Conjectures: Missing Information

One problem with understanding the past intimately and fully is that we have no candid visual or sound recordings of private, face-to-face interactions. We have to rely on written official records, diaries, and letters. And these can be misleading.

Perhaps the most obvious difficulty is the interpretation of a lack of evidence. What does silence really mean? What does terseness really indicate?

In some cases, letter-silence may simply mean that the parties were able to talk face to face. While some individuals, due to personal preferences, did write frequently, even when the other person was nearby (the way some people today constantly text), others may have preferred to save some conversations for the next visit. Conversely, the difficulty and length of time for delivery may have discouraged some people from writing. A sense that the rare event of a letter must be made worthwhile might increase the reluctance of some people. And of course, papers get lost or destroyed over time, even when the destruction isn't deliberate. We can't assume that letters or diaries were burned for privacy unless someone who saw the act says they were. And if they were burned for certain, we shouldn't assign a motive other than the one given by the burner (who probably wasn't telling anyone). In most circumstances, nonexistent documents signify nothing. There are simply too many ordinary, natural reasons them not to be written or for paper to disappear.

The fact of scant mention of a topic isn't necessarily very significant, either. It may be due to a lack of time, or of paper. Or the style of record keeping may simply be short and factual. Many family Bibles have lists of deaths and divorces without any outpouring of grief -- or relief, or any other emotion -- on the page. They're just lists of factual information, and were never meant to be anything else. And it's certainly possible for a person of the past to not have anything to hide, yet still not have anything to say to you, a stranger from posterity.

So the fact that we have no letters between Thomas Jefferson and his brother for years my simply mean that they saw each other enough to say everything they needed to say. Or the letters just didn't survive over the decades.

And the fact that the mention of his mother's death in his account book gives only the detail of the date and time is likely to be simply because it was meant to be a record of fact -- precise and to the point. The lack of extensive discussion of her in his autobiography is readily explained by the fact that it was written as a straightforward record of his political career, rather than an emotional memoir. Neither case is proof -- or even part of a proof -- of a cold relationship, or any other emotional problem.

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