A Guide to Critical Reading
Evaluate the Reliability of Evidence

 E Pluribus Unum



Assess Anecdotal Evidence

George Washington shocked General Lafayette one morning by merely being, what the father of our country described as, a gentleman. It seems George Washington and Lafayette were talking together when a slave passed. The old colored man paused, tipped his hat and said, "Good Mo'nin, Gen'l Washin'ton." Immediately George Washington removed his hat, bowed and wished the man a pleasant day. After a moment of shocked silence General Lafayette exclaimed, "Why did you bow to a slave?" The great man smiled and replied, "I would not allow him to be a better gentleman than I." --


[Mr. Madison] often told the story, that one day riding home from court with old Tom Barbour (father of Governor [James] Barbour), they met a colored man who took off his hat. Mr. M. raised his, to the surprise of old Tom; to whom Mr. M. replied, "I never allow a negro to excel me in politeness."

-- From Paul Jennings, A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison, (Brooklyn: George C. Beadle, 1865), 19-20 as quoted by Kenneth M. Clark in "Madison and Slavery"


What are we to make of stories such as these?  It seems hard to believe that both Washington and Madison would be involved in exactly the same kind of situation.  Which are we to believe -- and can we believe either one?  In this particular case, there are several elements that suggest the second narrative may be more reliable than the first.  The web page which offers the first anecdote offers no source; another uses the same story in the same words and lists it as "source unknown." (Both are private web pages.)  The second story is cited as coming from a specific printed work, and that makes it possible to double-check the information.  The fact that the first story stars George Washington while the second features a more obscure individual also suggests that the second is more likely to be true.  Who would go to great lengths to make up a story about Tom Barbour?

It is important, then, to do what you can to determine the legitimacy of an anecdote you encounter when reading, particularly when you are using web pages.  However, the fact of the matter is that anecdotal evidence usually lacks the eight of textual, factual, or statistical evidence.  You can check the accuracy of a quotation by consulting the original document, and you can re-calculate statistics to determine their accuracy. However, you will never be able to put yourself back in the moment when the event being described actually took place (if it did).

This does not mean that you can never accept a story as evidence.  However, you must weigh the anecdotal evidence carefully and look, whenever possible, for additional witnesses who can testify to the accuracy of the anecdote or other sources of corroborating evidence.

Evaluate Quotations that Lack Information About Context -- And Read the Original Source

If you read anything about George Washington on the subject of slavery, there is one quotation you are sure to encounter, and if you read more than one thing you will come across it again.

"I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of [slavery]."

That's certainly a powerful statement. But what if we encounter a somewhat longer excerpt from the same passage?

I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of [slavery]; but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and that is by Legislative authority . . .

That comment could lend itself to a somewhat different interpretation, and it would seem easy to make the case that Washington was simply trying to put off questions about abolition by making that statement. Often when we make a statement followed by the word "but," what we are doing is making a comment intended to calm or conciliate our listener and intend then to go on to make our "real" point. (What do you think you're being told if someone tells you "I know you're entitled to some free time, but it's really important for you to get your work done"?)

It may surprise you to learn, however, that the longer quotation from Washington still has not ofered the sentence as a whole. Here it is:

I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it; but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and that is by Legislative authority; and this, as far as my suffrage will go, shall never be wanting.

Washington's statement is often offered in this more complete form, and some have argued that this statement shows that allthough Washington owned slaves, he was dedicated to pushing an agenda of legislative reform aimed at the gradual abolition of slavery. On the other hand, it is also possible to think of that statement as a means of defending his image.

In fact, although only a few phrases or sentences of Washington's remarks are generally quoted, once you read the brief piece of correspondence in which they appear you may suddenly understand them in a different light.  Here is the letter to Robert Morris:

Mt. Vernon 12th April 1786

Dr Sir:

I give you the trouble of this letter at the instance of Mr. Dalby of Alexandria; who is called to Philadelphia to attend what he conceives to be a vexatious lawsuit respecting a slave of his, whom a Society of Quakers in the city (formed for such purposes) have attempted to liberate. . . . And if the practice of this Society of which Mr. Dalby speaks, is not discountenanced, none of those whose misfortune it is to have slaves as attendants, will visit the City if they can possibly avoid it; because by so doing they hazard their property; or they must be at the expence (and this will not always succeed) of providing servants of another description for the trip.

I hope it will not be conceived from these observations, that it is my wish to hold the unhappy people, who are the subject of this letter, in slavery. I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it; but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished and that is by Legislative authority; and this, as far as my suffrage will go, shall never be wanting. But when slaves who are happy and contented with their present masters, are tampered with and seduced to leave; when a conduct of this sort begets discontent on one side and resentment on the other, and when it happens to fall on a man, whose purse will not measure with that of the Society, he looses [sic] his property for want of means to defend it; it is oppression in the latter case, and not humanity in any, because it introduces more evils than it can cure.

As you can probably tell, Washington wrote this letter on behalf of a friend who had gone to Philadelphia on business, only to find that a young slave he'd brought with him was given shelter and freedom by the local Quaker community. (For a brief explanation of the situation, see the commentary on Washington's letter to Robert Morris, 1786 at the Africans in America site.) Although Dalby's slave was ultimately returned to him, Morris's response to Washington seems to suggest that he had somewhat mixed feelings about interfering in such an affair.  Interestingly, the Pennsylvania Court did not have the final say about the status of the slave.  About a year after the judicial decision Dalby posted an advertisement in the newspapers offering a reward for the return of a slae who "RAN AWAY, from the subscriber, on the 10th inst. a light Mulatto SLAVE, named FRANK, 18 years of age, about 5 feet 4 inches high, one tooth out before, bushy brown hair which he sometimes ties, is very artful, and will endeavaour to pass for a freeman. . . . He is well known on the road to Philadelphia, as he is the boy on whose account a suit was brought against me there" (originally printed in the Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser, 16 Feb. 1787).

This story illustrates the dangers of accepting an argument based largely on short excerpted quotations.  It also shows how easy it can be to evaulate evidence once you look at the primary document.

Consider Whether the Evidence is Representative

Sometimes a quotation accurately reflects the sentiment expressed in the document in which it appears and yet is not representative of the author's larger body of work. For example, the web page entitled Five Founders on Slavery posted in connection with Thomas West's book, Vindicating the Founders makes it sound as though all five men quoted agreed on the importance of tthe elimination of slavery although two of the individuals were slave owners and at least one -- Benjamin Franklin -- was one of the strongest advocates of abolition in early America. While all of the men voiced anti-slavery sentiments from time to time, obscuring the differences between their positions seems likely to impede our attempt to understand the real situation.

Another example of quotations offered without a sense of context can be found in the World Book's Readings on Slavery from the Early Presidents, which offers four quotations from Washington on slavery. The first is the one cited immediately above. The second comes from a letter to to John F. Mercer in which Washington wrote: "I never mean unless some particular circumstance should compel me to it, to possess another slave by purchase, it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by which slavery in this country may be abolished by law." Unfortunately, Washington's own correspondence documents his subsequent purchases of slaves. A third quotation comes from a letter of April 5th, 1783 responding to to LaFayette's proposal that they jointly purchase a plantation which they can use as an experiment in freeing slaves.

The scheme, my dear Marquis, which you propose as a precedent to encourage the emancipation of the black people in this country from that state of bondage in which they are held, is a striking evidence of the benevolence of your heart. I shall be happy to join you in so laudable a work, but will defer going into a detail of the business till I have the pleasure of seeing you.

Although this quotation is accurate, in fact, Washington never joined the project that LaFayette faithfully executed. (For more information about LaFayette's plantation at Cayenne, see the Lafayette and Slavery online exhibit hosted by the Department of Special Collections of Lafayette State University.)

The best way to determine how a quotation, particularly when it is quite brief, should be interpreted is to read the original source and then find out the rest of the story.

Weigh Carefully 18th and 19th Century Slave Testimonials Praising "Masters"

Certain types of evidence cannot be taken at face value. Although people have sometimes argued that certain slaveowners were particularly benevolent by citing positive remarks made by their slaves, it is hard to imagine a slave feeling "free" to express criticism of a master. Thus, although Margaret Bayard Smith was clearly sympathetic to Nany, a domestic slave in the Madison household, an August 4, 1809, letter describing their conversation includes a testimonial that cannot necessariy be trusted.

When the servant appeared with candles to show me my room, she insisted on going up stairs with me, assisted me to undress and chatted till I got into bed. How unassuming, how kind is this woman. How can any human being be her enemy? Truly in her there is to be found no gall, but the pure milk of human kindness. If I may say so, the maid was like the mistress [Dolley Madison]; she was very attentive all the time I was there, seeming as if she could not do enough, and was very talkative. As her mistress left the room, ‘You have a good mistress Nany,’ said I, ‘Yes,’ answered the affectionate creature with warmth, ‘the best I believe in the world--I am sure I would not change her for any mistress in the whole country.’ (Slavery at Montpelier)

Look Closely at 19th Texts Praising Revolutionary-Era Heroes

Perhaps it may seem odd to read carefully when 19th century Americans praise the founders, and it probably seems odder still to suggest that it is particularly important to think critically about 19th century abolitionist texts speak of the founders in glowing terms. But the groundswell of patriotic sentiment set off in the 1820s by the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and a score of related factors led 19th century Americans to view the revolutionary generation romantically, rather than realistically. In addition, during the heated debates over slavery in the mid-19th century, abolitionists promoted their cause and defended themselves against attacks by defining themselves as patriots by basing their arguments in the rhetoric of the revolution.  Rather than criticizing Washington and Jefferson as hypocrites for promoting ideals of freedom while owning slaves, antebellum abolitionists were likely to site Washington's positive treatment of slaves and the statements against slavery Jefferson included in his draft of the Declaration of Independence.  Although you need not dismiss 19th century commentaries on slavery in the revolutionary and early national eras, you should remember that most authors in that period were likely to exclude evidence that might cast a shadow on the reputations of the founders.

For a more thorough explanation of this issue, see Remembering the Revolution:

Now continue on to Evaluate the Reasoning>>


Index to Section on Expanding the American Revolution: If "All Men Are Created Equal," What About African-Americans?

Expanding the Revolution: Race, Slavery and the American Revolution

Investigating the History of Race and Slavery in Early America: A Guide to Critical Reading

Investigating the History of Race and Slavery in Early America: What the Founders Said, Wrote About and Did About Race and Slavery

Revolutionizing the Revolution in the 19th Century: Using the Founders and Founding Documents to Fight Slavery

Expanding the Revolution: An Annotated Guide on Topics and Resources on Africans, African-Americans, Native-Americans, and Women in the Era of the Revolution


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The E Pluribus Unum Project is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is co-directed by Dr. John McClymer, Professor of History, Assumption College; Dr Lucia Knoles, Professor of English, Assumption College; and Dr. Arnold Pulda, Director of Gifted and Talented student programs for the public schools in Worcester, MA. Visitors are encouraged to send inquiries or suggestions.