Historical Empathy and Emotional Distance

Learning Objectives

  • Maintain an appropriate emotional response to historical sources
  • Use historical empathy to understand the perspective of historical actors

Before we can understand what historical empathy is, it may be helpful to have a clear idea about empathy itself. To begin, watch this short Brené Brown video on empathy.

Watch It

In this video, Brene Brown talks about the definition of empathy and how it really comes down to feeling with other people. This means connecting with someone else, taking their perspective, staying out of judgment, recognizing their emotion, and then communicating that emotion.

You can view the transcript for “Brene Brown on Empathy” here (opens in new window).

Try It

You might note that empathy does not always result in agreeing with someone else or seeing every viewpoint as equally ethical. Rather, it involves the hard work of trying to understand someone’s perspective and reaction to something of importance to them.

Historian Heather L. Bennett discusses the implication for readers of history: “For Brown, empathy requires both a person’s affect [the sensory experience of an emotional response] and intellect. Resonating with another person’s emotion is a form of affect as it involves the listener tapping into a previous experience of the physical and mental sensation of that emotion. Perspective-taking is an intellectual habit in which the listener aims to comprehend what their friend or acquaintance is experiencing.”[1]

In short, empathy is both an emotional practice as well as a vigorous intellectual exercise. One may be tempted, at first glance, to write this off as “being in touch with one’s feelings,” but this is a skill that must be cultivated with practice and care to better understand historical actors.

Try It

Let’s practice historical empathy by reading these historical documents and attempting to understand the perspectives of the authors. Read these three short primary sources, and in just two or three sentences, explain how the writer experiences the issue or situation at hand. What is the author feeling, and why?


First, we have a letter from a woman who was prospecting in the West during the early part of the 1850s during the California Gold Rush.


Secondly, consider this brief letter sent by a woman whose husband and sons were killed by John Brown.


Finally, read a famous speech by Sojourner Truth.

Emotional Distance

As readers of history, one important skill is balancing empathy with the appropriate emotional distance. People who lived in the past are different from us, with different worldviews and values. As the British novelist L.P. Hartley said, “the past is a different country. They do things differently there.” So, while it is useful—even essential—to understand how historical actors saw something, we need to also cultivate a way to avoid clouding their understanding of their world with our understanding of our own. Using some of the primary sources assigned in this module, appreciating this difference is a skill that can be cultivated.

The first exchange pertains to John Brown and the raid on Harpers Ferry. First, let’s review that event.

Try It

Now with this context in mind, read the letter from Margaretta Mason to Lydia Maria Child, and let us try a worked example of empathy checked by emotional distance.

Margaretta Mason and Lydia Maria Child discuss John Brown, 1860

After John Brown was arrested for his raid on Harpers Ferry, Lydia Maria Child wrote to the governor of Virginia requesting to visit Brown. Margaretta Mason of Virginia wrote a searing letter to Child attacking her for supporting a murder. Mrs. Child responded, and the exchange of letters was published by the American Antislavery Society.

Letter from Margaretta Mason to Lydia Maria Child

Do you read your Bible, Mrs. Child? If you do, read there “Wo unto you, hypocrites,” and take to yourself with twofold damnation that terrible sentence; for rest assured, in the day of judgment it shall be more tolerable for those thus scathed by the awful denunciation of the Son of God than for you. You would sooth with sisterly and motherly care the hoary-headed murder of Harpers Ferry! A man whose aim and intention was to incite the horrors of a servile war—to condemn women of your own race, ere death closed there eyes on their sufferings from violence and outrage, to see their husbands and fathers murdered, their children butchered, the ground strewed with the brains of their babes. The antecedents of Brown’s band prove them to have been the offspring of the earth; and what would have been our fate had they found as many sympathizers in Virginia as they seem to have in Massachusetts…

Try It

Next, read Lydia Maria Child’s reply.

Margaretta Mason and Lydia Maria Child discuss John Brown, 1860

Reply from Lydia Maria Child

Prolonged absence from home has prevented my answering your letter so soon as I intended. I have no disposition to retort upon you the “twofold damnation” to which you consign me. On the contrary, I sincerely wish you well, both in this world and the next. If the anathema proved a safety valve to your own boiling spirit, it did some good to you, while it fell harmless upon me. Fortunately for all of us, the Heavenly Father rules His universe by laws, which the passions or the prejudices of mortals have no power to change.

As for John Brown, his reputation may be safely trusted to the impartial pen of History; and his motives will be righteously judged by Him who knoweth the secrets of all hearts. Men, however great they may be, are of small consequence in comparison with principles; and the principle for which John Brown died is the question at issue between us.

You refer me to the Bible, from which you quote the favorite text of slaveholders: “Servants be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the forward.” 1 Peter 2:18.

Abolitionists also have favorite texts, to some of which I would call your attention. “Remember those that are in bonds, as bound with them.” Hebrews 13:3….

If the appropriateness of these texts is not apparent, I will try to make it so, by evidence drawn entirely from Southern sources. The Abolitionists are not such an ignorant set of fanatics as you suppose. They know whereof they affirm. They are familiar with the laws of the slave states, which are along sufficient to inspire abhorrence in any humane heart or reflecting mind not perverted by the prejudices of education and custom. I might fill many letters with significant extracts from your statute books; but I have space only to glance at a few, which indicate the leading features of this system you cherish so tenaciously.

The universal rule of the slave states is that “the child follows the condition of its mother.” This is an index to many things. Marriages between White and colored people are forbidden by law; yet a very large number of the slaves are brown or yellow…

Throughout the slave states, the testimony of no colored person, bond or free, can be received against a White man. You have some laws which, on the face of them, would seem to restrain inhuman men from murdering or mutilating slaves; by they are rendered nearly null by the law I have cited. Any drunken master, overseer, or patrol, may go into the negro cabin and commit whatever outrage he pleases with perfect impunity, if no White person is present who chooses to witness against him….

Correspondence between Lydia Maria Child and Gov. Wise and Mrs. Mason, of Virginia (Boston: 1860), 16, 18-20.

Try It

It is important to acknowledge these reactions, but your historical inquiry should not end there. The next place to proceed is to look at oneself as a historical interpreter; we are bound to our worldview, our values, and our circumstances as people in the past were bound to theirs.


Now that you’ve seen these examples, try it out for yourself. Read the Letter from Anthony Burns to the Baptist Church and weigh in on your emotional reaction to its contents. Write a few sentences expressing how you feel and react to the letter. This is an open-ended exercise, but you can use the space below to jot down your ideas.

Considering Other’s Viewpoints

An important part of developing historical empathy is to try to see the world in a way that the historical actors might have seen it. For this next activity, we need to get inside the heads of our subjects and, at least for the moment, consider their perspective in a judgment-free way. To do this, there are some questions that we might ask of the text:

  1. Are there things we can infer about their perspective from their background?
  2. What immediate circumstances surrounded the person who wrote this?
  3. What are been some ideas, assumptions, or beliefs that the writer may have held?
  4. What information or ideas did this person have access to, and what information was unavailable to them?
  5. Given all this, how might this historical actor have felt at this moment in time?

All of this can help you develop the writer’s point of view or perspective. For our worked example, let us return to Margaretta Mason. Can we develop her point of view with respect to the aftermath of John Brown’s raid?

Try It

Answer the following questions with regard to Margaretta Mason.


Now, let’s try this activity again, using the Letter from Anthony Burns to the Baptist Church. This is an open-ended exercise, but you can use the spaces below to jot down your ideas.

1. Asking similar questions of Anthony Burns based on his own letter, what was Anthony Burns’ point of view? Consider the five questions above and write a few sentences about his background and circumstances.

2. Using the skills you have learned in this Historical Hack, can you similarly determine the point of view of the churchmen that Anthony Burns writes about?

3. Having worked on establishing the point of view of these churchmen, does your emotional reaction to the piece change? Why or why not?

Remember, showing historical empathy and maintaining a respectful emotional distance does not mean you have to agree with the things people did or the opinions they held! For example, one can certainly understand and articulate the perspective of an enslaver without condoning or excusing the moral evils of slavery, or viewing White planters’ and enslaved Black persons’ perspectives as equally valid. Empathizing is not the same thing as excusing. At the same time, it is perfectly okay to acknowledge your own emotional reactions to events from the past. It is normal to feel angry, sad, hurt, or mad about past events or historical figures. When we have historical empathy, we are just careful that these initial emotional reactions don’t cloud our full judgment or keep us from discovering a more complete and nuanced understanding of the past.

  1. Bennett, Heather L. “Hashtag History: Historical Thinking & Social Media in an Undergraduate Classroom in Singapore.” Ph.D., Drew University, 2019. dissertation.heatherlbennett.com