Edward Channing

President of the Association, 1920

Presidential address to the American Historical Association, delivered at Washington on the evening of December 27, 1920. Published in American Historical Review 26, no. 2 (January 1921): 191–202.

An Historical Retrospect

Three hundred years ago—almost within the month—the Pilgrims sailed into Provincetown Harbor. As the Mayflower approached the point of Cape Cod, the men, or most of them, set their names to the ever memorable Mayflower Compact. By this they acknowledged allegiance to the English king and agreed for the immediate future to obey any orders that should be adopted by the majority of those who signed this compact. Five weeks later, lacking one day, the Pilgrim ship anchored in Plymouth Harbor. The months that followed were among the most heart-rending in the history of colonization. For days and weeks, the Pilgrim survivors forebore all work and devoted themselves to nursing the sick and the dying on the ship and in the rude hut that they had built upon the land. Sometimes but six or seven of them had strength to care for the rest and to bury those whom death had claimed within the last hours. When the Mayflower sailed for home in April, 1621, forty-eight of her passengers—nearly one-half of the whole number—were dead. Of the eighteen married women, who looked out on the sandy shores of Cape Cod as the ship turned into her first mooring-place, but four were living. The fourteen dead had spent themselves that their husbands and children might live. It is the heroism of this pathetic tragedy that gives the Pilgrim story its place in our annals, for the Mayflower brought to our shores the spirit of homely duty—even more important, perhaps, than the principle of majority rule.

Two hundred years passed away and in 1820, just a century ago, came one of those crises in our history that yielded to the common sense of the American people. For some reason, not now apparent, the question of slavery and freedom suddenly interjected itself into politics. Slavery had existed in the Missouri settlements since the early days; but, somehow, the Northern abolitionists regarded the continued existence of slavery there as an extension of the malign institution. And in a sense they were right, for, in the conditions then prevailing, the continuance of slavery in Missouri meant the extension of the slave system. The Missouri people felt that they were protected in their rights to their slaves by the terms of the Louisiana Purchase treaty which guaranteed rights of property to the people living in the ceded country. Slaves were their property and, therefore, the institution of slavery being guaranteed by a treaty was under the protection of the supreme law of the land. For a time, the disputation was violent in Congress and in the country. President Monroe predicted that the controversy would be “winked away” by a compromise. And so it was, for thirty years and more. But John Quincy Adams, Monroe’s secretary of state, jotting down the President’s remarks in his ever memorable “Diary”, expressed his own opinion that the slavery contest would outlast both Monroe and himself—and so it did. The Missouri Compromise, as Jefferson said, sounded like a “bell in the night”. It was the first utterance of the North on the Southern labor problem and was the first protest of Southern employers against interference with labor conditions that had come down to them, from their fathers. At that time and thereafter they were developing the cultivation of cotton with slave labor and with every probability of enormous profit. The Southerners looked upon themselves as the best people in the United States. The abolitionists asked them to change their whole social condition. They refused. They preferred separate existence out of the Union to social revolution within. In 1850, secession came near and was only averted by the Compromise. At the time, most people in the North looked upon it as a Southern victory. One man in the South, William Lowndes Yancey, saw that it was a Southern defeat and strove against its acceptance, but in vain. Of the Northerners, Daniel Webster saw clearly that it was a victory for the North, notwithstanding the new Fugitive Slave Law. He strove to tell this to his fellow-countrymen and was denounced as a traitor. Time was what the North needed, for it was growing stronger every day in comparison with the South. Time also was needed for the people of the North to make up their minds to risk themselves and their fortunes for the cause of the Union. Had secession come in 1850, the South might well have succeeded. Had it been averted in 1860, another ten years would have so changed the economic and social relations of the inhabitants of the Ohio Valley that successful Southern secession would have been out of the question. The Compromises of 1820 and 1850 were therefore among the most fortunate events in our history, for they postponed the War for Southern Independence until the forces of liberty had strengthened themselves for the encounter.

The hundred years between 1820 and our own time are without counterpart in the history of the world. The new era began in 1815 with the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent and with the battle of Waterloo. It began at the ending of the long series of wars extending with intervals of armed peace from 1756 to 1815. War in itself is the most dreadful scourge that afflicts humanity. It has another side, however, for it loosens the mind and leads men to take new views and to put into execution ideas that have long been dormant. In peaceful days, all our rules and regulations are directed to the preservation of life, liberty, and property. In war, our efforts are to destroy the enemy, his life and his property, or to enslave him and to convert his property to our own use. The whole bases of ordinary action break down and men emerge from such a condition of being, some of them filled with high ideals for the regeneration of humanity, others with the fiercest longings for material gain. The next half-century saw a rebuilding of society and a development of the world’s resources that was without parallel up to that time.

The most significant fact in the development of the United States between 1815 and 1865 was the installation of new systems of transportation of men and goods and the transmission of intelligence and administrative orders. One succeeded another: the stone road, the steamboat, the canal, the steam locomotive, and finally, in the last half-century, the electrically propelled vehicle and the conveyance driven by the internal-combustion engine on the land and on the sea and under it and in the air. The new methods of transmission of intelligence likewise followed on the heels of one another by wire and by wireless over the land, under the sea, and through the air. No sooner had one of these methods of transportation and transmission approached perfection than a new one appeared and pushed its rival aside. In this century, the obstacles of distance, mountains, oceans, climates, and time have been overcome until the earth is now smaller than the United States was in 1789.

This ever increasing mobility of men, of commodities, and of intelligence has newly modelled government and society in peace and in war. By bringing about association of men and of women of similar ways of thinking, it has made possible the carrying out of great reformations, and the establishment of democracy on a great scale—it has enabled democracy to expand from the town and city to the state and the nation, and possibly throughout the world. The ever widening area whence material for manufacturing can be drawn and from which labor can be summoned and the ever increasing distances to which goods can be sent and sold have changed the whole bases of production—of agriculture as well as of manufacturing. The successor of the household manufacturer, the small employer of labor, under these circumstances withdrew from contact with his half-dozen or score of working men with whom he himself had labored. He sat apart in a counting-room and there busied himself with affairs of money, with contracts for supplies, with the promotion of sales, and with the general oversight of the factory itself. From being the first of a limited number of working-men he became a capitalist. With the development of transportation and transmission, his activities and those of his successors constantly enlarged until, now one man controls production in many towns and sometimes in many countries and directs the movements of thousands of employees. Similarly the working-man from being the associate of the employer became one of a class apart. Furthermore, with the development of machinery, he has lost completely the joy of production—of seeing something grow under his hand to a complete and worthy whole—and is simply a superior cog in the machine whose movements he directs. New systems of transportation made it possible for the employer to draw labor from a distance. They also made it possible for the working people in trades to combine and by concerted action to put pressure upon their employers and to prevent the importation of working-men from outside. As transportation has developed, so the combination of working-men has grown until now class interests have leaped over political and racial limits and passed over oceans and mountains.

In agriculture the same process can be traced. In the good old colonial days, negro slavery was a patriarchal institution. By 1830, it was fast losing its old-time character and was entering upon the capitalistic stage. The master, from working in the field with his two or three sons and half-dozen slaves, or from personally overseeing the labors of twenty-five or thirty negroes, became the owner of hundreds of slaves, working them through an overseer whose best recommendation was the largest amount of production he could secure from a given number of field hands without a lessening of the physical powers of the slaves or arousing insurrection. The new slavery created new conditions for the master, for the slave, and for the free wage-earners of the North. Slavery had always been opposed, but the opposition to it was academic until the development of transportation brought the two systems into contact. Then came a demand for immediate abolition without compensation that came near rending the country in twain.

In the North the development of agriculture proceeded on much less revolutionary lines for half a century. The development of transportation made possible the settlement of the Ohio Valley, the lands contiguous to the Great Lakes, and the region beyond the Mississippi, with a rapidity and a certainty that would otherwise have been impossible. The great movement to Transappalachia is without parallel. Its only analogy is the coming of the Germanic hordes into western and central Europe. The western movement in our own country differs from the latter, however, in that it was the conquering march of civilization and not the replacement of one civilization by another. Until 1850, this westward movement was the transference of old race-elements from the Atlantic seaboard to the regions over the mountains and on the shores of the Lakes. It put a tremendous strain upon the rural population of the Original Thirteen, especially because it was accompanied by a contemporaneous movement from the farms to the centres of commerce and manufacturing. In the early decades the westward migrants busied themselves in overcoming the forested areas; but by 1860 they were moving out onto the prairies and later to the Great Plains. Every decade since 1850 has seen the application of the capitalistic system more and more to the cultivation of corn and wheat lands. Now, it may fairly be said that staple agriculture is on all fours with capitalistic manufacturing. It depends upon the application of chemical and mechanical devices to the raising of staple crops. No longer do the farmer and his son and hired men work from morning till night with the animals of the farm and rely upon them for giving renewed fertility to the soil. Now, one man with a tractor does the work of ten men and a hundred animals and the renewal of the elements taken from the soil is made possible by the application of chemical fertilizer. Agriculture is now as much manufacturing, or nearly as much, as the directing of a machine within the four walls of a factory. And here again the laborer has lost that touch with nature that gave joy to work. And the farming owner, himself, has become a capitalist and is busied with the same problems of credit and finance, of buying and selling, that beset the head of a woollen factory or of a series of woollen factories. The farm hands no longer live on the farm from winter to summer and again to winter, in association with its fields and ponds and wooded lands. They now serve for a short time in the growing months or travel in gangs, following the seasons from south to north. Moreover, agriculture is falling into the hands of corporations which either let out lands to tenants or themselves work them on an immense scale.

The development of transportation has made possible the congregation of masses of human beings within limited areas by bringing to them the necessities of life—heat, water, and food—with a regularity that has become so commonplace that we realize it only when it breaks down. At the beginning of the Wonderful Century, a working-man was obliged to live near his place of employment, for there was no attempt at public urban conveyance until well into the century, and even then it was confined to the few largest towns. New York was enabled to grow by reason of its accessibility to steamboat traffic connecting it with the farms and producing areas of New Jersey, the Hudson Valley, and the shores of Long Island Sound. Its growth has been so remarkable that nowadays as many people live within a thirty-mile radius of the New York custom-house as in the whole westernmost part of the United States from the 104th meridian—the western limit of the Dakotas and Nebraska—westward to the shores of the Pacific Ocean, and there are more people nowadays within that thirty-mile radius than there were in the whole United States in 1810. New York is the great example, but throughout the country, especially in the northeastern potion, there are cities and towns almost without number. And, indeed, the last census enumeration for the first time gives the urban population as greater than the rural. This massing of human beings within limited spaces has brought about new problems of control and has given rise to new theories of living, to what is called the community spirit. The Jeffersonian idea of the dignity of the individual has disappeared. Now, men and women belong to society and not to themselves.

In these hundred years from 1820 to 1920, the human horizon has completely altered. The amelioration of humanity and not the coercion of the mentally or physically weaker members of society has become the guiding principle of legislation. In 1820 colonial ideas that had come to us from across the sea and had been somewhat changed by contact with the wilderness were still the basis of our modes of action. We had gone away for the most part from the pillory and the whipping-post, but we had placed nothing effective or humane in their stead. Now the mode of treatment of crime was revolutionized. New systems of punishment and of reformation were devised which were practically those in existence in 1900. In the last twenty years they have been somewhat ameliorated and somewhat changed. In 1820, the poor debtor was still regarded as a criminal and was treated as such, with the result that one who looks into the statistics of those days can hardly believe what he reads. The insane were then also treated as if guilty of some crime, although what it was no one could tell. By 1850, they were no longer so regarded, but were treated as victims of disease. Let us hope that the reformation of the criminal and the curing of the insane are more successful than would seem to be from a study of the statistics.

The prosperity of the American people, their need for workers of all grades, and their liberality to newcomers have brought to our shores great masses of people from all parts of the world. From 1800 to 1840 there was very slight immigration from any part of the world. With the fifth decade began the great westward movement of Europeans, from Great Britain and Ireland, from Scandinavia, and from Germany. Some of these people had peculiar ideas and looked upon the United States as a fertile field upon which to try new experiments, especially in community living, and some of these newcomers from Europe felt themselves called upon to effect a reformation in the modes of thought and of action of the descendants of the old Revolutionary population. Their numbers and their ideas aroused the fears of some of our people and led to the formation of a party to regulate those already here and to hinder the coming of others. The War for Southern Independence and the tremendous demand for labor that followed it put an end for a time to these jealousies or to the manifestation of them. In more recent years a change has come over the character of the migration and a corresponding change in the attitude of the American people toward the immigrants. There is no longer room for them on the unoccupied acres of Transappalachia, for those lands are already taken up by occupants or by capitalists—and there is no room on those acres for the native Americans who are forced by the newcomers from their homes and their farms and from the factories of the mill towns. The new migration, also, has been made up largely from peoples whose ideas are unlike those of ourselves. For the most part this is not in any way due to racial peculiarities. It is the result of the circumstances under which they have lived in their old homes. But it has seemed to many persons to threaten the stability of our institutions which depend absolutely upon obedience to the will of the majority for the time being. If we do not like the doings of the majority, we possess our souls in patience and set to work by pen and speech to create a majority for our own ideas. Some of these newcomers also are willing to work and to live in ways that are distasteful to native Americans. Under these circumstances, it has seemed desirable to prohibit their pressing in. We have restricted or prohibited the coming of the Chinese, the Japanese, and other members of the yellow races. In 1917 Congress by law authorized the national government to refuse admission to anarchists, to contract laborers, and to those that cannot read in some language. Moreover, it empowered the authorities to deport any alien who shall at any time be found teaching or advocating the destruction of property, the overthrow of the government, or the assassination of its officers. The student of history pondering these facts and thinking of the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, of the Alien and Sedition acts, and of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, cannot help wondering as to the wisdom of curbing in any way the freedom of speech and of writing. Looking backward farther, those ancient Puritans of Massachusetts come to his mind. They bought their lands, they brought over their property, their families, and their friends, and instituted the government that they thought was the best in the world. They then proceeded to deny admission to those who thought differently from themselves and to deport those who sought by speech and by action the overthrow of their government and the destruction of their property. Possibly it was for some such historical reason that this immigration law had been vetoed by President Taft and President Wilson and was only passed over the disapproval of the latter.

Viewing the century from a somewhat different angle, one is impressed with the way that the soul has been absolutely freed from governmental control—so long as it does not concern itself with government—and at the same time with the ever increasing control of the physical body of every individual by the community. In 1820 there were still religious disabilities in several states. In Maryland he who denied the divinity of Christ or he who uttered any profane words concerning the Holy Trinity faced the old law of 1723 that prescribed the boring of the tongue, the branding of the forehead, and, for the third offence, death. In New England, in Massachusetts, and in New Hampshire, the Roman Catholics lived at a distinct disadvantage compared with their fellowmen; in New York, the Roman Catholic immigrant was debarred from all chance to exercise political rights. The preceding half-century had been a time of reaction against state ecclesiasticism and, indeed, the Revolution had been partly fought as a protest against the close connection of Church and State in England and in the empire. The reaction brought to the surface men and women of most radical ideas in religion. Some of them found relief in new sects; others helped in the up-building of Methodism, Presbyterianism, and other faiths; some of them followed religious leaders into Adventism, Mormonism, and other sects that combined their religious activities with some form of community living, as the Perfectionists, the Shakers, and the Rappists. Many good men and women found relief in no settled religion. The result was two-fold: great religious activity throughout the country among all classes of people, and the repealing of nearly every one of the religious laws on the statute books of the several states.

Contemporaneous with the growth of religious freedom was the propaganda against intemperance. After heavily discounting the assertions of the prohibition advocates of the third and fourth decades of the nineteenth century, it must be said that the consumption of alcohol was appalling and the effects of intemperance startling to the reader of letters and to the student of account-books of that day. It was seriously held by the great mass of our people then that alcoholic stimulation was necessary to severe exertion. The readjustment progressed until in the fifties in one-half of the states of the Union the sale of alcoholic beverages was either forbidden or was hedged about with restrictions that amounted almost to the same thing. The War wrought a distinct change and by 1870 only three states remained faithful to prohibition. Since then a new movement has resulted in the passage of an amendment to the federal Constitution. Simultaneously with the struggle for the elimination of alcoholic beverages, the states have constantly more and more taken under their control the physical well-being of their citizens. Now, men and women are limited in their working hours, and, indeed, are often forbidden to work at all. They cannot live in houses of their own choosing, but are strictly regulated. They cannot cross a street at will and must submit their bodies to precautions against disease that some members of the community view with abhorrence. Many of these restrictions are based on the ideas of men of science which change with every passing year. There has been a complete breaking away from the individualistic ideals that had their highest expression in the writings of Thomas Paine, and now men and women cheerfully yield their physical well-being to community control. As the historian looks back upon it, he cannot help questioning, possibly because he is necessarily of the departing generation. But is it not worth while remarking the eagerness with which our people have given up all community control of the salvation of the soul eternal and have hedged about the doings of the ephemeral body of every man, woman, and child every hour of the day and night, and have denied the rights of speech and print to every alien, quite forgetful of the story of Thomas Cooper, J. Thomson Callender, and the other martyrs of “The Terror” of the close of the eighteenth century?

The year 1820 was at the end of the old education and the beginning of the new. The public schools of the country and the colleges were apparently at the lowest point in our history. In Massachusetts a blow had been dealt at the public grammar school by raising the limit of compulsion to establish such an institution from a town of one hundred families to two hundred. In Virginia, every attempt to found a system of public schools had been unsuccessful and the existing colleges were seemingly in the last throes of life. The University of Virginia was on the point of opening its doors, but the struggle of the founders of that institution to gain the necessary funds from the Virginia Assembly is one of the most interesting bits of pedagogical history. The next forty years saw a tremendous change in the importation of a modified Prussian system of governmental control of public education. The laboring men demanded facilities for their children without any stigma of charity, and got them. The sects were restricting the higher education of their children to colleges of their own faith. The result was a tremendous expansion of educational facilities. Everywhere, also, there was a demand for the diminution of classical requirements and the establishment of something resembling vocational training. To all of which it was replied that the mental discipline acquired from the study of the ancient languages could be used with great advantage in the pursuit of any business or profession. Unquestionably, the system of state-controlled as distinguished from town-controlled education has greatly improved the local educational institutions in every part of the country, and the establishment of normal schools and of innumerable small colleges has produced a procession of more or less well-trained teachers. After the close of the Civil War, with the revolutionary changes at Harvard and with the re-founding of the University of Michigan, the modern American university came into being. We are all conscious of what is going on around us to-day in the educational establishments and, in fact, most of us are taking part in the training of our fellow men and women. But may we not ask ourselves as to how superior our educational system is to that which produced Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, Washington Irving, and William Gilmore Simms?

For half a century after the adoption of the Twelfth Amendment, although numberless attempts were made to further change the Constitution, nothing was accomplished. Within the last half-century we have been more successful in altering the fundamental law, and seven amendments have been adopted. One of these aimed to confer the franchise on the negroes and led to scenes of lawlessness that are still in the memory of a few of us here. Now the negro vote is largely non-existent in portions of the South. Yet the Southern states receive full representation and are better off politically than they were before 1860. The amendment carried with it the power of enforcement, but Congress has declined to act. Another of these amendments marked the development of nationalism. When the Constitution was adopted, each state, no matter what its population, was given two senators. The states were regarded as political entities and were given equal representation in one house of the federal legislature to safeguard their rights. The senators then were chosen by the state legislatures as representing the states in their corporate capacity. The march of nationalism and democracy demanding a change, the election of senators has been given to the voters of each state, thus doing away with their corporate character. But in making this change, we did not alter the basis of representation accordingly, with the result that one state to-day possessing as many inhabitants as a small, unknown city in Massachusetts has two votes in the Senate of the United States and, in the Electoral College, is distinctly over-represented.

Three of these later amendments, instead of being proposed by “two thirds of both houses” of the Congress were proposed by two-thirds of quorums of the two houses, and our Supreme Court has ruled that two-thirds of both houses are the same thing as two-thirds of quorums of both houses. And the people of the United States, apparently, have acquiesced in this ruling. One of the last two amendments was designed to prohibit the manufacture and sale of intoxicating beverages. Regardless of the experience of the earlier prohibition era, no adequate means have been taken to enforce this change in the social habits of the American people. Finally the electorate has been doubled by the extension of the ballot to women; but how far has the disfranchisement of negro men in the South been extended to negro women? In saying these things I am not at all to be understood as taking sides one way or the other as to the subject matter. In the changing march of political and social institutions, due in great measure to the ever increasing mobility of men and ideas, the change from federal republican institutions to those of a more or less unified democracy has been inevitable and the change is not yet complete. It may well be asked, however, whether this piecemeal fitting of our fundamental law to new ideas is the best way of going about it. We began by being a federated republic. By the time of Jackson, democratic ideas had become firmly rooted in the minds of large portions of our people. Since then the march of social life in the North has been more and more toward direct government. Under these circumstances our fundamental law and the interpretation of it must more or less closely synchronize with the changing political ideals.

In these hundred years we have built up a marvellous industrial society, we have extended our limits to the Pacific, to the Gulf of Mexico, and even beyond to the islands of the sea. We have grown as a people from just under ten millions in 1820 to over one hundred millions to-day, not counting the inhabitants of the insular possessions and of Alaska. The public debt of 1830 that Andrew Jackson was so anxious to see paid off would be hardly visible on the treasury books of this year. Then, they talked in hundred of thousands and in millions of dollars; to-day we estimate our income and our payments in billions. We have established in this city a Federal Reserve Board composed of persons appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate, and as students we ourselves study the papers of Andrew Jackson and Nicholas Biddle in the Library of Congress for evidences of evil resulting from the connection of the political government with the financial concerns of the country! In all this, in the evolution of the greatest industrial society that the world has ever seen, have we gained or have we lost? Are men and women to-day happier and better off, politically, spiritually, mentally, morally, and physically, than our ancestors were in the days of James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Andrew Jackson?

Edward Channing (June 15, 1856–January 7, 1931) taught at Harvard University from 1883–1929. He was the author of the six-volume History of the United States.