James Harvey Robinson

President of the Association, 1929

A paper read before the American Historical Association annual meeting at Durham, December 30, 1929. Published in American Historical Review 35, no. 2 (January 1930): 245–55.

Newer Ways of Historians

Thomas Burke in his charming story of childhood, “The Wind and the Rain”, says that now and then he had a revelation. He would soon realize, however, that this new flash of insight was after all nothing more than what he had known all along—no more, indeed, than every one had always known. This curious experience comes to all thoughtful persons. As life goes on they find themselves repeating their old discoveries with an air of novelty, easily discredited by the records.

Nineteen years ago I talked to our Historical Association about “The Allies of History”. When I looked up the forgotten address I found in it a number of reflections which I seem to have expressed quite as clearly and confidently as I could do now. As I remember, the paper was received somewhat blankly, with a touch perhaps of hostility. Tonight I only fear that what I have to say will appear to you all too commonplace since the temper of thought has undergone a mighty change in the last twenty years. Many a novelty has in that interval flattened into a platitude.

At the opening of the present century, when the older of us were getting under way, we enjoyed a certain sense of superiority in our emulations, and looked down with some condescension upon our predecessors. We had made a very essential discovery, the distinction between the primary and secondary sources of historical knowledge. We inhaled the delicious odor of first hand accounts, of the “original document”, of the “official report”. We had at last got to the bottom of things. Earlier writers had of course used primary sources, but in a reckless and irreverent manner as it seemed to our heightened sense of criticism. We got out “source books” to bring the glad tidings to the colleges and even the schools. He who could, read Bernheim’s Lehrbuch der Historischen Methode. Potthast’s “saure Arbeit”, as he calls it, Giry and Dahlmann-Waitz were cherished by those who began to tackle the Middle Ages, previously so inadequately understood.

Institutions appealed to us as particularly important. The Church began to receive its due, as well as Feudalism, the guilds, petty and grand juries, parliaments and estates general. Bishop Stubbs established ideal standards for this type of investigation. But his work was not so jolly as Sir James Fitzjames Stephen’s History of the Criminal Law of England, which, “though not free from inequalities and traces of haste”—not so inappropriate after all to his theme—seemed to bring us nearer the great heart of the people than Stubbs. I am reminded for some reason at this point of the lines of Sir William Gilbert in his “Bab Ballads”:

For only scoundrels dare to do
What we consider just and true;
And only good men do in fact
What we should think a dirty act.

I am inclined to guess that “institutions”, as formerly conceived, are no longer deemed so important as in the old days, and that formal and official documents seem less authentic and fundamental than once they did. I shall revert to this question later.

Our rather solemn estimate of the orderly proceedings of mankind as recorded in documents was reenforced by our fear of what George Burton Adams called “a new flaming up of interest in the philosophy of history” [see George Burton Adams' presidential address]. The same writer was also solicitous that history should retain its integrity since it was threatened with assaults from stealthy, youthful social sciences seeking what they might purloin in order to increase their weight—for some of them were a bit spindling as yet. This fear has I trust vanished. In the great and glorious game of stalking the truth there are many methods of approach. The old jealous attempt to delimit the departments of man’s knowledge and surround each “field” with barbed wire is passing away. History seems to more and more of us a method of learning about men and women. It is but an example of the genetic approach which is so widely appreciated and usefully applied whether one be engaged on a nebula, a flat worm, or the League of Nations.

As we look back thirty years we find historians perhaps rather pedantic and defensive. They are humble enough now. They do not aspire to a noble isolation but seek help from quarters undreamed of when I began to teach. We readily admit that anyone may view historically anything he wishes and we bless him for his wisdom if he does so. We escape the possibility of attacks by merely leveling our circumvallations and permitting those who will to wander freely about our realm and help themselves—we wonder, indeed, if we have, or ever have had, any legitimate sovereign rights to defend. Whether history is an art or science troubles us as little as whether glorified spirits are in the empyrean rather than the aqueous heaven—once a matter of debate in the University of Paris.

There were at the opening of our century four chief kinds of history: Ancient, European (Medieval and Modern), English and American. It was on this basis that professorships were assigned, manuals were written, and history was taught in the schools and colleges. Committees appointed to consider plans for historical instruction were scornful of so-called “general” or “world” history. They assumed that a simple outline of the career of man, studied for only a year or two, would produce no good results. They were of course wrong, for excellent manuals of general history have since been written; and it has proved possible, by leaving out a good many facts that were once deemed essential, to make the narrative quite as lively and interesting as that of any of the four received divisions of the past.

National history seems to us more provincial than formerly it did. We now know so much more of the origin and dissemination of civilization, that it becomes quite literally “the common adventure of mankind”, as Wells calls it. Fichte could, after the battle of Jena, assure the Germans that they were an original people with an original language—such was the state of ignorance in his time. Sixty years later Freeman could exhort the history teachers of Liverpool to impress on the minds of their pupils that they were Mercians—to him a mighty tribe. But it has been the habit of man to wander on a large scale; he is a migratory animal. No nation starts afresh. The term autochthonous (sprung-from-the-earthers) or aboriginal (on-the-spot-from-the-firsters) can not be properly applied to any people of which we have any record. Each people at every stage of its civilization owes most of its knowledge, skill, art and mores to other peoples including those of a very remote past. So national history merges into general history. And without some vivid conception of the whole sweep of civilization national history is likely to be very badly interpreted. The whole setting of the history of western European countries is being transformed by a reconsideration of its background and by a realization of its strange outcome as we see it today.

The classicists, to whom Greek and Roman history was turned over on account of its peculiar difficulties, have been forced by archeological discoveries greatly to reduce their estimate of Greek originality. It is now clear that the barbarous Greek tribes migrated into a region where a high civilization already existed; upon this, after much destructive marauding, they reared a new and finer one. The story of human achievement which lies behind the days of Greek greatness is recognized by the editors of the Cambridge Ancient History who assign to it about a third of their massive treatise. Just as the estimate of the uniqueness and freshness of Greek culture has been lessened by the vast backward extension of history, so has our conception of the Hebrew religion and even of Christianity. As knowledge of their origins grows, they cease to seem so isolated, distinctive and miraculous in their beginnings, spread and permanent influence as they did fifty years ago.

What was not long ago called prehistory has become honest-to-God history, for few question now that implements, pottery, decoration, ornaments and curiously arranged stones are quite as authentic sources of knowledge as inscriptions. They are indeed more fundamental than writing. Such evidences of man’s remote past are being increased at an astonishing rate, and we have no reason to think that archeology has made more than a beginning. Conditions for its rapid advance become, as my predecessor Professor Breasted eagerly told you last year, more and more favorable and its revelations more surprising.

A new prehistory is passing into the place of the old. “Civilization” is taking on a new meaning from that it had for older writers. It is what Graham Wallas calls our “social heritage”, as distinguished from our animal heritage. Since our animal equipment and tendencies deeply influence our civilization, which of course depends upon them, it becomes a matter of deep historical significance to compare our physical outfit and conduct with that of our nearest relatives who have not, for various reasons we now understand pretty well, ever achieved any civilization. Just as years ago I recommended that the old prehistory be recognized as essential to grasping history as then delimited, so I now recommend that the work of Koehler, Pavlov, Yerxes and many other animal psychologists be frankly recognized as essential contributions to the historian’s problems.

The discoveries in animal psychology are by no means irrelevant to man’s conduct in all times. They may well influence one’s reflections whether he read the New Testament or the morning Times. The history of what is deemed the highest human thought constantly suggests primitive impulses and conditioned reactions. When Tylor pointed out that superstitions were but metamorphosed hold-overs of former habits of thought and action, and urged that we should speak of historical survivals, not superstitions, he vastly improved our way of talking of both the past and the present. It is this almost inexorable persistence in all human affairs of ancient and primitive factors that keeps pushing the historical student further and further back; for he knows that his explanations of things as he finds them are remote, and can not be derived from even the most scrupulous inspection of current conditions and events.

In spite of this retrospective drive, there has never been anything like the demand for up-to-date history. A quarter of a century ago the writer of an historical manual was not expected to say much of his own time. Indeed he could allow his tale to peter out somewhere in the ’seventies. The past seemed one thing, the present another. We were supposed to know about the present and needed only to be told about what happened before we were born. There was little inclination to bring the two sets of information together. After the War, as textbook writers know, a general demand was made that all accounts of recent times should be posted like a ledger. In 1929 a copyright obtained in 1925 suggests an antiquated work. Authors must seem to be only a few months in arrears.

Scarcely any change in education can be ranked with this in importance. If the writer has from the beginning of his book been under the anticipated obligation of framing a coherent narrative making close connections with the morning newspaper the day that he releases his plate proof, he will almost inevitably find himself reselecting his material with a view of this dénouement. Should we succeed in encouraging a thoroughgoing historical sense in writers and transmitting it to students we should have done something new and fine. For there is no branch of knowledge now that does not rely upon the genetic method of discovery and explanation. Surely the present condition of mankind should be no exception, but rather the most striking example. So much of the discussion of obsessive problems in the ordering of human affairs is futile or feeble on account of failing to reckon with the traditions which produced the objectionable conditions. A knowledge of persistent historical forces would reveal unconscious assumptions which it is the great task of critics to expose. When these are laid bare one can begin to think with some thoroughness.

The enhanced interest in the developments of each year as it passes has led us to make certain discoveries which might otherwise have remained for the coming generation to point out. I will give but one very striking instance. Beard and I have been rewriting and greatly expanding our old Development of Modern Europe prepared a score of years ago. We found occasion to alter the account of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in many ways. As Leonard Merrick says in one of his stories, there are plenty of sign boards along life’s pathway, but the directions are only visible when one has passed them. Recently mankind has been scuttling along at such a rate that historians can now read many of those which were blank to their immediate predecessors. When, for example, the, diplomats at Vienna tossed Prussia a few sleepy villages near the Rhine, especially in the Ruhr valley, they could not see a sign far down the road inscribed “Nach Krupp und Stinnes”. No more could we realize what was to be the outcome of European exploration, occupation and colonization when it was reenforced by machine manufacture, modern means of communication and financial enterprise. Beard had trotted down the trail and peeked around the sign when he included “imperialism” in our old edition. This recently coined word greatly enriches the historical vocabulary of the nineteenth century. In recognition of the impression it has made on us we decided to call our second volume The Merging of European into World History. This was partly due to a conversation I had with Breasted last spring. His far-roving eye saw that western European history was but a chapter in world history.

In the region west of Vienna modern experimental and applied natural science produced far more momentous, revolutionary, and farther reaching effects than any of man’s old ways of managing his surroundings. They are, of course, making over all his notions of himself as well. It would never have occurred to most nineteenth century historians to include an account of the progress of scientific research and invention in what they called history, but now it ranks with that of Church and State—should mayhap be accorded a larger place than they in reviewing the changes of the last two or three centuries.

The applications of scientific knowledge generated the means for its dissemination to the uttermost parts of the globe. So Western Europe produced a new type of civilization (as had the Egyptians and the Greeks) which spread not only to the vast stretches of Eastern Europe (pretty much a blank in the old manuals though no longer overlooked) but made its way into Africa, and is overwhelming the ancient civilizations of India, China, and Japan. In this process of westernizing the world the United States has been assuming a more and more important role, until it is now the recognized and feared rival of the whole of Western Europe.

Since the War there have been established a World Council, a World Court and, latterly, a World Bank. In the creation of two of these, citizens of the United States played a conspicuous part. The most skeptical must see in all these at least unprecedented gestures in the furtherance of human unification. It may be that the last mentioned, the World Bank, may ere long be speaking more convincingly than either League or Court.

So the old divisions of history into Greek and Roman, Medieval and Modern, English and American which seemed good in our eyes thirty years ago, form, taken all together, one gigantic episode in the history of humanity as a whole. We are now in a position to envisage it as such and to readjust our historical narratives on this basis.

I surmise that to most historical students at the opening of the century the world looked fairly stabilized. The great upheavals seemed to be behind us. We were busy investigating and describing them, with no suspicion that they might come to seem scarcely more than curtain raisers for a tragedy that was about to unfold. The industrial revolution, as we had come to call it, appeared to be a fait accompli; we did not realize that it was only the forerunner of still more astonishing developments due to the utilization of electricity and the internal combustion engine. We were usually liberals, with no inclination to question the beneficence of democracy and representative government. We foresaw no overwhelming socialistic victories. We were under the influence of many other assumptions of which we were unconscious.

The most important of these unconscious assumptions was perhaps our general confidence in the process by which current arrangements and conventions had been elaborated in the past. We did not ask ourselves what promise of easy and happy readjustments to a new order of affairs could be discovered in the ways in which our accepted institutions, standards, and scheme of moral values had come about. It was our special business as historians to trace the aggressions, oppressions, surrenders, and compromises, together with the persistent defense of habits and beliefs originating in venerated ignorance and gross misapprehensions of man and his world, which had debouched in the situation as we found it at the opening of this century. We traced these things it is true, but, as I look back, failed to see their vital bearing on our false assumption of stability. Human proceedings seemed to be more orderly than they really had been, finally to culminate in a situation where we could quietly review the past and hope for the best. I think that we might as well admit that we did not know enough to see much sense in the utterance of one of Mr. Wells’s characters: “The best men, the wisest, the best of mankind, the stars of human wisdom, were but half ineffectual angels carried on the shoulders, and guided by the steps, of beasts.” As I lately reviewed the story of Western Europe during the past three or four hundred years, I was filled with a sort of dismay, which I did not feel so keenly twenty years ago.

Beginning with 1914 the old ways of historians were put to a fearful test. How did these old ways bear the test? Very badly, as I think we must all admit. Did such knowledge as historians had arduously accumulated of the past serve to make them wiser than their fellows? Hardly. In all countries they were unable to overcome their native susceptibility to the prejudices of their particular tribe. They applauded the old battle cries. They blew trumpets and grasped halberds. They gulped down propaganda which in a later mood they realized was nauseous. They were, in short, easily sold out, for their studies had not prepared them to assess the sudden emotional crisis much better than the man in the street. I am not thinking especially of ourselves. But in retrospect our moats appear about as sizable as the beams of British, French, and German historians.

Yet how, otherwise, could we have learned the great lessons we have? And great lessons we have learned. We see now that history at its best needs not simply to be authentic. Its value, as a contribution to wisdom, depends on the selection we make from the recorded occurrences and institutions of the past, and our presentation of them. During the War I was hotly accused by the editors of two highly respectable papers of readjusting paragraphs in my textbooks to gratify a passing fury. I did make readjustments, as did all other writers of school books, but my new statements were quite as authentic, or seemed so at the time, as what I had originally said. The contention of the editors was that history is history, and could not be changed. In one sense this is true, but in the form of a record prepared by a human being it is about as malleable as potter’s clay. The older histories may be authentic but leave all sorts of new histories to be written, which will be quite as scrupulous in the examination of their data and more intelligent in their interpretations.

One of the first questions a layman asks is whether the historical writer is impartial and objective. We thought that we were impartial in 1900 if we showed no religious bias and, in the case of American history, preserved a proper detachment in treating the Civil War. These requirements were readily met. Since the World War, the chief bugbears have been evolution, radicalism (including suspicion of socialistic and pacificistic leanings), reflections on standardized patriots and glorious deeds and, lastly, an illicit love for Great Britain. Once on his guard it is not difficult for a writer to meet such objections by being a little too nimble to get caught.

Recently a restless clergyman wrote to me for a list of the most scholarly attacks on religion. I replied that there were no scholarly attacks on religion. A George Moore, McGiffert or Guignebert recalls and explains as best he can the institutions, varieties of faith and practices classified under the caption “religion”. They no longer feel the old ardor of Christian polemic. When the Christian Platonist Henry More first heard of the doctrines of Spinoza he forgot both Christ and Plato and snapped like a dog whose tail had been trod on. He could see only an “unclean and foul atheist” who would discover God in “stones, mire, lead and dung”. Had he known what we do he would have seen that all these things have a divine interest exceeding that of his own theological treatises.

After the War came a tolerance which is not artificial or assumed or condescending. This is the striking note in recent historical writing. There is a tendency to follow the example of great story-tellers and dramatists. These are inclined neither to applaud nor blame but to describe and narrate. Their characters are neither good nor bad, but just poor devils of various temperaments in bewildering situations, groping their way through the maze of life. People in the past must have been in much the same plight.

As a text for the remainder of this address I will take a remarkable series of reflections on history coming from a wholly unexpected source. In the year 1740 Joseph Butler, Lord Bishop of Durham, author of the famous Analogy, so long used in our older colleges, delivered a sermon before the House of Lords. He seems to have been in a mood of singular frankness. He says: “The history of all ages and all countries will show what has really been going forward over the face of the earth to be very different from what has always been pretended. And that virtue has been everywhere professed much more than it has been practiced; nor could society, from the very nature of its constitution, subsist without some general profession of it. Thus the face and appearance which the world has at all times put on, for the ease and ornament of life, and in pursuit of further ends, is the greatest satire upon what has at all times been carrying on under it.”

This distinction which the Lord Bishop of Durham so long ago recommended, between the “general profession”—“the face and appearance” of human doings—as over against “what at all times has been carrying on”, can not fail to arouse many disquieting doubts in the open-minded. It has been said of a Victorian philosopher, Mansel, that he set forth so fairly and eloquently the arguments against the existence of God that he was never able to answer them. I can expose the superficiality of much that has passed for history without being able to recommend any very definite ways of rendering our insight more profound. What we formerly deemed especially authentic were “documents”—the Rule of St. Benedict, Charlemagne’s Capitularies, Magna Carta, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, the amendments to the Constitution of the United States. Are these examples of the “face and appearance” of things or of what was “carried on” under them?

One can at least derive a certain inward peace from a frank recognition that a certain duplicity or dissimulation has been an inevitable concomitant of human development from a wild beast. Man has long found solace in good talk to offset bad conduct. As the Lord Bishop of Durham admits, virtue is essential “for the ease and ornament of life and in pursuit of further ends”. He is only mistaken, from our recent standpoint, in regarding the contrast between our professions and our conduct as a “satire”. Let us call it high aspiration, the expression of the ideal, or, more rudely, wishful thinking, rationalizing, compensation—to use current terms. The pretension of transcending the mean and disappointing experiences of life has been one of the strongest forces in advancing civilization.

Speech gave man a unique power to lead a double life. He could say one thing and do another. In his purely animal estate he was confined to mere doing. Hunger would drive him to devour either rabbits or raspberries, if they came to hand. He could not proclaim himself a vegetarian and then eat young chicks in the form of eggs. He could not, like the diplomats before the War, arrange treaties involving contingent aggression under the guise of securing peace. Such things are the exclusive privilege of human beings.

In dealing with a great part of human history we must be contented with the face and appearance of things, and can not hope to gain much knowledge of what was carrying on underneath. For that we have to turn to a class of sources which historians have eagerly used when they had them but which seemed to lack the authenticity of documents. I refer of course to those writings of the past classified as literature. Our knowledge of the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans would be scanty indeed were it not amplified by such portions of their respective literatures as have escaped destruction. A good deal of this is of course idealistic and romantic or was archaic even at the time it was written. We should be greatly better off had a Dickens been scouring the lanes of Jerusalem when Deuteronomy received its final codification. Had Charlemagne summoned from England an H. G. Wells to his court instead of Alcuin, Einhard’s life of that monarch would cease to be the precious little work it now is. Jane Austen could, from the standpoint of the historian, advantageously be substituted for Margaret of Navarre. Matters can not at this late date be arranged to suit the historian’s needs, but it is clear that the lack of novelists through the ages is a fact he must mourn. As matters are, I prefer Chaucer to Stubbs’s Select Charters, and Shakespeare to Gee and Hardy.

Future historical writers when they come to describe our own days will be forced to assign the modern novel a high place in the hierarchy of sources. From Richardson and Fielding downward there are many stories in which the fictional and romantic elements are merely the form in which serious descriptions and criticisms of contemporaneous life are presented by excellently qualified reporters. With Ibsen the drama was added to the novel as a reflection of what was carrying on beneath the general profession of virtue.

I have been dealing with history in a very large—to some, it may seem, reckless way; thinking of it as an account of the mighty drama of our race; as absolutely essential in every scheme of education which aims at a general preparation for an intelligent life. Never before has the historical writer been in a position so favorable as now for bringing the past into such intimate relations with the present that they shall seem one, and shall flow and merge into our own personal history. The growing recognition that we are superanimals, not degraded angels, is making clear what was once dark. Our animal origin has hitherto seemed to most historical writers an “intractable, uncouth, grotesque fact”. It is rapidly ceasing to appear as such, but rather as the very secret of new and unlimited insight. The self-creation of a wild animal, as Robert Briffault exclaims, “by the sole operation of his inherent qualities and powers, by the unfolding of what was in him, ... unaided by any external power, in the face of the buffets of hostile nature, of the intractabilities of his own constitution, into MAN, the demi-god, the thinker, the deviser, the aspirer after truth and justice, greater in his achievements and his ideals than all the gods he is capable of conceiving—if there is a fact before which we may truly bow in solemn reverence and silent wonder, it is that”.

James Harvey Robinson (June 29, 1863–February 16, 1936) taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University before helping to found the New School for Social Research and becoming its first director in 1919.