How History Lies

In a talk at the Bethesda Writer’s Center last night, I had a chance to air some of the dirty linen of the history writer: how do we know what actually happened, what people actually said, decades or centuries in the past?
The issue was teed up in a recent conversation when two friends in their sixties, brothers, disagreed over whether one had attended the other’s bar mitzvah ceremony. One said yes; the other no. They appealed to other milestones in their lives that year — we lived on “X” street, and Dad drove the “Y” car — but the disagreement persisted. If two brothers cannot agree on that, how are we to know what Madison said to James Wilson about proportional representation in June of 1787?
The problem often arises with historical anecdotes that are hard-wired into our DNA, but for which there is little authoritative source. One example is Ben Franklin’s remark upon leaving Independence Hall after signing the Constitution on September 17, 1787. “What kind of government have you given us?” a woman is supposed to have asked. “A republic,” Franklin the sage is reported to have replied, “if you can keep it.”
Great stuff. Franklin’s pithy rejoinder captures the perilousness of sustaining representative government for beings as fractious and captious as humans. Yet the story has fairly uncertain provenance. James McHenry, a Maryland delegate, wrote it down at some unknown date after the event, and it has become part of the oral tradition of the Convention. I left it out of my book, The Summer of 1787, yet readers have it so deeply embedded in their brains that some have told me how pleased they were that I included it!
A similarly entrenched anecdote is the remark supposedly made by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton when Lincoln finally died of his bullet wound: “Now he belongs to the ages.” In a piece last May, Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker questioned whether Stanton really said, “Now he belongs to the angels.” Not a huge difference, but a difference.
Major events of the past, of course, are knowable. We know who won elections and battles, who lived and who died. But the more you zero in on specifics, the shakier our sources can be. How reliable is the reporter? How long after the event did he write down the recollection? Did he have a motive to shade his recollection?
A fascinating exercise was undertaken by historian Don Fehrenbacher and his wife to evaluate 1900 favored quotations of Abraham Lincoln, rating their reliability from A to E. The book, The Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, serves as a cautionary reminder to writers, and readers, of history.
What other examples of mythical anecdotes of history are out there?


  1. klkatz on February 25, 2008 at 11:03 pm

    you bring up a good point.
    are we really believe Ben Franklin really said, everything he said?
    but this is what’s fascinating about reading books that personify our founding fathers, is that we can try and find personalities that go along with their accomplishments. the ambiguity behind their portraits is what keeps us reading books like yours.

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