Edward P. Cheyney
President of the Association, 1923
Presidential address delivered before the American Historical Association at Columbus, December 27, 1923. Published in American Historical Review 29, no. 2 (January 1924): 231–48.
Law in History
On the morning of the tenth of August, 1588, the last and most eventful day of the running fight of the English fleet with the Spanish Armada, the wind blew steadily from the southwest. As the day wore on it rose to the force of a gale; the Spanish ships as they emerged from the harbor of Calais, unmanageable and harried by the English, drove northward before the wind, past the mouth of the Scheldt, for which they were bound, and through the North Sea, till after a long and stormy course around Scotland and Ireland, broken and scattered, they regained the Spanish and Portuguese harbors. If the wind on that critical day had blown from some other quarter, the Invincible Armada might have justified its name and effected the invasion of England. What an overwhelming influence on the course of events to be exercised by a mere vagary of the weather!
In the year 1527, Henry VIII. was approaching the “dangerous age” of forty. He was ill-at-ease. His somewhat irregular marriage seemed unblessed. He had no living children except one little girl and she was in frail health. Early in that year a young lady came to court, black-eyed, vivacious, charming. With striking contemporaneity the king began to express doubts of the validity of his marriage with Catherine and to give evidence of having fallen in love with the new maid of honor. The story is a familiar one, in which the personal and the public elements are indistinguishable. The unsuccessful negotiations with the pope, the divorce, the marriage with Anne, the statutory separation of the Church of England from Rome, the dissolution of the monasteries, the regulation of the Church by the State, changes in practice and doctrine, followed rapidly upon one another till the whole course of the official English Reformation was run. What an enormous influence on the course of history to be exercised by the wayward passion of one human being!
In the middle of the fifth century a wild band of Orientals, the Huns, under the leadership of Attila, the Scourge of God, swept through Gaul and Italy, burning, slaying, and plundering. They depleted populations, overthrew governments, desolated provinces, reduced to utter confusion the wasted Empire. What an impression on history made by the destructive sweep of a barbarous horde through a civilized country!
Just a thousand years later, in 1345 and the years following, a new disease swept across Europe, the bubonic plague, the “Black Death”, as it has been called. It was more devastating than the armies of Attila. High and low, old and young, clergy and laity, fell before its onset, till in many regions it is estimated that within a year one-half the population died instead of a twentieth as in ordinary years. Great economic and social changes took place during these years. Serfdom passed rapidly away, monks and nuns in the monasteries and even the secular clergy deteriorated, one form of Gothic architecture was abandoned and gave place to another. Such wide and varied effects on the course of history have been attributed by historians to this the most fatal of recorded epidemics.
As the war of the American Revolution progressed, disunion, disloyalty, incapacity appeared; jealousy between colonies and between officers weakened the army; languor among the people, inaction by Congress, discouragement of the leaders, all made the days dark and the outcome doubtful. But there was one great unfailing element of strength, the personality of Washington. He stood firm, he counselled wisely, he led skillfully. The ultimate success of the Revolution seems inseparably bound up with the character and the abilities of this one man.
It is by this time quite sufficiently evident that I have been giving some almost chance examples of what are apparently great historical effects flowing from causes of a relatively simple, individual, casual character: a turn of the weather, an onset of ill-regulated royal passion, a fortuitous invasion by a fierce army or a destructive epidemic, the appearance of a great man. A thousand such instances might readily be adduced. They have often been stated with high authority. An article in the American Historical Review some years ago was entitled “Wednesday, August 19th, 1812, 6.30 p.m., the Birth of a World Power”; that date marking the defeat of the Guerrière by the Constitution. On this day and at this hour, according to Mr. Charles Francis Adams, and as the result of a naval battle, the United States emerged into international recognition. Another former president of this Association, the master of us all in the field of English constitutional history, has remarked that Edward I. would probably have taken measures to prevent the growth of a strong parliament, if he had foreseen the danger to the monarchy involved in such an institution. That is to say, a certain king in the thirteenth century would have defined the future direction of development of the English Parliament. My allotted time this evening could easily be filled with a mere enumeration of instances where great and general effects are asserted to have followed upon certain accidental or personal causes.
But are these statements of cause and effect true, or are the appearances deceptive? Have these events and personalities really had the influence on the course of history so easily and naturally attributed to them? A hasty re-examination of the instances I have taken may suggest the need of a more adequate explanation. Although the wind blew from the southwest on the tenth of August, 1588, it did not blow adversely for the Spaniards through the whole twenty years of the Elizabethan war. Yet Spain never successfully invaded England. Moreover, as we compare the two countries it becomes doubtful whether, even if Spanish troops had landed on the shores of England, any serious influence would have been exerted on the general course of the history of the two countries. Spain, overstrained by too ambitious undertakings, unsupported by adequate economic resources, deficient in statesmanship, was an anaemic giant, holding her predominance in Europe with a constantly slackening hand. England, of youthful vigor, hardening Protestantism, rapidly increasing wealth, an exhilarating sense of her own nationality, was of almost unlimited, if undisciplined, powers and was especially resistant to all forms of foreign control. Whether a Spanish or an English wind blew on a certain day really made little difference. England was bound to remain independent of Spain.
Can anyone believe there would have been no Reformation in England in the sixteenth century if Henry VIII. had not fallen in love with Anne Boleyn? As we follow the stream of English history downward toward 1527, evidences of an approaching religious struggle are visible on every hand. There was much native heresy. The influence of Luther was active at Cambridge, in London, and through the eastern counties while Henry VIII. was still living happily with Catherine and writing essays in support of the pope. The monarchy was becoming constantly stronger and threatening to come into conflict with the claims of the old Church to semi-independence. Many of the monasteries were bankrupt and could have continued to exist but a little longer at best. Change was in the air; economic change, political change, intellectual change. Is it likely the Church alone would remain unchanged? A breach with the medieval Church took place in all the northern countries of Europe. Would England have been an exception? I think it is safe to say that the Reformation would have occurred in England at about the time it did and about in the form it did, if Henry VIII. had never seen Anne Boleyn, indeed, if Henry VIII. had never lived.
Much the same observations are true of the American Revolution. During our whole colonial period the forces that worked for divergence from the mother country were active. The habits of a people growing up in a new country, three thousand miles in distance and several months in time from the ruling state, the diversity of religious opinion that had driven so many of them from home and that continued to increase, the conflicting economic interests of England and her American colonies, were all permanent influences that tended to separation. Independence sooner or later was natural because of the difference of our institutions, possible because of our size and numbers, inevitable because of the stolid and narrow-minded type of government of England. American independence as we look on it now was not the creation of Washington and the “Fathers”, but a necessary result of the divergence of the two countries.
So it is with the other instances. How little occasion the modern historian engaged in tracing the fall of the Roman Empire and the transformation of Roman institutions in the fifth century finds for even a mention of Attila! Every successive student of social and economic change in the fourteenth century gives less consideration to the “Black Death” and more to that gradual, obscure, and almost imponderable disintegration of the early medieval type of society which gave its character to that period. As to August 19, 1812, the United States would soon have emerged into world significance, if the battle between the Guerrière and the Constitution had gone the other way, just as the Western world would have been discovered by Cabral in 1500, if it had not been discovered by Columbus in 1492. Similarly as one traces the contemporaneous development of the House of Commons in England, the Estates-General in France, the Cortes in Spain, and the Reichstag in Germany in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, each subject to the influences of its own environment, one has grave doubts whether Edward I. could have seriously influenced English parliamentary growth even if to his other abilities as a statesman should have been added prophetic insight into the future.
These great changes seem to have come about with a certain inevitableness; there seems to have been an independent trend of events, some inexorable necessity controlling the progress of human affairs. If a thousand instances were taken instead of five or six, all would show the same result. Examined closely, weighed and measured carefully, set in true perspective, the personal, the casual, the individual influence in history sinks in significance, and great cyclical forces loom up. Events come of themselves, so to speak; that is, they come so consistently and unavoidably as to rule out as causes not only physical phenomena but voluntary human effort.
So arises the conception of law in history. History, the great course of human affairs, has been the result not of voluntary action on the part of individuals or groups of individuals, much less of chance; but has been subject to law.
This is an old conception. It was formulated in one of the earliest written productions that time has left us. In the papyrus of the “Precepts of Ptah Hotep”, it is said: “Never hath that which men have prepared for come to pass; for what the deity hath commanded, even that thing cometh to pass.” Providence, fate, destiny, law, has controlled the affairs of man, as it has of men, as it controls all things. Few indeed are the paths we follow through this our universe without soon seeing stretching out before us, however dimly, the broad highway of law. So Lucifer, according to the poet, discovered.
On a starred night Prince Lucifer uprose.
Tired of his dark dominions swung the fiend
Above the rolling ball in cloud part screened,
Where sinners hugged their spectre of repose,
Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those.
And now upon his western wing he leaned,
Now his huge bulk o’er Afric’s sands careened.
Now the black planet shadowed Arctic snows.
Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars
With memory of the old revolt from Awe,
He reached a middle height, and at the stars,
Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank.
Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,
The army of unalterable law.
Human history, like the stars, has been controlled by immutable, self-existent law, by what Mr. Gladstone in his sonorous eloquence once described in Parliament as “those great social forces which move on in their might and majesty, and which the tumult of our debates does not for a moment impede or disturb”. Men have on the whole played the parts assigned to them; they have not written the play. Storms and pestilences and battles and revolutions have been of great significance to participants in them and have seemed so to those who have chronicled their details, but they have really been only ripples and eddies in the great stream. Powerful rulers and gifted leaders have seemed to choose their policies and to carry them out, but their choice and the success with which they have been able to impose their will on their times have alike depended on conditions over which they have had little control.
Why should a labored argument be required to prove that human affairs are subject to law? Man has a body, which is subject to physical and chemical and biological law. Heat and gravitation and metabolism act upon him exactly as they act on other organic substances, and these forces act according to already formulated or about-to-be-formulated law. The processes of the minds of men, individually and in groups, are fast being explained by psychological and social laws. Man is simply a part of a law-controlled world.
Do .not say that daily experience is against the rule of law in history. The laws that govern the course of history may be no more apparent than the laws that govern the winds and the storms. “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof but canst not tell whence it cometh nor whither it goeth.” Yet no one doubts that the blowing of the wind is subject to the laws of physics. The variety and the wilfulness and the unaccountableness are in the complexity of the phenomena, not in the underlying fixity of the law.
If all this is true; if history, like everything else in the rational universe, has been subject to law, or laws, can these be found? What are these laws like? Are they like objective statutes, or like the subjective laws of mathematics and logic, or like physical laws, or biological laws, or economic or moral laws? There is but one way to find out—to do as others in their various fields have done before, to consider the phenomena, to make a more or less happy guess at some large principle, then test it by a wider comparison with the facts; if so be that a generalization can be found which we can fairly call a law of history. When we have found it we shall know what it is like.
To call the six statements I am about to make a tentative formulation of historical law would be an extreme exaggeration of my claims and even of my hopes. No assertion of humility is too strong, no conviction of uncertainty too assured, no realization of incompetence too profound to describe the state of mind of a serious student of history who sets about the task of reducing its vast multifariousness to simplicity, or who undertakes to find the law or laws which underlie its apparent lawlessness. Yet laws of history there must be, and my guesses at some of them are these.
Looking over the field of history there is evidently a law of continuity. “There is no new thing under the sun.” All events, conditions, institutions, personalities, come from immediately preceding events, conditions, institutions, personalities. This is a familiar observation and will probably be readily accepted. It is the continuity of history that makes possible the popular and fascinating search for origins. Starting with almost any historic phenomenon we may trace it or its progenitors back and back into a time in which only Mr. Wells and Professor Robinson feel at home; and doubtless, with some assistance from the historic imagination, trace it and its descendants forward and forward into a time in which only Mr. Wells feels at home, all without any breach of continuity.
Yet this conception of the continuity of history, this historic law, so familiar to the modern historian, is comparatively new in historical writing and still unfamiliar to people in general. In popular belief Alfred founded Oxford, Luther began the Reformation, Gutenberg invented printing, Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Kaiser started the Great War; yet none of these statements satisfies the thoughtful historian. Actual origins elude us; everything is the outcome of something preceding; the immediate, sudden appearance of something, its creation by an individual or a group at some one moment of time, is unknown in history.
We say sometimes that a certain event came like a thunderbolt from a clear sky. But that is a mere form of speech. Thunderbolts do not come from a clear sky; they come from unobserved clouds. So the suddenness of an historical event is only the measure of our carelessness of observation. Lowell in his Ode to France points out that it was so of the Revolution.
As flake by flake the beetling avalanches
Build up their imminent crags of noiseless snow
Till some chance thrill the loosened ruin launches,
And the blind havoc leaps unwarned below,
So grew and gathered through the silent years
The madness of a people, wrong by wrong.
There seemed no strength in the dumb toiler’s tears,
No strength in suffering; but the Past was strong.
The brute despair of trampled centuries
Leaped up with one hoarse yell and snapped its bands,
Groped for its right with horny calloused hands,
And stared around for God with bloodshot eyes.
The continuity of history is not merely a fact; it is a law. By no voluntary action can any great breach of historical continuity be accomplished. The English parliamentary leaders of 1649 might abolish the kingship and the House of Lords and found a republic; but they could not prevent the government of England drifting back through the Protectorate and the Restoration to a monarchy but little changed from its old form and powers. The French revolutionists might attempt to make all things new; but little by little they were forced to submit to the law of continuity and restore the Church, the monarchy, the nobility, and much of the social system as they had existed before 1789. And now poor Russia, perhaps poor Germany, is finding how incapable a nation is of making any great break in historical development. Institutions have been modified, not destroyed; races have been subjugated or absorbed, not exterminated; beliefs have altered, not ceased; human history has been an unbroken narrative.
Secondly, looking over the field of history, there seems to be a law of impermanence, of mutability. The fall of empires is one of the most familiar of historic phenomena. It would be too trite to enumerate Assyria and Babylon and Egypt and Persia, Greece and Rome, Spain and Germany, the Lydians, the Medes, the Tartars, the Moguls, the Turks. We should have to add to them the unknown peoples and cultures that have left behind them only the mysterious ruins of Yucatan and Mashonaland and Mongolia—nations happy, presumably, since they certainly have no annals, the men who erected the gigantic figures on Easter Island, the builders of Stonehenge and Carnac and the Druid circles and the long lines of standing stones on the bare hills that fringe the western coast of Europe. Even then we should have named only the most conspicuous instances. So persistent and infinitely repeated has been this disappearance of successive organizations of men and types of civilization that it gives every indication of being the result of a law rather than of a mere succession of chances.
The clue to such a law may possibly be found in a biological analogy. Biologists have long observed that organic species highly specialized and suited to one environment or mode of existence tend to become extinct. They have not been adaptable, and have therefore died out, while the ever active causes of evolution have produced new species from older and simpler stocks to take their places. Palaeontology, the study of life in the geologic past, is largely occupied with species specially adapted to one set of circumstances and therefore unable to survive in another.
We are not concerned here with the origin or the survival of man as an animal species. His physical and mental conformation seem to have become established in an early interglacial or even preglacial period and not to have changed materially since. His mental powers have enabled him in a considerable degree to control his environment; he seems to have powers of adaptation and therefore of physical survival unrivalled by any other species. But socially, politically, in organized bodies, his fate has been a much more unstable one. It is with man in this capacity that we are occupied in this search for law; with his life in groups during the few thousand years of recorded history whose phenomena we are trying to reduce to some kind of order. Groups of men have, like animal and vegetable species, tended to run out. Apparently peoples, races, nations, have “struck their pace”; they have become differentiated from other peoples, characterized by their own physical, mental, and cultural differences, which, though of a minor character compared with the differences of species, have given them a dangerous fixity of type. They have ceased to be adaptable; politically and socially they are no longer capable of change or of conformity to a changing world. Populations insufficiently responsive to the requirements of subsistence, to the pressure of competing nations, to new inventions or new ideas, have stolidly awaited conquest or absorption or transformation. The law of mutability, of decay of nations, is a measure of man’s incapacity to change his habits. Unless nations can change as the times change, they must die.
Conservatism, therefore, with a curious inversion of its intention, brings about the destruction of the group of fixed institutions it wishes to preserve. One hundred per cent. Americanism is more dangerous to the perpetuity of American institutions than a less percentage would be. Established formulas, traditional conceptions, fixed legal principles, dominating ideals, are the marks of a highly specialized, unadaptable, unchanging community, and, however elevated or admirable, are forces tending, under this historic law, to its ultimate destruction. Fundamentalism is self-destructive. “The letter killeth, the spirit maketh alive.” It has only been the amendment and the stretching of the Constitution of the United States that have enabled us to survive politically under it. It has only been the abandonment of the old imperial ideas that has kept the British Empire in existence. Elasticity, adaptiveness, capacity to conform to change, are the requisites for survival of a race, of a nation, of a type of civilization. The absence of these has brought about their fall. Perhaps an America scornful of a League of Nations, wedded to isolation, struggling to keep her life separate, unconformable to a world that has been made essentially one by economic and intellectual changes, may not be able to survive. Thus the law of mutability, of instability of nations, will receive one more illustration.
Thirdly, looking over the field of history there seems to be a law of interdependence—interdependence of individuals, of classes, of tribes, of nations. The human race seems to be essentially an organism, a unit. As Paul said, we are “every one members, one of another”. No part of the human race in history has really progressed by the injury of another. We have all risen or fallen together. Conquests of one people by another have always demoralized the conquerors. Success in war has generally introduced lower standards, less individual freedom, less tolerance, less elevation of spirit. The Persians after their conquests in Asia, Athens when she dominated the Delian League, Rome when she was mistress of the world, the Roman Catholic Church when its alliance with the temporal power had given it supremacy, Britain when she ruled over a group of forcibly annexed dependencies, the Allies after the downfall of Napoleon, Germany after 1871, were, according to the judgment of many of their own contemporary and national historians, defeated morally; and who shall say that France and Italy, England and the United States, are freer and better countries since the Great War than before? The fruits of victory in war have often proved to be apples of Sodom, turning to dust in the mouth.
So it has been with divided races and classes. Dependent races have been the curse of the ruling race. The Helots of Sparta, the Allies of Rome, Ireland under England, have been constant sources of weakness to their masters. Slaveholding classes have been forced into cruelty, shaken by vague fears of servile revolt, weakened by exemption from wholesome labor. Slaves and dependents, on the other hand, have been cowardly, deceitful, unenterprising, incapable of progress. The division into two classes has been demoralizing to both. The abolition of slavery and the freeing of dependents has been a condition precedent to any considerable economic or political or moral advancement for either class.
Landholding and employing classes without sense of responsibility to their tenants or employees have often been so blinded by class interest as to be a danger to the well-being of the whole community; and the same is true of irresponsible tenant and employed classes. No class can safely rule over or be ruled by another class.
Nations also are interdependent. Years ago at a meeting of the Historical Association similar to this a prominent and high-minded American diplomat remarked that he had attended the Algeciras Conference with the single preoccupation of using his influence for the sole benefit of the United States. I believed then and believe now that in so doing and at the same time expecting that the best results would follow for the United States he was neglecting this law. Nationalism, highly developed and without sense of responsibility for the well-being of other nations, is perhaps the most complete antithesis to human interdependence. It was the ultimate cause of the late war and is the threatening occasion for one to come. The world is even now watching to see whether one nation can by violence reimburse itself for its losses from another without, like Samson, bringing the temple of its own prosperity and that of all Europe down in ruins in the process. Can Germany be depressed while France and her allies are exalted, or will the law of interdependence act and all be depressed together? For I am not contending that human interdependence is an aspiration, a hope of the idealist; but that it is a law, to which the realist is just as subject as the idealist, inexorable in its workings, beyond our control, immanent in the conditions to which mankind has been and is subject.
Fourthly, there seems to be a law of democracy, a tendency for all government to come under the control of all the people. There has been a belief popular at certain times, especially among monarchs, that monarchy is the form of government preferred by an all-controlling Providence. But monarchies have been no more stable, as they have been no more wise, than other forms of government. There has been on the contrary a clear and, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a rapidly growing tendency to the overthrow or limitation of government carried .on by a single individual. Autocratic monarchy has practically disappeared.
Again, there has been at certain times, there exists still, especially among men of aristocratic temperament, a belief that aristocracy in one or other of its forms is the normal type of government; that government should rest in the hands of a specially endowed, specially trained, or specially chosen group of people. There has appeared within the last few years, especially in the United States, a considerable body of writing opposing the increase of control by the mass of the people over their representatives, administrative, legislative, and judicial. Organizations have been formed and an active propaganda carried on with the object of preventing the advance of democracy. I believe these men are setting themselves in opposition to a law of history.
Every invention that makes easier the diffusion of information, every increase in the mobility and alertness of mind of the mass of the people, every rise in the standard of life, draws a larger part of the people into contact with the problems of government. Education brings a sense of power over government; moral training brings a sense of responsibility for the uses to which government may be put. Printing, steam and electrical transmission, radiation, popular education, increased wages, the progress of thought, leisure, all tend to extend democracy. These are practically irresistible forms of advance and the resultant advance of democracy therefore cannot be prevented. Our own generation has seen the introduction in all progressive countries of an additional half of the population into the political sphere, and the dikes set up against the spread of popular government have been overflowed in all directions. Moreover democracy has on the whole justified its existence and made probable its permanence by more wise legislation and administration than any other form of government has given. This is perhaps a hard saying, but a careful historical comparison of the works of autocracy, aristocracy, so-called representative government, and democracy will show, I believe, greater vigor, greater ability, greater justice, and greater enlightenment in the service of the last than of either of the others.
Again, democracy is being extended to other interests of mankind than those traditionally considered as political. The absolute control of economic life by the possessors of capital has long been recognized to be disadvantageous to society and has been limited in various ways. Of recent decades, in various countries, under the leadership for the most part of enlightened employers, something approaching industrial democracy has been introduced in its place. The control of trade interests has been placed in the hands of all those connected with the trade, instead of being left in the hands of one class. In other cases the modern democratic state has drawn industry more or less within its own sphere. It would seem that the law of democracy is subjecting this group of men’s interests also to its sway.
If the arguments for the existence of this historical law seem to be drawn from the phenomena of a more recent period than for the other laws it may perhaps be attributed to its overwhelming interest in the immediate past and in the present. A world war to which the genius of one American President gave dignity and unity by describing it as a war to make the world safe for democracy, just as a former President had at Gettysburg declared the war he was waging to be for the preservation of democracy in the United States, has nevertheless placed in power in almost every country a dictator or a majority whose belief in democracy is hesitant and incomplete. If a law of democracy exists, this condition can only be temporary; the law will soon again work with compelling force. If there is no such law, we are adrift on a sea whose winds and tides and shores are all unknown. Who would not trust, if he may, the instincts and aspirations of the mass of the people in the passage perilous of the next few years, rather than the vagaries of a Mussolini, the obstinacy of a Poincaré, the pedantry of a Lenin, or the narrow vision and restricted interests of any one class of the people?
Fifthly, looking over the field of history I am convinced there is a law of necessity for free consent. Human beings are free agents in their relations to other human beings; they cannot permanently be compelled. Not only should all government be by the consent of the governed but all government has been by the consent of the governed. When men have not been willing to give their consent they have found numberless ways to avoid acceptance. They have protested, they have refused to acknowledge authority, they have refrained from action, they have resisted, they have rebelled; as a last resort they have allowed themselves to be put to death. It is consent, not force, that has on the whole held society together, that has supported governments, that has procured services. The consent has often been reluctant, it has never been actually forced. When forced it has not been consent, but mere yielding to violence, and violence has borne little fruit of achievement or permanence.
It has lately been said in excuse for his action by one of the European dictators that freedom has failed and force is the only remedy. Making a wider survey of history I should say rather that force has-failed and freedom is the only remedy. Nothing has ever been really settled till the willing consent of all concerned has been obtained. Bismarck’s “blood and iron”, as a means of settlement of the internal affairs of Germany, has already proved itself not a settlement. It could and did bring about a temporary cessation of conflict, but that was hardly a settlement which lasted less than half a century. A settlement, if this is a true historic law, requires a genuine acquiescence, however reluctant, in the arrangements being made. The peace of 1871 was evidently vitiated from the beginning by the German seizure against French protest of Alsace-Lorraine. When the German representative and one of the most enlightened representatives of the Allies affixed their signatures to the peace of 1919 under a similar protest, they were simply giving notice of what soon became evident, that consent to the Treaty of Versailles had not been obtained. The poor wreckage of peace that now encumbers Europe gives sad testimony to the working of the law in this case. The law of free consent has doubtless been disregarded more than it has been obeyed, but it is none the less a law, violation of which has been followed by failure to obtain the advantages that conformity to it would have entailed. If a peace had been drawn up at Versailles to which the consent of Germany had been obtained, the world might now be relatively prosperous and free from dread of the future. The effects of force in history have been temporary and partial and illusory; voluntary acceptance alone has been permanent and adequate and substantial.
Sixthly, and lastly, so far as this groping search extends, there seems to be a law of moral progress. Obscurely and slowly, yet visibly and measurably, moral influences in human affairs have become stronger and more widely extended than material influences.
The desire for the wealth or the territory or the enslavable population of another region was considered sufficient excuse for attack by an early ruler and sufficient explanation for the attack by an ancient historian. If other than material causes are offered as explanations by Herodotus or Xenophon or Polybius or Livy they are of a low order, revenge or ambition, perhaps, instead of acquisitiveness. Mere plunder or a claim of feudal superiority was the basis of most medieval wars. In later times better reasons have been offered, have indeed existed. National independence or security, local liberties, religious or political sympathy, protection of the oppressed, the defense of an ideal—the professed motives for which modern governments and nations have gone to war—belong to a higher group of incentives than those of the wars of antiquity or the Middle Ages. Camouflage these may partly be. The First Vice-President of this Association may be correct in his statement that the recent great war arose primarily from economic causes; but the fact remains that many higher causes were involved. The people, always more moral than their rulers, would not at any time within the last four centuries have supported their governments in wars merely of plunder, aggression, or revenge.
If moral ideals have become increasingly predominant in the heat and unreason of war, it will be readily believed that they have asserted themselves with still more rapidly increasing force in the realm of peace. The disappearance of slavery, of serfdom, of the whipping of soldiers and sailors, criminals, apprentices, and school children, the diminution of personal oppression, of man’s physical and legal power over women, of the greater advantages granted by the law to employers over employees and to landlords over tenants, the spread of sympathy, of mercy, of helpfulness, are just so many proofs of the existence of a law of moral progress.
A group of American industrial leaders is reported to have agreed among themselves lately, after calculating that the raw materials produced in the world are not sufficient for the needs of all the nations, to take all requisite steps, by diplomacy, by seizure, or by war, if necessary, to secure for the United States an adequate share of these materials. It is to be noted that this agreement, though involving public action, has been made, if made at all, secretly, without disclosure or acknowledgment in open discussion. It is evident that these projects, if such projects there are, are a violation of the law of moral progress. The world has gone beyond them. These ideals are no longer such as can be used in argument or widespread appeal. The men who hold them are behind the times; their objects can only be reached, if reached at all, by deceitful and nefarious means.
Not only intensively but extensively moral forces have tended to become predominant. There was a time when fidelity to contract, justice, mercy, applied only within the family. The validity of these principles gradually extended from the family to the tribe, to the nation, and now in these later ages from the nation to. international relations. Vae victis was, in the mouth of Brennus the Gaul, sufficient defense for his peace with the Romans; to Mr. Wilson and Lloyd George, mistaken though they may have been, the Treaty of Versailles was a “peace of justice”. In moments of depression concerning present international relations it may be a solace to consider how recently humanity has risen to the realization of its international duties, and yet how sure is its progress toward that realization, for it is a progress governed by law.
Such are the six general laws I have ventured to state as discoverable by a search among historical phenomena: first, a law of continuity; second, a law of impermanence of nations; third, a law of unity of the race, of interdependence among all its members; fourth, a law of democracy; fifth, a law of freedom; sixth, a law of moral progress.
May I repeat that I do not conceive of these generalizations as principles which it would be well for us to accept, or as ideals which we may hope to attain; but as natural laws, which we must accept whether we want to or not, whose workings we cannot obviate, however much we may thwart them to our own failure and disadvantage; laws to be accepted and reckoned with as much as the laws of gravitation, or of chemical affinity, or of organic evolution, or of human psychology.
An urgent question concerning law in history must arise in every thoughtful mind. How much opportunity does the existence of historical law leave for the free choice and free action of man? This may perhaps be answered by asking how much opportunity does the existence of physical law leave to the builder, the engineer, the navigator, the aviator? As much freedom as he is able to utilize, apparently. How much opportunity do the laws of chemistry leave to the metallurgist, the maker of dyes or explosives, the synthetic chemist? Enough apparently for him to work what seem miracles to us laymen. How much freedom in thinking do the laws of psychology leave to the scientist, the philosopher, the historian? Law in these fields does not bind thought or make man powerless, it only lays down the conditions under which he must think and act. The same is doubtless true of law in history.
If it be said that the laws I have used as analogies are laws of external nature, whereas history involves the element of the human will, it may be asked just how far any one of us is free and how far is he restricted in his individual actions? A man can live only in a certain period, neither in any earlier or later time. Ordinarily he can live only in one particular country and in the midst of one set of social and political conditions. He can possess only his own heredity. His physical and mental nature are drawn entirely from his ancestors. He has no capacities or proclivities that have not come to him through his inheritance. He is controlled at every turn by the natural laws of the world in which he dwells. And yet we feel free to act much as we choose. If our action is not entirely free it simulates freedom. We are so used to our limitations that it is only exceptionally we feel them. Individually we find a wide field of activity within the limits that condition and to a great degree control our action. We are free to act, subject to irresistible law in the background. We have only a margin of freedom, but that margin is wide enough for judgment, effort, self-sacrifice, heroism; for foolishness and wisdom, for weakness and strength.
Man historically has been in much the same position as men individually. He has been able to deflect slightly to one side or another the law-controlled course of events. He has been able to give special shape to general movements. If his action has been conformable to law it has been effective; when he has worked along with the great forces of history he has influenced constructively the course of events; when his action has violated historic law the results have been destructive, momentary, subject to reversal. Men have always been and are free to act; the results of their actions will depend on the conformity or nonconformity of these actions to historic law.
Finally, I wish to call attention to the great value the discovery of such law might have in the attainment of human happiness. If the laws that control human history can really be discovered and formulated, the service to mankind will be far greater than that of the discovery of physical or psychological or even biological law. For one of the prime characteristics of law is that it is invariable. It acts in the present and will act in the future as it has in the past, and mankind sadly needs a guide for action in the present and for the future.
The knowledge of history has been of little practical value. “History teaches” is a formula that we often hear, but the thoughtful man gets little satisfaction from its use. He knows that history has been made to teach whatever is wished. Catholicism and Protestantism, militarism and pacifism, monarchy and republicanism, individualism and mass action, high tariffs and free trade, bimetallism and a gold standard, all appeal with equal confidence to the lessons of history. As a matter of fact, the treasure-house of history is so rich that all kinds of precedents can be drawn from it. It is a poor policy that cannot find some historical justification. An ingenious and industrious advocate can always find in history the arguments he wants. But so can his opponent; arguments from history are inconclusive except to those who are already convinced. There is absolutely no common agreement on what history teaches. This is probably because we have been able to reason from history only by analogy, and the analogy is never perfect; the historical example is never precisely like the present problem. History never repeats itself exactly. Some factors are the same, others are different. History teaching by example is a poor teacher.
It is true that the study of history is peculiarly enlightening. It teaches its votaries wisdom, if it does not teach specific lessons. Moderation, sanity, insight into the affairs of men in the present doubtless come to the historian as he studies the doings of men in the past. He may be, probably is, more likely to be right than other men in his judgments on current events. But wisdom is not transferable, and the historian has little leverage in persuading his fellow men. The role of Cassandra is at best an unprofitable one.
We sometimes claim that history interprets the present. That is true; it is the only clue to the present. But it is a cold comfort. The present is so momentary. While we are speaking, while we are thinking, the present slips back into the past, and the future bears down upon us. For practical uses, if history is to have a practical use, what we need is a clue to the future. This a knowledge of the laws of history might give us. If we knew the laws of history we might reason and act with the same intelligence and precision and anticipation of success with which the engineer acts in conformity with the known laws of physics, or the astronomer with the laws of astronomy, or the cattle breeder with the Mendelian law of inheritance.
So great is this hope that I can look forward to some future meeting of this Association when the search for the laws of history and their application will have become the principal part of its procedure. Many of the sessions of such a meeting will be devoted, as now, to the difficult, interesting, and fruitful work of making clear the events of history and their proximate causes and effects; other sessions will doubtless be given to the perennial task of discussing how and why history should be taught in the schools; the President will no doubt recapitulate recent progress or commend or chide his colleagues or speculate on the larger implications of his subject. But the most conspicuous place on the programme will be assigned to some gifted young historical thinker who, quite properly disregarding the early and crude efforts of his predecessors, will propound and explain to the satisfaction of all his colleagues some new and far-reaching law or laws of history. Other sessions will be devoted to applying to some of the political and social and economic problems of the day well-known and by that time universally accepted historical laws. Then indeed will the leaves of the tree the historians have planted be for the healing of the nations.
Edward P. Cheyney (1861–1947) received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught until 1934. He authored a number of important texts on English history, including A History of England from the defeat of the Spanish Armada to the Death of Elizabeth (2 vol., 1914–26) and The Dawn of a New Era, 1250–1453 (1936).