History tells us not only who we were but helps us to understand who we are today and how we got here. The historian acts as a guide and interpreter, leading the student or reader on carefully chosen routes through the past. Often the road is well-traveled, with predictable stops at familiar landmarks where stories are so summarily handed down that they fail to register. A date is memorized, along with some names and a place. The student takes a mental photo without thinking. This is history (and learning) as package tourism. There is so much more to be gained from the journey. The challenge for readers is not to be passive tourists but rather active travelers through history, engaging and experiencing it. One way to do this is by examining primary source documents, the unfiltered words of those who made history!
“A house divided cannot stand,” “The better angels of our nature,”:
These are the much-noted and long- remembered words of Abraham Lincoln, the unconventionally majestic figure who still towers over the era of the American Civil War. Unschooled though anything but unlettered, Lincoln conveyed his boundless compassion and his moral authority in a rhetorical eloquence fashioned from the works of William Shakespeare, the bible, and hundreds of spellbinding tales well-told on the Illinois court circuit by an ungainly, often melancholy lawyer who came to life and lifted spirits as a storyteller.
The Gettysburg Address is one of the best-known speech’s in American history. Beginning with the now-iconic phrase… .
Four score and seven years ago… a government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
There is no better place to turn than Lincoln’s words to try to come to grips with a period of American history that continues to send aftershocks into the 21st century. One’s understanding of any period of history is always deepened by close examination of primary sources. The careful description and reasoned discussion of most historiography allows us make sense of issues and ideals, but primary source accounts bring them vividly to life. Concepts and events that are often conveyed with academic equanimity in a historical narrative can seem to be shouted in primary sources, in which the frustration, determination, and dreams of historical actors surge off the page.
But history gets messier when the story is related by the participants or described in the moment as events unfold. The stakes usually get higher in primary source accounts; emotions are closer to the surface. This up-close, often visceral experience of history can remain largely incomprehensible if it is not grounded in context. That is the advantage of narrative history fashioned at the remove of time. Linear history establishes when events occurred relative to one another, and the thematic interpretation of history offers an explanation of why events occurred. Narrative history provides a consistency of approach, clarity of meaning, and a momentum to the telling.
At Britannica we incorporate all of these approaches to offer the opportunity for a multidimensional experience of history. Primary source documents are interwoven into our narrative histories (primarily in our coverage of U.S. history). The narratives present description and analysis of a period, its events, and issues that are deepened by the documents, but they also provide a context and framework for approaching those documents that allows the reader to make sense of them, and ultimately of the period, his- or herself. Together the narrative and primary source documents allow the reader to see events both in widescreen panorama and with fly-on-the-wall intimacy.
Join us for our upcoming Investigating Beyond Facts: Making Social Studies Relevant, Engaging, and Personal webinar to discover the importance of infusing relevant primary source documents into your lessons!