Awe-Inspiring Primary Sources

November 21, 2016

152 years ago today, on November 21st, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln sent the following letter to a Mrs. Bixby of  Boston, Massachusetts, whose five sons were killed in the Civil War:

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

Some of you will recall that in Steven Spielberg’s World War II movie “Saving Private Ryan,” Harve Presnell, as General George C. Marshall, pulls out a copy of this letter and reads it to his staff as the motivation to order a company of soldiers behind enemy lines in France in what turns out to be a successful attempt to save a private James Ryan, whose three brothers had already been killed in the war.

Spielberg could have come up with any number of artistic devices as a reason to search for Private Ryan, but his use of Lincoln’s letter, with its profound and empathetic rhetoric and reference to the terrible human sacrifices of the last war fought on American soil, results in a powerful dramatic moment and illustrates the unique ability of “primary sources” to provide critical context and authority to not only works of art but also to our opinions, lessons, arguments, and daily discourse.

Lincoln was not aware at the time, of course, that he was creating a “primary source” document. He was writing with a specific purpose—one of numerous letters just like it, sincere expressions of sympathy written by generals and presidents over the centuries as a consequence of war.

Having access to Lincoln’s letters, speeches, and other writings—as well as the written records of thousands of other leaders, authors, inventors, influencers, and historic figures—is critical to our ability to understand our past and to learn from our successes and failures. With the passing of time written documents of all kinds become valuable sources of facts and insights well beyond their original intent.

Still, whether we are aware of it or not, we are all creating primary source documents. The significance of a primary source document does not depend on its age, or whether it’s handwritten, or—if an image—captured on physical film, nor does it have to be created by someone famous.

Regardless of their origin, what primary sources have in common is their ability to clarify and add meaning or poignancy to an idea or event; or to sort truth from fiction.

Primary sources can also resonate on a personal level, helping us make connections that we were not aware of and providing inspiration.

This happened to me recently. I was having lunch with a new business partner, Mingdi Yang, who founded a small educational publishing company in Beijing. We met after she wrote me an e-mail about how much she enjoyed my book Dealing with Disruption: Lessons from the Publishing Industry. After exchanging a few e-mails, we both realized that there was common ground for us to work together.

Primary Source Mingdi Yang

Reviewers often fill the role of commentator on an author’s work, which is a form of feedback, but they know that they are writing for a larger audience. With Mingdi’s notes, however, I realized that I was actually looking at a special kind of primary source document, and I was given an opportunity to learn from someone else’s honest reflections and personal insights as to what is important—at least to her. Her notes also caused me to recall, and then write about, Lincoln’s letter, only to discover that it too was written on November 21st—a century and a half ago. Timing is everything.

For those of you interested in access to thousands of primary sources and their historic contexts and importance, be sure to check out Britannica’s Original Sources and LaunchPacks: Social Studies.