There are two criteria which are appropriate to determine the significance of a historical figure. Without applying both to the vast expanse of human activity which precedes us is to deny students of today of a richer historical understanding. Taken together, they provide insight for the historically curious and lessons for those seeking that which may have a practical application to the problems of today.
Firstly, one must measure the impact a figure has had on posterity. This should be done by examining events which occur after the pivotal actions of the figure in question, seeking a cause and effect relationship between the two. This is more difficult than it may seem to be, as it involves not only an examination of the cause and a suspected effect, but also an investigation into other possible causes to test the strength of one’s theory. An event which serves as an example is recent scholarship devoted to the causes of the Salem Witch Trials. Historians focusing on the social, economic, and geographic relationship between the accused and accusers is quite revealing and raises important questions regarding an event which was once thought caused by personal grudges or hysteria.
Secondly, and this approach is more difficult than the first, one must determine the impact of a figure in their subject’s time, rather than just on posterity. There are a myriad of people who played very important roles in their day who have been all but forgotten. The fact that such figures have not been the subjects of great biographies or have been documented in school texts does not negate the fact that they may have exercised great power and have had a little-known, but great impact on today’s world. The rooting out of such men and women keeps our history fresh and entertaining while helping to fill in the gaps of the past and improve our understanding of the human experience.
History is a selective representation of the past. As such, it is as much a reflection of what has previously happened during human experience as it is of the values and times of the historian. An example of this phenomenon is the varying biographies of Andrew Jackson. Since his death and up to the present, biographers have stressed aspects of his identity to depict him as a political outsider, frontiersman, political insider, advocate of democracy, and as one who was hostile to the presence of Native Americans. The succession of varying and sometimes contradictory works is a lesson that a historian cannot tell the whole story of an event or person and often is as revealing of the writer's age as they had intended to be about their subject.