Perspective or Point of View: Teaching Analysis

Originally posted on September 20, 2011 by Shennan Hutton

I’ve been putting together a lesson on perspective for the Blueprint Civil War unit. I’m sharing here how I would explain perspective to 8th-graders, and how I might walk them through figuring out different perspectives of Americans before and during the Civil War. I’d love to hear your reaction.


Point of view or perspective is more than just someone’s opinion about a specific topic. Perspective is the entire worldview of a person, the way that person sees the world and is affected by the historical context. For example, as an American teenager, living in a city in California, in the early years of the 21st century, you see the world around you in a certain way. Your fellow classmates have very different personalities and they may disagree with you about many things, but you have much in common compared to a 60-year-old American, or a teenager living on a farm in Indonesia. 

We get our part of our perspective from our experiences and from the people around us – family, friends, neighbors, people on TV – without thinking very hard. Certain differences help form perspective. Time and location produce major differences. Someone who lived in the 1600s had a very different perspective from someone who lived during World War II. People who live in Japan have a different perspective from people who live in Peru, and differences in language and religion also affect perspective. A person in a wheelchair has a different perspective from a gifted athlete. Three important differences are race, class and gender. Latinos have a different perspective from Anglos. Rich people see the world differently than poor people do. It is natural to us to see the world through our own perspective, and hard for us to imagine different perspectives.

Another part of our perspective comes from our personal values and beliefs. For example, even though they were both rich, white men living in the 1830s, John C. Calhoun believed strongly in the rights of the states, while Daniel Webster believed that the federal government (the union) should overrule the states. A few northerners were abolitionists, but many others did not think the abolition of slavery was an important cause.

Our perspective helps us decide how we think about things that are happening around us – in our everyday life, in the nation, and in the world. Our perspective tells us what is important (to us.) But it also means that we are all biased, that we judge events and people from our own perspective. 

When historians analyze primary and secondary sources to collect evidence about the past, they pay careful attention to the perspective of the creator of those sources. If a painting shows happy slaves working on a beautiful plantation, the historian has to ask, what was the perspective of the artist? Was he or she white or black? A slave or free? Rich or poor? Did he or she live before the Civil War, or after it? If the artist was the white daughter of a plantation owner living after the Civil War, the historian can interpret the painting and her perspective in this way: The artist believed that the slaves were happy and plantation life was pleasant. She was sad that the Civil War ended that beautiful life (as she saw it.) The picture is “true” from her perspective, but not “true” from other perspectives. A slave on her plantation would have had a very different perspective and painted a very different picture of slaves working on a plantation. 

In a primary source text, you will not find the perspective of the author stated clearly in any one sentence. You have to find his or her perspective “between the lines.” Gather as many details from his or her biography as you can, and then read his or her words carefully to identify the underlying perspective.
To analyze the perspective of the creator of a source (an author, an artist, etc.), look for this information:
Nationality/Regional Identity
Date or time period
Historical Context: What were the most important events going on at that time? How was this person affected by those events?

After covering the above with the class, I thought the teacher might analyze these quotes with students for perspective. Project the quotes one-at-a-time and talk students through figuring out the person’s perspective.

A quote from William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), a New Englander, and a white middle class man: “Enslave the liberty of but one human being and the liberties of the world are put in peril.”

A quote from Senator Daniel Webster (1782-1852), of Massachusetts, a white rich man:
“I wish to speak to-day, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American and a member of the Senate of the United States. I speak to-day for the preservation of the Union. . . . I speak to-day, out of a solicitous and anxious heart, for the restoration to the country of that quiet and that harmony which make the blessings of this Union so rich, and so dear to us all.”
Daniel Webster
March 7, 1850

A quote from George Fitzhugh (1806-1881), in his book, Sociology for the South, published in 1854. Fitzhugh was a white Virginian middle class man:
“There is no rivalry, no competition to get employment among slaves, as among free laborers. Nor is there a war between master and slave. The master’s interest prevents his reducing the slave’s allowance or wages in infancy or sickness, for he might lose the slave by doing so. The slaves are all well fed, well clad, have plenty of fuel, and are happy. They have no dread of the future – no fear of want….At the slaveholding South all is peace, quiet, plenty, and contentment. We have no mobs, no trade unions, no strikes for higher wages, no armed resistance to the law, but little jealousy of the rich by the poor….”

A quote is from Senator John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) of South Carolina, a rich white man. He wrote this in 1828 while the Senate was debating the Tariff of 1828 and just before the Nullification Crisis:
“Ought not a sovereign State, as a party to the constitutional compact, and as the guardian of her citizens and her peculiar interests to have the power [of vetoing national laws] in question? . . . The disease is that a majority of the States, through the General [federal] Government, by construction, usurp powers not delegated [to the national government in the Constitution], and by their exercise, increase their wealth and authority at the expense of the minority.” 

A quote from Angelina Grimké (1805-1879), a rich white woman from South Carolina. She gave this speech in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1838:
“As a Southerner, I feel that it is my duty to stand up here tonight and bear testimony against slavery. I have seen it! . . . I know it has horrors that can never be described. I was brought up under its wing. I witnessed for many years its demoralizing influences and its destructiveness to human happiness. I have never seen a happy slave.”

Photograph Sources: William Lloyd Garrison- National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 530489
John C. Calhoun: Billy Hathorn, Canon camera photo of John C. Calhoun at National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.;
Daniel Webster: The Library of Congress,
Angelina Grimké: The Library of Congress,