Bottom’s Up: A Strategy for Studying History

There are many possible ways to understand history. We have artifacts and accounts of the events and situations of the past that have shaped what the world is today, and people who study history must make decisions about how to treat this evidence in order to construct a working understanding of what the past actually was. One of the approaches for understanding this evidence is a “bottom-up” approach, by which historians place a greater focus on the common people’s stories of historical events than the traditional approach to historically significant names and events. Rather than focusing on the people of great power and influence, bottom-up history attempts to understand how historical events impacted the people who lived during the periods studied. There are a number of advantages and disadvantages to this approach. Among the primary disadvantages is the scarcity of reliable and extensive primary sources among the common people of certain periods. On the other hand, bottom-up history is advantageous in that it can provide a much more organic understanding of what the events and situations in history actually meant for the people who lived during the period. Among the texts that we are using to study history from the bottom up this semester include the Autobiography of Mother Jones and Going to the Source, Volume Two. Each demonstrates the advantages and disadvantages of studying history from the bottom up.

The Autobiography of Mother Jones is very useful as a source for studying history for a number of reasons. Mother Jones lived through the struggles of the labor movement of the early twentieth century, a movement that has done a great deal to shape the face of the United States and even the world as it is today. As industrialization took place in this country, the working class was faced with a choice of what its role would be in the changing nation. The owners and managers of industry were largely concerned with production and growth. The needs and rights of the working class were of little concern to those who made influential decisions. The working class would need to decide whether or not it would continue to allow the owners and managers to be responsible for their needs. Relying on the consideration of those with power and influence had left the working class in a rather miserable state, and by rising up in the labor movement to assert power and influence of their own, the working class was able to significantly change the way industrialization affected this country and the world. The Autobiography of Mother Jones details the struggles behind this movement and how the battles for the rights of the laborers changed industry and the lives of those who relied on it for their well-being.

There are, however, drawbacks to the picture of history provided by the Autobiography of Mother Jones. These accounts of the history of the labor movement do a wonderful job of describing what the labor movement was for the working class, but they paint a rather shallow, incomplete picture of the owners and managers on the side of industry. Those with power and influence in this period had a great number of issues to consider as they made decisions about the industries they ran, and as businesspeople they should be expected to try hard to get the most for their money. The Autobiography of Mother Jones treats the employers as a faceless entity with very little or no concern for fairness or the rights and struggles of the employed. It would be unfair to say that one striker’s violent actions prove that all strikers are violent and anarchistic. Likewise, it is unfair to suggest that employers in general did not sympathize with the struggles of the employed because some people in management and ownership roles disregarded their needs or utilized shady and subversive measures to undermine the efforts of the labor movement. An adage suggests that there are two sides to every story, but the truth is that there are infinitely more than two sides. The greatest limitation of the Autobiography of Mother Jones is that it provides a limited perspective of the labor movement, but that perspective is exactly why it is helpful in studying the labor movement.

Going to the Source also has its limitations as a source for studying history. The book provides a variety of primary sources as artifacts for gaining an understanding of history, many of which represent traditionally overlooked resources. The main drawbacks of these sources are their biases and lacking context. Once again, these sources provide unique perspectives that fit into a larger story, and the risk is that their relative importance and validity might be inflated or discounted when they are integrated into an understanding of history. This is why context is crucial. These sources fit within a larger framework of artifacts presenting the history of the time. Without the proper consideration of how these pieces fit together, it is incredibly easy to misinterpret their meanings and implications about history.

Providing context is exactly why Going to the Source can be very helpful in gaining an understanding of history. These overlooked or underutilized resources can put traditional historical facts and perspectives into a deeper context. Marginalized voices can be heard and underestimated evidence sheds new light on the backdrop of history. The sources in this volume provide these fresh perspectives on the context of traditional history and enrich our understanding of what it was like to live through it.

The difficulty regarding bottom-up history is simply that historically, “common” people haven’t had a voice or mode of expression as much as the influential people who hold positions of authority in society. Through newspaper interviews, personal writings, and other similar sources, we can get a glimpse of what some of the reactions are to social trends and historical events, but these sources are rare and can provide biased or incomplete pictures of what the actual spirit or attitude of the times was. The Autobiography of Mother Jones, for example, provides us with historical information from a biased perspective. While the text is very illuminating about the struggles of the labor movement in the early twentieth century, this text does not provide us with a clear, objective picture of the social forces against which the labor movement struggled. In order to gain a more complete understanding of the labor movement, it would be necessary to supplement this text with a viewpoint more sympathetic to the owners and managers. The ability to see the issue from both sides is crucial in gaining a strong—and less biased—understanding of the struggle. The text also fails to paint a clear picture of what the social atmosphere was at the time independent of the labor movement. Other social issues at the time, including women’s rights, are present in the text but not given much attention. A more complete understanding of the time period should include an understanding of the wide variety of social concerns at the time. Again, the Autobiography of Mother Jones serves as a strong source of material, but must be supplemented in order to provide a more complete picture.

Traditional historical sources—quotes of influential figures and facts about the dates and locations of historically significant events—can provide a relatively complete picture of the larger themes that shape the patterns of history, but they are lacking in their ability to provide an understanding of how those historical trends affected the people of the times. Bottom-up history provides a more complete understanding of these aspects of history by highlighting the voices of commonly disenfranchised groups or minorities whose place in history might normally be skimmed over by traditional study. Understanding how the stories of these marginalized segments of the population fit into the historical patterns can be just as important as understanding the trends themselves. In Going to the Source, we are exposed to a variety of prim
ary-text media that convey a wide variety of themes. Newspaper articles, advertisements, court testimony, diplomatic communications, and private letters, among other sources, all serve to flesh out the background of the picture that traditional history tends to paint. By filling in the gaps and giving a voice to those usually overlooked by traditional history, these sources conveyer a deeper and broader understanding of the twentieth century.

Certainly there are plenty of legitimate ways to study and understand history. Bottom-up history provides a look at aspects of history that might otherwise go unnoticed or suppressed. With the Autobiography of Mother Jones, we are able to see the labor movement very intimately from the perspective of one of its biggest proponents. The biggest drawback to this approach is the lack of available sources to provide a complete picture. As we have seen with Going to the Source, even with these limited sources we gain a deeper sense of history than is possible with more traditional methods. The drawbacks to this method are clearly outweighed by the benefits, especially because we are steadily gaining a wider number of sources from which to study history and because historians are becoming much more conscientious in their efforts to understand and teach the lessons that history provides.

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