Chapter 16 – How to Read History (part 1 of 3)


“History,” like “poetry,” is a word of many meanings. In order for this chapter to be useful to you, we must come to terms with you about the word – that is, explain how we will be using it.

First of all, there is the difference between history as fact and history as a written record of the facts. We are obviously, here, employing the term in the latter sense. … The word could be applied, and indeed has been applied, to almost every kind of writing that originated in a time period, or in the context of an event, in which the reader was interested.

The sense in which we use the word “history” in what follows is both narrower and broader than any of those. It is narrower because we want to restrict ourselves to essentially narrative accounts, presented in a more or less formal manner, of a period or event or series of events in the past.

But our meaning is also broader than many of the definitions of the term that are current today. We think … that the essence of history is narration, that the last five letters of the word – “story” – help us to understand the basic meaning. Even a collection of documents, as a collection, tells a story. That story may not be explicit – … but it is implicit in them, whether they are ordered or not. Otherwise, we think, the collection would not be called a history of its time.


A historian is concerned with events that occurred, most of them, a long time ago. All the witnesses to the events are usually dead. What evidence they give is not given in a courtroom – that is, it is not governed by stringent and careful rules. … They are not cross-examined. And there is no guarantee whatever that they know what they are talking about.

If, then, it is difficult to be sure that one knows about the truth of a relatively simple matter, such as is decided by a jury in a court of law, now much more difficult it is to know what really happened in history. A historical fact, though we may have a feeling of trust and solidity about the word, is one of the most elusive things in the world.

Of course, about some kinds of historical fact we can be pretty certain. America was involved in a Civil War that began with the firing on Fort Sumter, on April 12, 1861, and ended with the surrender of General Lee to General Grant at Appomattox Court House, on April 9, 1865. Everyone agrees about those dates.

But how much have we learned if we know exactly when the Civil War start and when it ended? Indeed, those dates have been disputed – not on grounds that the calendars were wrong, but that the war really started with the election of Lincoln in the fall of 1860 and ended with his assassination five days after Lee’s surrender. Others have claimed that the war started even earlier – as much as five or ten or twenty years before 1861 – and we know that it was still actually being fought in the outlying parts of the United States, to which word had not yet come of the Northern triumph, as late as May, June and July, 1865.

At least we do know, one might say, that whether or not the firing on Fort Sumter started the Civil War, it did occur on April 12, 1861. … But why was Sumter fired on? That is an obvious next question. … If we did not care – and we do not care about many attacks on forts that have doubtless occurred, but about which we know nothing whatever – would the firing on Sumter still be a significant historical fact?


We class history, the story of the past, more often under fiction than under science – if it must be affiliated with one or the other. … This does not mean that a historian makes up his facts, like a poet or a story teller.

A good historian does not, of course, make up the past. He considers himself responsibly bound by some concept or criterion of accuracy or facts. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the historian must always make up something. He must either find a general pattern in, or impose one on, events; or he must suppose that he knows why the persons in this story did the things they did. … It is essential to recognize which way the historian you are reading is operating.

Because theories in history differ, and because a historian’s theory affects his accounts of events, it is necessary to read more than one account of the history of an event or period if we want to understand it. Indeed, this is the first rule of reading history. … every narrative history has to be written from some point of view. But to get at the truth, we ought to look at it from more than one viewpoint.


We are not always able to read more than one history of an event. When we are not, we must admit that we do not have much chance of learning the truth of the matter in question – of learning what really happened. However, that is not the only reason to read history. It might be claimed that only the professional historian, the man who is writing a history himself, is required to cross-examine his sources by exhaustively checking one against the other. … We, as lay readers of history, stand somewhere between the professional historian, on the one hand, and the irresponsible amateur, on the other hand, who reads history only for amusement.

Let us take the example of Thucydides. You may be aware that he wrote the only major contemporary history of the Peloponnesian War at the end of the fifth century B.C. In a sense, there is nothing to check his work against. What, then, can we expect to learn from it? … The victories are now meaningless, and the defeats without pain. … Indeed, if we stop to think of it, almost all that remains of the Peloponnesian War is Thucydides’ account of it.

Yet that account is still important. For Thucydides’ story – we might as well use that word – has had an influence on the subsequent history of man. Leaders in later eras read Thucydides. … The result was that by ever so little, perhaps, but perceptibly, the history of the world was changed by the view held of a small portion of it by Thucydides in the fifth century B.C. Thus we read Thucydides not because he described perfectly what happened before he wrote his book, but because he to a certain extent determined what happened after. And we read him, strange as it may seem, to know what is happening now.

If your view of history is limited, if you go to it to discover only what really happened, you will not learn the main thing that Thucydides, or indeed any good historian, has to teach.

History is the story of what led up to now. It is the present that interests us – that and the future. The future will be partly determined by the present. Thus, you can learn something about the future, too, from a historian, even from one who like Thucydides lived more than two thousand years ago.

Let us sum up these two suggestions for reading history. The first is: if you can, read more than one history of an event or period that interests you. The second is: read a history not only to learn what really happened at a particular time and place in the past, but also to learn the way men act at all times and places, especially now.