Using Biased Sources: The Sagebrush Rebellion
This assignment requires you to analyze six documents about the Sagebrush Rebellion. You will begin by carefully reading several documents in Foner (#161, #175, #179, #180) along with “Conley 1981 rape of the west article”, and “Zuckerman 1981 the interior department goes to war” and then complete “PSAP Table 6 – Sagebrush Rebellion”.
How to analyze these documents:
Unlike past assignments, this week you must analyze several different types of documents ranging from newspaper editorials to the President’s Inaugural
Address. Each of these documents clearly (and sometimes passionately) reflects a single point of view. In other words, these are all biased documents.
You have probably already learned to identify bias. Many of you have been taught to treat biased documents with great suspicion, and to avoid using them. But most historical materials reflect somebody’s point of view. If historians dismissed biased sources, we would have no sources at all. So historians have to use biased materials to construct an objective account of the past. In the case of a policy debate like the Sagebrush Rebellion, we read documents that reflected both sides of this debate over federal power and regulation, and use them to discern what land use policy was, who wanted what and why.
To do this, first identify which side of the Sagebrush Rebellion each author is on; this will tell you what his/her bias is. Then, list the claims the author makes, and divide these into those which are clearly affected by the author’s bias, which you think are reliable, and which you need to confirm with other sources.
If authors on both sides of a debate agree on a set of facts, you can treat those as pretty reliable. Be aware, as you read these sources, that it is human
nature to regard materials that one agrees with as more “unbiased” (believable, neutral, authoritative and internally consistent) than documents that one
disagrees with. So, try to look past your own bias to evaluate all these materials dispassionately.
So, what can these documents tell us?
Usually, at this point, I review the kinds of information a particular type of document can and cannot provide to the historian. This semester, these have ranged from formal policy justifications that lay out a political philosophy or place a single policy decision into a larger global context, to editorial
cartoons that crystallize complex political debate. Some of the documents you have analyzed this semester provide no information at all about public opinion.
Others offer some insight into this.
So, where does this leave you this week?
1) The readings this week are all relevant to – if not directly about – the Sagebrush rebellion. Thus, they all
offer a clear statement of one person’s opinion or perspective on a political dispute or policy – in this case environmental regulation and management of
2) Taken together, these materials should help you piece together all sides of this policy debate.
3) In this case, the debate over environmental regulation was part of a larger national dialogue about the role of government. So you should be able to outline this debate, too.
4) Remember, as you read these documents, that
most of these pieces were intended to persuade. So, they contain language carefully selected to appeal to their readers. And they clearly reflect the biases
and priorities of a single “side” of the argument. So, these materials also reveal something about the values and priorities of their intended.
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