Understanding Historical Actors

Learning Objectives

  • Examine the motives and actions of historical actors by thinking critically about their experiences and the context in which they lived
  • Lessen the use of presentism in historical research and writing

Understanding Historical Actors

By now you should recognize that understanding history is not quite as easy as it seems. Taking context into account, understanding older language, and interpreting primary sources or historical events for what they are rather than what you want them to be can be very complex and difficult. Interpreting events and people correctly and being able to maintain distance so that they are not distorting things based on their own prejudices is why historians have to train and study for years.

There’s another category that can be fraught when trying to interpret history—historical actors. Historical actors are most often people, but sometimes they are organizations (including governments), ideas (like democracy), or demographic groups (such as women). It’s much harder than you might think to put yourself in another’s shoes, especially when they lived in a different time. Deciding what you are going to look at changes the way you see history. Likewise, taking context and the time period into account changes the way you see history.

This historical hack will deepen your ability to step out of your own time and see historical actors in the context of their own time. This hack will mostly focus on people, but keep in mind that it could also include institutions and groups.

The Importance of Historical Context

When we consider historical analysis, we are looking at placing things in their appropriate context, connecting them with ideas before and after, or related events. This can lead to a deeper understanding of why things happened the way they did, and why historical figures may have acted the way they did.

Think of the past as a foreign country you’ve never been to. How much can you actually know about that country? You may know what its capital is, and what the major cities are. Thanks to the internet, you may know what it looks like. But do you know what it’s like to walk down the streets of that country? Do you know what it’s like to be an average citizen in that country, especially if it is very different from your own? Do you know what their challenges are? Or why they think the way they do?

The answer to most of these questions is probably no, you don’t know what it’s like. And of course, you can visit a foreign country and have all of these questions answered, but you can’t visit the past. That’s why research, curiosity, and an open mind are so important. People within our own time think very differently from one another, so why wouldn’t we think that was true of the past?

This is why historians look at context, and as much as possible, try to look at the social, cultural, intellectual, and emotional setting of people’s lives and actions. They may not always be able to glean all of these things from the sources they have, so they must be careful, but they can draw some conclusions.

Without context, we are in danger of presentism. Presentism is an uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts. Consider if Thomas Jefferson were called sexist because the Declaration of Independence states that all MEN are created equal. Certainly, if we thought Jefferson literally meant men rather than using it as a generic term for all people, under today’s standards we would consider him sexist. But was Jefferson sexist in the context of his own time? Or was he simply stating what to him was a fact? We need to understand the context of Jefferson’s life and writings in their time rather than falling into the trap of presentism.

In the same vein, we can sometimes be critical of those in the past who didn’t speak up against what we view as atrocities. Protesting today in the United States is relatively easy, or at least comparatively simpler than it was decades or centuries ago. There is no systematic apparatus of the state that is there to harm you if you choose to protest something. Posting an opinion on social media does not take any real time or money and very often does not have any real negative consequences. There is such a wide variety of opinions out there that you can easily find those who agree with you.

In other words, we live in a world where it is pretty easy to stand up in ways that don’t actually hurt us or require a great deal of personal sacrifice (although this may not always be the case, and standing up for what is right can certainly still be difficult!). It is easy to forget that when we are critical of those in the past who didn’t stand up for something, we may not have enough knowledge of the things that were stopping them. Part of the purpose of this lesson is to understand the constraints historical actors were often acting within.

Aside from obvious things like time period and place, there are some areas that can help us understand historical figures better. They are:

  1. Social: Who did the figure associate with? Were they extroverted and gregarious, or introverted and reserved? Were they born into money, or did they struggle financially?
  2. Cultural: What kind of culture did they live in? Was it one open to new ideas, or was it very strictly controlled? What kinds of opportunities did they have because of their identity?
  3. Intellectual: How much education were they able to obtain? What kind of education was it? Did they do well?
  4. Emotional: What hardships did the figure experience? How would this have helped shape who they became?

Considering all of these areas can help us form a better idea of who the historical figures were and what motivated them. The tasks in this hack will help you consider different aspects of historical actors’ lives by looking at what we can conclude when we examine their lives more carefully.

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Now, unless you’re a psychologist who has studied Lincoln’s writings, you may not be able to make a conclusion about what he felt about his lack of formal education, but what you can say is that he was not given the advantages other prominent men of his time had. However, he overcame his disadvantages by working hard and studying on his own. So now we know something more about Abraham Lincoln. He was a hard worker. We understand him a bit better.

Duties of a Christian Woman

Now let’s try to understand what life might have been like for a White Christian woman living in the South in 1851, based on the Sermon on the Duties of a Christian Woman, 1851, shown below.

Sermon on the Duties of a Christian Woman

In this sermon, Rev. Aldert Smedes of Raleigh, North Carolina, praises the virtues of women and explains the duties of a Christian woman.

I purpose, then, to consider the duties and responsibilities of a woman,–thus showing, not only what she can do, but what she must do, if she would be entitled to the commendation, “She hath done what she could.”

…The young man is very early apprenticed to the business or profession he is to pursue for a maintenance; and the studies or labors exacted by this preparation, he finds wholesome and constant occupation. But how often has the young woman many hours of every day at her command–hours not seldom lost through indolence, frittered away in dress, and vanity or gossip, or, worse than all, consumed in the perusal of works of fiction, generally of a light and enervating, sometimes even of a corrupt and debasing character.

How much in these hours might one, seriously disposed to do what she could, accomplish for her own mental improvement by such reading and studies, as will fit her, not only to sustain well her part in general society, but to discharge, with grace and intelligence, the engrossing duties of her after life, which leave so little time for the pursuits of taste and literature…

One of the first conditions of the married state is, that the desire of the wife shall be to her husband, and that he shall rule over her? “Wives,” says St. Peter, “be in subjection to your own husbands, even as Sarah obeyed Abraham calling him Lord.” “The Husband,” says St. Paul, “is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church.” How important then, nay how imperative, is it, that, in taking the step which links her “for better, for worse, till death do them part,” to one who is henceforward to be “the disposer of her destiny,” she should be influenced more by a regard to the moral and intellectual qualities, which, in her guide and head, she can honor and reverence, than to his possession of personal attractions, or incidental advantages, however great and desirable….

And here, it seems to me is indicated the most important duty of the Christian wife. From natural temperament, and the circumstances of her daily life, she is more sensitive than her husband to the appeals of religion, and less exposed to the dangers and temptations of the world. While, then, it should be her endeavor to render the home of her husband a place of rest from the toils of business–of comforts amid the disappointments of life–of cheerful recreation amid its cares–it should be especially her effort to make it the residence of purity and piety. Against anger, clamor, wrath, bitterness, evil-speaking, murmurs discontent, reproaches, and complainings, the door should be effectually shut; while for meekness gentleness, resignation, forbearance, hope, peace and joy, there should be an abundant entrance, and a perpetual welcome!

In this way, may the Christian wife often become the minister to her husband’s salvation. She may be to him, at all times, a preacher of righteousness, improving every event of sorrow or of joy, into some delightful lesson of Christian patience, or gratitude, or moderation. Not that she will seize every opportunity of inculcating in language the truths and precepts of the gospel, or ever obtrude in an offensive manner her remonstrances and appeals. The preaching of the wife to be effectual, and “to win the husband,” must be simply her faithful exhibition in all her conduct of the beauty and heavenly influence of religion. It should appear in her subjection to her husbands authority, in her affectionate attachment to him, and her evident wish to make him happy. It should be seen in the cheerful discharge of her domestic duties, in her maternal solicitude, especially for the spiritual welfare of her offspring; in her mild and Christian, but watchful and careful control of her household, consulting by a wise economy the interests of her husband, and by a just distribution the comfort and happiness of her dependents and servants; in her forbearance towards the involuntary faults of the latter, her pains and patience in teaching them their duties, and the anxiety she manifests for their moral and religious improvement; in her performance of the gentle offices of charity towards her neighbors; in her assiduous endeavors to avail herself of all the public services of the sanctuary; in her evident, though unobtrusive attention to the private and most sacred duties of religion, and in the sacrifices she is willing to make of personal or domestic display, that she may have to give, and may enable and persuade her husband to give bountifully of his means, towards the labors of Christian benevolence, and especially towards the extension of the Redeemer’s Kingdom.

It is well known, that many, who in their matrimonial arrangements have thought only for their present happiness, have thus found in their believing wives the ministers to their everlasting bliss. What responsibility is thus thrown upon the Christian woman? If she does what she can in this most interesting relation, she may be the light, the joy, the salvation, of her husband and household; but if she is recreant to her obligations—if the wife is a deserter of her faith and its duties, the last hope, I had almost said, of husband and family, is gone forever!

Aldert Smedes, “She Hath Done What She Could:” A Sermon (Raleigh: 1851), 3, 5, 8-11.


What were the expectations for what a Christian Woman in 1851 should do and be? List as many as you can find, and try to list at least one for each of the following dimensions: social, cultural, intellectual, and emotional. This is an open-ended exercise with many potential answers, but you can use the space below to jot down your ideas.

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As this document demonstrates, women had rigid societal roles and expectations during the middle of the 19th century that often made speaking out a risky move. Despite this, many brave women did just that. Black women like Maria W. Stewart, Mary Prince, Sarah Mapp Douglass, Sarah Parker Redmond, Ellen Craft, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and the Forten women all spoke out against slavery, often against incredible odds.[1] White women such as Lucretia Mott, the Grimké sisters, Mary Ann M’Clintock, and others also used their position to speak out against slavery. Consider this passage about Harriet Tubman and the risks she took in her role as an escaped enslaved woman and conductor on the Underground Railroad:

Harriet Tubman decided to help others run away because she believed their freedom was more important than her own safety and that it was her responsibility to help those who could not rescue themselves. During the eight years before the Civil War, she traveled to the South about 12 times to lead to freedom approximately 70 of her family and friends who were slaves. She dressed in disguises to avoid being captured and overcame many obstacles to make the journeys. For each trip, for example, she walked for seven weeks, traveling by night to avoid detection by bloodhounds, and covered nearly 90 miles to Philadelphia, where she found work and saved money to return.

Adding to the danger, in 1850, Congress enacted a stricter Fugitive Slave Act that allowed slave catchers to go to the North and capture supposed runaway slaves and return them to their owners. Those northerners who helped enslaved persons escape were prosecuted. Newspapers ran ads from enslavers that described the runaways and offered monetary rewards, but abolitionists formed massive mobs to protect runaways from slave catchers. Tubman feared for her own safety as well as the safety of the travelers with her. Strength, courage, determination, and her sense of responsibility enabled her to face the constant dangers, however. In 1865 she said, “I prayed to God to make me strong and able to fight, and that’s what I’ve always prayed for ever since.” She knew every step forward put the nightmare of slavery behind those she helped.

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presentism: an adherence to present-day attitudes and the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts

  1. Presley, Sharon. “Black Women Abolitionists and the Fight for Freedom in the 19th Century” libertarianism.org. CATO Institute, 2016. https://www.libertarianism.org/columns/black-women-abolitionists-fight-freedom-19th-century.