Impact of the Individual in History



When studying the impact of the individual in history there are different approaches that must be considered in order in order to comprehend the differing levels of significance that groups of individuals contribute to history. The first, and perhaps most obvious theory, is the ‘Top Down’ approach and that of the ‘Great Man’. Coined during the nineteenth century, this theory explores the importance of notable individuals that had a decisive historical impact. In opposition to this is the ‘Bottom Up’ theory, which explores the importance of the masses and the ‘everyman’ in shaping societies. Both approaches are the source of much historical debate when deciding which group had the greatest impact in shaping world history and perhaps it is only through the comparison of both that allows the Historian to grasp the importance of the individual in history.

Great Man Theory

Thomas Carlyle once said that history was the combined biography of great men. Carlyle is often credited with the conception of the ‘Great Man Theory’ in the 1840’s. He advocates that history is dictated by the intelligence, charisma, political skill and wisdom of influential individuals. Understandably however, such a philosophical proclamation was met with counter-arguments. In 1860 Herbert Spencer argued that historical figures were products of society, rather than a culmination of their own individual prowess. He further argued that the so-called ‘Great Men’ and their action would not be possible without the circumstances that had been built before them.

Carlyle’s theory which was popularised in the 1840’s argues that history can be explained by the impact such figures as Hitler and Caesar, to name but a few, had on the world. For example, if someone were to subscribe to the theory, it is plausible that they would study the events of the Cold War by focusing on the big personalities of the time, Stalin and so on. This method of looking at history is strongly based on the idea that all historical events are directly linked to the decisions and orders of the key individuals of the time. Carlyle focused on the belief that it was the characteristics of influential figures that allowed them to impact the course of history. Even today, it is common for people to describe world leaders and pioneers a having the right qualities or personality for their position. The belief that leaders are born for their roles can be showcased through Churchill’s leadership during the Second World War as, it is often said that Churchill was the man for leading Britain against Hitler.

However, there is much controversy surrounding Carlyle’s theory in contemporary historiography. It is debated that if you look at history solely through the eyes of what we see as “great men”, a substantial amount of important information can be missed. Essentially, this counter argument states that if you look at the Second World War only through the eyes of Churchill and Hitler, a huge amount of history is lost and a complete understanding of the event cannot be achieved. Furthermore, Carlyle’s “Great Man” theory can be seen to be problematic because, by analysing history through the biography of individuals, social, economic and political aspects of events tend to lose detail and key facts and ideas are also lost. Spencer once said that “before [a great man] can remake his society, his society must make him”, here showcasing his belief that a great individual was a product of circumstance. Carlyle essentially argues that leadership was simply a quality some men, and women, are born with and this is a reason for their success. However, Carlyle’s theory can even be contested by science, as research surrounding leadership shows that numerous factors influence a person’s ability to lead and that it is not simply a given attribute.

In conclusion, Thomas Carlyle believed that history could be studied through the biographies of “great men”. It was his conception that the course of history has and will always be dictated by the charisma, skill and intelligence of influential men and women. The phrase, “great leaders are born, not made” essentially sums up what Carlyle was trying to preach to the historical community. However, historians and sociologists alike have disputed the credibility of the theory stating that people are products of society and circumstance and are not simply born “heroes”.


Industrial revolution – who made it?

A number of individuals were responsible for the birth and growth of the industrial revolution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including those who laid the ideological foundations for such a growth. For example Adam Smith wrote An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776 which popularised major economic philosophies such as labour division and free markets. Others such as Robert Owen advocated major concepts such as the use of child labour, which laid the groundwork for much of the economic progress during the industrial revolution.

Nevertheless it is important to recognise the individuals who built upon these ideological foundations, for example George Stephenson developed the steam engine for use in trains and helped construct the first inter-city railway line between Liverpool and Manchester by 1830. Similarly Joseph Locke built the Grand Junction Railway which connected Liverpool to Crewe and Birmingham, which was opened by 1837. Other such as Edmund Cartwright allowed for the growth of the textiles industry, which went on to become a large market during the industrial revolution, with inventions such as the power loom. Nevertheless there were countless entrepreneurs such as Sir Henry Bessemer who played a major role in terms of their growth of industries, such as steel, which became a major component in the second wave of the industrial revolution.

Despite this, it is important to remember the significance of the general populace in the growth of the industrial revolution, as they were responsible for producing both the supply of the products/services being manufactured, as a result of mass migration to cities, as well as the demand of the products/services, as this popular demand is ultimately what fuels major economic growth such as that of the industrial revolution.

The French Revolution: who caused it?

Revolution is a fascinating feature of human society. Revolutions have caused some of the greatest changes in our world to come about. What role did individuals play in these momentous events? The French Revolution was caused by many social and economic factors that have been studied to a near exhaustive extent. These imbalances and injustices created an atmosphere of popular revolution in the country, but without the unique actions of particular individuals, the Revolution may never have happened as it did.

The first individuals to consider are the Enlightenment thinkers and writers who inspired new generations to think more critically about their role in the world, and about the function of society. Writers such as Diderot, Voltaire and Rousseau discussed ideas of equality and liberal justice, and these ideas were absorbed by a growing number of people from all three ‘Estates’ in France, and throughout Europe. France was in a sense the centre of the Enlightenment. France was the most populated country in Europe in the late eighteenth century, with a population of 24,000,000. French books were circulated throughout Europe. France was a very rich nation, (though many of the common classes were incredibly impoverished). All these factors, along with the habit in Europe at the time to follow the French example, meant that the French Revolution had a widespread influence.

Other key figures associated with the French Revolution are well known for the part they played. Napoleon Bonaparte led the 1799 coup that overthrew the Directory. Robespierre led the radical Jacobins and ruled during the Reign of Terror. These characters were essential to the Revolution but would not have achieved anything without the support of the masses. One man alone did not storm the Bastille, but a whole group of Sans-culottes. Without the united sentiment of the French people behind them, what could activists and leaders have achieved? This is where the question arises: is the individual more valuable to a study of history, or the people? The popular urge for change and revolution was a movement that was born among the people, not among a few important individuals. It seems fair to conclude that it is necessary to observe both the individual history and the popular history when examining the causes of the French Revolution. This is mainly due to the large number of people at this time that belonged to the ‘3rd estate’ in France, and as such their frustrations, grievances and sufferings had a huge influence in the rise of the French Revolution.


Palmer, R.R., Colton, J., Kramer, L., (eds.) ‘A History of Europe in the Modern World’ (New York, 2014) pp.362-365

Ordinary People – Do They Matter?

History is often seen as the lives and stories of great men and women who hold power at a specific time. However, it is evident that without the role of the ordinary individual the path of history would be very different. Those great men and women who we view history through, for example Hitler, Martin Luther King and Emily Pankhurst would not have been as influential or as revered without the influence of ordinary people at grassroots level.

The role of the individual is vital for the study of social history, which allows historians to gain a view of the social and economic conditions during a particular period in the past, and allows a wider picture due to the contrasting options and outlooks of individual people. Traditionally historians have looked at more factual information and specific events, yet in more modern time social history has risen to become a key part of studying the past. The role of the ordinary individual has therefore been recognized as a key part of history. Throughout history the actions of ordinary people such as Rosa Parks have inspired campaigns and movements such as the civil rights movement in America that played a vital role in not only history, but even today. The role of revolutions in France, Russia and even globally could not have impacted the world in the way they have without the passion, commitment and unity of the common man.

Historians such as Daniel Goldhagen highlight the role of the ordinary individuals in momentum moments in history. His reference to the population of Germany as “Hitler’s willing executioners” infers how the actions of those at the top cannot be carried out without the support and commitment of those at the bottom. In addition, Ian Kershaw references the concept of “working towards the Fuhrer”, the concept of ordinary individuals supporting Hitler and indirectly pushing his beliefs and ideas on top Germany. This is evident in events such as the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, and the boycotting of Jewish shops by regular German citizens, which created the conditions for Nazi extremism to gain further power. Even though those at the top are clearly huge parts of history and a massive part of making history, the ways in which they gain power and exercise their wishes are a result of those ordinary individuals.

It is evident that the role of ordinary people is perhaps equal if not more important than those most famous faces throughout history. For a movement or change to occur it needs ordinary citizens to support and work along side it. Despite the importance of key famous individuals, their actions must be combined with those of ordinary individuals to create a real difference and change to history. There cannot be one without the other.

Primary Sources

There are many different types of primary sources, but those that are mostly important when studying the role of an individual in history may include: journals, letters and diaries. These kinds of personal texts tend to revolve around a narrative, which gives historians a different perspective to work with when compared to more “official” documents. This is because private accounts generally possess an open and honest quality that contrasts highly with the self-protective and often emotionless writing found in governmental documents. One drawback to this form of primary source however, is depending on the era in which you are looking, it may be possible that only certain classes of people were capable of keeping diaries or exchanging letters due to lacklustre levels of literacy. Contrary to this though, information can still be gleaned regarding other members of society from these sources; such as the rich and not-so-rich, the old and the young, the women and the men. Although these details may be coloured in a specific way due to the author’s own experiences, by comparing many of these types of writing, we are capable of extracting vital information about all aspects of society that makes these types of primary sources invaluable to our own knowledge of individuals and their importance in a specific period in history.

Undoubtedly then primary sources are the most useful tools available to a historian. Firstly, primary sources develop critical thinking skills. While reading a primary source one always has to think of the context in which it was written in thus questioning creator bias and the subjectivity of the sources. Secondly, they create a certain degree of empathy thus a deeper understanding of the topic at hand, when looking at the roles played by individuals. Thirdly, they help you consider different points of view in analysis, providing you look at more than just one primary source. Primary sources exposes you to multiple perspectives on great issues from the individual’s point of view. These perspectives can be from the ‘Great Men’ from society or from the ‘ordinary person’. Finally, primary sources help us understand the continuum of history. Using primary sources we come to understand that we all participate in the making of history which scholars in years to come may use to understand their past.

Limitations of using Primary Sources

Although Primary sources are commonly used in historical writing and have proved essential to historical research and understanding, they must still be approached with caution. It is first important to note that primary sources can come in a variety of formats and come from a variety of different people, ranging from ‘great men’ such as Stalin to the ordinary women activist fighting for Women’s rights in Britain. Therefore, it is essential for Historians using these sources to contextualize these documents while also asking questions about the nature, purpose and the person writing the document.

Focusing on the ‘ordinary’ person in society, there are many limitations of using primary sources that must be examined. Historians have pointed out that, although these primary documents from the ‘ordinary’ person are vital for recognizing the mind-set of ‘educated people’ – the historian must “bear in mind that these attitudes and experiences may be the only ones that are represented in this form”. This demonstrates that primary sources can only prove worthwhile if they are compared across a wide spectrum of society, if a generalised idea from society at a given time is desired from the historian. Furthermore, Lucas draws attention to main primary sources being from ‘educated people’ – this has been a problem for those seeking to get into the mind set of those local level people in mediaeval and Early modern times. Primary sources from these eras revolve around letters/ recorded documents from Kings, Bishops and high elites. In this sense, we get little or no idea on how policies or war effected those ordinary families. It has only been over the last 100 years where primary sources have come to be almost centred on ‘writing from below’.

Primary sources, although often rich in ideas from the ordinary person, often lack the external influences on the source. For example a letter home from the WWI front, which would have been censored by high officials who did not want to risk giving away any information to the enemy. Such influences limit our use of these sources, for they take away any real idea of what people were actually thinking at this time.