As a Ph.D. candidate, I see myself as an apprentice of history. I take documents and scrape them for data. Then I realize I should have organized that data another way. So, I start over. Then I think I’ve found an argument. I proceed to read yet another book and realize that my argument is baseless. Then I grab more documents. Realize that document collection is not what I needed. Then I start over again. Wash, rinse, repeat. It’s a long process of writing, revising, and learning.
Students and apprentices of all different fields have to practice. However, strangely enough, I tend to find a lot of similarities of “practice” between history Ph.D. students and medical students in their residences. Think about it. We both have to deal with people–even if the majority of ours aren’t alive anymore. Both historians and doctors have to learn how to take the information we’ve been given about an individual and determine whether or not we are being told the whole story. Then we have to take all of those stories, attempt to fill in the holes, and come to a conclusion based on evidence and our understanding of human nature. That takes a lot of skill and a lot of time learning.
However, medical students have to go through a process that historians don’t really often consider–especially those of us who study the 19th century and back. Before a medical student can have their own patients, they must first practice on cadavers. These are normally donated via the original host’s wishes or of their immediate families. That person is there because there was an expressed consent from someone who knew them that they should be there. When they are used to help students better understand medicine, there’s normally a quick lecture about empathy and respect. The person they are essentially “practicing” on was once a parent, child, and/or loved one.
Students of history practice on something that is just as intimate as a human body. Even though it’s pretty rare to come into contact with the figures in our dissertations, we essentially practice on the lives, experiences, and memories of our historical subjects. Between the lines of diaries are tears and laughter. On the pages of census records are remnants of family life. The ink smeared on claims records contain heartbreak, loss, and final ounces of hope. A plantation ledger listing names of slaves are riddled with pain and suffering. Unlike cadavers, the documents history students “practice” their craft on were rarely handed over with consent from the original owner. A Civil War soldier never expected his love letters to his sweetheart to be donated to an archive. Medieval Europeans didn’t expect their personal collections to be used to cushion some student’s argument. A Founding Father never knew for sure his personal diary would be published for mass consumption 100 years after his death. We can all sit and cringe that Martha Washington burned her letters to George shortly after his death, but she knew future historians would use those records. She made it clear that’s not what she wanted.
Students of history are certainly taught to treat our subjects with respect, but a lot of times there can be a disconnect between the people we study and their documents. We forget that these documents aren’t just full of data, but the intimate interactions of a living individual. This disconnect can be a good. The last thing you want to do as an academic is to find yourself overly attached to a research subject. If you become too attached to your research—particularly individuals—you run the risk of losing objectivity because you want audiences to feel that same attachment. Therefore, historians have to balance an interesting fine-line of acknowledging their subject’s humanity yet remaining objective.
As a social historian, I have struggled with this balance. Any historian who deals with claims records as a major part of their research will attest that at times it’s difficult to not be consumed by the emotional stories of loss and suffering. I have spent the last three years of my life examining every single loyalist claim sent from Virginians after the Revolutionary War. While many loyalists have their Cinderella stories, others spent the final years of their lives dying in poor houses. After reading a 30-page claim submission from a widow who lost her husband in the war and was struggling to feed her seven children, it was difficult to not get a little misty-eyed. Even though there are arguments that these claims can be exaggerated in order to receive a maximum reward, the struggle of many of these people is apparent and at times difficult to swallow. Multiply a claim like this widow’s times about 500 and hours spent going one by one you almost have to desensitize yourself. Over these years in order to protect my own emotional well-being and for the objectivity of my research these people have become more like test-subjects and have lost most traces of their humanity in my statistical analysis.
I practice history on the lives of over 2,000 white and black Virginia loyalists. I use their stories and their documents in my research, make novice research mistakes with their memories and build my reputation with the remnants of their lives. Even though saying that I’m exploiting the dead for my career certainly goes too far, in a way I could not do what I do as a social historian without them. My goals for a career, tenure, and books rely completely on their memories and documentation. The body might not be in front of me, but there is still a need to respect my loyalists.
Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting the Loyalist Collections at the University of New Brunswick. I’ve planned my trip to Fredericton, New Brunswick for a long time because this collection held dozens of microfilm reels dedicated to my Virginia loyalists. While examining documents was my academic goal, I also had some personal business to attend to. Only a few blocks away from the university is The Old Burying Ground and the final resting place of the Honorable John Saunders.
John Saunders was born and raised in Princess Anne County, Virginia and is credited with raising the Queen’s Own Loyal Virginia Regiment. He was a larger than life individual who came from a very influential Virginia family. When it comes to loyalists in Virginia, Saunders is probably the Tory with the most name recognition after John Randolph. He fought throughout the war and became a Queen’s Ranger when the QOLVR merged into the unit. He had such a close relationship with John Graves Simcoe that he named his son John Simcoe Saunders. While he was successful and well-known in Virginia, he found more fame in New Brunswick where he became a community hero and beloved judge.
For my research, Saunders encompasses almost all of the major themes I study, which makes him a “jackpot” figure. He was born in Virginia, joins early on in the war, becomes a Queen’s Ranger, and is exiled. He’s my guy! Last Wednesday I was fortunate enough to go through all of John Saunder’s family papers at the UNB and later that day my husband and I took a pilgrimage to thank him. We stopped by a grocery store a few miles away, bought a fresh bouquet of my favorite flowers (blue hydrangeas), and made our way to the Old Burying Ground. We walked through the cemetery recognizing plaques from the War of 1812 and the United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Canada. It was a cold, dreary day and it was perfect. While John could probably care less that we came to pay him a visit, it was important for me as a student of history and a future historian to bring flowers to his grave. Of all of my loyalists, Saunders is one of the figures that I have practiced on the most. For me, it was remembering that he was once a real, breathing person who isn’t just a “character” in my dissertation. He mattered to a lot of people once and going to pay my respects on that cold day was a much-needed reminder that his life wasn’t just a puzzle for me to decipher in a bunch of hand-written letters.
I’ve made a promise to myself that every time I do research around the country and world that I need to go and say thank you at the cemeteries near by. It takes very little effort to remember even though sometimes it’s so easy to forget.