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A picture of slavery, for youth. Jonathan Walker.

[Detail] A picture of slavery, for youth. Jonathan Walker

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Differentiating Between Facts and Interpretations

One of the elements of historical analysis and interpretation, according to the National Standards for United States History, is to “differentiate between historical facts and historical interpretations, but acknowledge also that the two are related: that the facts the historian reports are selected and reflect therefore the historian's judgment of what is most significant about the past.” Practice with this skill could be provided using two of the collection's documents related to the John Brown case. "The Life, Trial, and Execution of Captain John Brown" provides a detailed account of the raid on Harper's Ferry, the trial of Brown, and his execution, as well as a number of primary sources (Brown's will and his last letter to his family). The second document is an account written in 1889, when the death of a key figure in the trial renewed interest in the case; this document, "Trial of John Brown," was written by General Marcus J. Wright specifically to refute the claim by a German author that Brown's trial had not been fair and impartial.

  • What facts in Wright's account can be verified in other sources?
  • Why, given his purpose, did Wright select the facts that he did?
  • What facts are available in other sources that might have undercut Wright's argument?

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