Historical Arguments

Learning Objectives

  • Describe a historical argument


You’ve learned now about some of the major events in early American history, but just because you read about them in a textbook doesn’t mean that you have a complete understanding of the events or how they happened. For example, we didn’t have time in the course to dive into the English Restoration in great detail. We know that the Glorious Revolution describes when Mary, daughter of King James II, and her husband, William of Orange, became the new British monarchs following the ousting of King James II, but the details of what and how that all happened are more nuanced, and some details are open to interpretation. The fact that Mary and William were British monarchs after James II is just that—a fact. It can be confirmed by thousands of various resources and is not open to interpretation. But, the biggest issues of their reign, their effectiveness as leaders, and the consequences of their rule are all things that could be discussed or debated.

When historians collect data and work to interpret the facts that they gather about an event, they create historical arguments. A historical argument related to the Glorious Revolution could be: “William and Mary saved the British monarchy by modeling how to work effectively with Parliament.” This statement could be refuted. Sometimes arguments are based on an opinion or a hypothesis you have about something, and other times, arguments pull various facts together to create a coherent position. For example, another position related to the Glorious Revolution could state: “The Glorious Revolution and the reign of William and Mary weakened the control of the monarchy and led to increased parliamentary power in Great Britain.” With this as the guiding statement, or thesis, we could expect that an essay about this would describe the Bill of Rights of 1689, highlight specific instances showing a weaker monarchy, and explain how Parliament gained more power.

Historical Arguments

Historians work to construct an idea of what happened based upon the facts that they gather about an event. This is called a historical argument. Let’s just clear this up, though: a historical, or academic, “argument” isn’t the same as an argument over what to eat for dinner, or who was heading for a prime parking spot first. An academic argument defends a certain point of view through writing or speech.

A woman yelling at a man in a parking lot.

Figure 1. An academic argument isn’t like an argument over a parking spot.

An argument must take a stance

What distinguishes an argumentative essay from a descriptive essay or “report” is that the argument must take a stance; if you’re merely summarizing “both sides” of an issue or pointing out the “pros and cons,” you’re not really writing an argument. For example, “Stricter gun control laws will likely result in a decrease in gun-related violence” is an argument. “Americans are divided over gun control laws” isn’t an argument yet, because it’s presenting an issue (but not taking a stance). Arguments don’t just have to be about controversial political issues, though: many kinds of writing make arguments without touching on politics at all. For instance, an essay can take a stance by offering a particular interpretation of a song or a movie, or by showing the reader a new way to look at a historical event.

Arguments can have an opinion, but should not be based on opinion

When someone says: “well, that’s just your opinion,” what do they mean? Usually, this phrase implies that the other person doesn’t have a good reason for a particular view. If an argument is all about providing reasons for our views, does that mean we can’t express an opinion through argument? No! In fact, academic arguments usually articulate an opinion. Importantly, though, this opinion is always carefully defended with good reasoning, and often supported by research. If I claim that Michael Jordan was the greatest athlete of all time, but don’t offer any reasons, then that’s just my opinion. If I claim that “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias was a more accomplished athlete than Jordan because she dominated golf, basketball, and track-and-field, while Jordan was only good at basketball and golf, then we’re moving toward an argument. As the example of Zaharias vs. Jordan is supposed to show, the difference between opinion and argument comes down to reasons. If you can give reasons to support your claim, then it’s closer to an argument. But that still doesn’t clarify things entirely. After all, as every parent knows, “because I said so!” is a reason, just not one that can be argued with.

If you can’t disagree with it, it’s not an argument

“I like the Fast and Furious movies” is an opinion, because no one can disagree with it: it wouldn’t make sense to say: “No, you don’t like those movies.” By comparison, here’s an argument: “Although they might seem like mindless action flicks, The Fast and Furious movies actually have a lot to say about changing ideas about family in modern America.” (Of course, you’d then have to give your reasons for this claim). Now your reader could agree or disagree: “Yes, that makes sense to me” or “No, I see it differently.”


Formulating a Valid Argument

Formulating an argument can be a scary thing. Making an assertion that someone else might challenge or criticize is intimidating and you may be tempted to simply argue a point that no one could refute, like “The American Revolution resulted in significant social, political, and economic changes in America.” This is a true statement, but it’s not yet an argument. You could argue about the ways in which social, political, and economic life changed, but the fact that it did change is undisputed.

History is full of different interpretations. One historian might argue that Thomas Jefferson was the most influential of the Founding Fathers and another might argue that it was John Adams. Both historians will be able to back up their arguments with evidence and, to put it simply, neither one is wrong. Much of history is a matter of perspective. What matters is that you are able to formulate an argument and back it up using different perspectives and sources, and also that you are willing to change your argument or your own perspective when presented with evidence that refutes your points.

Try It

ACTIVITY: Make an Argument

Everyone is “opinionated” about some things. What would people say you’re “opinionated” about? Consider something you absolutely love (i.e. Soccer is the best sport, or Farmville is the best game), a restaurant you like to frequent ( _______ has the best pizza in town), or the ways you like to do things (toilet paper should always go roll side on top, or the dishes need to be loaded a particular way in the dishwasher).

There are no correct answers to these responses, but you may jot down your thoughts in the spaces provided below.

1. List three things you have strong opinions about. They can be important or trivial, big or small.

2. Choose one of your three items. Is there a way to turn this opinion into an argument? If you had to convince a friend that your opinion about this thing is “right,” what argument could you use? What reason or reasons could you use to convince your friend? Below the item you’ve chosen, write a list of 3 reasons your opinion is “correct.” Try to find reasons that go beyond taste (“I just like it”) or belief (“that’s just what I believe”).


historical argument: a position that defends a certain historical point of view through writing or speech