Thoughts on changing history

The staff at James Madison’s home, Montpelier, have added new interpretations of the enslaved people who lived there (exhibition: The Mere Distinction of Colour)
Reconstructed slave cabin at Mount Vernon, opened in 2007

History is changing… as it always has. Some of you cry, “Revisionist history!” Others argue, “History cannot change, it’s what happened.” The facts don’t usually change, an event happened at a certain place, on a certain date (though even these can be disputed). But it’s a historian’s job to look at the historical evidence and draw conclusions – to create an interpretation of that evidence. If two people look at the same evidence, it’s probable their conclusions will be somewhat different. The evidence doesn’t always agree (think witnesses at the scene of a car accident). If two people look at different evidence about the same event, it’s highly likely their conclusions will be different. Does that make one interpretation right and one wrong? If the historian can show her sources and it’s clear she made a solid argument based on her evidence, then it’s a valid interpretation.

Sometimes brand-new evidence surfaces after many years. Someone finds a stash of old letters in an attic written by or about someone famous – recent examples include Elizabeth Cady Stanton and William Clark (of Lewis and Clark).  This allows historians to add more to the story. In the case of Clark, the letters written to his brother, reveal more information about York, his enslaved man and member of the westward expedition.

A historic site can tell many stories about its topic. But someone must decide which stories it will tell. In decades past, these stories tended to focus on famous men (and a few women), usually white, who were decision makers and leaders. In the 1960s, social history became popular, telling the stories of the underrepresented, the everyday people, including African American history and labor history and women’s history.

Today, history practitioners, those people who decide what stories are told at historic sites, are making much more effort to be inclusive and tell the stories of everyone connected to a site. The history of slavery has presented a challenge, but gradually the leaders of historic sites are realizing that the story of everyone who lived at a site should be told. If enslaved people lived there, their story is important. Of course, the tension comes with the power of the story and the acknowledgement that some people don’t want to learn difficult stories. Slavery is no doubt a very tough topic. But history should be about telling the truth and grappling with it.

Of course, not everyone has left a decent amount of evidence that reveals their story. And some kinds of historical evidence can be easier to study than others, or to verify. In the past, historians have placed emphasis on the written word, documentary evidence. But for various reasons, not all cultures leave documents. Each type of source, whether photographs, maps, artifacts, oral histories, or documents has strengths and weaknesses, all have internal biases.

If you’ve been visiting a favorite historic site (maybe one near where you live) over many years, no doubt you’ve noticed the stories it tells have changed. Maybe a little, maybe a lot, but reinterpretation has been called the lifeblood of historical understanding. It’s normal.

 I find the study of history endlessly fascinating because there isn’t only one way to look at history!

Related posts:

Within These Walls… If Our Houses Could Talk

James Madison’s Montpelier

The newly constructed South Yard, where enslaved people lived and worked, at Montpelier

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: timgrove.net - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: grovehistoryconsulting.com I specialize in exhibition development, interpretive planning, education strategy, and history relevance. I'm passionate about helping history organizations of all sizes and kinds make history more relevant for their communities and the people they engage with. I'm happy to consider many types of writing projects for informal learning organizations. Reach me at tim@grovehistoryconsulting.com or authortimgrove@gmail.com
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