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.
What Is Truth?10 01 2010