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The Professional HistorianPosted Wednesday, June 22, 2011, at 2:20 PM
There has been a lot of talk over the past week on this website about history. I started the conversation and it evolved (or devolved according to your definition from there). There are a lot of armchair historians in today's society. What I mean by armchair historian is a person who knows their history but has never studied it. A person who knows their history but adds their own personal or political ideology to that history.
The armchair historian has permeated our culture at great cost to the professional historian.
What is a professional historian, you may ask? A professional historian is someone who has gone to school specifically for history. This person typically either has a master's or a doctorate degree. In other words, they make their living by studying history.
The difference between the two historians is that the armchair historian can and will interpret history any which way they see fit, whether or not the history is factual. They do not (in their minds) need facts to back up their claims. Often times they will take an obscure quote or an obscure piece of information and claim that is all they need for proof. They will often demand that other people prove them wrong. The problem here is that because what they claim is fact does not have any actual historical backing it is impossible to prove them wrong. Unfortunately they know this and they often use this to their advantage.
An example that has gotten a lot of attention on this website was the ride of Paul Revere, what it meant, and what his intentions were.
Many people have taken what he said to the British (or the Regulars as the Colonists referred to them at the time):
"I observed a Wood at a Small distance, & made for that. When I got there, out Started Six officers, on Horse back, and orderd me to dismount;-one of them, who appeared to have the command, examined me, where I came from, & what my Name Was? I told him. it was Revere, he asked if it was Paul? I told him yes He asked me if I was an express? I answered in the afirmative. He demanded what time I left Boston? I told him; and aded, that their troops had catched aground in passing the River, and that There would be five hundred Americans there in a short time, for I had alarmed the Country all the way up."
The armchair historian will claim that this quote is all the proof they need that Paul Revere was warning the Regulars that they would not be able to take the Colonists arms away from them. Unfortunately there is no proof of this what-so-ever. Revere made no mention of a protection of weapons when he was captured or at any other time in his life. The burden of proof is always on the person that makes a claim, especially when it comes to a new way of looking at historical events. The burden does not fall on a person or persons refuting that claim.
However, if a person or persons is refuting a fact that has been verified then it is their burden to prove why they are questioning a fact.
Another difference between the armchair historian and the professional historian goes back to facts. The armchair historian will often make up their own facts and claim them as such. The professional historian needs verifiable information from a number of sources before they will accept a new idea as fact.
As I have stated previously there are two versions of changing history. One is history revision, when a new group of historians look at past events and find a new meaning for what happened. They have not reinvented history have just looked at it differently. One example is the Cold War. There are actually several different key changes when looking at the Cold War but let us just stick with the Cold War itself. There is the original history, which was being written in the 50s and 60s that painted the Soviet Union as the aggressor and the United States as the country that was trying to push back. Then in the late 60s through much of the 70s we came across the revisionist history which completely reversed the thinking. The historians were looking at the exact same information but were coming up with different theories for the Cold War. Starting in the 80s and continuing to today we are in the post-revisionist history. This history has looked more at both countries being the aggressors and how they affected what was commonly known as third world countries.
The armchair historian on the other hand seems to not be concerned with any facts or what actually happened. They come up with their own stories to fit their personal and/or political ideologies. The most common concerning Paul Revere is that often repeated, but long debunked idea that he rode through the country side shooting guns, ringing bells, and shouting "The British are coming".
He actually did none of this. His ride was a very covert ride to warn the leaders of the Colonists what was happening. He stopped at Lexington and warned the collected leaders there (Samuel Adams and John Hancock specifically) that the "Regulars were coming". The reason he did not say the British is simple enough. At this time they still considered themselves to be British subjects.
The purpose of the march to Lexington and Concord was two-fold, not singular as the armchair historian believes and/or wants others to believe. The march was to destroy the munitions of the Colonists (with as little harm to citizens as possible with not looting) but they were to also arrest the Colonists leaders.
The idea that the entire Revolutionary War was solely about guns (or at least the start of the war) is jumping the shark and highly ignorant of history. This is not to say that holding their munitions was not a cause, but it was not the only cause and certainly not the main cause. Was it a final straw? Perhaps, but even on that fateful night, when the colonists were ordered to lower their weapons and retreat they had started to do so, until someone (whether that person was in the militia, the Regular army, or someone in hiding will probably never be known) fired a shot and both armies began firing on each other.
At the end of the day armchair historians and what they say about history should be taken with a very minute grain of salt. Most of what they say is, in fact, unverifiable.
"For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don't believe, no proof is possible." - Stuart Chase
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