In 1,000 words, write a comparative essay discussing how two history books written by different authors can fit within historiographical categories. Define these categories, discuss any overlaps and uncertainties and reflect on what we can learn from locating books in their historiographical context.

This is a draft version of a recent essay. I have no idea where the completed one is… Probably lost in the university computer system. This is an unedited version, therefore, and may be a little waffley or mistake-ridden.

History is a vast subject, spanning thousands of years of wars and conflicts, the lives of billions of citizens and rulers and hundreds of countries and colonies. Therefore, there exist many different ways in which History can be studied ranging from the study of history by statistics to the analysis of changing gender roles and the evolution of religious histories. The subject is so diverse and all-encompassing that by taking two authors discussing similar time periods in similar geographical areas, we can uncover two entirely different historical truths. To understand the method of the historian, it is essential that one comprehends and identifies which historiographical categories an author defines their work by and, in doing this, one can begin to appreciate historical truth.

Through the lens of a more traditional frame of historical study, From Colony to Superpower describes and analyses the path that the United States followed through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through the eyes of the presidents, governments and foreign powers of the time. In a comprehensive account of America’s rise to world superpower, George Herring documents economic and military statistics and legislation that drove the United States’ foreign policy and diplomacy. This type of political and military history account is well suited to the empirical and quantitative history style made use of by Herring. Contrastingly, Kidada Williams’ book, They Left Great Marks on Me, follows the history of African Americans post-slavery, focussing on print culture and oral testimonies to uncover the legacy of racial violence. Whilst covering a very similar period to Herring, William’s account of race studies offers a very different perspective on the history of the United States allowing the reader a greater insight into popular imagination and collective thought.

With chapters entitled ‘Depression Isolationism and War 1931 – 1941’ and ‘The United States in World Affairs’ it is evident that, along with elements of military and international history, Herring’s account of the United States is largely an ambitious account of traditional politics.[1] J.R. Seeley best describes the concept of traditional political history when he proposed in 1883 that any divorce between History and Politics was simply unnatural since the greatest use of History is that it can and should be used to establish and understanding of the present and to form predictions of the future.[2] Traditional political history, therefore, developed primarily as a means to educate and advise the future rulers of nations and empires, such as described by Steven Fielding.[3] Consequently, this style of history often focusses on sweeping histories of military tactics, government legislation and foreign policy in the manner of empiricist and quantitative histories; this is evidenced in Herring’s work.

Holding origins in the ‘scientific revolution’ beginning in the sixteenth century, empiricism in historical approach encourages methodical archival exploration and heavy reliance on facts to uncover historical truth.[4] Herring frequently uses data and statistics to emphasise and substantiate his arguments, such as demonstrating the development of entangling alliances between the United States and Britain at the precipice of the First World War by offering that the United States’ government extended over $80,000,000 credit to the Allies within a period of six months. This is typical of empirical histories and, also, quantitative histories. In an extension of empirical methodology, quantitative history is a study focussed and reliant upon numerical data.[5] This style of historical research encourages the historian to explore a vast array of data through primary sources, which may be presented as providing a more historically accurate version of the ‘truth’. However, such methods can be criticised for unreliability and inaccuracy in the records or an attempt to, intentionally or not, misrepresent statistical data.[6]

They Left Great Marks on Me is written in a very different manner. Whilst Williams’ book features elements of political history, it holds more closely to what Fielding explains should be referred to as ‘new’ political history; this being the development of the field of social history which ‘stressed the importance of popular experience and highlighted the oppressed groups’ struggles against the ruling elite’.[7] In this case, oppressed sufferers of racially-motivated violence, African Americans, are given the opportunity to form a personal and social account of the history of the United States. This is a clear step away from the traditional political history promoted by Seeley, demonstrating a transformation and development within the discipline.

Featuring many narratives of individual occurrences of racial violence, such as an account of the Barnwell Massacre of December 1889, Williams’ work, unlike that of many other race studies scholars, inherently avoids concentration on leaders of the Civil Rights Movement or those holding high positions in government.[8] This enables her to focus on the average black citizen, a valuable attribute of a piece that puts oral testimonies at its heart; testimonies from civilians are often rare, however, they are significantly valuable to studies since these are more likely to be delivered lacking political bias or any form of agenda. They will also enable us to discover the ‘truth’ in terms of popular imagination and collective memory. This methodology is common in social histories. Commonly known as ‘history from below’, Donnelly and Norton, illuminate the fact that this type of history developed as a response to the criticism of traditional histories that the source base was too narrow and often excluded the social context of historical development.[9]

It is certainly of great utility for readers of history to be able to place books within their historical context. Westhoff asserts that ‘we cannot fully articulate research questions or contextualise primary sources without referring to our historiographical knowledge’.[10] Westhoff continues, arguing that without knowledge of where a work fits within a ‘map’ of existing scholarship, it is impossible to fully comprehend its complexity or importance within that history.[11] Additionally, Michael Bentley purports that the ability to place works into their historiographical context has ‘produced instances of deep structural enquiry’ whereby by History has been able to progress and develop by consistently questioning and refining itself.[12] In doing this, we not only can gain a greater understanding of a topic and its historiography, but we also gain the ability to perform critical analysis and provide a new perspective on old works.

To conclude, in order to fully comprehend history, it is essential that one must first understand historiography. By gaining the ability to locate books in their historiographical context, we are able to understand how and why authors come to different conclusions and we learn how to progress and develop these conclusions. Despite both reporting the history of the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Williams and Herring offer two entirely different yet equally useful perspectives on the past. Herring offers a traditional political history of the United States’ presidents and foreign policy in an empirical and quantitative style, which proves greatly useful in terms of providing an ambitious sweeping account of the United States’ relationships with great powers in this period illustrated through the use of statistical data. On the other hand, Williams provides a fascinating ‘people’s history’ of African Americans in the same period, which valuably emphasises oral testimonies as sources to enable her account of the period to emphasise the social context of historical development.

[1] G. C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p.337.

Ibid. p.484.

[2] J. R. Seeley, The Expansion of England: Two Courses of Lectures, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp.166-168.

[3] S. Fielding, ‘Political History’, Making History, <; [accessed 1st December 2014].

[4] A. Green and K. Troup, The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), pp.1-3.

[5] Ibid, pp.141-148.

[6] Ibid.

[7] S. Fielding, ‘Political History’, Making History, <; [accessed 1st December 2014].

[8] K. E. Williams, They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I, (New York: New York University Press, 2012), pp. 101-103.

[9] M. Donnelly and C. Norton, Doing History, (Oxon: Routledge, 2011), pp.40-41.

[10] L. M. Westhoff, ‘Historiographic Mapping: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the Methods Course’, Journal or American History, 98.4 (2012), pp.1114-1126.

[11] Ibid.

[12] M. Bentley, Modern Historiography: An Introduction, (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp.v-vii.

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