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

 E Pluribus Unum



Declaring Your Intellectual Independence

If you read one book that says that George Washington was opposed to slavery and another one that says he was a great supporter of slavery, which one do you believe?  You may be an American who recites the Declaration of Independence before each meal and again before bed, but unless you can think for yourself on this and all other issues you will never truly be free.  Never assume that simply because a text you are reading has been published -- or even because the author is famous -- that you must accept what you read as absolute "truth."  Just as each author presents his or her own position and point of view, each serious reader must weight the evidence and reasoning in each text in order to construct his or her own interpretation. 

Race was a topic of debate in America for hundreds of years before the Declaration of Independence was signed and continues to be an important part of the American conversation today.  It is a topic enshrined in blood, the blood of countless individuals who suffered and died as slaves, the blood of people who died in the struggles of the antebellum and civil war eras, the blood of those who fought for civil rights in the 20th century, and the blood of those who have been tormented, lynched, or otherwise hurt or killed for reasons of race since the abolition of slavery.  The very intensity of this issue makes it difficult to talk about with honesty and clarity.  But that is what is needed if we are to guarantee "that these dead shall not have died in vain."

Below you will find guidelines for critical reading that are for the most part illustrated with examples taken from writing about George Washington. Because Washington was one of the first and greatest American heroes the discussion of Washington can serve as a useful case-study of the challenges involved in investigating the complex subject of race, slavery, and the American Revolution.


Contents of the Critical Reading Guide



Uncorroborated Anecdotal Evidence
Excerpted Quotations Lacking Context
18th and 19th Century Slave Testimonials Praising Owners
19th Texts Praising Revolutionary-Era Heroes


Beware of Unsupported Assumptions and Explanations
Beware of Simple Solutions to Complex Questions
Beware of Assumptions and Biases You Bring to Your Reading


Assess the Credibility of the Author, the Text, and the "Publisher"
Read the the Primary Documents
Learn about the Context of the Text& Take History into Account
Consider All the Ways in Which a Piece of Evidence or Argument Could Be Interpreted
Develop an Interpretation that Puts All the Pieces Together



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.