After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection

For more than twenty-five years, After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection has guided students through American history and the techniques used to study it. There are two volumes, and for the purpose of this review we will focus on Volume I.

Whether used as an introductory survey or a historical methods course, this best-selling book is the ideal text for introducing readers, step by step, to the detective work and analytical approaches used by historians. Although in some chapters, the authors seem to relate not so much how historians operate, but how ordinary citizens should approach historical topics.

The authors, James West Davidson and Mark H. Lytle, are historians specializing in American history; they both have PhDs from Yale University. Davidson has pursued a full-time writing career, while Lytle is a Professor of History at Bard College. The idea behind the book and the concepts they seek to describe is conveyed in an extended introduction that looks at the life of an 18th-century diplomat named Silas Deane who died in mysterious circumstances.

From its opening prologue that starts with a good old-fashioned mystery, to a later chapter on how the Vietnam War is portrayed in films, After the Fact shows an entirely different view of history than what you learn in the classroom. Rather than attempt a large-scale overview of history, it is a case-by-case look at a number of specific historical events or topics. Each chapter focuses on a significant episode in American history to examine the art and science of historical investigation and interpretation.

In dramatic episodes that move chronologically through American history, the authors explain how various tools or styles of questioning can be applied by the historian to more deeply explore and reconstruct events from the past, which can help make a confused jumble of events start to make sense. After the Fact covers a broad variety of research tools, with each chapter dedicated to a specific “detection” technique including oral evidence, photographs, ecological data, films and television programs, church and town records, census data, and novels.

After the introduction, Volume I begins with the establishment of the Virginia Colonies in the 17th century as an example of how to look at contemporary evidence. The Salem witch trials are used as an example of looking at the history of a small community. Methods in interpreting the kinds of evidence that documents can provide the historian are demonstrated using the Declaration of Independence.

For 19th-century examples, the authors choose the mythology that surrounded Andrew Jackson as an example of how theories can be used to interpret history. The type of documentary evidence that images such as engravings and paintings can provide is explained using early portraits of Native Americans as an example. The authors use John Brown’s attack on Harpers Ferry in the 1860s as an example to show how psychological methods might reveal the motivations and actions of historical figures. The final example from the 19th century is the narratives of former slaves gathered in the early 20th century, which demonstrate some of the issues inherent in oral history.

The 20th century provides the authors with examples of how to examine legal processes using the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants who were executed for murder. They also look at the former Louisiana senator Huey Long to provide an example of how the theory that “great men” change history can be used. Historical models are demonstrated in application to the bureaucratic decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan at the end of World War II.

In the final chapter, the authors look at the account of two reporters on the final days of Richard Nixon’s presidency. They apply some of the historical techniques they describe to an analysis of the report and use it as an example of how all of these tools can be used together by the historian to more fully understand the causes and lasting effects of historical events.

After the Fact is a great book for generating historical thinking skills in students, adults and teenagers alike. It does a good job of explaining that historians, even the most professional, are subject to personal bias and the circumstances of their time. The authors demonstrate this themselves in the chapter on Vietnam. Unlike most chapters, they do not follow their own advice because they apparently take issue with any film that does not include massacres by American soldiers as the dominant theme. But even this serves to impart the lesson that as long as you can put one’s political views aside and take everything with a grain of salt, you will be closer to the truth.

After the Fact is now in its 6th edition, but you can find earlier editions in used bookstores, on Amazon, or at the Internet Archive. The volumes and editions are all pretty much the same. They are large format paperbacks, illustrated with real photographs from historical events, and each volume is usable on its own. AP history and college classes have used this book and homeschoolers can, too – either as an elective course or just for fun. It should appeal to any reader with an interest in American history or in detective work, since that is ultimately the theme of the book.

Here are links to a couple of Study Guides that will help you to understand or teach After the Fact (Volume 1), including Topics for Discussion: (4th edition) (5th edition)

Look inside these books on Amazon:


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