History and Rashomon

Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece Rashomon in which a murder is told from four differing perspectives, including that of the ghost of the murdered man, details a problem that always plagues historians:   whenever you have more than one source for an event, they are probably going to differ, sometimes in small particulars, although not uncommonly in large ones.  The larger the event, a battle for example, and the more sources, the more differences.  What one reads in a typical history book often glosses over questions on particular points with the writer, assuming he is aware of the differing materials, picking, choosing and interpreting source material rather like an individual putting together a puzzle where some of the pieces have gone astray and some have been savaged by the family dog.  It is not easy work, and that is why some “historians” merely repackage the various books on the subject they have skimmed and eschew actual research by themselves.  If you read a lot on a particular topic of history, you can often tell what source is being used for a particular event.

On February 11, 1861, Lincoln left Springfield, Illinois with his family to travel to Washington DC to be sworn in as President of a very Disunited States of America.  He made a short and, for him, fairly emotional and personal speech to his friends and well-wishers at the train station.  Three versions of his speech have come down to us:

First we have the official version which Lincoln wrote on the train immediately after giving the speech:

My friends — No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe every thing. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of the Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you and be every where for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

Second, we have a version which appeared in Harper’s Weekly on February 23, 1861:

My Friends:
No one not in my position can appreciate the sadness I feel at this parting. To this people I owe all that I am. Here I have lived more than a quarter of a century; here my children were born, and here one of them lies buried. I know not how soon I shall see you again. A duty devolves upon me which is, perhaps, greater than that which has devolved upon any other man since the days of Washington. He never would have succeeded except for the aid of Divine Providence, upon which he at all times relied. I feel that I cannot succeed without the same Divine aid which sustained him, and on the same Almighty Being I place my reliance for support, and I hope you, my friends, will all pray that I may receive that Divine assistance without which I cannot succeed, but with which success is certain. Again I bid you an affectionate farewell.

Third, we have the version which appeared on February 12, 1861, in the Illinois State Journal, a Springfield newspaper:

No one who has never been placed in a like position, can understand my feelings at this hour, nor the oppressive sadness I feel at this parting. For more than a quarter of a century I have lived among you, and during all that time I have received nothing but kindness at your hands. Here I have lived from my youth until now I am an old man. Here the most sacred ties of earth were assumed; here all my children were born; and here one of them lies buried. To you, dear friends, I owe all that I have, all that I am. All the strange, chequered past seems to crowd now upon my mind. To-day I leave you; I go to assume a task more difficult than that which devolved upon General Washington. Unless the great God who assisted him, shall be with and aid me, I shall not fail, I shall succeed. Let us all pray that the God of our fathers may not forsake us now. To him I commend you all — permit me to ask that with equal security and faith, you all will invoke His wisdom and guidance for me. With these few words I must leave you — for how long I know not. Friends, one and all, I must now bid you an affectionate farewell.

Well, which of the three is the more accurate rendition?  No one can know for certain, so here is where interpretation, something that every historian has to do, enters the fray.  My interpretation is shaped by the fact that I, like Lincoln, am an attorney, and like Lincoln I try cases before judges and juries.  No attorney worth his retainer will read an address to a judge or a jury, except for citing a passage from a statute, a case or some document relevant to the case.  The rest of the speech has to be given by the attorney to the judge or the jury with his eyes on his listener(s), in order for the speech to have maximum impact.  Most attorneys will make notes beforehand and practice the speech, but the speech itself will be given without resort to the notes, and usually filled with off the cuff modifications to suit the need of the moment as the speech is given.

My best guess based on this is that number three is probably the most accurate version.  Lincoln went in with an idea of what he was going to say, and that version is the one he wrote down, but the version he actually delivered was number three, which is filled with little asides and tangents, typical for an attorney when he delivers a speech without looking at notes.  A secondary reason for this conclusion is that the Illinois State Journal, founded in 1831 as the Sangamon Journal, had been reporting on Lincoln throughout his political career, its reporters accustomed to Lincoln’s phrasing in giving a speech, and would have given close attention to this story, the biggest to hit Springfield, Illinois, well, ever.  That is my judgment, someone else might see it differently, and that is one of the many, many factors that makes History endlessly fascinating for me.

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  1. Don, there are major discrepancies among Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, so who do we believe? I read Mencken’s ‘Treatise on the Gods’ many years ago and much of it stuck with me.

    Thomas Paine tackled this matter two hundred years ago in The Age of Reason, stumbling across dozens of New Testament discrepancies:

    “I lay it down as a position which cannot be controverted,” he wrote, “first, that the agreement of all the parts of a story does not prove that story to be true, because the parts may agree and the whole may be false; secondly, that the disagreement of the parts of a story proves the whole cannot be true.”

    Here is the link as source:


  2. Ah, Thomas Paine, that “filthy little atheist” to quote Teddy Roosevelt. His statement “secondly, that the disagreement of the parts of a story proves the whole cannot be true.” is laughable to any historian or attorney. I have litigated many traffic cases and the details are often confused by witnesses. It is when witnesses are completely in sync on all points that I get suspicious since that is often an indication of collusion. The synoptic Gospels have just the type of disagreement that I would expect from witnesses honestly attempting to recall what was seen and heard. The Gospel of John is a theological tract by the Apostle that Christ loved and was written with a different purpose in mind than the rather straight-forward narratives of the other Gospels.

  3. Don, didn’t mean to thread hijack. But you said you preferred the third version of Lincoln’s speech. Napoleon said, “What is history but a fable agreed upon.” Yes, as a lifelong journalist, I realize that witness accounts can vary widely. As “reporters,” Mark, Matthew and Luke differ enough in particulars as to raise legitimate questions as to their powers of accurate observation.

    As to your point, judges and juries give greater weight to witness testimony that is unimpeachable and corroborated while discounting or ignoring those whose credibility is suspect. I have covered many trials and have seen cases thrown out because witnesses lied or otherwise were not credible.

    The “hearsay” evidence of the synoptic Gospels is further undermined by the disagreements in timing, quotations, places, etc., cited in the link I provided and by many other objective inquirers. In other words, the burden of proof is on those who assert events as “facts,” rather than mere speculation.

  4. Hearsay is a legal term Joe. It does not mean that a statement is not trustworthy. Much hearsay is dead on accurate. It merely means that it cannot be admitted into evidence since it refers to a statement given outside of court, for the truth of the matter asserted, and does not come within a hearsay exception. Outside of legal proceedings it has little meaning, especially in history, since most history is hearsay. The synoptic Gospels were written within a few decades of the events described, relying on eye and ear witnesses of Christ. They are among the most trustworthy historical written documents we have from antiquity. Atheists prior to the last century would try to cast aspersions on their accuracy and even the fact of Christ’s existence. The advance of historical research into this time period over the last century has largely relegated this type of attack to the more ill-informed advocates of atheism and agnosticism, and I do not count you among that number.

  5. Don, a “few decades” perhaps was as much as 140 years, or 14 decades. Now that is hardly contemporary. So other than the Four, and Paul, who never met Christ in the flesh, the “evidence” appears to be rather thin. On the other hand, I am willing to grant that “the greatest story ever told” has not yet been superseded by any other fiction.

  6. No Joe, that is incorrect. Most scholars believe that the Gospel of John, the final Gospel, was written no later than 95 AD, some six decades after the events related, with the other Gospels being written between 60-80 AD, some three to five decades after the events related. In comparison, our best sources for the career of Alexander the Great were written several centuries after he lived.

  7. Don, granting that point for the sake of further discussion, such a distance between events and the telling are still quite apart.

    Now, I am sitting in the jury box to hear the evidence. You represent the defense and will call Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. The nameless prosecutor in this case, after you have “deposed” your 4, will cross examine. Here is a possible exchange:

    PROSECUTOR: Now, Mr. Mark, you say that there was one young man at the tomb when you arrived. Is that correct?
    MARK: Yes.
    PROSECUTOR: We’ve had testimony from three other witnesses — Matthew, Luke and John — who gave different accounts. Matthew said he saw an angel, Luke said he saw two men and John said he saw two angels. Can you explain that?
    MCCLAREY: Objective, argumentative.
    JUDGE: Overruled. You may answer.
    MARK: Well, all I know is what I saw.
    PROSECUTOR: Did you actually see the young man or did you just hear about it from someone else?
    MCCLAREY: Objection. Hearsay.
    JUDGE: Overruled.
    MARK: Well, I didn’t actually see him, but that’s my best recollection.
    PROSECUTOR: Isn’t it true, Mr. Mark, that everything you say and those of your fellow witnesses, was all written down at least 50 years after these alleged events happened?
    MARK: Well, we all have excellent memories and none of us would lie.
    PROSECUTOR: Now, for those of us who weren’t there, when did Jesus first appear to his disciples?
    MARK: As I recall, it was out in the country, first two a couple of us and then to 11 of us.
    PROSECUTOR: Your fellow witnesses gave different accounts as to time and place. Matthew said it was on a mountain in Galilee, Luke says it was in Emmaus and later Jerusalem. John says it was in a room somewhere sometime in the evening.
    MCCLAREY: Objection. Irrelevant. He met them, of that there is no question, you honor. As to details, they are not important for the purposes of this case.
    JUDGE: Overruled.
    MARK: Once again, I only know what I saw or heard. I can’t speak for the other witnesses.
    PROSECUTOR: Indeed. No more questions for now. But I reserve the right to call this witness again, and the others.
    JUDGE: Let’s adjourn for the day.

  8. Courts aren’t used to determine historical truth Joe for obvious reasons. The rules of evidence have developed over centuries, and the trustworthiness of the evidence presented is often not why a particular piece of evidence is allowed in or kept out.

    In regard to Mark, we know that his main source was the Apostle Peter. We have that piece of information from Bishop Pappias who was born in 70 AD:

    “Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements. Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.”

    Joe, you being an atheist currently, or an agnostic, is your misfortune. I will not allow you much more latitude to recycle weak arguments from atheist websites. This site does not exist to allow people to attempt to breath life into arguments that were old and tired when Voltaire was young and tired.

  9. One last request: If possible, please remove me from this website and all my previous postings, leaving a tabula rasa.
    Thank you. Good luck to all of you.
    Joe Green

  10. I like to watch samurai movies. For years early on Saturday mornings, the IFC channel on DIRECTV aired slice and dice suey movies. One series was about a blind swordsman who never lost. hahahaha. It’s better, now, they air “The Three Stooges.” We can learn a lot from the bushido boys . . .

    I don’t have anything positive to say about Lincoln. So, . . . Just that it seems he rated himself up there with Washington before he even left the “sticks.”

    “Swear there ain’t no Heaven and pray there ain’t no hell.” That’s agnosticism, isn’t it?

  11. Lincoln is not, in these words calling himself the equal of Washington. He is saying (in all three versions) that the task at hand is the greatest since the one put before Washington. In that I think he was correct.

  12. Joe – Years ago I read a book called “Who Moved the Stone?”. The author was an agnostic lawyer who decided to examine the Gospels (specifically, the final days of Jesus’ life) as one would examine courtroom testimony. He started the project an agnostic and ended it as a Christian. He found the Gospel accounts were easy to reconcile.

    If one witness saw one person at the scene, and another witness saw two, the court wouldn’t assume that one of them was lying. The fair juror would note that it was dark, or consider that the first witness noticed only one person or forgot to mention the other. Holding the Gospel accounts to the same standard, they blended for the author sufficiently for him to accept them as true.

    I’m sure that if you’re looking to reconcile the Gospels, or if you want the discrepancies to convince you of their error, you’re going to find what you’re looking for. It was the author’s contention that if you approach them neutrally, you’ll find they tell a coherent story.

  13. I do have one question in reference to the original article, but still a bit off-topic. There are a few AC regulars who are Civil War buffs. What is it about that particular era that appeals to you? I understand and share the interest in history; there are certain eras that interest me, but I’ve never really committed to one. I’m curious how you made that decision, or if you made a decision (you guys could be polymaths).

  14. There are many eras of history that interest me, Pinky, but I am especially interested in the Civil War for the reasons noted by Shelby Foote:

    “Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War. I believe that firmly. It defined us. The Revolution did what it did. Our involvement in European wars, beginning with the First World War, did what it did. But the Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things. And it is very necessary, if you are going to understand the American character in the twentieth century, to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the mid-nineteenth century. It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads. “

  15. I’m an American history buff, and the Civil War is the seminal moment in our history. There’s also something to the fact that many of the battlefields are either wholly or at least partially preserved. You can go to Gettysburg, spend a couple of days there, and still not see everything. So being able to stand on the fields and see how the battles played out is something that is unique to the Civil War, as I don’t believe the Revolutionary War battlefields are as ubiquitous.

  16. While I have done a good bit of study of the War Between the States (though quite miniscule compared to the voluminous reading that Don has done on the subject), it is NOT one of my favorite eras of American history. I prefer studying the colonial to early Federal periods (especially French & Indian War, Rev War, and Founding period), with a smattering of War of 1812 and Texas Colonial and Revolutionary period mixed in. My interest in American history wanes considerably after circa 1840.

    Quite honestly, the Late Unpleasantness is too depressing a subject matter to which to devote much of my time and energy.

  17. The Revolutionary War era I have always found fascinating Jay. The War of 1812 has always been bland to me, perhaps because it was fairly ineptly conducted from our side. The Mexican War I have always found fascinating, especially comparing and contrasting it with the Civil War in terms of tactics and strategy. Although he could have given MacArthur lessons in ego, Winfield Scott was also a certified military genius and one of the overlooked Great Captains of our history. I think Robert E. Lee said after the Civil War that much of how to be a general he learned from serving closely with Scott during the Mexican War.

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