James G. Randall

James G. RandallPresident of the Association, 1952

Presidential address read at the annual dinner of the American Historical Association in Washington on December 29, 1952. American Historical Review 58:2 (January 1953): 249–64.


Our meeting tonight is part of the sixty-seventh annual convention of this Association. For two thirds of a century we have been occupied with research, with publication, with teaching, with planning, with the delicate task of passing each other’s work in review, and with contacts abroad. Our many sessions suggest specialization and diversification, yet we have a vast amount in common. What we have in common is a devotion to history, a conviction of its importance, and a loyalty to the ideal of freedom in historical investigation.

Not all men share this conviction. Not all men understand what it is we do and why. Not all men recognize the pitfalls we seek to avoid. An occasion like this is a proper one for recalling to ourselves and to others the things which we as historians have learned about recovering the past.


One thing, certainly, we have learned—that history is an inescapable fact, that the past cannot be erased, that it intrudes upon us, whether we like it or not. In Georgia in the late 1790’s, so intense was the indignation at the great Yazoo fraud that a legislature required every reference to that infamy to be expunged from the state records. At Louisville on the old state house grounds one reads the inscription, which may be partly based on tradition, that the fraudulent papers were “burned with fire drawn from heaven.” Here was the human wish to undo both the deed and the memory of what had been done. In the days of President Jackson a part of the record of the Senate was “expunged.” But to expunge meant to indicate what was being expunged, so that the record remained with undiminished emphasis.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

This should be enough to remind us that history runs deep and that great human emotions and interests are bound up with the carrying over, or it may be the avoidance, of memories of the past. Distasteful memory on one hand, or wishful memory on the other, have had their effect in the popular historical process.

Another thing that we know about history is that interpretations of it constantly change. So human is the historian’s task that it takes on the hue of the passing decade. Vogue, that feminine word, changeful and even fickle, has often been a factor to reckon with in historical writing. Perhaps it is men who have made it so. If we go back to the fifth century and recall the seven books of Orosius against the pagans, or if we come down to the nineteenth and recall the work of George Bancroft, we find historical patterns that were once fully the vogue but which have become as outmoded as the bow and arrow. Some vogues have more validity than others. In developing the “new history” such men as Edward Eggleston, James Harvey Robinson and many others, and back of them Macaulay, fortunately gave the historian a fresh turn in the direction of the social, the human, the readable—and, where appropriate, the revisionist.

Vogue has to do with the folk mind, or social psychology. Are there men who do not follow the vogue? Perhaps it is by such that a new vogue arises. The historian, strictly speaking, does not control, nor is he responsible for, popular ideas of history. In certain types of writing the winds of popular thought may have controlling effect. In contrast, the findings and interpretations of the historian, if not strictly “scientific,” must be authentic. A popular writer may state his original views, or he may serve, perhaps unconsciously, as a mouthpiece often the broad human mind as it touches, or distorts, history, is not individual; it may belong to a school, a society, a body of opinion, or a wave of sentiment. In the untutored sense it may be only a stereotype. In such a situation the influence of what is called the “profession”—by which, in the proper sense, we mean those who devote themselves to serious historical study—is at its best when its effect appears not in any rigid pattern but in standards of scholarship.

One of those fundamental standards is objectivity. When we speak of this quality we do not mean that, as between alternative conclusions, a decision should never be reached, nor that the scholar’s mind should dangle in mid air. It is not the duty of a fair judge to issue no opinion, but to see that there is no tampering with the scales. If one has objectivity he should also have discrimination. The objective principle does not signify that equal weight should be given to unequal things. It means—and this might almost serve as a definition—that the essence of the thing examined comes through in the conclusion reached.

To illustrate by contrast, the opposite of historical objectivity would be, as to European history, to have one pattern presented by German writers to German readers, another by French historians for their public, and so on through the nations. In Ireland it would require one type for Ulster, another for Eire. It is not so in science, except in recent Russian biological mandates with reference to heredity. We do not speak of an Italian form of chemistry, a French or Belgian physics, and the like. Objective truth must be and is the goal of the scientist.

The question arises: Can we expect that such objectivity, such avoidance of a nationalist or partisan slant, can ever be achieved in historical writing? The answer is not altogether encouraging, but in some cases objectivity has been achieved. As to the American Revolution, for instance, British writers readily admit the merit of the American cause and the blunders of British policy, while American writers no longer consider it necessary to write in the old exaggerated nationalistic manner. One may take Egerton among Britons and Van Tyne among Americans as typical, and many other examples could be mentioned. (This is not to imply that objectivity necessarily requires an unfavorable view of one’s own country. What is to be stressed, for both sides, is an open mind and an honest, unprejudiced investigation.) Among Northern and Southern writers who deal with the war of the 1860’s a fair degree of objectivity has been displayed. When this has been said, of course, it remains that in human history, with all its predispositions, emotions, and challenging complexities, we have far to go before we can be entirely free from special pleading or tendentious writing. In an imperfect world one hesitates to give a counsel of perfection; yet to seek perfection and thus approach closer to it, is the historian’s pledge to the ideals of all scholarship. We have a bureau of standards and we have services of inspection and certification in many fields such as foods and drugs, but the output of historical conclusions is subject to no such control. There are reviews in learned journals and prizes to reward excellence, but these are matters of appraisal among men of competent opinion; they are not matters of sanction and enforcement. There is no supreme court of history. This does not mean that historical judgments have no analogy to a judicial attitude of mind, nor that the field of historical thought is altogether lacking in firm conclusions. It means that the very strength of historical scholarship lies in the free market of findings and generalizations where the only enforcement is that of recognized validity and the only sanction that of competence plus integrity.


Since history is a matter of everyday discussion and since debate is open to all, it happens that sweeping pronouncements in what is popularly called “history” come from persons who are far from being historical students. Yet in the world of broad discussion their ideas or obsessions loom large. People will say: you remember what Washington said about “entangling alliances.” But they do not remember, because Washington did not say what they assume. Or they will say: you know what caused the Civil War, or you know why the League of Nations failed. But those who speak thus are often ignorant as to the descent into the Civil War, or the Wilson administration, or the League. These are subjects that take a large quantity, not to mention quality, of historical research and understanding. There is a lamentable gap between the findings of historians and the general understanding of history. Too often that general attitude is a matter of repetitious clichés. A topic is mentioned, and out comes a stock remark or a stereotyped phrase. It is only the superficial writer dealing with history, or dabbling in it, that gets his “results” easily.

These defects in the popular grasp of history should be met by the historian with full awareness of the difficulty of his tasks of research, of conclusion, and of presentation. The historian may be content with a modest public response, but his product is of no value in a vacuum or an ivory tower. The scholar, with an established record of competent study, confronts the public, which is in need of historical guidance. The public is hard to define, but in many respects it is different from the scholar. It includes many readers, or potential readers, whose orientation is not academic. Two things are important here: a firm realization that historical competence comes only by long study, training, craftsmanship, and experience; and along with that realization, with no concession to inferior work, one may expect that anything like an air or pose of professionalism will be overcome by that humility which becomes the genuine scholar. If it were not that history is everybody’s subject, the term “professional historian,” a tiresome and overworked phrase, would be unnecessary. One does not speak of a “professional physicist”; it is sufficient to say physicist, or chemist, or geologist, and so through practically all the branches of learning.

Sometimes the public may expect too much. For ambitious minds, especially for those of philosophers, the heart’s desire has been for some synthesis to cover human history in all ages, empires, languages, and peoples. Such a quest would be an experiment nobly conceived. Its appeal is shown by the surprising fact that Toynbee’s abridged Study of History, which is not the lightest of reading, became a best seller. Yet one is reminded of a remark by that perfect Vice-President, Thomas R. Marshall, referring to Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders. Marshall felt sorry for him. He had had a hard enough time carrying Indiana. Some of us may feel that while Atlas shoulders the world and perhaps stands ready to take on interstellar space, there is yet much of human interest and far-reaching significance in the biography of the “learned blacksmith” Elihu Burritt, in the history of New Harmony, and in many hundreds of local, regional, biographical, and specifically historical, though not infinitely stupendous, tasks of scholarship.

We cannot, however, escape the fact that history is conceived in broad terms, sometimes in judgment-day terms. It is common parlance to speak of history having its “verdict” and in any case there is that oft-mentioned but elusive individual, the “future historian,” to look forward to. In historical scholarship the problem of generalization constantly arises. Readers do not peruse historical books for a medley of unassorted facts. They will enjoy the human story for entertainment, for richness and diversion; but beyond that they will hope for enlightened understanding of human movements, of social or cultural advance, or of the progress of society. Considering the subject merely on the level of historical composition, one must realize that an author’s motive for generalization, one motive at least, may be to impart readability.

In an essay or a book that resembles an essay it is the combination of a broad pattern with appropriate detail that holds the interest. Scattered or uninterpreted items are usually boresome, but when a writer puts his details in assembled array and marshals his historical instances to prove and embellish a point that stands as the topic sentence of a paragraph, the result may be, as in Macaulay, an impressive flow of eloquent exposition. Without a mustering of data under generalizations language would lack focus. Hence the literary temptation to extend one’s scope, to fill a large canvas, to set up a thesis, and make sweeping pronouncements. In this the historian faces a dilemma. Of course he is more than a chronicler, yet restraint in generalization must be exercised. Readers will look to him as commentator, or even as judge. Yet he must watch his obiter dicta. He should not attach the fine word history to a doubtful product. A verdict will be expected and will be justified where investigation supports it, and beyond the verdict, which is a finding of fact, he may be permitted an opinion. But there is a risk. Historians of all men should be most aware of the obiter dictum in the Dred Scott case. In a short time the decision became so outmoded that no formal reversal was necessary. It was a dead letter and even that fact was hardly mentioned; yet its utterance had become a famous episode which shook the country and tarnished for a time the reputation of the Supreme Court.

If generalization becomes a habit, or a trademark of an author, or a treatment characteristic of a school of thought, the pattern may be alluring, but the lure may be deceptive. There is a certain impressiveness in summoning what is called “human nature” as an aid to history, but human nature is a fairly large order. One should be wary of the superficial biological or evolutionary analogy by which war is alleged to be elementally justified on the principle of the “survival of the fittest.” In the long run it may indeed be the fittest that survive, but this does not mean that the survivors are the fiercest. The predatory qualities of the wolf and the pirate have tended not toward survival but toward extinction. Historians, like archaeologists, are forever unearthing the bones of extinct mammoths. If one makes glib pronouncements as to the nature of our human genus he should be advised to read Alexis Carrel, Man, the Unknown. Let him also turn to the American Historical Review for April, 1952. In that issue Boyd C. Shafer shows that certain views are due for re-examination as they imply, for instance, that differences in intelligence signify the superiority or inferiority of this or that national group. Differences and similarities, he shows, do not appear according to race or nationality; they are broadly human and run through the whole species of homo sapiens. And on balance, the similarities are far more significant than the differences.

The historian must carefully note those studies that are concerned with psychoanalysis. This, indeed, is another of those vogues, though a fairly modern one. Some writers tend to cast all thought, notably the biographical, into the mold of the subconscious, of this or that fixation, of extrovert or introvert, of narcissism, of the Oedipus complex—in a word of Freudian psychoanalysis. But Freudian psychoanalysis is one thing, and the transference of Freudian psychoanalysis to biography without adequate biographical or historical basis is a very different thing. The psychological factor is important, but if one is writing biography, then the buoyancy of psychoanalysis requires historical ballast. Where that ballast is lacking, the results are at times remarkable. The soul of Lincoln, for instance, has been analyzed and psychoanalyzed, with or without benefit of Freud, to a point that, to say the least, would have been surprising to Lincoln himself. It might not have occurred to him that his soul-life was conditioned by a madonna complex or a life-memory of “the Eden from which the infant Lincoln had been so ruthlessly expelled when he was weaned.” He revered his mother, but it is going far to picture her enfolded by the “circumambient morn”—a “mirage,” “a phantom from the fields of Elysium.” And only a writer affected both by modern psychoanalysis and Herndon’s misrepresentations could have swung his pen with so much of the psychic and so little of the historical on the alleged “mad frenzy” of Lincoln for Ann Rutledge.1

Among broad formulas one often hears of “economic determinism.” It is suggested that something inexorable is at work so that peoples are ruled or tortured by economic forces that control destiny. For the criticism of such a formula there is need for a double re-examination—a study always of the particular economics involved and of the specific history in question. Of course the valid relation of economics to history should be studied, but that is the very point. Validity is our plea. The questionable method is to set up a super-historical formula as a preconceived principle and to apply it for reshaping a whole episode of history. It sounds impressive to note that the South was agricultural and the North more largely industrial, which was obvious, and to go on from there not only to assert that the Civil War happened because of that, but also to convey the idea that it “had to” happen by reason of that alleged economic inevitability. One finds, of course, in the first place, that large parts of the South did not want separation per se, and that the upper South did not join in secession because of agricultural-industrial antagonism, nor in general because of intolerable grievances within the Union. The Virginia convention, for instance, avoided a vote for secession until war broke out. The Peace Convention of February, 1861, whose purpose was to preserve the Union and avert war, was a Virginia movement. In the second place, in the very name of economics one may recognize a diversified economy and one may question the idea that wheat fields, cotton fields, and factories could not have continued to exist within the same nation. The large stumbling block here is the artificial theory of materialistic inevitability.


Historians can perform no service more useful to society than to expose the faulty or vicious generalizations about history that continue to mislead mankind. Associated with the concept of economic determinism, for example, is the notion that modern wars have relieved population pressures, which is not true, or that such wars have happened because of the lack of raw materials. Where modern wars, plotted and launched by militaristic rulers, have been attributed to the lack of raw materials, the fact that stands out with the clearness of reality is that the inauguration of such wars could not have occurred unless large stocks of raw materials had already been within the possession of the war-making elements. It is a huge fallacy to overlook international trade and leap to the conclusion that a nation cannot have rubber, oil, and iron unless it makes war to seize, own, and govern the far-flung areas whence those materials come. This reliance on trade and normal relations, of course, stands within the pattern, not of aggression and compulsion, but of free nations, and in our time of the United Nations.

To mention a related fallacy, historical evidence does not justify acquisition of colonies as a motive for modern wars, nor does it justify the need for living room as ground for invading, despoiling, and overrunning a neighbor country. Learned words have been used to promote the notion of Lebensraum as a factor of war causation. If one has been impressed by arguments in support of that thesis, a second thought is in order. The argument seems to imply that nationals of a specified type cannot live with other nationals. Its practical effect is to deny living room to a rudely dispossessed people in their home country, and it proceeds to rationalize such dispossession on the sordid ideological ground that the intruders with the bigger guns have basic superiority as a master race. Certainly as applied by modern regimes the war-making concept of Lebensraum stands discredited both practically and ideologically by its very perpetrators. Though there is a lure attaching to these sweeping interpretations, it should be the function of the mature philosopher and especially of the historian to deal critically and circumspectly with particular historical applications of broad formulas that have slipped their moorings and have lost contact with the facts of history.

There is a voluminous literature on the subject of wars, but there is need for more attention to wars that have not happened. A book might be written on that subject. If a popular title were sought, the book could be called “‘Fifty-Four Forty’ and All That.” In such a book some of the war slogans of the past could be exposed in all their naked irrelevance in the case of wars that were fortunately avoided. One could make a considerable list of such “wars” for which the clamorous shibboleths, arguments, and pressures were matters of history; they could all be documented from sources. Suppose such a war had happened—for instance, a misguided war between the United States and Britain in the 1890’s concerning Venezuela. One can imagine the learned disquisitions that might have poured forth to “prove” that that Anglo-American war was “inevitable.” This urging that increased study be devoted to wars that have not happened is intended in all seriousness. Prevention of war as a topic of research may claim the talents of competent historians. The field may be productive of significant investigation and writing.

There is more to be done by historians in studying, though not merely by diplomatic documents, the causes of wars. By a kind of misplaced profundity the subject has been magnified or overdignified. Much has been said by way of representing such causes as broadly based, elemental, associated with “virile” nations, cosmic, and hence seemingly justified. To discourse learnedly about peoples in need of this or that advantage and assert that rulers begin a war for that reason, is misleading. There may be no such need to be actually attained by war, and the rulers may be inaccessible to control by their own people. If a nation fights for its own liberty or for a great principle, if it is attacked and defends itself, or fulfills pledges to promote international justice in case of unprovoked aggression, one may speak with reason of aims and objectives in a conflict, but in doing so one is referring to a conflict that has already begun; for the “cause” or unleashing of the war one must study an earlier chapter. War is too often discussed in the abstract, and that is especially true of over-all treatments of causes of war in general. If one deals with war realistically, which is not always done in historical writing or military narrative, he must in the modern age take account, not so much of the elemental and basic, but of the irresponsible and the capricious. Where war comes by reason of militaristic megalomania or a perverted sense of bigness, one must adjust his conclusions as to “causes.” In that case one cannot write grandly, broadly, and elementally, of great surging movements that need only to be “understood.” It may be that too little attention has been given to war-making factors that are abusive, abnormal, pathological, whipped-up, stupid as to ideas, artificially staged as to pretext, and criminally aggressive. There is of course the high motive of “removing the causes of war” as part of international programs to avoid conflict, but it is consistent with this motive to examine such causes critically and specifically. In so doing the realistic historian must expose factors which are without reason.

These matters are concerned with the inception of wars. The cause of peace loses its vantage point when war has broken out. A man may believe ardently in the avoidance of war and yet he may not join in criticism or misrepresentation of a nation or a government that rises to a challenge when drawn into war by outside aggression and attack. For this reason there is all the more validity in those efforts of peace-promoting nations that are concerned, not with sitting by and hoping, against history, that they can merely let war happen and avoid involvement, but rather with standing together, while there is yet time, to prevent war from breaking out, which is what any true peace effort really signifies.

No one has yet fully measured the impact of unhistorical notions in the international field. In that great area the slanting of history may go so far as to become startlingly dangerous. We have heard arguments for the alleged “inevitability” of war, together with its “log jam” corollary or its accompanying fallacy as to “preventive war.” If one studies America’s intelligent leaders, Lincoln among them, he will find that they have advocated not “preventive war,” which is self-contradictory, but the prevention of war. War was not prevented in Lincoln’s day, in a period that has been called a “blundering generation,” but it has not yet been proved that the tensions of that time exceeded the possible resilience of the American people or the potential elasticity of the Union. Tensions can be shown, but to note a dispute is not equivalent to explaining or justifying a war. There is as much to be said of North and South as of North versus South. In the long story, with the exception of the 1860’s, the Union has proved elastic rather than brittle. War was prevented in 1850. Had war been prevented in 1861, as Lincoln hoped, the notion of “inevitability” would have led one to suppose that tensions would then have steadily mounted till peace became “impossible,” whereas the likely supposition was that, if another decade had been safely passed, the nation by 1870 would already have reached the point of diminishing tension with a still further diminishing of danger in decades to follow. Yet if you accept the dogma of “inevitability” you can never achieve the prevention of war.


Among the familiar stereotypes is the pronouncement that men of liberal views have talked and have dreamed but have not achieved. On this point it belongs to scholarly historianship to look at the record. Wilson was a liberal and a man of ideals. As governor of New Jersey he carried reform measures through to enactment against the opposition of “practical” bosses. The solid achievements of his first presidential administration—in the tariff, taxation, finance, banking, canal tolls, the Clayton act, the Federal Trade Commission, and so on—bespoke not the dreamer but the man who accomplished. The complex and multifarious wartime enactments of his second administration cannot be historically considered apart from effective presidential leadership. These things were done within the pattern of democracy, of free elections, of vociferous and continued expression of opposite opinion. From 1913 to 1919, with notable resourcefulness in the co-operation of President and Congress, Wilson’s record was that of a leader and a successful President.

The one great exception to that record was the defeat by a minority of the Senate of Wilson’s program for adherence to the League of Nations. If one studies Wilson he should also study his opponents, whose performance may be characterized not as a clear-cut triumph of majority will but rather as indirection, delay, and a calculated technique of talking the subject to death. The result may be considered a kind of fluke. It is needless to comment on the effect of that anti-Wilson episode upon the United States and the world. The defeat of the League came after Wilson’s breakdown. It does not invalidate the main record of his accomplishment as a leader, nor does it justify the broad appellation of visionary or impractical dreamer.

Wilson has been mentioned as an example. Other instances can be readily found. In Jacob Riis one finds a man of vision and ideals but also a practical leader and a man of accomplishment. The same is true of Peter Cooper, Louis Brandeis, George Norris, John Peter Altgeld, Jane Addams, and many others. If they had vision, that meant that they saw large problems by which we mean realities that others were ignoring. If they had ideals, they were in that respect at one with our great spokesmen and leaders. Their vision was no handicap and the significant matter that stands out in their story is that they did not merely talk; they achieved. On the other hand, though it is too painful for elaboration, the term “realist” has been misapplied to less liberal men who have been notable chiefly for naïveté, for wrong guesses, and for overlooking realities. This is a large subject that needs re-examination.


It is a function of the historical sense to recognize the outmoding of old ideas and patterns. In part this is a casting out of bogeys. In part it is the rhythm of the decades. Once the abolitionists were despised and suppressed, North and South, to a degree and by methods that are, as seen today, nothing short of shocking. Now the abolitionists are receiving, as they should receive, a better understanding and a more friendly treatment. Once, though this may not be entirely a thing of the past, the abusive and exploitive side of capitalism was overlooked or perhaps admired; some people even admired Jim Fisk. In recent decades an aroused social sense has found it imperative, through government, to hold these abuses in check, not to destroy capitalism but to live with it and yet preserve economic and social democracy.

In some cases the intellectual process of outmoding has been like the lifting of a darkening curtain. There was that pre–Civil War book of propaganda, The Proslavery Argument. That polemic publication had its day. There was something in the intellectual air that caused people to accept those emphatic pleas for human slavery on the historical, religious, Biblical, philosophical, political, and constitutional fronts. All this ammunition was designed, manufactured, and discharged in defense of an institution which very soon became unconstitutional with the willing help of Southern votes and which has long been discredited. What a stockpile of ideas had to be discarded, and how small was the popular regret and how great the humanitarian satisfaction when that discarding came!

In 1864, when it was coming to be recognized that slavery was gone and when American law was being adjusted to that recognition by the thirteenth amendment, Congressman Fernando Wood of New York said: “Mr. Speaker, I see many objections to this amendment, while I fail to find one reason in its favor. I am opposed to it because it aims at the introduction of a new element over which Government shall operate. It proposes to make the social interests subjects for governmental regulation.”2 This problem has ramifications that cannot be entered into here, but Wood’s words are quoted to show how new to some minds at that time was the idea, which has become so important in recent times, of using government for the promotion of “social interests” and human welfare. It was, however, an idea with which Lincoln was familiar and which he approved. It is an idea which, operating on many a significant front, has led to the casting off of old attitudes pertaining to the eight-hour day, child labor, social security, labor rights, agricultural support, and food-and-drug inspection, for which Harvey Wiley had to conduct a lively campaign of crusading and later of vigorous administration.

Outmoding is a kind of transition and it is always occurring. How it works may be subject to no one generalization. Sometimes it seems to come by the passing of time or by the coming of fresh air. In American democracy the process may be peaceable constitution making or amending, adaptation by court opinion, crusaders laboring for specific causes, countless informal expressions of opinion, change due to an election of President and Congress, nonpartisan agreement, perhaps a kind of liberal coalition as in the curbing of the undemocratic power of Speaker Cannon, or programs successfully promoted by a minor party though it loses an election.

Introduction of new customs may occur within the pattern of the old. Violence may result if matters become desperate while systems are rigid or regimes are negative, but it is the merit of democracy that doors are not closed and that changing forms come as a matter of natural growth. An imperfect system may carry the germ of its own evolution. Constitutional limitations are not impervious to the surging demands of a people. It was the unreformed Parliament of 1832 in Britain which passed the Reform Bill and opened the way for succeeding social measures. And the parliamentary reform of 1911 with its radical diminution of the power of the House of Lords was brought to pass within the old pattern. The process was regular, though it did involve, in 1911 as in 1832, the drastic threat of the creation of new peers. The point to emphasize is that that threat could be effective, allowing the existing system to be used and inducing the peers’ consent to the reduction of their own power.

Woman suffrage in the United States was obtained, not by revolution or a kind of amazons’ Bastille Day, but by orderly processes under mere male control. In ratifying the seventeenth amendment our state legislatures transferred the election of senators from their own hands to those of the people. In 1952 the United States Senate gave up its patronage as to collectors of internal revenue. If it be argued that the men had to yield, also the peers, legislators, and senators, that simply signifies that in the accomplishment of these reforms there were prior forces at work by which the old system could sweep itself away. That method, and not civil or class war, is the process by which at its best and within the pattern of intelligent statesmanship, the abolition of the old has come to pass.


As we meet in these gatherings we cannot fail to be aware of the larger uses and responsibilities of the historian. As teacher his function is not indoctrination but stimulation of students who will be citizens in need of history whether or not they are to be historians. It may therefore be emphasized that what is appropriate for historianship is also essential for citizenship. Standards of historical study are of value for the understanding of human affairs. Among such standards are clarity, objectivity, tolerance, discrimination, a sense of proportion, insistence upon freedom of thought, authenticity, caution as to conclusions, wariness as to excessive generalizations combined with readiness to state conclusions fairly reached. What is not recommended is the attitude of the politician who said: “These are the conclusions on which I base my facts.”

The historian has often to consider the problem of semantics, or what Lincoln called the “tyranny of words” in the actual affairs of men. There are words of high import that have become unworthily applied. The basic compulsion of the word honor is justified when validly used, but not to cover a kind of face saving for those who demand a holocaust of violence when what is needed is adjustment. Shakespeare’s word for this was finding “quarrel in a straw” when “honour’s at the stake.” In many minds the original meaning of the word politics has been lost. The significant word liberal, a term of good standing in history, has been distorted or even in some cases taken over for non-liberal purposes. It is important also that the word conservative be rightly understood.

A word should not be thought of as frozen or petrified, but as something alive and vital. On this point we might quote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in Towne versus Eisner, 245 U.S., 425: “A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used.” Words should be functional, chosen for thought conveyance as well as for cadence, association, flavor, and all the other purposes that belong to verbal expression. Yet often the historian recognizes the trigger-like discharge of words and the confusion of slogans as among the explosive factors in public affairs.

As for the fine word American, it is needless to point out how it has been appropriated by a pressure group or “front.” The word loyalty runs deep but its genuine test is not reducible to easy categorizing or stigmatizing. Horace Bushnell, Congregational minister, wrote in Civil War days: “Loyalty ... is no subject of ... legal definition. It belongs entirely to the moral department of life. It is what a man thinks and feels, and contrives, not as being commanded, but of his own accord, for ... his country’s honor—his great sentiment, his deep and high devotion, the fire of his habitual or inborn homage. ...”3 Loyalty in a democracy should be construed as allowing for difference of opinion. Detection of disloyalty is an obligation of responsible administrators, and punishment is a function of prosecutors and courts with due safeguards. The motive and manner of the prosecution should not be partisan, nor should it be the function of an individual or a clique.

About two centuries ago the Western world saw the age of enlightenment, and it is hard to face up now to an age of error. We hear that philosophy has lost its grip and that men no longer even expect to have firm beliefs. This leaves a gaping void which, in one of its manifestations, has appeared in the works of the French writer Albert Camus, whose lack of believing appears in various books, though it has been somewhat belied by his association with the French underground. Here we have the theme that man is ruled by terror, that he has either to cheat or be cheated, that nothing matters, that man is a stranger in an alien and absurd world, that we are forever climbing and continually falling, and that the best we can expect is to take satisfaction in the act of climbing however meaningless it may be. Whatever else may be said of this philosophy of emptiness, it can hardly be recommended on the score of results. If one takes American history, the leaders who are best remembered are men and women who have believed and affirmed—Jefferson, who believed in human rights; Lincoln, who believed in democracy; Jane Addams, whose life was a saga of unselfish service; Wilson, to whom solidarity for prevention of war and continuing international order was a cause of compelling importance.

The habitual negative tendency may become almost pathological. It is, however, a disease of which the fever will sooner or later pass. In the 1920’s we needed the sophisticated barbs of Mencken. But we also needed such a writer as Stuart Pratt Sherman. This is a two-party nation. In 1923 Edward P. Cheyney addressed this Association on the subject “Law in History.” As was his nature, Cheyney spoke with confidence of democracy and progress, though his words came at a time of gathering darkness. It is well to recall that the era of negativism had been preceded by what Van Wyck Brooks has called the “confident years”—the late phase of the nineteenth century together with the twentieth to about 1914. They are known in political history as the “progressive movement.” That literature still exists; as for the simultaneous progressive movement, some of its results still remain. Much of that writing based on confidence was a matter of dissent. Conformity of opinion was not its characteristic. This was the productive age of the muckraker. But it was not the kind of dissent that is lacking in horizon or vista. It belonged to a distinguished line of American writing in that it was dissent with a purpose. More especially, the fact that there was such an era of purpose and vision suggests that in the turning of the decades a similar period may again arise.

Whether the time be one of pessimism or optimism, society has need of the historian. He is—or we hope he is—oriented in time and space. He is not limited—this ideal historian—to his own province or to a narrow present. He has reasonableness, loyalty, conviction, appreciation of human values. He has a training that sharpens his perceptions. From tested evidence he strives to recreate a past episode. In addition to all the craftsmanship that pertains to evidence, he recognizes the many-sidedness of historical interpretation. He has understanding that guards against unenlightened or partisan argument. In this singling out of the historian there is no thought of exclusiveness. Certainly we recognize the distinctive contributions of those who labor in other social studies, indeed in the world of scholars and scientists. It is simply that the historian is the subject for tonight. For the historian himself we have in mind his sense of function, his purpose, his aim and goal. The full ideal may not be fulfilled, but such is the nature of ideals. One does not reach them, but one does steer by them.

Since we live in an age of error we stand in need of these qualities. We need the historian’s keenness in the daily contemplation of events and movements. We need the informed intelligence that will not be moved by a cartoon because it is skillfully drawn, because it has a picture of Uncle Sam, or because it is printed large on the front page. We need the questioning mind. To safeguard it we need democracy, for the obvious reason that in antidemocratic regimes scholarly effort and civic thought are tortured into indoctrination and killed. This is not to suggest that the historical scholar should go about with the air of an agitator. Among our intellectuals an excess of earnestness is a remote hazard; it is not likely to arise. But the scholar belongs to the human race, and where great values are in question neither he nor the scientist can be indifferent. He may deal in quiet statement of findings rather than in vociferous emphasis, but it belongs within his function as a scholar to contribute, as he well can, to the forming and conveying of sound conclusions and the encouragement of independent thought.

At the time of his presidential address, J. G. Randall was a professor of history at the University of Illinois.


1. L. Pierce Clark, Lincoln: A Psycho-biography (New York, 1933), especially pp. 7–8, 50.

2. Congressional Globe, 38 Cong., 1 sess., 2940 (June 14, 1864).

3. Horace Bushnell, in The New Englander, XXII (July, 1863), 565.