The View From The Bottom Rail “The View from the Bottom Rail” After the Fact, Volume II James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle Copyright 1986 by Alfred A. Knopf Inc. Pages 177-210 Grant Hopkins AP U.S. History II September 11, 2000 The Lewinsky Scandal .. A perfect example as to why we cannot accept everything at face value before carefully examining it first.
Everyone thought President Clinton was behaving himself in the White House, but, as it turns out, he was most definitely not. This can be the same for history. We must carefully consider different aspects of articles so that we do no make the mistake of believing everything we read. In order to fully understand an article, we must understand the author that wrote it. It is necessary to examine prejudices, sources, information left out, and missing background information before accepting an article. This method of critical analysis allows us to better understand the article and therefore history because we are more aware of the authors and their possible mishaps.
“The View from the Bottom Rail”, an article in After the Fact, provides an opportunity to examine different aspects of analysis. If we look at it carefully, then we will be able to determine if the thesis was proven effectively. In “The View from the Bottom Rail”, the authors, James Davidson and Mark Lytle, proposed, “For several reasons, that debased position has made it unusually difficult for historians to recover the freedman’s point of view.” Within the article, Davidson and Lytle cycled through different aspects as to why it is hard for historians to determine the “view from the bottom rail”. They questioned the validity of many sources that, if accurate, would have contained the perspective of an ex-slave. These sources included both white and black testimony. In order to examine these sources, the authors traced the topics using microcosm.
Because they were covering a topic and not an event, microcosm was the most appropriate method of examining the subject. Davidson and Lytle first introduced a source. Then, they pondered over the different ways that the source could be biased. They took small segments from the source and used those to demonstrate why the source could not be taken at face value. For example, when examining the proposed source of a slave master’s account, Davidson and Lytle examined one aspect of this to make a conclusion.
They determined that, “With slaves so dependent on the master’s authority, they were hardly likely to reveal their true feelings; the dangerous consequences of such indiscretion was too great.” Therefore, they were able to conclude that, for the most part, a master would never truly know what his slave’s point of view was. The authors proceeded to attack the other sources in this method. The other sources that Davidson and Lytle examined were not only diverse but also effective. Many of the sources were direct quotations from the words of freedmen, including two in-depth interviews of the same ex-slave by different reporters. Other sources included stories and writings of both southern and northern whites.
While almost all of the sources were primary, many were taken from secondary source books that included the words of primary sources. Taking primary sources from secondary source books can be a dangerous habit because it is not known what the author of the secondary source chose to leave out. The primary sources may have already been biased even before Davidson and Lytle were able to make their own focuses. However, some of the sources were direct primary sources such as letters and diaries. In addition, all sources used were done so effectively. The diversity of the sources made the authors’ argument more convincing since their views were not limited to one kind of source.
By not depending heavily on any one type of source, Davidson and Lytle were able to cover multiple opinions. This effective use of research leaves very few questions unanswered. However, it would be helpful to know how location affected the freedman’s point of view. Blacks were treated differently depending on location, workplace, and status. The authors failed to examine different locations as changing point of views.
Since the authors establish that it is difficult to determine the point of view at all, it was not their responsibility to answer this question. However, it would be helpful to know this just because it is an unanswered question. Another minor malady of the paper, besides leaving one or two questions unanswered, is that the authors subconsciously have prejudices. While subtle and few, prejudices may color the authors’ view. Early in the article, Davidson and Lytle commented that, ” .. most histories suffer from a natural “top-rail” bias.
They stated that those who are educated and wealthy are for the most part the writers of history. This seems to be correct if we examine the backgrounds of historians, especially those further into the past. Although the social and racial status of Davidson and Lytle is unknown here, it is statistically safe to assume that the authors can be considered “top rail”. They are almost confessing to be biased from the start. Furthermore, Davidson and Lytle made one prejudice comment. They wrote that, “By and large, those on the top rails of society produce the best and most voluminous records.” While it may be documented that those on the “top rail” produce the most voluminous records, the simple use of the word “best” is a red flag for a prejudice.
This word entirely suggests an opinion. With opinions, come mental baggage and therefore prejudices. However, overall this was the only display of any prejudices. This attitude was not seen again at any other point. In the end, it did not effect the article at all.
The authors go on to prove the thesis with no more slip-ups. In reminder, the author was trying to prove that the social status of a freedman made it very difficult for historians to determine an ex-slave’s point of view. Despite the minor questions left unanswered and subtle prejudices, the authors did an excellent job of proving their thesis. Davidson and Lytle use a great depth of research, not limited to one kind of source. The suitable use of microcosm provides a very effective job of examining these facts needed to prove the thesis. The authors explain why it is hard to except the testimony of any contemporary of freedmen, even freedmen themselves.
Davidson and Lytle prove that masters would not truly know what the opinion of the slave was. They also prove that in direct testimonial from an ex-slave to a white person, the story might be limited or exaggerated depending on the circumstances of the interview. It was also proven that white northerner accounts could not always be trusted because of their limited knowledge of slaves due to their separation in lifestyles. Overall, the authors were able to prove that any source containing the freedman’s point of view cannot be taken at face value. There were too many reasons why either the ex-slave might chose to limit what they told or why the white person did not know what the truth was. In the end, any audience should be convinced that it is difficult to discover the freedmen’s point of view because of the status they endured. While the thesis was proved thoroughly and effectively, there were occasions where more information would have been useful.
As earlier mentioned, the authors used two interviews of the same ex-slave by different reporters. At the time of the interview, this ex-slave was very old, estimated to be over ninety years old. The authors do question whether her mental status was viable or not. However, further background information was needed. It was imperative for the authors to examine the validity of this source before using it.
It is not know if the ex-slave was capable of recalling accurate details of her life. Since the authors’ argument was that the same slave told two different stories depending on the circumstances of the interview, how do we know if the stories varied because of the circumstances or because of a poor or maybe even imaginative memory? This background information would make the authors’ arguments even more convincing. However, if we assume that the ex-slave was capable, then the argument is flawless. Overall, the article was well written. Only minor aspects were left uncovered.
In addition, not much background information was needed. Also, the authors’ only had sparse and subtle prejudices. A variety of sources was used effectively. In the end, the thesis was proven convincingly. Almost all audiences would be assured that, “For several reasons, that debased position has made it unusually difficult for historians to recover the freedman’s point of view.” American History.