On the Humanity of Historical Subjects

By October 12, 2009

It is easy, as a historian, to get caught up in your efforts to prove a point. This is especially true for graduate students, who seemingly have to strive to make a unique contribution to their chosen field. In sorting and sifting through evidence found in sometimes obscure primary source material, I often find myself straining to relate it to larger issues; issues that others will care about, issues that will change the way the field approaches a particular subject.

All of this is well and good, it seems. I love historical research. I love thinking outside the box about new interpretations of persons and events that lead to increased understanding of a world (in many ways) dead and gone. But it is also easy, as a historian, to lose sight of the fact that those figures you study were and are individuals who generally led their lives without the slightest clue that I would someday sift through their manuscript letters and personal diaries to study their successes and failures, and situate them in some larger context in order to decipher how society functioned in their day.

I was reminded of historical figures’ humanity this morning. I am spending today and tomorrow researching at the United Methodist Archives Center in Madison, NJ. I spent the morning carefully reading through the manuscript letters and notes of Ezekiel Cooper, an early Methodist itinerant preacher, book agent, and abolitionist. Relating Cooper’s activities to larger issues in Methodist history is relatively easy—he rubbed shoulders with Francis Asbury, printed various publications for the Methodist Episcopal Church, and was well-known in the late 18th and 19th centuries in the Philadelphia area. But today I caught a glimpse into the personal—indeed, very personal—life of Reverend Cooper.

Tucked in between large pages of copied letters penned in his rather beautiful handwriting, I found a small sheet of paper, about 3×5 inches. One on side were copied questions and answers on the authority of scripture pulled from the Methodist Book of Discipline. I quickly discarded the paper, placing it face down on top of the other manuscript sheets I had already viewed. It was then I noticed a short note on the other side of the paper. Its message was short and simple:

In

Memory of Rich<d>ard Cooper, Junr (son of Richd

Cooper, Esqr) who departed this life Mar. 20th 1803 aged

18 years

He promis’d fair to be a scientific man,

His morals and his judgment both were good

Alass! how quick his father’s hopes are gone (or lost)

“Richd Cooper, Esqr” was Ezekiel Cooper’s brother, and a respected judge in Pennsylvania. It is not clear what caused his son’s relatively young death. But the letter is revealing in its raw simplicity. That it was intended for Ezekiel’s private pondering and not public rehearsal seems clear to me. It expresses no states hope or assurance of a heavenly reward for young Richard, as was typical of obituaries published throughout Methodist periodicals in early years; which is not to say, of course, that no such hope existed in Cooper’s heart and mind. It probably did. But in this moment of unguarded meditation, when Cooper put to paper his own thoughts on his nephew’s death and his brother’s heartbreak, he revealed something that does not show up in those periodicals (or even in his personal correspondence). He revealed that he was human, prone to suffering, aware of his family’s pains, and sensitive to the frailty of life.

There is a lesson in this, I think. And Mormon converts, missionaries, and members from yesteryear are no different from Methodist itinerants in this regard. People not only lived, worked, succeeded, and failed. They also felt. They felt pain, joy, happiness, and sorrow. Unfortunately, the surviving historical record does not always leave behind such expressions of meditation and feeling. But when it does, it should remind us of the humanity of all those we study.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Thanks for this important and well-put reminder, Chris. It definitely reminds us that the larger perspective we are often obsessed with is not nearly the larger perspective these individuals sought after.

    Comment by Ben — October 12, 2009 @ 11:06 am

  2. Thanks, Chris. Good thoughts.

    Comment by Jared T — October 12, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

  3. Too true, Chris. Makes the whole fabric of history seem much richer and fuller when we consider that actual people make it up.

    Comment by Ryan T — October 12, 2009 @ 5:32 pm

  4. Wonderful reflections, Chris. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 12, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

  5. A great reminder. Thanks.

    Comment by WVS — October 12, 2009 @ 11:49 pm

  6. Great post, thanks Chris.

    Comment by BHodges — October 13, 2009 @ 3:34 pm

  7. Thanks, all.

    Comment by Christopher — October 14, 2009 @ 9:32 am

  8. Wow — I’m glad I saw this post. Thanks, Chris. A good reminder.

    Comment by Hunter — October 14, 2009 @ 5:44 pm


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