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[Detail] Lincoln Centennial Association

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Assessing the Historical Record

Think about an hour of your typical day at school. What records of this hour are created? Think about evidence you create as well as evidence held by the school. Which of these pieces of evidence are most likely to be accessible years from now? What events in the hour are not recorded in any way?

Now consider the following item from a newspaper published about two weeks after General Ulysses S. Grant was elected president:

One of General Grant’s first acts upon arriving at his headquarters in Washington was to order the destruction of several bushels of letters which have been sent to him in relation to officers &c., which had been opened and briefed by his staff. No record of them was kept.

From “Father Abraham, [Newspaper] November 20, 1868,” image 1

  • Why do you think General Grant ordered the destruction of the letters? Do you think he was concerned about the historical record?
  • What does this item tell you about the limits of the historical record?
  • In what other ways do you think evidence of the past has been lost or destroyed?
  • Think about the documents that are available in this collection. (Keep in mind that only part of the collection is online and this is only one collection.) What parts of Lincoln’s career or life are especially well documented? What parts of his career or life would you predict are less well documented? What might account for limits on the historical record of these aspects of Lincoln’s career or life?
  • How do you think the limits on the historical record shape our understanding of the past?