A Cracked Mirror: Bias in HIStory and Ours

Bias is like this cracked rearview mirror.

The Controversy

Looking back at history is like looking behind you using a cracked or warped mirror; the view is always distorted. Our cultural and personal biases combined with misunderstandings through time cause the cracks and warps in our mirrors.  Though everyone has bias views, it is important to be aware of them when examining history. And to be aware of the bias of our sources and our readers.

As many of you know Historyscapes published a cropped portion of the great painting by Emanuel Leutze, depicting General George Washington crossing the Delaware before the battle of Trenton. A Facebook user immediately attacked the painting, “This picture is straight bull**** and not factual American history is a fabrication of lies and deceptions”. At this time no further explanation with or with out vulgarities has been made, despite our attempts to draw the user into further conversation. But the comments do, I think, require us to take a closer look at the painting, in context, not just of the subject matter but also the context surrounding the painter.

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Artist’s Bias

The painting was made in 1851 by a German immigrant who grew up in America. By all accounts he loved his adopted country. As with many paintings, Leutze painting tells us more about the artists feelings then about the actual subject matter. The painting shows George Washington in a standing position in a small unsteady boat crossing an impossibly large river with a new dawn just breaking. All of this is allegorical, depicting our shaky new nation crossing enormous troubles to see a new dawn of freedom.

Leutze created this painting to glorify George Washington and our Republic, as seen through the eyes of an immigrant. It was not meant to be an accurate historical depiction of a night crossing at a narrow point on the Delaware. Leutze returned to his native lands as an adult. He used the subject of the American Revolution to try to influence reformers in Europe at that time. His painting would eventually end up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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 Bias in HIStory – Then and Now

Just as the painting says more about the artist then the subject matter, I can not help but wonder what the quote “This picture is straight bull**** and not factual American history is a fabrication of lies and deceptions”, says about the Facebook user. Our current culture and views always colors our perception of history. In Elisha Hunt Roads’ diary, the young Union private depicts his Confederate adversaries as impossibly ignorant even of the most basic math skills. Roads’ Rhode Island upbringing during a troubled time likely informed his dim view of Southerners.

Samuel Watkins’ memoire, written two decades after the Civil War, is quite charitable to both his Confederate brothers and his former Union enemies. Both authors present factual information but from two different perspectives due in part to the time that has elapsed. And both are filled with biases that come from those perspectives. Often when we hear or tell a story, we have bias views of those stories as well. History is no different as it is simply a collection of stories. Our lives, our personal bias, effect how we tell and hear those stories. We need to be aware of bias to share our stories with honesty, integrity, and grace.

“Come now, let us reason together …” Isa. 1:18

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