Good history papers and essays benefit from the use of original source materials. Original sources provide an eyewitness account of the event being researched. These primary sources represent the most direct understanding of the subject, principally because they are the product of persons recording the events as they occurred or shortly thereafter. Original documents, however, also contain inherent weaknesses such as possible bias, how long after the event they were recorded, and whether they reflect typical or atypical views.
Corroboration of Documents
In his book For Cause & Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, James McPherson relies on hundreds of Civil War Era documents including letters, diaries, and other personal writing of soldiers from both the North and the South. In formulating conclusions, McPherson took into account many varying factors such as educational background, geographical origins, and even the owning of slaves. Despite the overwhelming evidence, McPherson still cautions that his sampling is not complete and may pose errors.
Writers exploring the Holocaust will find much corroboration among survivor stories attesting to the basic horrific nature of the events and providing specific details that evidence genocide. Individual stories may vary and even differ in terms of facts, but this will not detract from the overall conclusions cemented by the universality of corroborate data. Using such documents provides evidential data that confirms conclusions and supports the thesis through many first hand accounts.
Bias in the Documents
An American patriot recounting the Battle of Yorktown may well harbor anti-British feelings and this may bias the document. Researchers should be aware of such potential problems in documents. Similarly, several ancient accounts of the Christian persecutions under Nero were recorded by later Christian leaders that obviously had no sympathy for the emperor. How accurate an appraisal of Nero can be gleaned from such sources? Procopius had both an official and a secret history of Justinian and Theodora of the Byzantine Empire.
Biased sources should not be discounted but should be paired with other documents that may give a different view of the person or the event. Most all primary accounts are subjective. Even newspaper accounts, particularly before the twentieth century, tend to show bias. In 1876 the New York Times led the charge to rob Samuel Tilden of the Presidency. During the early McKinley years, yellow journalism printed sensational anti-Spanish stories of dubious atrocities in Cuba. Throughout the century, prominent politicians regularly bought newspapers to promote their causes.
Documents as Recollections Long After the Event
In the 1820s and 1830s, American writers attempted to provide the new nation with vibrant stories of a heroic past, embodied in the fervor of the Revolution and followed by the creation of the Republic. Unfortunately, some of the writers and contributors were either very old or dependent on dubious accounts. In this way, a body of national myth entered the historical archives.
Herodotus supposedly once said that, “I write the stories of history, but I don’t necessarily have to believe them.” While documents written about events that long predate the recording have value, their use must be tempered. No original copies of Julius Caesar’s Gaelic Wars exist, yet we accept the book because of subsequent references to its veracity.
During Christian persecutions under Domitian, Christian leaders sent him letters directing him to the official reports of Pontius Pilate archived in Rome, in order to substantiate their claims regarding Jesus and the Resurrection. Those documents are now lost, but the letters referring to them are not. How do they corroborate Pilate’s reports?
Using Original Source or Primary Source Documents
Writers should not be deterred from the use of primary documents as long as certain precautions are met. Original source documents are generally an invaluable research goldmine when used properly. Writers should take into account possible bias and balance accounts with other sources. In some cases, secondary sources may assist in interpretation.