What Is Truth?

10 01 2010

I’ve finished Joan Waugh’s U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth.  I’ll give some thoughts on the book at some point in the near future.  But it and Larry Tagg’s The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln got me to thinking: what do we really know of “public opinion” as of a point in time?  I mean, it’s hard even today, with polls out the wazoo, to tell what public opinion is on any given topic.  The most typical resource relied upon for public opinion has been newspapers, including reporting and editorializing.  But let’s keep in mind that newspapers never have been objective, and during the middle period of the 19th century in this country they were unabashedly partisan.  That’s why they had names like “The Democrat”, “The Whig” and “The Republican”.  They reflected the viewpoints of their owners and editors (again, no different from today).  If we admit the lack of objectivity, then we don’t take editorials at face value – we also delve into letters to the editor.  Of course those were selected for publication by the editor as well.  So perhaps we should look in the records of the newspapers themselves: files of letters to the editor that never made it into print.  If they exist, we have to rely on the objectivity of the newspaper in saving the letters.  And even that pool is tainted because it will consist of correspondence from readers of that particular newspaper.  As consumers, we have to deal with another filter, that of the historian who selects (evaluates) what’s pertinent, what’s worthwhile.  Anyway, all this thinking just makes me look more suspiciously at generalizations about what people in the north or south “thought” or “felt”, and about how “pressure from the public” or even the press, influenced decision makers.

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4 responses

11 01 2010
Terry Johnston

Harry:

You make a very important point. CW newspapers are incredibly rich sources, but they must be used judiciously. I agree that too many authors present the words of various newspaper editors as reflective of the feelings of some larger slice of society. (I encounter this repeatedly in my current research on a particular ethnic group during the war; so many times I find authors cite ethnic newspaper editorials as evidence of the larger group’s feelings about any number of issues re: the conflict, as though (1) the larger group was monolithic, i.e., its members felt and/or acted in virtual lock step; and (2) the ethnic editors were indeed in a position to speak for the group.) To be sure, CW newspaper editors undoubtedly wielded a great deal of influence, especially among their readers. But citing their opinions as evidence of anything other than their own feelings on various matters is problematic.

By the way, I hope you will reveal how/why Waugh’s and Tagg’s books inspired this post. I’ve not read either of them yet, but both are on my list.

Terry

11 01 2010
Harry Smeltzer

Thanks Terry…good to know someone reads this stuff! Tagg’s book is applicable to this post in that he approaches the subject of how Lincoln was perceived from a completely different ange than we’re used to seeing; Waugh’s because it is a good analysis of how (and why) Grant’s image has developed and changed.

12 01 2010
Terry Johnston

Harry:

I’m looking forward to reading both. By the way, it’d be interesting to know if any author / historian has had success in locating the ‘archives’ of any CW newspapers, including letters to the editor not published. An old advisor of mine raised the same idea years ago, but I had no success (at least in part because the paper was middling in size). As you say, it would likely be revealing to see which letters were published and which were not.

16 01 2010
Robert Moore

Harry,

While we can be aware of the lack of objectivity of the editors of respective papers (especially when dealing with public sentiment), I don’t believe that the lack of objectivity results in our tossing out the source as presenting viable elements of truth. We can recognize it for what it is, and, based on other findings outside the realm of newspapers, validate some points and question others.

In working through the papers of Hagerstown, I’m fortunate that there were two newspapers, one Unionist and the other pro-secessionist. Comparing the projection of sentiments presented in the papers, it appears the Unionist paper has the upper hand, not because of the power of those who write for that paper (or, perhaps, the amount of money supporting that paper), but the fact that the Unionist paper brings up more local incidents that reveal a greater trend toward Unionism than secessionism in the county. The pro-secesh paper throws out far more opinion without fact than the Unionist paper. I think that is a key. Yes, there might be a lack of objectivity, but what other sources (other than newspapers) tend to validate one paper’s presentation over another paper’s?

Now, the difference between my work and the works of the two books you cited is significant. While I’m dealing with a small geographic area, it seems that they are tackling a much larger one. At what point do such large-scaled studies fail in accounting for regional differences? Do the two works consider this in their presentations?

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