World History 2 8 - 1.2.2 Documentary Sources: Competing Narratives

Textual, or written, primary sources are considered the best possible resource for historians. They tend to offer both far more context and far more information than other types of sources, and sometimes clues about the writer’s intent. But even they must be approached with method and scrutiny. We must evaluate the author, audience, intent, and context in order to accurately interpret a primary source document. Some questions you might ask about the author include the following: Who wrote the piece and what is their background? What was important to the author? Why might the author have written what they did? In some cases, the answers will be fairly obvious. In others, a deeper inspection might reveal hidden motives.

You must also take into account the planned audience for a document: For whom was it written? Was it meant to be public or private? Is it a letter to a friend or an essay submitted for publication? For a modern example, is it a text to a friend or to a mother? Texts will one day be a source for historians to use, but knowing who sent them, and to whom, will be essential to interpreting them correctly. (For fun, search online using the term “misinterpreted texts.”)

In addition to considering the audience, you should think about the intent: Why was the document written? Was it intended to be a factual account of an event? Was it meant to persuade? Is it a complete falsification? Often people write things that present them in the best light rather than reveal weaknesses.

Finally, you should reflect on the circumstances of the document’s creation. Some questions you may want to ask include the following: What is the general time period of the document, and what was that time like? What was happening when the individual wrote the document? Was there any sort of intimidation or distress? Is it a time of war or peace? Is there religious conflict? Is there an economic crisis? A health crisis? A natural disaster? Could the writer have been fending off an attack or lobbying for one? Are we missing other perspectives or voices we would like to hear?

The answers to these questions will shape your interpretation of the primary source and bring you closer to its true meaning. Most text-based sources have meanings beyond the obvious, and it is the historian’s job to uncover these. Be sure to keep these questions in mind throughout this course and whenever you undertake historical research or are considering the accuracy of information you encounter (Figure 1.8).

This is a chart composed of four sections. The section at the top is labeled “Author” and includes the questions “What is the author’s background?” and “What motivated the author to produce the source?” The second section is labeled “Audience” and includes the questions “For whom was it written?” and “Was it meant to be public or private?” The third section is labeled “Intent” and includes the questions “Why was the document written?” and “Was it intended to be a factual account of an event?” and “Was it meant to persuade?” The fourth section is labeled “Context” and includes the questions “What was happening when the individual wrote the document?” and “Was there any sort of intimidation or distress?”
Figure 1.8 These key questions to ask about primary sources help us evaluate the author, audience, intent, and context. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

To gain experience using these questions, consider the two accounts in Child Labor in Great Britain, both recorded in the Hansard, the official report of debates in Parliament and dealing with the same subject from different perspectives. According to the first account, which is recorded as a direct speech delivered to Britain’s House of Commons (one of the two chambers of Parliament) on March 16, 1832, by reformer Michael Sadler, children who worked in textile factories suffered terribly. The second account, which is a reporting of the speech delivered to the House of Commons by one of Sadler’s opponents, John Thomas Hope, argues that child labor is not necessarily a bad thing. What should historians do with such competing texts? How do they decide what each one adds to the true story of child labor in the Industrial Revolution? If you were to read only one of these accounts, what important information or point of view would you miss? As you read, keep these questions in mind.

Dueling Voices

Child Labor in Great Britain

In the 1830s and 1840s, Great Britain was rapidly industrializing, and workers including children were laboring in factories and mines. Many British people pressed Parliament to limit child workers’ time to no more than ten hours per day. In the first excerpt below, reformer Michael Sadler urged the House of Commons to regulate children’s labor. In the second, one of Sadler’s opponents, John Thomas Hope, argues that child labor in textile factories should not be regulated.

The parents who surrender their children to this infantile slavery may be separated into two classes. The first of these, and, I trust, by far the most numerous, consists of those who are obliged, by extreme indigence, so to act, but who do so with great reluctance and with bitter regret: themselves, perhaps, out of employment, or working at very low wages, and their families, therefore, in a state of great destitution, what can they do? The Overseer, as is in evidence, refuses relief if they have children capable of working in factories whom they refuse to send there. They choose, therefore, what they deem, perhaps, the lesser evil, and reluctantly resign their offspring to the captivity and the pollution of the mill: they rouse them in the winter morning, which, as the poor father says before the Lords' Committee, they "feel very sorry" to do—they receive them fatigued and exhausted, many a weary hour after the day has closed—they see them droop and sicken, and, in many cases, become cripples and die, before they reach their prime: and they do all this, because they must otherwise suffer unrelieved, and starve.

—Michael Sadler, speech to the House of Commons, March 16, 1832, as recorded in the Hansard

[Mr. John T. Hope] doubted, in the first place, whether a case of necessity for parliamentary interference was fairly made out. . . . It was obvious, that if they limited the hours of labour, they would, to nearly the same extent, reduce the profits of the capital on which the labour was employed. Under these circumstances, the manufacturers must either raise the price of the manufactured article, or diminish the wages of their workmen. If they increased the price of the article, the foreigner would enter into competition with them. . . . [Hope] was informed that the foreign cotton manufacturers, and particularly the Americans, trod closely upon the heels of our manufacturers. If the latter were obliged to raise the price of their articles, the foreign markets would in a great measure be closed against them, and the increased price would also decrease the demand in the home market. To avoid these ruinous consequences the manufacturers would, in all cases where it was possible to dispense with their labour, cease to employ children at all, and employ a greater number of adults than before. [Michael Sadler] seemed to consider this an advantageous course; but [Hope] could not concur with that opinion, because the labour of children was a great resource to their parents and a great benefit to themselves. . . . It was, therefore, on these grounds, because, he doubted in the first place, whether Parliament could protect children as effectually as their parents; secondly, that he did not think a case for parliamentary interference had been made out; and thirdly, because he believed, the Bill would be productive of great inconvenience, not only to persons who had embarked large capital in the cotton manufacture, but even to workmen and children themselves, that he should feel it his duty to oppose the measure.

—John Thomas Hope, speech to the House of Commons, March 16, 1832, as recorded in the Hansard

  • According to Michael Sadler, why is it wrong to employ children in textile factories? How does he use language to convey to the other members of Parliament the difficult conditions of factory labor?
  • What arguments does John Thomas Hope use to oppose limiting the number of hours children can work? How does he try to persuade other members of Parliament to support his position?
  • Why may the reporter have chosen to present Hope’s speech in the third person instead of in the first person, as he did for Sadler’s? Does this make Hope’s speech a less reliable source for a historian to rely upon for evidence?
  • Records of parliamentary debate were available to the public to read. In what way might this have influenced what these politicians said and how they framed their arguments?
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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax