Find this Story

Print, a form you can hold

Wireless download to your Amazon Kindle

Look for a summary or analysis of this Story.

Enjoy this? Share it!

The Rebellion: Its Causes And Consequences
by [?]

1864

In spite of the popular theory that nothing is so fallacious as circumstantial evidence, there is no man of observation who would not deem it more trustworthy than any human testimony, however honest, which was made up from personal recollection. The actors in great affairs are seldom to be depended on as witnesses, either to the order of events or their bearing upon results; for even where selfish interest is not to be taken into account, the mythic instinct erelong begins to shape things as they ought to have been, rather than as they were. This is true even of subjects in which we have no personal interest, and not only do no two men describe the same street-scene in the same way, but the same man, unless prosaic to a degree below the freezing-point of Tupper, will never do it twice in the same way. Few men, looking into their old diaries, but are astonished at the contrast, sometimes even the absolute unlikeness, between the matters of fact recorded there and their own recollection of them. Shortly after the battle of Lexington it was the interest of the Colonies to make the British troops not only wanton, but unresisted, aggressors; and if primitive Christians could be manufactured by affidavit, so large a body of them ready to turn the other cheek also was never gathered as in the minute-men before the meeting-house on the 19th of April, 1775. The Anglo-Saxon could not fight comfortably without the law on his side. But later, when the battle became a matter of local pride, the muskets that had been fired at the Redcoats under Pitcairn almost rivalled in number the pieces of furniture that came over in the Mayflower. Indeed, whoever has talked much with Revolutionary pensioners knows that those honored veterans were no less remarkable for imagination than for patriotism. It should seem that there is, perhaps, nothing on which so little reliance is to be placed as facts, especially when related by one who saw them. It is no slight help to our charity to recollect that, in disputable matters, every man sees according to his prejudices, and is stone-blind to whatever he did not expect or did not mean to see. Even where no personal bias can be suspected, contemporary and popular evidence is to be taken with great caution, so exceedingly careless are men as to exact truth, and such poor observers, for the most part, of what goes on under their eyes. The ballad which was hawked about the streets at the execution of Captain Kidd, and which was still to be bought at street-stalls within a few years, affirms three times in a single stanza that the pirate’s name was Robert. Yet he was commissioned, indicted, convicted, and hanged as William Kidd. Nor was he, as is generally supposed, convicted of piracy, but of murder. The marvels of Spiritualism are supernatural to the average observer, who is willing to pay for that dulness from another world which he might have for nothing in this, while they seem mere legerdemain, and not of the highest quality, to the trained organs of scientific men.

History, we are told, is philosophy teaching by example. But how if the example does not apply? Le Verrier discovers Neptune when, according to his own calculations, the planet should not have been in the place where his telescope found it. Does the example redound to the credit of luck or of mathematics? The historian may give a thoroughly false view of an event by simply assuming that after means in consequence of, or even by the felicitous turn of a sentence. Style will find readers and shape convictions, while mere truth only gathers dust on the shelf. The memory first, and by degrees the judgment, is enslaved by the epigrams of Tacitus or Michelet. Our conception of scenes and men is outlined and colored for us by the pictorial imagination of Carlyle. Indeed, after reading history, one can only turn round, with Montaigne, and say, What know I? There was a time when the reputation of Judas might have been thought past mending, but a German has whitewashed him as thoroughly as Malone did Shakespeare’s bust, and an English poet made him the hero of a tragedy, as the one among the disciples who believed too much. Call no one happy till he is dead? Rather call no one safe, whether in good repute or evil, after he has been dead long enough to have his effigy done in historical wax-work. Only get the real clothes, that is, only be careful to envelop him in a sufficiently probable dressing of facts, and the public will be entirely satisfied. What’s Hecuba to us, or we to Hecuba? Or is Thackeray’s way any nearer the truth, who strips Louis the Great of all his stage-properties, and shows him to us the miserable forked radish of decrepitude?