live in inevitably impact our research and our writing.  An early historian of the South, U. B. Phillips, made major contributions in terms of our understanding of the Old South, using primary sources in many instances.  He also believed that slavery was generally a positive institution for the slaves.  Needless to say, if he was around today and wrote what he did when alive he would be pilloried.  I always tell my students early in a school year that I am going to teach them an interpretation of the past, and that their children and grandchildren may learn other (perhaps contradictory) interpretations.  As society changes, historical interpretations do so as well.  My grandparents in Louisville almost assuredly believed that blacks were inherently inferior to whites, although they may well have had cordial relationships with individual African Americans.  But I would be rightfully dismissed if I told my contemporary students that their black classmates are by nature inferior owing to their skin color!  In terms of John Bell Hood, both he and Joseph E. Johnston wrote books that were highly critical of the other officer.  Frank Cheatham wrote an article defending his actions at Spring Hill.  These men all knew that the Civil War was the most important event of their lives and they wanted to present themselves in as positive a light as possible.  This is a very human instinct, I think; how many of us would write an autobiography that unhesitatingly exposed our darkest flaws and mistakes?  In terms of the newly found Hood papers, it may well be that some people (I imagine Sam Hood among them) will find the material a useful way to devise a more positive assessment of General Hood than he has received from some scholars.  Yet it stands to reason that other historians will use the material, juxtapose it with other sources about Hood in other manuscript collections, memoirs, and primary/secondary sources that will still criticize Hood (to use one example) for what happened at Franklin.  Who will be right?  Each author will feel that their account is the closest to that elusive truth.  But it may take another writer who can try objectively as possible to weigh the pros and cons of the various interpretations about Hood (or events in which he participated) and synthesize the various arguments and then come up with his/her own interpretation.  Each generation probably reinterprets the Civil War, but because of its central importance to our history we still ask big questions and continue assessing how various persons performed during the war.  Sometimes popular culture swings public interest; The Killer Angels and the Ken Burns documentary on the war elevated Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain into the stratosphere of Civil War personalities; I discovered that you can even buy a General Chamberlain bobble-head!  This is a very long answer to your question, but historians often interpret primary sources through a particular lens; if you think John Bell Hood has been maltreated by historians you may use these new sources to attack those historians.  On the other hand, a historian who has an axe to grind against Hood may use the same documents to paint an unflattering portrait of him despite the new evidence.  And a third writer may steer a middle course between the positive and negative interpretations.  I should add that biographers do eventually arrive at some conclusions about their subjects that may or may not be accepted by other scholars.  In my own limited case, some historians are far less generous to Frank Cheatham than I was and are highly critical of his abilities or lack thereof.   But that’s what makes history such a dynamic field; we certainly don’t agree, sometimes on even rather trivial matters.

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2 thoughts on “Do all historians have bias and does it impact their doing history?

  1. Sam Hood

    In reply to Mr Sword’s comment above, with Kraig’s permission, I will copy my reply from Part 2:

    Another problem is the distortion of legitimate, credible primary sources; opportunistic authors taking such advantage of artistic license as to paint a false picture of the character or event. A classic illustration comes from–not suprisingly–Mr Sword. On page 315 of “The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah”, Sword claims that Hood was angry (a recurring claim in his book) because only 164 Tennesseans had voluntarily joined Hood’s invading army. Sword wrote, “Hood reacted angrily and resolved ‘to bring into the army all men liable to military duty.’ If recruits wouldn’t voluntarily flock to his standards, he intended to bring them in at the point of the bayonet.” As a source Sword cites a dispatch that Hood sent to James Seddon from outside Nashville, wherein Hood wrote only the following SINGE SENTENCE on the subject of conscription: “As yet I have not had time to adopt a general plan of conscription, but hope soon to do so, and to bring into the Army all men liable to military duty.” In the rest of the dispatch Hood discussed only routine issues such as railroad repairs and enemy troop strength. Nowhere in Hood’s letter is there the slightest hint of anger, nor is there any comment about intending to bring in draftees “at the point of the bayonet.” Contrary to Sword’s baseless and dramatized depiction, Hood was simply going to gather conscripts, a common and routine practice by Confederate authorities throughout the South.

    Another example of Sword’s propensity to abuse artistic license and create drama and facts where none existed is the subject of Hood’s fiancee’ Sally “Buck” Preston. According to Sword, virtually every thought; every acttion; every reaction by Hood was either directly or indirectly related somehow to his fascination with her, making her a prominent character in his book. In Thomas Hay’s and Stanley Horn’s acclaimed books on the the Army of Tennessee and Tennessee Campaign, Preston is not mentioned at all, and Thomas Connelly mentions her once in “Autumn of Glory.” However, in Wiley Sword’s 1992 book on the Tennessee Campaign, she appears in the index more often than four generals killed at the Battle of Franklin–Otho Strahl, John Carter, States Rights Gist, and John Adams–COMBINED! Were Hay, Horn, and Connelly negligent, or was Sword’s use of artistic license excessive?

    Sadly, although Sword may be the worst offender, he is not the only Civil War author to engage in such historiographical misconduct.

  2. Dale Fishel

    There is consensus among the learned gentlemen responding (above) that bias is an unavoidable factor in writing history and I certainly agree. Part of our human condition and experience creates bias in many disparate ways and influences how we think, act and express ourselves.

    I think that this discussion needs to go one step further in recognizing the impact bias has upon readership. As an amateur historian and one who considers the events of the Civil War as of primary interest among my research objectives I seek various sources (usually books) to round out my understanding of that time. Needless to say, their content, coupled with travel to specific key locations (such a Chickamauga, Spring Hill and Franklin), among many others, has formed the basis for my understanding of events. In addition, the influence of personal contact with (and infinite patience of) prominent historians including Mssrs. Ed Bearss, Thomas Cartwright, David Fraley, Wil Greene, Richard Baumgartner, Jim Ogden and others has filled my cup to overflowing with information. My great-grandfather was a member of the 125th OVI, and survivor of all the battles in the western theater beginning at the comparatively minor 1st Battle of Franklin in 1862 all the way through to the 2nd battle and Nashville to mustering out in June of ’65. He was on the northern side of Dyer’s field at the time General Hood suffered the wound to his right leg at the southern reach of the field.

    As a result I have formed my opinions (and biases) to the best of my ability to recreate what Warren Fishel’s experience may have been. As a result and through the extensive research and writing of some of you (above) I feel that I have succeeded in meeting many of my goals – that is – short of discovery of a diary or memoir that my g-grandfather might have written.

    By definition, bias is a particular tendency or inclination, especially one that prevents unprejudiced consideration of a question. It may also cause partiality or favoritism in or influence unfairly a person. (Prejudice implies a preformed judgment even more unreasoning than bias). Lastly, bias is an inclination to present a partial perspective at the expense of possibly equally valid alternatives.

    As historians, professional and amateur alike, that definition is a test that must be met – the reader will decide if we pass. Fairness and objectivity of content is crucial to that end.


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