Like any other research…
Like every good genealogist who ever lived, The Legal Genealogist is a history geek.
We need to be able to properly understand our research subjects — and the records they left — in the context of their time and place where they lived and where those records were created.
So it’s fun to sometimes just sit back and do a quick search to see what happened on a particular day in history. There are, after all, lots of websites out there that will present a list of options including historical events, sports events, birthdays and more.
And then it’s fascinating to consider how that event — or those events — would have impacted those we’re researching.
Except for one little problem.
Sourcing that history isn’t quite as easy as citing that website.
Case in point: one particular website I happened to check this morning.1 Here are two of the events it tells me happened on April 7:
Not true, in either case.
The first United States Congress — meaning the first Congress following ratification of the Constitution — tried to convene at Federal Hall in New York City on 4 March 1789. One problem: no quorum. By that date, delegations from only five states had arrived.2
So the House adjourned to the next day. And although more representatives straggled in, still no quorum. The House adjourned again to the next day. And the next and the next and the next…3
A couple of Virginians got there in mid-March, one from New Jersey and one from Maryland on March 23, and another Virginian on March 25. Still no quorum. And the House kept adjourning.4 Another Virginian and a Marylander on March 30. Still not enough.5
But it wasn’t April 7, 1789, when the House achieved its quorum and you might be able to say that “The First U.S. Congress begins regular sessions at Federal Hall in New York City.”
Because two other representatives — one from New Jersey and one from Pennsylvania — arrived on April 1: “And a quorum, consisting of a majority of the whole number, being present, … the House will proceed to the choice of a Speaker by ballot.”6
From the first through the seventh, the House went through other parts of the business of organizing. On the sixth, the representatives concurred in accepting the votes of the members of the Electoral College. On the seventh, the House adopted its rules of operation.7 And it was on the eighth that all of the members of the House took their oaths of office, administered by the Chief Justice of the State of New York.8
So there’s an argument to be made that the “regular” sessions may have “begun” on 1 April, when a quorum was achieved, or on 8 April, when the House members took their oaths of office.
But April 7?
There isn’t even an argument to be made as to the exact date on which “The United States declares war on Germany and enters World War I on Allied side.”
That happened on April 6th, 1917, not April 7th:
On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson made a special address before a joint session of Congress asking for a declaration of war against Germany. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted in favor of going to war, and on April 6 President Wilson signed this formal war declaration, stating “that a state of war exists between the Imperial German Government and the Government and the people of the United States.”9
In short, even when it comes to basic historical facts, we need not just to cite our sources but also to check our sources and to be sure that we’re using the best sources — the ones created closest to the time and place of the event and that best reflect what actually happened.
And (sigh) even when it happened.
Sourcing history is like sourcing anything in our research.
Just because it’s online doesn’t mean we accept it as true.
Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Sourcing history,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 7 Apr 2021).
- No, I’m not going to identify the website. It’s not the only one that makes these kinds of mistakes! ↩
- Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, volume I (Washington, D.C. : Gales & Seaton, 1826), 3; digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory Project (https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwhjlink.html : accessed 7 Apr 2021). ↩
- Ibid., at p. 4. ↩
- Ibid., at p. 5. ↩
- Ibid., at p. 6. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., at pp. 6-11. ↩
- Ibid., at p. 11. ↩
- “Declaration of War: The U.S. Enters World War I,” National Archives Foundation (https://www.archivesfoundation.org/ : accessed 7 April 2021). ↩