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How to read a document: source identification

What's the difference between a primary source and a secondary source? KA's historian Kim Kutz Elliott and grammarian David Rheinstrom discuss reading sources by examining Franklin Delano Roosevelt's First Inaugural Address.

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Video transcript

- [Voiceover] Hello David. - [Voiceover] Hello Kim. - [Voiceover] So today what we're doing is taking a look at this speech by one of my favorite Presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt which he gave at his inauguration in 1933. And I think what's really important about looking at a speech like this is not only that we can learn to analyze this as a primary source, which will be helpful for thinking about it historically, but also because I think it's really useful to be able to look at a Presidential speech, or a speech given by any politician, and understand what kind of claims they're making and how they're making them. - [Voiceover] So, Kim, before we go any further, what even is a primary source? What's the difference between a primary and a secondary source? - [Voiceover] Great question. So a primary source is a document that takes a look at an event from the perspective of someone who was there. So, a primary source could be lots of things. It could be a photograph taken by someone who was, perhaps, attending a political rally. It could be a diary of, maybe, someone who was active in the women's rights movement in the 19th century. Certainly any speech, or even, let's say, like a oral history conversation, and I've mentioned a lot of significant things here, but it also doesn't even have to be something that is connected with a significant person or a famous event. It could be a shopping list, right, if you are studying the consumption habits of someone who lived in the 1950's. What they bought at the grocery store would tell you a lot about what they ate, what they could spend. So, a primary source is kind of the real meat of research material that shows you what people, at the time, were thinking. - [Voiceover] Okay, so a primary source is an artifact left behind by someone who was there. - [Voiceover] Exactly. - [Voiceover] What is a secondary source? - [Voiceover] So a secondary source is an interpretation. So, say I'm a historian, which I happen to be. - [Voiceover] Oh my goodness! (laughter) What a coincidence. (laughter) - [Voiceover] So I have done the work of digging up a bunch of primary sources, and, then, you look at all of them and see what they have in common, for example. So maybe I'm writing about Abraham Lincoln, and I get a lot of photographs of Lincoln, I get a lot of writings by Lincoln and his contemporaries and I go through all of them and I come up with my interpretation of what was going on in Lincoln's life. So, I write a book on Lincoln by Kim. - [Voiceover] Until now... (laughter) - [Voiceover] And that's my interpretation. - [Voiceover] Okay. - [Voiceover] Right? So the things that I'm interested in say Lincoln's religion, or lack thereof, might not be the same things that another historian would be interested. Say, they're interested in Lincoln's foreign policy. So, my interpretation is just one way of looking at those primary sources where another historian might have a completely different interpretation. What's also important about secondary sources is that I wasn't there, right? I never talked to Lincoln. He, you know, died more than 100 years before I was born, which means that you can only trust me so much. You can, instead, maybe get a much clearer picture of what Lincoln was really thinking by reading his own words. - [Voiceover] So, trust secondary sources about as far as you can throw them? - [Voiceover] Well, maybe trust all sources about as far as you can throw them, right, because everyone at every time has their own perspective. And so, the ideas of someone who lived in the 19th century are gonna be different than the ideas of someone who lives now, and you only know as much as you can know, right? You're only as informed as the information that you have. So, you really have to take everything with a grain of salt and compare it with other sources from its time period, and other sources later on, to get a sense of what's important. - [Voiceover] So you're saying that you might have a different perspective on Lincoln than another Lincoln scholar, but that Lincoln's writings, themselves, also contain Lincoln's own biases from his lifetime. - [Voiceover] Right. - [Voiceover] Okay, so what are we doing with Roosevelt's Inaugural Address, here? - [Voiceover] All right. So, let's take a look at this Inaugural Address as though we're historians, right? We're gonna sit down and really get into the... - [Voiceover] The feeling of the Great Depression? (laughter) All right. - [Voiceover] We're gonna get depressed. - [Voiceover] All right, I'm ready. So we've determined that because he was there and because this is a speech delivered by him, that this speech of Franklin Delano Roosevelt is a primary source. - [Voiceover] Right, and it's a great way to look at the Great Depression, right? If we want to know what people are thinking about, it's very important to see what the President of the United States has to say when he's been elected. So David, I know that you've been dying to read this in your terrific impression of Roosevelt, so I'm gonna turn it over to you to get a sense of what Roosevelt has to say. - [Voiceover] Okay, I'm gonna scoot back from the mike. "I am certain that my fellow Americans expect "that on my induction into the Presidency "I will address them with a candor and a decision "which the present situation of our people impel. "This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, "the whole truth, frankly and boldly. "Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions "in our country today. "This great Nation will endure as it has endured, "will revive and will prosper. "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief "that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself - "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror "which paralyzes needed efforts "to convert retreat into advance." - [Voiceover] That was beautiful (laughter). Thank you so much. - [Voiceover] You're welcome. - [Voiceover] All right. So how do we analyze this as a primary source and as a speech. And I think the first thing we want to do, step one if you will, is just identify what's going on, and thankfully, that's pretty easy for us, right now. - [Voiceover] Right, this is a speech given by the President of the United States in the moment that he becomes President. - [Voiceover] Right, so we know when it was, in March 4th, 1933. We know who gave this speech, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, just about to be inducted as President. We know why he gave it, right, very important for Presidents when they take office to make an Inaugural Address. So, we've got some basics here. We can even infer from the Inaugural Address where this was given, right, in Washington D.C. All right so in our identification, we've got that it's a speech, it's in D.C., happened in 1933, by FDR. So that's our identification stage. So to get at a little deeper level for this, let's move on to a second step which would be, kind of giving some context. So it's 1933. What's going on? - [Voiceover] Let's see. So, the Great Depression has been going on for four years. - [Voiceover] Uh-hmm. - [Voiceover] Prohibition has not ended yet, right? - [Voiceover] Right. - [Voiceover] Repeal has not come, so liquor is still illegal in the United States, for sale and transport. There's massive unemployment. The Dust Bowl is still raging. America is not in the greatest place! - [Voiceover] No, it's a depression, and it's a depression in all sorts of ways, right. People are emotionally depressed and there's an economic depression. All right, so we've got the general gist now that this is a speech from 1933 confronting the Great Depression. So let's get into a little bit more of the specifics. What is he actually talking about in this speech? - [Voiceover] Well, if you look at this speech, you can kind of see that he's acknowledging that things are bad. - [Voiceover] Right. - [Voiceover] Right. It's time to speak the truth. So he keeps talking about how, you know, "It's time to speak the truth. "We'll address the American people with candor. "It is time to speak the truth, the whole truth, "frankly and boldly. "We will not shrink from honestly facing conditions "in the country today." So Roosevelt is really priming everyone to say, "Like okay, you have not been told the truth "from your head of government for the longest time, "and now it's time to deal frankly "with just how bad things have gotten." And what's interesting, is that he says, "Things are not, you know, great, "but in every dark hour of our National life "a leadership of frankness and vigor has met "with that understanding and support "of the people themselves which is essential to victory." And he's saying that there's no need to be afraid of anything except just malaise. He's saying that Americans need to meet the problem of the depression with like an up-welling of national will. - [Voiceover] Right, and I think, you know, it's nice that he's saying, "Look, I'm gonna tell it like it is. "Things are bad. "I recognize that things are bad." And that's pretty important, because up until this point, Herbert Hoover hadn't really done much to recognize that things were bad. You know, he saw that people were suffering, and, yet, he said this is not necessarily the responsibility of government to deal with this crisis. - [Voiceover] So Roosevelt, actually, calls it, "a dark hour of our National life." Right, like this is an acknowledging that things are not great is a big part of this speech. But he's also saying that it's possible for us to bounce back if we are honest about the problems, and we address it with vigor, and that is kind of the New Deal, right, is addressing the problems honestly and with national exuberance. - [Voiceover] Yeah, and I think this is such a fascinating speech because, for one thing, this phrase has kind of come into our national lexicon, right. "There's nothing to fear but fear itself," which is kind of strange. It's one of those things, like "Have your cake and eat it too." That you're like, "Wait how is that possible?" So, what does he mean by, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." - [Voiceover] I think he's saying that this is no time to panic, and that the only thing that we should be afraid of is unreasoning terror. We shouldn't be running around like chickens with our heads cut off. Right, like this is the time to stand firm against nameless terror and focus on making the problems that we are facing into small, like accessible, combatable chunks. - [Voiceover] I think that another thing that's important about what he's saying there is that the Great Depression is caused by something that is very new in American culture, which is the stock market. And the stock market doesn't play by the rules of straight supply and demand. Instead, they play on confidence. And so, the reason that the stock market crash of 1929 happens is because people stopped having confidence that stocks are worth as much as the stock market says they are. So, everyone pulls out. There's a panic, and global banking pretty much collapses. And that's a really hard thing to deal with, right? I mean it's not like you're taking your money out of the bank or me taking my money out of the bank at any one time could cause an international depression. - [Voiceover] Right. - [Voiceover] But when there is a large group of people who all get panicked at the same time and take their money out of the banks, the banks fail. - [Voiceover] Right, and so what I think Roosevelt is saying is that we cannot allow a sweeping wave of panic to come over the nation again. - [Voiceover] Exactly. - [Voiceover] So, that's the context for this speech is things are bad. The reason things are bad is because of this wave of nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, and "America, I need your support "to make sure we don't let that happen again, "so we can turn this retreat into an advance." - [Voiceover] In our next video, we'll go more into how we can analyze this source and use it to construct an argument of our own.