In this lesson, we will examine the difference between fact and opinion in historical narratives. We will identify examples of each, and we will see how both have a place in historical narratives.
Understanding Fact and Opinion
Hang on tight because we’re going to be digging into some pretty deep stuff here today!At first glance, this topic would appear pretty basic and elementary, but you know how sometimes the more you discuss something, the more complex it becomes? Yep, that is what is going to take place as we discuss this topic. We’re going to look at the difference between fact and opinion in historical narratives.Hopefully, most of us have some basic sense of the difference between fact and opinion. A fact is something that is unchanging and can be objectively verified. For example, ‘the earth revolves around the sun’ is a fact. Other facts would include:
- Human beings walk on two legs.
- A square is composed of four sides.
- 5 + 2 = 7
An opinion is subjective, and is one person’s particular view. Examples of opinion include:
- Pizza is the most delicious food.
- Barack Obama is a fantastic president.
- Cats are annoying.
Some people may not realize it, but the discipline of history contains both fact and opinion. Before we get to the opinion part, let’s discuss historical fact first.Obviously history should be factual. That is what history is: the factual account of past events.
For example, we know for certain George Washington was from Virginia. We know for a fact the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. These historical facts are indisputable. They can be verified. So how are historical facts verified? Well, in the case of George Washington, there is documentation to prove he was from Virginia. You know, legal documents, like birth certificates, marriage licenses, land deeds, etc.
You can also go in person to his house, Mount Vernon, to see with your own eyes, where he lived. People who were alive at the same time as Washington also verified this in their writings. Historical evidence proves this.
Historical evidence usually exists in the form of primary sources. Primary sources consist of documents, objects, and other physical pieces of historical evidence that were created during the time being examined. Examples of primary sources would include:
- A sword from the Middle Ages
- The original Declaration of Independence
- Film footage from World War II
- A propaganda poster from the 1920s
- An original pamphlet explaining the purpose of the American Revolution
Hopefully, you get the idea.
Primary sources differ from secondary sources. Secondary sources contain information based on research, but not from firsthand knowledge. So if a professor wrote about Napoleon, this would be a secondary source.Let’s go back to the Berlin Wall. It came down in 1989. This is a historical fact.
How do we know? We have primary sources. We have people who were actually there who can verify this fact and tell us all about it. We have photographs and film footage of the event. We can even see pieces of the wall on display.The bottom line here is this: historical fact is objective and can be verified.
Most of what we consider ‘history’ is based on fact, and rightly so. Historical facts include:
- The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand led to World War I.
- The Union won the Civil War.
- ‘Flappers’ were common during the 1920s.
- Harry Truman won the election of 1948.
So where does historical opinion come in? Here is where it gets very tricky. Sometimes historical fact can only tell us so much, and historians find it necessary to develop opinions to fill in the gaps. Usually, these opinions answer questions of ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ For example, how did feminism affect the ‘flappers’ of the 1920s? The opinions developed by historians are probably more correctly called interpretations. Now pay attention here! Interpretations are based on fact but are not fact themselves. Examples of historical interpretations include:
- The rebellion and anti-establishment character of the late 1960s stemmed from national despair brought about by the assassination of John F.
- Adolf Hitler rose to power, not because of his political skill, but solely because of the political climate in Weimar Germany.
- The American Revolution was fueled primarily by economic factors rather than the spirit of Republicanism.
Textbooks are typically very factual, but many history books (for example, a book about the California Gold Rush) tend to incorporate varying degrees of opinion. In fact, many historians try very purposefully to make a name for themselves by proposing a unique (or ‘brilliant’) interpretation.
When reading history, its very important to always ask yourself if the statement is a fact or an opinion, and whether or not the statement can be objectively verified or not. If you hear an author state: ‘Thomas Jefferson was the best president in American history,’ it is pretty obvious this is an opinion. However, sometimes opinions in historical narratives are more subtle.This requires the reader to think very critically to ascertain whether the statement is a historical fact or an interpretation.
Sometimes a historical interpretation becomes fact. If enough evidence is found to support a particular interpretation, it is incorporated as a fact. New historical facts are uncovered all the time thanks to the work of scholars.
History contains both fact and opinion. Facts are unchanging and can be verified.
Many historical facts are verified by primary sources. Primary sources consist of documents and other types of physical items that were created during the time being studied. This is in contrast to secondary sources, which are accounts written by someone without firsthand knowledge.
Opinions, of course, are subjective. In the discipline of history, we call opinions about the past interpretations. Interpretations often answer questions like ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ Readers must be careful to discern between fact and interpretation by questioning whether the statement can be objectively verified.