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History is never true. At no moment in the course of historical recording are all the facts known. The documents come to light serially, sporadically; all of them are never available at the same time. Centuries may elapse before the story of the World War is adequately told. A century, two centuries may pass before even a single movement or episode in a nation's history is understood.
Nor is it easy to arrive at the truth, even when all the essential factors in the historical problem or situation are ready to hand. For all history, as the great Italian critic, Benedetto Croce, has brilliantly pointed out, is contemporaneous. The writer, in dealing with times remote, interprets ideas, movements and events in the light of his own personal knowledge, experience and temperament. He cannot step off his own shadow. Even when he is writing of his own age and is strictly contemporaneous, he suffers the handicap of writing with insufficient data. History, written by a contemporary, is likely to be less accurate, less truthful than the history of the past written by someone living in the present.
If history is always contemporaneous and never true, there would seem to be no reason for its existence. The best excuse for the historical writer is that it is his function to correct the most glaring errors, to fill in the most yawning lacunae, in the writings of his predecessors. In so doing, he is giving a "new slant" to interpretation, or furnishing a new platform from which his successors may enter new fields of research.
-- Remarks by Archibald Henderson, "The Transylvania Company and the Founding of Henderson, K.Y.," delivered at the unveiling of six historical tablets at the Henderson Courthouse, October 11, 1929.
Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.