Send Me Historical Documents!

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I have decided
to produce a home school high school curriculum. The wonderful new
digital technologies make this possible. I can deliver an entire
curriculum on a DVD that costs me three dollars to send out the
door. These digital technologies have decentralized the production
and distribution of information. This process will not be reversed.
Why not take advantage of it?

I will write
the history and social science courses.

In the field
of history, the crucial intellectual task is the historian’s interpretation
and assessment of documents of the era or event in question. This
is why I am writing this article. I plan to tie my history curriculum
to historical documents. Virtually all high school history courses
are based on narratives, called textbooks. Mine will not be.

This is a call
for documents. If you think there are source documents that are
crucial for the correct understanding of history — ancient
Greece and Rome, Europe, or the United States — send me a reference
(better yet, a web link) and a brief description of why you think
this document should not be ignored. Send them to


The discovery
of a collection of previously unknown documents is a wonderful event.
It is the dream of every young historian who wants to make a reputation
for himself on the cheap to discover such a collection, which will
throw new light on some event, which then forces the history guild
to accept his interpretation, based on the new documents. This rarely
happens, however.

The main task,
day by day, of the movers and shakers in the historical guild is
the interpretation and assessment of previous interpretations and
assessments, with a few extracts from long-known archive collections
of letters and other sources. “Look what I found!” This really means,
“Look what I have dreamed up to explain some event, supported by
obscure documents that were never worth citing before.”

future historians will do to locate private letters is a mystery.
After e-mail arrived, most people stopped writing paper-based letters
and storing copies. Problem: hard drives die or are tossed out.
All the email copies on them are lost.

Most familiar
interpretations remain accepted by most historians for a generation
or more, especially if the interpretation buttresses the State,
which pays most of the bills in education. For example, interpretations
of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Presidency have not changed significantly
since 1945 or even earlier. We have seen only one book that is hostile
to both his domestic economic policies and his foreign policies:
John T. Flynn’s The Roosevelt Myth,
published in 1948, which was insufficiently footnoted and was not
written by a professional historian. The historiography of Abraham
Lincoln is an even better example. In five haystacks of pro-Lincoln
books, the one comprehensive anti-Lincoln needle was written by
an economist: The
Real Lincoln
by DiLorenzo.

Other interpretations
get modified, though not entirely rejected. The historiography of
the American revolutionaries of 1770—1788 is an example. Almost
no American historian is completely hostile to the event, but individuals
of the era, except for Washington (saint) and Burr (sinner), come
in and out of favor. Even Franklin has a few detractors, most notably
Cecil B. Currey, whose systematically ignored and otherwise panned
book, Code
, shows that Franklin was an agent for the British while
he was in France. “Code 72″ was his code name in the British intelligence

Over time,
old interpretations do get rejected. This process we call “revisionism.”
The best American example of revisionist historiography that remains
revisionist is this historical question: “Did Roosevelt know that
the Japanese were about to attack in December, 1941?” The lines
were drawn by 1946 and have not changed. The revisionists have not
persuaded textbook committees that the answer is “yes.”

I am a revisionist
with respect to entry into America’s wars. I do think a case can
be made for the French and Indian War (1757—63), but Lew Rockwell
may yet talk me out of it. Besides, in 1757, there was no America.
It was Brits vs. frogs, with the redskins divided. I suppose some
Native American historian would call it the Iroquois-Algonquin war.


There are many
advantages of having high school students read lots of primary source
documents. Here are a few of them:

  1. They learn
    how to read more carefully.
  2. They learn
    that earlier generations were expected to read carefully.
  3. They learn
    how complicated the past was.
  4. They learn
    how difficult it is to unsort past events.
  5. They learn
    that historians have distorted the past.
  6. They learn
    that there is revisionism still to be done.
  7. They learn
    to recognize contemporary con jobs by the media.

As an example
of what I intend to do, I will assign many of the Federalist papers
in a one-semester course on the American Constitutionalism. I will
also assign an equal number of anti-Federalist papers. This is never
done in high school or college courses. I have a Ph.D. in colonial
American history. In no class that I took was a single anti-Federalist
paper ever assigned. A complete scholarly collection did not become
available until the University of Chicago published an expensive
set in 1981. Yet today, they are on the web for free.

I will offer
my comments in the form of bracketed, indented paragraphs within
each document. The historian must interpret. He selects documents
selectively. An interpretation governs this selection. There is
no escape from interpretation. But a student is less likely to be
deceived if he can read the actual document. Every student is vulnerable
to an expert’s explanation, but not nearly so vulnerable as he is
to an explanation without the document. He can always think to himself,
as he reads a comment, “That’s not what I think this document says
or means.”

I think a good
exercise would be to assign several Presidential inaugural addresses.
Within each address, I will add notes on whether the President did
or did not follow through on a particular promise. This is a strategy
called “let their words speak for or against their deeds.” This
would be easy to do with almost any politician who gained enough
influence to be remembered.


The historian’s
narrative ties events together for a student. Textbooks are written
in order to convey the historical guild’s most conventional opinions
to students. Mostly, this is an exercise in State-funded indoctrination.
It has some vague effect on students’ thinking, but only vague.
The historical specifics are forgotten. Memories fade fast after
a final exam.

It is by repetition,
year after year, that most ideas are imparted to the vast majority
of students. This is why the home school movement is such a threat
to the State. It removes students from the tax-funded indoctrination
program of constant repetition.

There is something
else on the side of document-based education. A textbook is a committee-screened
effort. This makes textbooks boring. This is true of the best of
them, such as Thomas Sowell’s textbook on economics and Robert Nisbet’s
textbook on sociology. This is why nobody goes back to re-read his
old college textbooks. High school textbooks are turned back in
and forgotten.

In contrast,
some people may occasionally go back to read a poem or a short story
in one of the many Norton Anthologies of literature. (The profits
on this series are astronomical.) Document collections survive the
tests of time; textbooks don’t.

I recall clearly
my first reading assignment in my freshman political science course.
That was in 1960. It was an extract of the Putney debates of 1647—49.
These were the debates in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army in Britain.
It was a debate between Ireton, Cromwell’s son in law, and Rainsborough,
a Leveller (democrats, not communists). Ireton argued for the property
qualification for the vote. Rainsborough argued for the right to
vote based on residence, since males should have the right to say
who should represent those who will vote on laws that will affect
every resident. It was a debate over representation and citizenship.
The same debate goes on today. I never forgot that assignment. (The
papers of this debate were first published in 1938, almost 300 years
after the debates took place: Puritanism
and Liberty
, edited by Woodhouse, who made his reputation
with this collection of long-forgotten documents.)

I do not recall
anything else I read in that class — surely not the textbook.

As examples
of first-rate website source collections, see the sites created
by Rutgers historian Paul Halsell. Here
is his medieval site. The links to his other sites are at the top
of the home page.

For American
legal and diplomatic history, nothing matches Yale University Law
School’s Avalon project.

We need more
of these sites. Skilled amateur historians can scan the documents
and create such sites. Professional historians will become dependent
on them. Almost nobody enjoys doing this kind of grunt work. He
who will do it will help shape future interpretations merely by
making life easier for the professionals.

How do you
think the New York Times became “America’s newspaper of record”?
First, by producing an annual index/book of every article published
in the newspaper. Second, by making available a microfilm collection
of the newspaper for university libraries to buy.


If you think
a document absolutely must be included in the program, let me know.
If it is long and only one section is suitable for one day’s assignment
(no more than five consecutive pages of print-outs of web screens),
direct me to that section.

of each document as vote against the next bond issue for your local
public schools. I can use lots of them.

21, 2006

North [send him mail] is the
author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
He is also the author of a free 17-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible

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