Don’t Be Fooled by Primary Sources

This post is co-authored by Stephen Wesson and Danna Bell.

April 1 is an appropriate day for remembering that, even though primary sources are a powerful teaching tool, they can also fool you.

One involves the first president of the United States—but not the president on the one-dollar bill. In the 1780s, the United States of America was governed as a loose confederation of states under the Articles of Confederation, and the Congress was led by a presiding officer selected by the other members of Congress. The first person elected after the British surrender was John Hanson, a merchant and public official from Maryland. Therefore, John Hanson is sometimes called the first president of the United States, though it would be more accurate to say he was the president of Congress under the Articles of Confederation. Hanson died in 1783, not long after leaving office.

When people search the Library’s Web site, loc.gov, for an image of president John Hanson, they often find—and sometimes publish—this image from our daguerreotype collection. It’s a wonderful image of John Hanson, but there is something wrong: The item record page shows that the photograph was taken in the late 1850s, more than a half-century after president John Hanson’s death. The daguerreotype process wasn’t even invented until the 1830s.

A closer look at the item record shows that this is a daguerreotype portrait of another politician named John Hanson. This John Hanson, however, was a senator in Liberia, an African nation founded in the nineteenth century as a home for African American colonists.

Another item that might fool a casual observer is the business card of Abraham Lincoln, attorney and counselor at law. At first glance, this card could be mistaken for a card made for Lincoln during his years as an attorney in Springfield, Illinois. However, the fine print on the card promises that, after March 4—inauguration day—Lincoln will be ready to “SWAP HORSES, DISPENSE LAW, MAKE JOKES, SPLIT RAILS, and perform other matters in a SMALL way.” A closer look at the information provided along with the card suggests a reason for these somewhat odd promises.

A. Lincoln. Attorney and Counselor at Law. Springfield, Illinois

A. Lincoln. Attorney and Counselor at Law. Springfield, Illinois

The information on the item page notes that this was published by “the Democratic National Committee, or one of their friends, in 1864.” What was happening in 1864? Lincoln was running for re-election for President of the United States of America as a Republican, and this card was likely created to encourage people to vote against Lincoln and to send him back to Illinois.

Although one of these items was intended to mislead its viewers, at least at first, and the other was entangled in a case of mistaken identity, they both serve as valuable reminders that primary sources should never be taken at face value.

Close examination and questioning can add richness to students’ exploration of these historical artifacts, and decrease their chances of being fooled.

5 Comments

  1. Suzanne Judson-Whitehouse
    April 1, 2014 at 11:27 am

    Thank you for reminding us that we all, teachers and students alike, need to look deeper into primary sources and consider their context before making conclusions. Primary sources can be a fun way to teach students to think critically about what they see and read, particularly in this age when access to information (some reliable, some not) is so ubiquitous. Great post!

  2. Tom Holbrook
    April 1, 2014 at 11:47 am

    Enlightening–

    –Thanks!

  3. Melanie Metzger
    April 1, 2014 at 12:59 pm

    Very good to remember and a wonderful tie-in to what we try to teach students about what appears on the internet isn’t always true either.

  4. Taylor Kendal
    February 10, 2015 at 2:55 pm

    I’ve been using “Lincoln’s Business Card” for years as a means of translating the importance of looking closely and critically at everything around us, including primary sources. Thanks for the great post Danna!

  5. prinz
    July 18, 2018 at 2:08 am

    Because John Hanson was a black man he wasn’t that president.

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