Charles M. Andrews (1924)
Acting President of the Association, 1924
Annual address of the president of the American Historical Association, delivered at Richmond, December 27, 1924. Published in American Historical Review 30, no. 2 (January 1925): 225–50
These Forty Years
In this year of grace 1924 the American Historical Association celebrates the fortieth anniversary of its birth. Itself the product of a new and growing interest in historical study in America, it has become in this country the accepted promoter of historical work, giving point and direction to historical achievement, and acting as a clearing-house for historical ideas and enterprises. Also the years of its existence are coincident with great progress toward maturity and soundness of judgment in the historical world at large as well as in the United States, wherever history is studied or taught.
These forty years cover more than a generation in the lives of men and constitute a remarkable period of material and social development, of readaptation of the human race to the world in which it lives. During these years hardly a branch of human endeavor but has felt the spur of a new inquiry. Men have passed out of an age of intellectual and scientific adolescence into one of wider and more certain knowledge; they no longer grope empirically toward results, but reach them by carefully ascertained and tested processes, based on a growing familiarity with the laws of nature and the ultimate structure of matter. In the fields of medicine, surgery, pharmacology, physics, chemistry, and biology, a veritable revolution has taken place and the results have become so commercially valuable as to attract the attention even of those who are ignorant of the technical processes involved. Discoveries in these fields are set forth on the front pages of the newspapers, are popularized in readily accessible magazines and books, and soon become so much a part of the common understanding as to find place in conversation at the breakfast table and in casual social intercourse wherever two or three are gathered together. Men mold their lives in accordance with these results, which concern their every-day existence, increasing their hopes of longevity, adding to the convenience and comforts of their lives, and widening enormously their interest in their own minds and bodies, and in the universe of which their own planet is but a small part. Life to-day, whether for better or worse, is fundamentally different from that of half a century ago, and even men of little intelligence and of limited powers of observation can see, hear, touch, taste, smell, and otherwise know of accomplishments in the fields of the exact sciences and in the realm of human inventiveness. They can grasp, somewhat less certainly perhaps, changes in governmental, social, and industrial organization, such as the passage from an agricultural to an industrial economy, the various adjustments arranged between capital and labor, the trend toward corporate ownership, lower costs, better results in production and distribution, and the decentralization and stabilizing of industry. They can understand also the enlargement of the electorate, the political activities of women, the place of labor in government, and the increase of the federal power.
The public at large has probably some inkling also of the advances made in religious and philosophical thought since the 'seventies, for one hears much about trials for heresy, the higher criticism, and the conflict between the fundamentalist and the modernist; and philosophy in its various forms has always had charms for the troubled human soul. In its relation to Darwinism and evolution, philosophy has become closely associated with scientific infidelity; and the sundry and various philosophical schools, capturing the interest of men by their various interpretations of life, have been able to teach most intelligent people something about philosophical concepts. Meanwhile the new psychology is kept before the public because of its embodiment in current fiction and its connection with criminal proceedings and the consequent notoriety that it obtains in the newspaper press. But however understandable these various subjects are to the average man, their technique and their scientific vocabulary are beyond him, a fact that makes him welcome the popularizer and respect the expert.
But history, with its vocabulary of every day, seems to be everybody’s affair, and during these forty years no such popular deference has been paid to the opinion of historical experts as has been given to experts in other fields, where technique and vocabulary are more difficult for the layman to understand. While few would question that a revolution has taken place in other branches of knowledge, there are those who decry the work of the historical specialist, believing that every man can be his own historian. Hume, Gibbon, Prescott, and Bancroft, and other writers of long ago are rated by the average man as equally scientific and as much deserving of confidence as the most advanced and best trained historians of the present day, and among the people at large there would appear to be no accepted standards or principles to which historical writing is expected to conform. It would seem, therefore, to be a fitting thing on this fortieth anniversary of our birth as an association to glance at the methods and work of the earlier historians and to ask ourselves the question whether these last forty years, which correspond so exactly with the age of science and the Darwinian philosophy, can show anything in history comparable with these in the way of higher canons of criticism and interpretation, better balanced judgments, and more rational methods of presentation. Men have reached new points of vantage from which to view the present and the future; have they reached similar points of vantage from which to view the past?
Few, I think, would question the statement of Leslie Stephen that the eighteenth-century group of historians lacked the capacity “to recognize the great forces by which history is moulded and the continuity which gives it real unity”; and that “they took but a superficial view, generally implying inadequate research and a complete acquiescence in the external aspect of events and the accidental links of connection, without any attempt to penetrate to the underlying and ultimate condition”. One might add that their work in the field of history was as crude as that done in the fields of medicine, geology, chemistry, and biology during the same period. They were credulous, careless, and childish, blinded by their partialities and hatreds. Often they contented themselves with finely spun theories and dreams; again they did little more than make current a mass of fabulous anecdotes and traditional gossip, for which they received far too much credit, even when judged by the standards of their own day. They generalized unhesitatingly from single instances, and fabricated motives, often the most general or the most gross, to explain situations and events. They had no conception of what we know as evolution and took little or no account of changes in standards and ideals, of shifts in moral and ethical viewpoints, that is to say, of mental longitudes.
The great majority of the historians of the period before the middle of the nineteenth century wrote works that are of but little value to-day, and one can only wonder at the apparent ease with which their volumes were turned out and the eagerness with which they were read. As far as bulk and matter were concerned, they were amazingly productive, and one marvels that publishers could be found to publish and readers to read the writings of such polyhistors as Laurent, Sismondi, and Barante. Also we doubt if the world will see, ever again, the like of Ranke with his forty volumes, Droysen, Lafuente, and Thiers with their thirty each, and Cantù with his twenty, many of which were written in the interims of political careers. Where did the men of the past get the time, money, and physical strength to perform such prodigious feats? Not all of them were content to be picturesque as was Prescott, commonplace as was Rollin, romancers as was Lamartine, or moralists as was Thomas Arnold. They faced serious tasks and wrote serious books, and for this reason their stupendous output fills the modern student with awe. It is true that there existed among them a certain amount of co-operation, particularly in France and Germany, where schools and institutes were coming into existence and great collections of sources were being planned and begun; but in the main these men grappled with their tasks single-handed and wrote more or less in isolation. Nowadays, works of such dimensions as theirs emanate from a bench or a group of benches and not from a single chair, and a universal history to win popular approval must be written in the style of the novelist as a substitute for fiction and appear in not more than two volumes!
Many of the historians of this period were satisfied to entertain their readers with sprightly and dramatic narrative, rich in style and glowing with color. Some aimed to enlighten or instruct, expounding the past as a record of events, concerning which the reader should be informed as a matter of education. Others construed history in terms of political progress, emphasizing the growth of liberty, democracy, parliamentary government, and constitutional ideas, and condemning as obstructive and evil the conservative forces of society. Many wrote to defend a creed or some form of religious organization, sometimes turning their histories into religious pamphlets by manipulating their facts in such a way as to justify a religious uprising or a religious state of mind. Still others, Tories or Whigs, Imperialists or Republicans, obsessed by national, racial, and political prepossessions, wrote to defend a party, a programme, or a government, and, using history as an armory of weapons with which to carry on the attack, selected their materials to suit their ends, stressing, omitting, and falsifying with impunity. Their volumes carried political propaganda just as their lectures inculcated political ideals. Though sometimes raising their narratives to high levels of historical accuracy, they could not avoid interpreting their evidence in the interest of political causes, and blended history and politics in an astounding degree. One admires their industry, their colossal erudition—such as it was, their phenomenal memories, and their brilliant imaginations, but at the same time one is impressed with their lack of judicial impartiality and the frequency with which they used their talents for inferior ends—to prove, to justify, to defy, to glorify, or to abuse. The older historians always took sides and applied their knowledge to demonstrate something or other in politics, religion, or philosophy. Niebuhr, Droysen, Mitford, Grote, Alison, Macaulay, and Bancroft, for example, saw but one side of their respective subjects, and Arnold and Kingsley were but theologians in disguise. Vigorous partizanship undoubtedly accounts for much of the popularity of Macaulay and Carlyle, both in their own day and ours. Bias of this character is never specially harmful, for it is possible to discount it when found in such quantity, whether in the form of German patriotism, the British Whig heirloom, or the American belief in manifest destiny. In the final estimate what these men have left us is often great literature rather than great history.
Their descendants are still with us, a prolific race. We shall always have writers who utter commonplaces that pass for historical thinking, who deal in shop-worn ideas, and who stand as idolaters of stratified dogma in both politics and religion. There are those with so little appreciation of the changes which have taken place in mental and social conditions as to write of past heroes as if they were the statesmen and bosses of to-day, just as the writers of the seventeenth century reversed the process by clothing the chieftains of Frankish tribes in the wigs and ermine of Louis XIV. We shall always have history written in terms of race and ethnology, as in the case of the old-time theory of Anglo-Saxon supremacy, the forerunner of the equally dogmatic and uncritical Nordic theory of the present; in terms of excessive patriotism and dynastic loyalty, as if history were merely something subordinate to love of country or crown; and in terms of sectional animosity, at its height in this country in 1867, when Donald Mitchell wrote that “every soul that made utterance south of the Potomac was consigned straight to Hell, and everyone north of the same who voted the Republican ticket was consigned to Heaven”.
Gossip and love of anecdote, the outpourings of diarists and letter-writers, none too scrupulous of veracity, and the unverified assertions of the oldest inhabitants and other participators in the affairs of their time still form the structural material out of which popular history is and will continue to be built to satisfy the needs of many of the world’s population. Readers will form their impressions of the fifteenth century from the Paston Letters, of the age of Charles II. from Pepys’s Diary, and of the eighteenth century from Walpole’s letters and memories, the latter of which has been well called “an inappropriate title for a misshapen and scurrilous libel”. Chroniclers and personal narrators have spread lies that the historian will never be able to run down, and autobiographers, even some of the most recent, have not always risen above the indulgence in malice that characterized the scandal-mongers of two centuries ago. To many diaries kept by men in public life the famous lines on Greville are still applicable:
For fifty years he listened at the door,
He heard some secrets and invented more.
There is hardly a form of the old types of historical writing that cannot find its counterpart in what passes for historical literature to-day, but happily the old credulity, the old verboseness, the old obliquity of vision are no longer able to pass current as good coin of the realm, and more and more the reading public is coming to realize that all these historical concoctions are as injurious to the mind that absorbs them and believes in them as were injurious to the human body the old-time frauds and adulterations with which the apothecaries of the past filled the stomachs of their patients.
I would not for a moment seem to exaggerate the archaic character of much that has served for history in the past or fail in appreciation of any form of historical writing to-day that meets the end for which it is designed. Much of the older work was written with charm, beauty, vivacity, zeal, courage, and religious conviction, and even before the middle of the nineteenth century, history as a subject for serious study had advanced in Germany, France, and England beyond the levels of the literary hacks, such as Rollin, Goldsmith, and Smollett, to the higher standards of Hume and Robertson and again to the writings—magnificent for their day—of Niebuhr and Ranke in Germany, the Thierrys, Guizot, and Mignet in France, and Hallam and Macaulay in England. With the nineteenth century came signs of the beginning of wisdom—doubt, skepticism, and discipline; and the appreciation of the fact that long training in the experimental method was needed if history were to have a scholarly value. A few began to emancipate themselves from dogmas and theories, but only here and there one, such as Ranke, the greatest of them all, attempted to deal with history for its own sake or would have acknowledged that such a purpose was worthy of consideration. The best of the writers of the period studied their sources systematically, as far as they could get hold of them, exhibited a high regard for criticism, and, by treating historical phenomena without reference to current controversies and without sentimentality, laid the foundations of the modern school.
To all the older writers, despite their limitations, the historian of to-day owes a debt that can never be paid, for they first explored the land. They were the great pioneers; they discovered a new world and made it a place of life and action and reality; and they aroused a new curiosity and a new zeal. They made substantial contributions to scholarship, and where they distinguished between legend and history, speculation and fact, they introduced a new art, that of doubting and believing rightly. In the hands of many of them experimental methods became more exact, the scope and depth of investigation were widened, and the foundations were laid not only of knowledge but also of an interest in the past of mankind that was richer than ever before. The early nineteenth century is the period when the modern historical spirit and the modern historical method were born.
American historical scholarship owes its regeneration largely to the influence and teaching of these men. It was an event of no little importance for the future of historical research and writing in this country when in 1853 two young graduates of Yale College went to Europe, ostensibly as attachés to the American embassy at St. Petersburg, but actually to study and investigate social and educational methods abroad. They were Daniel C. Gilman, afterwards the first president of the Johns Hopkins University, and Andrew D. White, first of Michigan and later of Cornell. Brilliant forerunners and self-trained historians—such as Sparks, Bancroft, Palfrey, Hildreth, Motley, Arnold, and Parkman, among whom Bancroft and Motley had had German experience—were already working in isolation, individual luminaries of an epic historical age in America. For some years local interests had been subserved by the founding of local historical societies and by the beginnings made of gathering materials for the writing of our history. But as far as the national period was concerned, the results were relatively speaking meagre and the workers few. The historical science of this period was but a faint adumbration of the historical science that was to come. For three years White studied at both Paris and Berlin and returned to America determined to put into practice the lessons he had learned. Starting at the University of Michigan in 1857, he inaugurated the first courses in history that were ever given in this country representative of the modern idea. Of his work, his successor at Michigan, Charles Kendall Adams, himself a German-trained scholar and one imbued with the same ambitions, wrote as follows:
The inestimable service of Professor White, during his five years at Michigan, was the fact that at that early day, years before a similar impulse had been felt anywhere else in the country, the study of history was lifted to the very summit of prominence and influence among the studies of the college course. No one who was not on the spot can adequately realize the glow of enthusiasm with which this reaction was welcomed by the students of the university.
But White introduced no seminary and officially trained no students. That was left for Charles Kendall Adams himself to do in 1869 and for Henry Adams at Harvard in 1871. Of the latter, one of his students, Professor Laughlin, has recently written, “He came as the paladin of new adventure. He had the dash and spirit of the iconoclast. He tied up American history, not only with British institutions but also with those of our Teutonic forebears”. From these seminaries issued the first dissertations printed in this country. The number was small but the quality of the work was high. As yet the seminary as a training-ground for students was only in its infancy. Adams at Harvard soon tired of his effort and turned to other things; Adams at Michigan continued his enterprise until 1885, but the want of any means of publication limited seriously the influence of his example. Neither of these experiments begot other experiments or fathered a school of investigators.
In the meantime new influences were at work and the teachings of Darwin, Buckle, Draper, and Lecky began to simmer in the American historical mind. A broadening of the historical viewpoint took place with the sifting into America of the writings of Kemble, Green, Laboulaye, Maine, Freeman, and their followers. The decades of the ’seventies and ’eighties were a time of controversy and debate, of violent recoil and no less violent enthusiasm. The older school vehemently opposed the determinism of Buckle and the biological, evolutionary writings of Darwin and Wallace; while the younger generation, less committed than were their elders to the rigid limitations of the old theology, welcomed any breaking away from the traditions of the past. They took up with all the zeal of converts the Germanic ideas of Green and Freeman, and saw in the whole complex of origins, survivals, folkmotes, marks, and other insignia of Anglo-Saxon freedom an inspiring enlargement of the historical horizon. The idea of unity and continuity, applicable to the history of their own country as well as to that of the old world, sank deep into their minds. During these years many vagaries held sway, the imagination took wild flights into the primitive past, and processes of historical purification had to be set up and a certain amount of discipline enforced before the balance between romanticism and classicism could be restored.
The spirit of free inquiry, zeal for knowledge, and the absorbing interest which obtained in matters of politics and the state, characteristic of German instruction in the seventies and eighties of the last century, had a tremendous influence upon the group of young men who went there from America and listened to lectures on constitutional history, constitutional law, and political science. Narrative and description, chronicles and annals, representative types of historical writing of that day, became decreasingly important, while more significant became such subjects as institutions and constitutions, legal and social organization, economic theory and public law, administration and government. For a time it looked as if history as a subject for serious study might be driven from the field. Clio stood aghast, seemingly stripped of her attributes, as one by one government, administration, economics, law, sociology, and finance were torn from her grasp and she saw herself classed as a mere remnant, a residuum, an inferior entity, calling for inferior qualities of mind and wanting in those characteristics of exact delimitation which the advanced student demanded and the political scientist had in mind. But soon she took stock of her virtues and endowments, and realizing how imperfectly she had been defended by those who had been her guardians in the past, rose to a fuller appreciation of her own importance and her real greatness and demanded recognition, not as a remainder or residuum, but as the one universal interest embracing all the rest. In the end the remnant proved to be a seamless garment that could neither be parted nor rent. To use Mr. Teggart’s phrase, history proved to be not the scullion in the kitchen of political science, but the mistress of the whole house. The conflict was glorious, and history emerged bearing the spoils of war. The effects were beneficial and fruitful for both sides of the controversy.
These years from 1880 to 1900 were a tinge of great awakening in the American historical world, as effective in its way as was the corresponding awakening already taking place in the field of the natural sciences. It was a time of exhilaration and almost religious fervor among the younger scholars, who saw new spheres of opportunity opening before them and entered on the quest with the zeal of explorers making new discoveries or of crusaders advancing to new conquests. The student of to-day, who is born into an historical world already mature, finds it hard to realize that after the Civil War the teaching of history in our schools and colleges was either non-existent or of so dull and juiceless a character as to deserve neither mention nor respect, that historical investigation had largely ceased to be active, and that writing on American history in the interest of the public at large had sunk to a low level of prosiness and insularity. This condition it was that gave John Fiske his great opportunity and prepared the way for the enthusiastic reception which his works received from the readers of that day. Fiske found historical writing in a state of dullness that had become almost a byword. He came to the subject fresh and untrammelled by tradition and precedent and applied to it the powers not only of a versatile and vigorous mind but also of one already accustomed to view human development in terms of the cosmic universe. He captivated his readers by making American history interesting and significant. He vitalized it, bringing it out of its isolation into touch with the forces of world history. He was almost the first to give life and reality to the men and events of our past and accomplished a remarkable feat when he turned the American people from Prescott, Irving, Parkman, and Motley, and others, whose subjects lay chiefly outside the limits of the present United States, and caused them to read with enjoyment books that dealt with their own origin and growth. Nothing that Fiske wrote is great history, but much of it is good history, and his place in American historiography is one of great merit and dignity.
Of the new movement two aspects stand out in high relief. First, in colleges and universities an extraordinary reorganization began which in time took on the character of a veritable revolution. Old chairs were divided and new chairs were founded devoted to history alone. Courses in history were increased where they existed and started where they did not exist, and the proper methods of teaching the subject to undergraduates became a burning question and has remained such ever since. The demand for teachers specially prepared for the purpose of historical instruction increased vastly and men who had been trained in Germany and France came back to direct and guide the new activity. The second aspect was more important than the first. Teachers and investigators for the first time were trained in America. In 1876 was opened the Johns Hopkins University, which under the inspiration of its first president, Gilman, became the first academic institution in America to devote itself primarily to graduate instruction and study. The seminary, which was introduced at once, took root under the late Herbert B. Adams, and has been amazingly fruitful from that time to this. Almost simultaneously with the coming of Adams from Heidelberg, came John W. Burgess from Leipzig, Berlin, and Göttingen to teach at Columbia, where in 1880 was founded the School of Political Science, largely for the purpose of advanced instruction and research. The influence of these two centres of historical activity and life can hardly be overestimated. They mark a new epoch in the history of our subject and became the starting-points in the leavening process which in forty years was to spread into every part of the educational life of America. After 1890, fewer and fewer historical students found it necessary to go abroad, for they were able to secure adequate training at home.
That the fruits of his seminary efforts should not be lost and that the stimulus of print should be applied to the students under his charge, Adams started the Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, the first series of its kind to be instituted in this country; and a few years later, in 1886 and 1891, the Columbia school established the Political Science Quarterly and the Columbia University Studies in History, Economics, and Public Law. Each of these was the forerunner of many similar publications of the present day. A knowledge of historical literature on a large scale was brought to the student, the general reader, and the collector of books by. Adams’s Manual first issued in 1882 and in revised form in 1889, and so helpful has this contribution proved to be that it is now to be brought up to date and so thoroughly revised as to constitute, strictly speaking, an independent work. Organized effort and publication were stimulated by the rounding of our own American Historical Association in 1884 and by the issue of its yearly reports and supplemental volumes, now constituting some sixty altogether, for the promotion of historical studies, the collection and preservation of historical manuscripts, and kindred purposes in the interest of American history and of history in America. In 1886 bibliography and method received a new impetus with the publication of the first volume of Winsor’s Narrative and Critical History of America, eventually completed in eight volumes of bibliographical and cartographical matter, which organized the literature and sources of American history in print and manuscript. In 1889 appeared Bernheim’s treatise on historical method, the first book to bring to the student in America any knowledge of the proper technique of his subject and destined to be the forerunner of many other works of the same kind, which broadened the range of treatment and adapted technique to the needs of transatlantic students. In 1895 was established the American Historical Review, at first conducted as an independent publication and finally taken over by the Association as owner and director. For nearly thirty years, during all but four of which it has been in charge of a single managing editor, it has done more than any other single agency to establish sound historical principles and uphold consistent historical ideals. In the same year the Association inaugurated a more progressive policy, enlarging its functions and widening its appeal by taking on new activities and becoming an itinerant body.
The result of all these activities was a true renaissance, in which the conception and treatment of history, under the inspiring leadership of men who saw visions and dreamed dreams, rose above the level of mere schoolmastering and became creative. This was the springtime of the historical movement in America. Invaluable as had been the influence of Germany and France upon the movement at its inception, our scholars soon created their own historical atmosphere and laid down their own rules for their seminaries and schools of research. The German tendency toward undue specialization and the narrowing of the range of study was counteracted in America by the native instinct for practical endeavor, and especially by the demands which our educational institutions were making for men trained to teach in any field that might be required by the college curriculum. From the beginning the policy governing both the Association and the Review was opposed to excessive concentration of interest and was encouraging to those who, convinced that no good could come of splitting the subject into fragments, believed that the true function of historical study was not argumentative and exclusive but rather synthetic and constructive. The habit of talking about political history and church history and economic history and military history and agricultural history and all the other varieties of history gradually gave place to the higher purpose of viewing all these subjects as parts of a common whole and refusing to allow fences of any kind. By the beginning of the twentieth century, history in the large creative sense had come to its own in America. It had asserted not only its right to exist but its own supremacy. It had organized its activities, gathered its army of adherents, demonstrated by voice and example the seriousness and importance of its aims, and proved its value as an asset in our civilization. In these twenty years history entered upon a transformation as complete as any which had been effected in the exact sciences, in social organization, and in philosophical thought.
Not a little of the success which history has attained along these lines was due to the spirit of organization and co-operation that characterized the period. As we have seen, the older historians worked largely in isolation, a condition that is not only undesirable in itself but is to-day becoming more and more impossible. The modern worker has come to realize that in union there is strength and hope of success, and that from the earliest stage of the collecting and preserving of materials to the final presentation of conclusions, combination and mutual assistance are in every way essential. The fact that in our universities historical study is organized, historical needs are known, and historical standards are enforced has brought it about that the historical output to-day is largely controlled by our collegiate departments. The material is too vast, the scope both in space and in time too broad, the problems are too varied and the demands made on the scholar in matters of thoroughness and accuracy too exacting for the isolated, untrained, and unprofessional scholar to compete with success. There are, of course, magnificent exceptions to this rule, particularly in England, where research in the past has been less highly organized than in this country and where some of the great masterpieces of historical writing have appeared from the pens of men of genius working more or less individually. But the fact that we are passing through a period in which monographic writing is a dominant feature renders co-operation all the more important. The monograph in history corresponds to the experiment in the laboratory, where the investigator is at all times in touch with the problems and workers in the field and is able to make his results known to his brother scientists through the medium of the scientific publications. The historical student can do the same, and either in notes, articles, monographs, or books can make his results known to the world. Our Review prints articles on other subjects than those relating to this country and in time foreign reviews may be brought to appreciate the desirability of publishing articles about America.
The truth is that in the past our historians rather than our history have interested the foreigner, and our co-operation with the old world, as Professor Haskins has so admirably shown, has been more active than that of the old world with us. Through the medium of the American Historical Association and the American Historical Review, local and sectional historical interests are gradually being drawn into a common whole, and a very promising beginning is now being made of Anglo-American co-operation in the conferences of professors of history from the two countries and in the effort made to expound the part that Great Britain has played in the events of our colonial period and the connection which her history has had with our national affairs. Gradually a measure of international co-operation will be obtained, as our history, rightly understood, is seen to be essential to a knowledge of world history, and the scholars of the European continent will come to appreciate the significant share that America has had and is to have in the promoting of modern civilization. Some day we may see this appreciation expressed in the founding of chairs of American history in foreign universities and in the writing of books by foreigners on American history—books that will be of interest not only to the people for whom they are written, but also to us, in so far as they enable us to see ourselves as others see us. The growing importance of America in the affairs of the world is bound to lead to a quickening of interest on the part of outsiders in the character and details of her history; and it may easily happen that these mutual efforts to overcome the isolation of America in things historical may well be the forerunner of the greater effort that will be needed to overcome her isolation in things political.
A subject which in forty years has passed from a state of incoherence and disorder to one of organization and order; which has attracted to itself thousands in our colleges and hundreds in our graduate schools; which has won for itself a place of equality with all other subjects in the curricula of our institutions of learning; which is promoted by a learned and influential review devoted solely to its interests; and which is supported by a network of local and sectional societies, culminating in this great association of more than twenty-five hundred members—a subject, that is, which has attained to maturity and professional standing in the world of scholarship and science must of necessity display certain marked characteristics of treatment and be governed by certain definite principles according to which its votaries perform their work. Historical methods cannot be merely haphazard or empirical, nor can historical precepts be the result of accident or chance. The historian cannot be a free lance to write as he pleases, for he must play the game according to the accepted rules, and it is one of the outstanding marks of the progress which the study of history has made in this country that there are accepted criteria accompanying historical research and presentation and accepted standards—constituting a code not dreamed of in older days—to which the writer of history must conform.
But first of all, we must reckon with the fact that our views as to what constitutes history have become enlarged. No one will ever say again with Droysen and Maurenbrecher that the statesman is the historian in practice or that the historian’s task is to make the state understand its origin, its duty, and the conditions of its life. No one to-day can agree with Seeley that history is the biography of states or with Freeman that history is past politics and politics present history. These pronunciamientos have passed into the limbo of things unheeded. History is not limited to politics, diplomacy, or war, but is concerned with man’s every activity, and while writers will always differ in their estimates and stresses, it is doubtful if ever again precedence will be given to the forms of government and the rise and fall of political parties. The historian claims the right to concern himself with any subject needed to ex plain the situation that he has set himself to understand and expound. He realizes, as never before, that no event or aspect or quality of the past can be understood without seeing it in connection with the entire life of the times. He may need to know something about religious creeds, socialistic theories, systems of land distribution and agronomy, the working of the common law, the influence of money and banking and international exchange, the literature, art, architecture, and philosophy of an age, and even of the laws of nature in the fields of physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology—indeed the whole historical complex in peace and war. Any part of the whole record of civilization is the legitimate object of his quest. The first step in the historical process is research, and within this field a remarkable change has taken place as to the nature of the material now utilized by the historian and the tools of trade constantly being prepared for his use. Both the raw material and the instruments for working it up into a finished product are such as the older historians knew nothing about. As regards the material, the older generation depended largely on the chronicle, the memoir, the diary, the letter, and other forms of conscious source-evidence. Even Freeman limited himself to the medieval chronicle in prose and verse, eschewed manuscripts and palaeography, and paid no attention to the vast quantities of records and documents that had accumulated in local and governmental archives. The modern scholar considers as grist to his mill anything whatever that represents man’s activities on earth—charters, rolls, acts, accounts, extents, registers, log-books, and the, thousand and one varieties of texts that have come into existence in ever increasing quantities as the years have passed, all representative of man’s life as a social and political being. The material thus made available is increasing year by year until its bulk is outstripping the power of the student to inspect and digest it. Hence the necessity of lists and indexes and guides and repertories and other forms of the modern historical mechanism. To the scholar every document has some importance, and how to find it and to determine its relative value is an important part of the student’s training. The formal document is losing some of its prestige in the presence of the accumulating mass of humbler materials that show, often more truly and accurately, the actual influences at work in contemporary thought and life. The official document may often be misleading, because an “inspired” statement, and the same language used at different periods of history may have different meanings in the minds of those who wrote the words. All this material is dealt with critically as regards its text and with scrutiny as regards its origins and the reasons for its existence. To wide and careful research is added the test of criticism in every field of inquiry from the Book of Acts and the History of Eginhard to the Diary of John Adams and the reports of the battle of Jutland. Not only has “conscious” material to be stripped of its errors and prejudices, but even “unconscious” and official sources need to be interpreted and properly understood.
In discussing the next step of the historical process, namely, interpretation or exposition, we are on more debatable ground and must take account of significant changes in the historian’s attitude toward his subject. It has been well said that the “main feature of recent research is the displacement of the picturesque by the study of conditions and ideas”. No one would dare assert to-day that the main end of historical study is description, narrative, or even biography, and the modern historian always questions the value of history written in biographical form. The Victorians, both in England and America, were hero-worshippers unashamed. Great men dominated their scene and the incense and reverence of the temple permeated the historical writing of their day. Mazzini criticized Carlyle, who exalted the dramatic and heroic aspects of his subject, for not conceiving of humanity apart from the individual, and for not recognizing in people any collective life or collective aim. With the utmost truth he asserted that in the study of individuals there can be “no intelligible chain of connection between cause and effect, no constructive accomplishment in understanding and laying bare the complex processes that have built up the life of humanity”. History to-day is dealing less and less with personalities and actions in isolation and more and more with the development and interrelation of ideas and institutions, with the origin, growth, and modification of human thought and human relationships, and with the influence of material conditions of life on social and political organization.
The modern historian realizes, too, that with the passing of excessive emphasis on the personal element will disappear also the exaggerated notion of personal liberty in human history. He accepts Huxley’s statement that men must renounce some of their freedom of action as a necessary condition of social existence, and that there is no nation or country, present or past, in which adult man has had or now has exclusive possession of himself. He believes further that the continuance of society always depends on the tacit admission by every member of it that the polity of which he forms a part has a claim to act in some measure as his master. He knows that the individual in every age is surrounded and dominated by the conditions about him, and that no man can be taken out of his setting and construed as an independent agent. He knows that no one at any time is entirely out of touch with the intellectual, moral, and social tendencies of his time, even though he may be a little ahead of them or a little behind them. He knows that in all ages conservatives and liberals are necessary parts of every social and political community, that ultra-conservatives and ultra-radicals are a menace to social peace, and that historically and generally speaking the enthroned immobility of stupid reactionaries leads to revolt or revolution, just as enthroned and uncontrolled radicalism is likely to be followed by reaction. Personalities are enormously interesting and important in themselves, but their relation to the collective mind is more significant than their individual actions. For instance, the common will for peace in the world at the present moment is a weightier historical factor than the policies of individual statesmen or the talk of war. Maitland says, “What men have thought—that is history”, and the historian is less concerned with what individual men are thinking and doing than with what groups of men are thinking and doing; for in the growing convictions of the majority lies the future of the world.
Also, just as the historian of to-day is making new demands upon the subject-matter of history, so is the subject-matter itself making new demands upon the historian. He must attain to a state of more or less complete absorption in the life of the age to which he is giving his attention, and be so far at home with the spirit and thought of a people as intuitively to avoid anachronisms and misreadings of the data at his disposal. He must free his mind of those modern prepossessions and ideas that twist and contort the judgment, and must not construe men and institutions of earlier periods in terms and language of the present. He must not inject motives and methods that are foreign to the thought and habits of a particular time and country and must always be on his guard against ascribing to the men of the past that which has been achieved only in modern times. He must keep his mind open to both sides of a controversy and be able to understand the psychology of sections and nations, if he is to interpret truly both motivation and conduct. The idealist or doctrinaire in history is in constant danger of treating peoples of different parties or countries as if they were thinking along the same lines, conforming to the same moral, ethical, and legal standards, and acting in accord with similar aspirations and desires. This menace is greatest in periods of revolution and war, when conflicting psychologies and the motor forces of heredity and environment are always among the causes which have led to open rupture, as in the case of Great Britain and her colonies in the days of our Revolution, of North and South in the days of our Civil War, and of Germany and the Allies before, during, and after the Great War.
Furthermore, he must not picture himself as a moralist or deem it any part of his task, as generally did the historians of the past, to provide his readers with ethical or moral judgments or to decide where lies the credit or blame for historical events. Goldwin Smith, particularly in his later years, was much given to historical moralizing, and history became to him a tale of corruption and superstition, jobbery, rapacity, and maladministration generally. There are others, too, who convert history into a frightful monument of sin; who excoriate feudalism, the medieval Church, the medieval monarchy, mercantilism, protection, and an established church, and consider historical study valuable only as far as it furnishes opportunities for moral instruction; who assign to each personage of the past his full quota of moral responsibility; and who take it upon themselves to instruct statesmen and governments of the past in what ought to have been their duty. The weakness of the moral judgment in history lies in its suppression of the time-test and in its application of modern and personal standards to the men of other ages than our own. It tends to disappear with the realization of the fact that the object of historical study is to interpret, not to condemn; to understand, not to preach or revile.
This brings us to the difficult question of objectivity in historical writing, that vice so abhorred of certain minds, which Treitschke called “anemic” and “bloodless” and one of our own writers has dubbed “the thrice blessed anchorage of the academic mind”. A recent critic has likened objective writing in history to “a grim, worldly old hag”, who would quench romance in Eden itself and never suffer the world to go hunting Golden Fleeces or Helens of Troy or indulge in any of the midsummer madnesses of romantic ad venture. I notice that a good deal of this sort of comment comes from those of strong literary leanings, who wish to inject into what they write a large element of personality, who, like Byron, prefer that the history they read should be colored by human prejudice and passion, and who have at their command a palette of bright colored words, epigrams, and vivacious expressions. Those who speak scornfully of things academic are as a rule not interested in history, but in literature. They wish all historical effort to be dominated by what is called “human interest”, which is usually nothing else than dramatic action, and oppose objectivity because to them it connotes dullness, colorlessness, and impersonality. They believe that it is the deliberate object of the modern writer of history to efface himself as much as possible and leave to the reader the task of making what he can out of the material placed before him.
It is not necessary to deal either categorically or absolutely with a topic of this kind, for complete objectivity would be as undesirable as it would be impossible; and it is equally true that not a little so called objective writing is rather a burden to the memory than an illumination to the soul. On the other hand much subjective writing as history is worthless. We have had quite enough of the Michelet, Carlyle, and Treitschke types of history. He who writes objectively can have as strong convictions as he who writes subjectively, and if such a one prefers to omit from his treatment the fire and passion of the subjectivist, he does so because he believes that nothing is lost to the substance of history by moderation and restraint. To-day, it is generally agreed that even though the writer gather and test his material in the most approved scientific manner—for science is after all but a method of acquiring knowledge—even though he clothe his results in the literary dress of the latest mode, alluring even to the humblest mind, yet if he have misjudged the meaning and significance of that which he is expounding, have shaped his evidence to prove a point, or have demeaned history to serve personal ends, his work is vitiated from the beginning. Treitschke, for example, revelled in subjectivity, and though he was undoubtedly sincere in proclaiming the divine mission of the Hohenzollerns and the destiny of Germany as the successor of the moribund British Empire, even his profound conviction could not make his work true history. Objective history is merely nonpartizan history. To write objectively is merely to write with the detachment of the onlooker rather than with the prejudice of the advocate and to draw conclusions from the evidence itself and not from prepossessions already existing in the writer’s mind. History viewed through Whig or Tory spectacles, written as an aid to patriotic propaganda, given a utilitarian trend by the politician or the essayist, turned out by one amorous of words as an expression of “how I like it”, and used to defend a doctrine, a theory, or a philosophy—all such history is a bad guide for the public because it does not tell the truth and an offense because it abuses a sacred trust. Objectivity is merely the historian’s insistence that history must be true and that the truth of history should be the only end sought. This principle, obvious as it seems to-day, may be said to have received general acceptance only during these last thirty or forty years.
And now a word about the much discussed question of the style or styles of historical writing. With it we open a veritable Pandora box of troubles and have a number of aphorisms to deal with. Says one, “Unless a man writes vividly, he cannot write truthfully”; another, “History is not worth writing that is not worth reading”; or “The historian should know how to write as well as to read”. The point of view indicated in these statements, as well as in other popular comments on the historian’s work, shows a confusion of ideas as to the purpose of history. It seems to assume that the ultimate object of historical writing is entertainment, or, if that be deemed too hedonistic a word, then let us say to add to the joy of life and the elevation of mankind. On the other hand, the historian insists that, although these things are good in themselves, they are incidental to his main purpose, which is to study history for its own sake and not primarily for the sake of interesting or benefiting society. It is just here that he insists on being considered as a specialist, and will not grant that the lay reader or reviewer is competent to decide how history should or should not be written. Moreover, he knows that the readability of a history is no guaranty of its artistic or intrinsic worth, for the average man, as a rule, is no judge of art when he sees it, whether in drama, music, painting, or history, and has no standards wherewith to determine the value of a work not intentionally designed for his own particular enjoyment. There can be no doubt that the overstressing of the literary side of history and the demand that historical writing take on a form pleasing to the general reader has in many instances done great harm to the cause which the historian has at heart.
What then are the criteria by which historical writing should be judged? In the first place, the substance must be true, sufficiently abundant, and of such vital significance as to justify the creative effort that the writer has expended upon it. In the second place, the ideas emanating from this creative effort must grow, as it were, inevitably out of the material and be in accord with it, not imposed upon it through any subjective impulses of the writer derived from other sources or exploited for any subjective purpose, patriotic, political, or otherwise. Finally, these ideas must be clothed in language best suited to the content and to the audience for which they are designed. Only when the highest levels are attained and harmony secured in substance, interpretation, and presentation can we have great history and great art, the finest combination in the historical field. These tests applied to any historical writer, past or present, will, I think, help us to determine the place of that writer as a master of his craft. They will place Stubbs and Maitland far higher in the scale than Macaulay and Froude, Parkman higher than Bancroft, and Lea higher than Prescott or Motley. Also under this test all varieties of scholarly historical exposition, of whatsoever kind they may be, fall into their proper places, serving some useful end. The dissertation of the doctor of philosophy may reach high rank as a work of artistic proportions and, per contra, many a work that has caught the popular fancy may fail wholly when viewed from the standpoint of historical art.
There has been gradually coming into existence during these forty years a something that is hardly yet compact enough to be called an historical domain, hardly articulate enough to be called an historical school, but which we may designate, in the spirit of Stefansson’s definition of the Arctic regions, an historical state of mind. This is the state of mind of the trained and expert scholar, call him a professional scholar if you will, or even a scientific scholar, who studies history for its own sake without regard to its character as literature, politics, poetry, or drama, or indeed anything else than history, and is convinced that there is a sufficient reason for such study to exist quite apart from any connection which it may have with the reading public. Within this sphere the historian deals with research and interpretation, that is, with the sources and the substance of history. Here he is laying the foundations of his subject, polishing his spade that he may dig deeply below the surface, unravelling historical tangles, unriddling historical riddles, and out-sherlocking Holmes himself in doing the detective work of his craft. He is gathering new material, re-editing and re-reading old texts and old documents, working out old problems and discovering new ones, filling in the gaps of historical knowledge, pursuing his experiments just as does the investigator in the scientific laboratory. Within this sphere history is not a narrative to be written but a problem to be solved—a single great problem made up of thousands of lesser ones, and within this sphere scholars write for each other, and the dull history, the badly written history, the monographic treatise, and the much abused dissertation of the doctor of philosophy find a welcome and a permanent abiding-place. Here it is that the literary reviewer’s remarks about objectivity, plodding scholarship, and the dry-as-dust treatment by the college professor pass unnoticed, that the story-teller’s gift is rated as but a minor asset, and that the ability of the writer to dress up the facts of history in the colorful garments of romance is of but secondary consideration. And, most important of all, here it is that the only real progress has been made and is now being made in the field of history in America to-day. The modern historian believes that it is the creative thinker in any field, whether large or small, who rises to the highest levels of his craft, and that synthesis, the interpretation of the evidence, and the determining of what history is all about are the touchstones of mastery and genius, by which ultimately the historian’s work will be judged.
The older historians got nowhere in their attempts to deal with the synthetic side of history, and even those who gave it a philosophical interpretation—such as Hegel and Condorcet, for example—lived and thought in a realm of unreality. So unsuccessful have been the philosophers in their handling of the subject that the historical scholar of to-day is very much in doubt as to whether or not there is such a thing as a philosophy of history, for all interpretations couched in terms of philosophy are proving vague and unsubstantial. Other writers have construed history as a progressive advance toward spiritual and intellectual freedom, a constant process of evolution from lower to higher forms, or a socio-psychological development of society from simplicity to complexity. Others still have given it a religious form, as a record of the dealings of God with man, or a demoniac trend, as if the world were steadily growing worse. A majority of those who deal in synthetic interpretations make frequent use of the terms “progress”, “development”, and the “curve of social evolution”, as if it were proved beyond peradventure that humanity was moving steadily forward to a more perfect organization and the attainment of higher ideals. Such writers apparently start with the premise that historical processes are necessarily for the better and connote a continuous improvement as man’s intelligence grows and his knowledge increases. But convenient as are the words “progress”, “development”, and “evolution”, to express something that has taken place and is undoubtedly taking place in the history of mankind, they are loose terms, in capable of exact definition or proof, and serve only to symbolize conditions not clearly understood and regarding which there is no general accord. There are those who go so far as to say that the modern movement of rationalism and experiment which began with Bacon has been as fatal in morals and politics as it has been successful in science; that the growth of materialism has far outdistanced the mental and spiritual development of the race; and that the human factor has in some measure been swallowed up by the machine. All would probably agree that the spirit of philanthropy and the desire to be of service to one’s fellow-men have made enormous strides in the last fifty years; that decency in language and manners, in sobriety, and in certain forms of morality is vastly more prevalent than in the past; that the rousing of the public conscience is one of the greatest of modern achievements; and that, though evils are as prevalent as ever, our consciousness of them and our determination to get rid of them are a promise of better things. But even these do not predicate absolute progress, for, as the biologist and the psychologist would say, we progress not because we have knowledge, but because we have the intelligence, the ability, and the willingness to apply our knowledge. We are, in this country, enmeshed in a network of legislation and legal restraint, and it is a pertinent question to ask whether as a whole, in self-discipline and self-control, we are the equal of our forefathers. Change and impermanence, which are history’s most characteristic features, do not necessarily imply that the world is getting better in such vital and somewhat intangible traits as self-mastery, self-denial, social responsibility, and regard for the generations yet unborn. The curve of social evolution is a broken line that sometimes rises and sometimes falls and sometimes retrogrades altogether. No one can question that the world is in a process of constant change, but as to the nature of that change in its varied aspects the widest differences of opinion will always exist.
There is no opportunity here to discuss this greatest and most important of all historical questions. It has not become, to any great extent, a subject of discussion or controversy, largely because of its speculative character and its remoteness from the practical, every-day side of life and study. The article by Mr. Teggart, printed in 1910, entitled “The Circumstance and Substance of History”, and the presidential address by Professor Cheyney last year, in which he sums up along supplemental lines the forces or “laws”, as he calls them, that have been working within the human race during the course of its existence, are representative of present-day thought on this subject and indicate the position reached in the effort to think along these lines. They show the change that has come over the interpretation of history in these forty years, for such articles as these could hardly have been conceived, much less written, before the new historical movement in America began.
A brief summary of these opinions would run somewhat as follows. Human history is made up of a constant series of adjustments on the part of man to meet continuous and recurring changes in the conditions that surround him and in the thoughts that impel him to action. These adjustments, their antecedents and consequents, are history. No adjustment is perfect or permanent, although there have always been those who considered it so, and these, the conservatives and ultra-conservatives in history, are among the most difficult factors to be reckoned with by the historian. In the process of adjustment environment was at first a leading influence, but became less significant as knowledge spread and control over the forces of nature became more complete. Personality, too, and the importance of the individual grew less as intelligence broadened out more and more among the masses of the population and the collective man overshadowed the individual as a factor in these adjustment processes. Within the social group itself, man has had to adapt himself to the demands of his own growth; his inquisitiveness has known no end, his desires and needs have never been satisfied and never will be, and the problems he creates in his effort to solve those that already exist become in turn the cause of new adjustments. Most of these adjustments are due not to conscious but to unconscious effort on his part, for he rarely realizes that he is in process of accommodating himself to new conditions. They represent the operation of intellectual, social, economic, genetical, and psychological forces, in living matter no less than in living minds, that are always at work, sometimes silently, sometimes openly, and sometimes with great force and explosive power. Refusal to recognize these laws of impermanence or to see the need of readjustment to new conditions has led to the cataclysms of history—resistance, revolt, and revolution—and to the eventual disappearance of the more conservative elements of society. History shows us the constant waning of the old and the waxing of the new, and the task of the historian is to discover the character of these processes and the nature of the laws and forces at work bringing them about, to come to some agreement as to the extent to which the individual is capable of guiding and directing these forces, and to determine the measure of human freedom involved. These processes vary with the time, section, and country involved, but they are as ceaseless as the tides. A study of them enables the historian to infer, in some particulars at least and as through a glass darkly, the relation of these adjustments and laws to human conduct in the future, and to predicate in a large and general way the trend of history and the tendencies that are to govern the future movements of human society. He can do no more, for he is neither prophet nor poet, since the free will of the individual is a factor that can never be reduced to the control of historical law. Such is the general viewpoint of the modern historical thinker and writer.
During these forty years historical enterprise in America has been passing through a formative and pioneer stage. It has been hewing its way through the wilderness, clearing the ground, laying anew the foundations, utilizing to the full the contributions of the older workers who have furnished material of fine quality and character, and rebuilding the structure from the beginning. It has been testing the strength and reliability of the substance, applying sounder and saner principles of plan and construction, and arriving at less ornate forms of presentation, confident that there should always be a greater rapprochement between style and content, and that the historical engineer and the historical architect should work in the closest harmony with the object for which the structure is designed.
What of the next forty years? Will they show equally important advances along the same and other lines? Will our homeless documents in Washington, as well as our homeless diplomats abroad, eventually find permanent and secure abiding-places? Will our national government ever rise to a sense of its obligations, by falling into step with the other civilized nations of the world and doing its share to aid in the publication of the historical material at its disposal? Will the trustees of our universities ever discover that research and publication in history and allied subjects have some claim on their attention and a right to receive some part of the income at their disposal? Will men of wealth, donors and benefactors, ever appreciate the fact that gifts in the interest of the history of their country are as important as gifts in the interest of science and medicine? And will the public ever reach that high level of sympathetic understanding which will enable it to recognize the value of historical scholarship as it now recognizes the value of scientific research? There is still much to be done and many to be taught. I can but hope that in another forty years this Association will see historical research and publication as highly organized, as richly endowed, and as productive of works showing constructive and creative thought as is certain to be the case in the exact sciences. The progress which has been made in the past forty years is surely something of a guaranty of similar progress in the forty years to come.
Charles M. Andrews (February 22, 1863–September 9, 1943) received his PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 1889. He taught at Bryn Mawr College, Johns Hopkins, and Yale University. He won the 1935 Pulitzer Prize for The Colonial Period of American History.