AHA Presidential Addresses
The Demand for Education in American History
By John Jay, President of the American Historical Association, 1889–90
Inaugural address published in the Annual Report of the American Historical Association, 1890, 15–36.
The American Historical Association enters upon its sixth year under new and favorable auspices, and the country may be congratulated upon the rise and progress of an association with special claims, not simply upon American scholars, but upon every thoughtful American who desires his children to understand aright the history and principles of their country. It seems to have sprung into existence under the guidance of our accomplished experts to supply a great national want, and to perfect for the scholars and the people of America a branch of education which, to America, of all the countries in the world, is of supreme importance; for the defects in our methods of historic study have been widely felt and frankly acknowledged, and this branch of our education has kept pace neither with the progress nor with the dangers of the republic.
These considerations give to the American Historical Association a national and a practical importance which Congress has wisely recognized by the act of incorporation authorizing the Association to share the advantages of the Smithsonian Institute and the National Museum, and instructing the secretary of the Smithsonian Institute to communicate to Congress reports of our proceedings and of the condition of historical study in America. Our Secretary reported, in October, the titles of some two hundred historical societies in the United States, including a number honorably distinguished during the past century by scholarly management and excellent work. His report shows also the resolutions of the Executive Council, and the circular addressed by its instruction to the State historical societies. The letter from the secretary of the Smithsonian Institute announcing the generous privileges accorded to this Association in regard to its collections, exchanges, and the printing and distribution of its reports, is definite and encouraging; and the cordial reception of the Association by the residents of Washington honorably represents the enlightened sentiment of the republic.
The instructive papers of our Association, especially those of Professor Herbert B. Adams, Dr. Andrew D. White, and President Charles K. Adams, have given us a full account of the progress of the new methods of historic study in Europe, with interesting particulars supplied by their own large experience. President Adams, in his inaugural, told us of the latest progress in England at Oxford and Cambridge; of the moderate advance in Holland, at the universities of Leyden, Groningen, and Utrecht, and in Belgium at Liege and Ghent, Brussels and Louvain; of the very remarkable progress in Italy, from the national unification, with its immense archives, notably at Florence and Rome, and with its eminent professors of Florence, Turin, Naples, Venice, Palermo, Milan, Pavia, and Bologna. Then came a reference to the study of history in Germany, of which ex-President White had given so comprehensive and instructive a review, and to its remarkable progress in France at Paris and Bordeaux. As regards America, President Adams reminded us that the methods of work in our institutions of university grade were very different from those in vogue twenty-five years ago, and that several of the professors of history now employed have received their training in the best methods of the old world. He advised us of the progress at Harvard, under Professor Henry Adams and President Eliot; at Yale, under Professors Fisher, Wheeler, George B. Adams, and Sumner, on constitutional and financial law; at Columbia, under Professor John W. Burgess, in the school of political science, and to which new life will doubtless be added under the vigorous and judicious influence of President Low; at the University of Michigan, where, under Dr. White, the science of history was lifted to the very summit of promise and usefulness; at Cornell, where the admirable work of Dr. White is being carried on by President Adams himself; and lastly, at Johns Hopkins University, whose historic volumes tell their own story, and where so much work has been so excellently well done, and where forty graduate students in history are working with a view to the doctor’s degree.
The harmony and helpfulness of the students of the various nationalities of Europe toward each other, and toward the scholars of our land, in furthering the introduction of the new methods of history in the colleges and universities of the world, recall the words of Sir Henry Maine: “The only community which, as far as I can see, is absolutely undivided by barriers of nationality, of prejudice, of birth, and of wealth, is the community of men of letters.”
America, we are told, is still far behind Europe in the study of history, and Professor Emerson, of Harvard, declares that “history has been taught very badly in America, or rather, to be honest, it has hardly been taught at all”1; and we are told, too, that the time is passing, in certain lands at least, when historians, one after another, set themselves up to write the panegyric of his favorite period or party, and “each panegyric is an apology or a falsehood.” Professor Emerson says—and this seems to be the general opinion of our scholars—that the new principle “is no longer on trial in America; it has come to stay.” The importance of history as illustrating the continuing tie, which, amid all the changes of time, connects the present with the past, is a constant idea with thoughtful Americans. “The foundations of our Christian culture,” says Dr. Eliphalet Potter, the accomplished president of Hobart College, “of our boasted commerce and manufactures, of our science and our government, are as old as history.... All the splendid superstructure of art and knowledge in the nineteenth century is built upon enduring foundations, laid by other races as well as by our heathen ancestors and Christian forefathers. The saying of Christ is the motto of the ages: ‘Other men have labored and ye have entered into their labors.’”2 What they did, and the reason and result of their action, make history philosophy teaching by example.
The American student of history cannot forget the debt due by America to the world. We may hesitate to join in the boast that we are the latest product of the ages, Time’s last and noblest offspring, the Star of Empire on its western way; but the fact that our republic occupies a position that commands a world-wide influence and imposes upon its citizens proportionate responsibilities, is one that the world recognizes and which we cannot ignore. The historic contrast presented by the fact that while we were celebrating the centennial of our Constitution and rejoicing in its strength, the French Exposition was exhibiting fifteen of which fourteen had been adopted national constitutions, and rejected during the last century, was not without significance. Lafayette, in his reply to Henry Clay’s speech of welcome, said that the United States reflected “on every part of the world the light of a far superior civilization”;3 and Ticknor spoke for the more enlightened Americans when he felt, on crossing the Pyrenees, “as if he had gone backward two centuries in time.” That impartial and philosophic observer, Dr. Orestes A. Brownson, declared that “the American civilization is the highest civilization that the world has ever seen, and comes nearer to the realization of the catholic idea.” Nor can we forget that an English representative so eminent as Mr. Gladstone has said: “I wish to recognize the prospective and approaching right of America to be the great organ of the powerful English tongue.”4
Mr. Gladstone and the philosophic thinkers of Europe doubtless recognize the truth of a remark by William von Humboldt, that “beyond the sum of creative forces directly presented by events there remains a powerfully active principle which, though not directly manifest, yet lends impulse and direction to those forces and ideas which according to their nature lie beyond the finite, but still permeate and rule the world’s history in all its parts.” This active force, which history alone discloses and which cannot be safely overlooked, Burke recognized when, as if inspired by the historic spirit and judging of the future by the past, in his speech on conciliation he described not simply the American colonists from England, but those from other lands, as marked by a spirit of resistance to the exercise of an authority which they denied. He said:
“... The religion most prevalent in our northern colonies is a refinement of the principle of resistance; it is the dissidence of dissent, and the protestantism of the Protestant religion.... The colonists left England when this spirit was high, and in the emigrants was highest of all; and even that stream of foreigners which has been constantly flowing into these colonies has for the most part been composed of dissenters from the establishments of their several countries, and has brought with them a temper and character far from alien to that of the people with whom they mixed.”5
Burke seems to have had in his mind something of the idea expressed by Bayard Taylor in his centennial ode: “In one strong race all races here unite.” In 1643 eighteen languages were spoken in the New Netherlands, and historic memories may have suggested to Burke that in the army of Washington were representatives of races which had been the most distinguished in the battle-fields of Europe—of Hollanders and Walloons who had in the Netherlands resisted Alva and Philip; of Frenchmen who had served under Coligni and Henry of Navarre, or who had passed through the memorable siege of La Rochelle; of Danes who had fought for their country against Tilly and Wallenstein; of the Englishmen who had battled at Naseby and brought the king to the block at Whitehall; of those who stood with William of Orange or with the partisans of James at the battle of the Boyne; of Swiss who had defended the freedom of their cantons against the trained soldiers of Austria; of the burghers who had maintained against the Duke of Burgundy the liberties of Ghent and Liege; of men who under Sobieski saved Vienna from the Turks; of those who stood with the Dutch at La Hogue, or with Charles XII of Sweden against his victorious rival, Peter the Great of Russia. But the advice of Burke and the warnings of Chatham were unheeded, although they were perhaps recalled when the army of Lord Howe, pronounced by Lord Chatham “the best appointed army that ever took the field,” yielded to Washington’s hasty levies; and Lord Chatham said to Parliament on the surrender of Burgoyne: “Those men whom you called cowards, poltroons, runaways, and knaves, are become victorious over your veteran troops, and in the midst of victory and the flush of conquest have set ministers an example of moderation and magnanimity well worthy of imitation.”
The varied nationalities represented by the American colonists give an exceptional breadth to our national history, so closely do they connect us with the nations of Europe, even in the distant past. Freeman tells us that the records of Athenian archives and Roman consuls are essentially part of the same tale as the records of the Venetian doges and English kings, and that the tale of Greece and the tale of Italy bring us at almost every page across the records of the Hebrews, the Phoenicians, and the Arabs. So the local histories of our earl settlements carry us back to the shadowy past, connecting us in other ages with the beginnings of national life, changing with time, but carrying onward something of their original power. Take, for instance, the recent interesting paper of Mr. Elting in the Johns Hopkins Studies on “Dutch Village Communities on the Hudson River,” which shows similar laws, customs, and form of government with the village communities on the Rhine, some of which linger until to-day. These features, which thus far have been too little noticed even by the historians, recall the institutional relationship of our early villages on the Hudson with those of the ancient Germanic tribes of the Rhine countries, called by Cæsar the Menapii, who occupied the country between the Rhine and the Meuse, and the Scheldt and the ocean. The Menapii, as the descendants of the Hollanders like to remember, “held alliance with the Romans, but never submitted to their yoke at all, nor permitted them to introduce their language, but retained in perpetual use the Teutonic dialect, now Dutch.”6
We are reminded that east of the Rhine and in the northern provinces of the Netherlands, Friesland, Groningen, and Drenthe—“whose free people Rome never conquered, and whose right of self-government no haughty baron ever suppressed”—the industrial spirit of the Dutch and the spirit encouraged by the growth of towns modified the feudal system of Holland to a degree unknown in France or even in England.7
There came to the Hudson River, says Mr. Elting, Walloons from the Spanish Netherlands, Huguenots from France, Puritans from New England, and Waldenses from Piedmont whose historical antecedents extend beyond the Christian era—all seeking freedom, and finding it in New Netherlands. Their descendants are to be found in Kingston, Esopus, and New Paltz, now a quiet village on the Walkill Valley railroad. This valley reposes near the peaks of the Catskills and the Shawangunk range, with its most prominent point, Sky Top, marking the location of Lake Mohonk, now known as a national centre of the thoughtful and practical philanthropy of the republic, in reference to the two races whose claims to enlightenment at the hands of the national government in the common-school system of the republic can no longer be ignored; and here, after three centuries, the noblest traits of the Hollanders are recalled by the benign influence that from one of their earliest American homes extends throughout the republic.
A like forgetfulness of the plainest lessons taught by history is constantly exhibited in our own land, and invaluable public service has been rendered by this Association and the Johns Hopkins University in their historic exposition of the policy and principles of the republic, as exhibited in Congressional acts and judicial decisions. Two of their papers illustrate the remark of Mr. Freeman, that “law has now become a mainstay of history, or rather a part of history, because a knowledge of history is coming to be received as a part of the knowledge of the law”; and the early appearance of these papers show that the new methods of history recognize its relation not simply to the legislature but to the judiciary, as an independent and essential element of the country, wielding a power that can sit in judgment on the legislative and executive departments, the interpreter of national and State constitutions, and the final arbiter of the constitutional limits to legislation.
One of these papers is that of Dr. Philip Schaff, on “Church and State in the United States,” in which that accomplished scholar with historic and judicial exactness has quoted the adjudications on this point as a matter “not of doctrine but of fact.” His masterly exposition and array of authorities add conclusive weight to the thought that no nation has more reason than our own for tracing the relations between the past and the present, and to the remark of Dr. Herbert B. Adams, that national and international life can but develop upon the constitutional basis of self-government in Church and State. Dr. Schaff’s paper was entitled “Church and State in the United States, or the American Idea of Religious Liberty in its Practical Effect, with Official Documents.” It presents in an appendix the provisions of the United States Constitution for religious liberty, decisions of the United States Supreme Court and of the courts of Pennsylvania and New York upon Christianity as a part of the common law, with the opinions of judge Story, Dr. Lieber, judge Cooley, and Mr. Bancroft.
“The State of New York,” Dr. Schaff reminds us, “had virtually dis-established the Episcopal Church in 1777, one year after the declaration of independence, by repealing in its constitution all statutes and acts which ‘might be construed to establish or maintain any particular denomination of Christians and their ministers’; and it ordained that ‘the free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship without discrimination or preference shall forever hereafter be allowed within this State to all mankind.’” In the leading case in New York, of The People vs. Ruggles, quoted by Dr. Schaff—when Chancellor Kent delivered the opinion of the court, with the approval of a full bench, including the eminent names of Smith Thompson, Ambrose Spencer, William Van Ness, and Joseph C. Yates—the court held that by the common law now in force here as in England, and wholly irrespective of any question of church establishment, contemptuous words uttered maliciously against Christ or the Holy Scriptures are an offence affecting the essential interests of civil society, where Christianity is recognized as a part of the law and the religion of the people.
That eminent legal authority the Hon. William Allen Butler, LL.D., of New York, in a recent paper on “Religion in the Schools”8 states that eleven years after that decision an amendment was introduced in the New York constitutional convention with the avowed attempt of obviating the effect of the decision in The People vs. Ruggles; and that “after a debate in which Chancellor Kent, Mr. Van Buren, Rufus King, and other eminent jurists opposed the amendment, it was rejected by a large majority, and the provision as to religious liberty was left unchanged, with the judicial construction of it in the case of Ruggles fully recognized, and the same provision remains in the State constitution now in force.” Mr. Butler further showed that the constitutional right of the people by their legislature to enact laws for the preservation of the public peace and order on Sundays was distinctly placed, in the leading case of Lindmuller vs. The People, “upon the ground that the Christian religion is a part of the law of the land, and that the Christian Sabbath is one of the institutions of that religion and may be protected from desecration by proper legislation.” This decision, added Mr. Butler, “was approved by the Court of Appeals in the later case of Meundorff vs. Duryea, and in the light of these authorities and these judicial constructions of the Constitution, it must be assumed that Christianity is, and until abolished by a constitutional amendment will continue in this State to be, a part of the law of the land.”
The historic facts thus judicially announced, tracing back through the common law the religious faith of the American people, are in accord with the first enactment of the Puritans on board the Mayflower, commencing “In the name of God, Amen,” and declaring that the voyage was undertaken “for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith”; with the early laws of the Dutch and the Huguenots, the Swedes and other colonists, some of which are in force to-day, until the day, when the federal Constitution was adopted according to the record of our national convention not like the revolutionary constitution of France on a day that ignored the Christian era, but in “the year of our Lord seventeen hundred and eighty-seven.” Dr. Schaff’s clear exposition is worthy of study by the differing classes who, misled perhaps by the foreign idea that this is a godless and heathenish country, and that the State cannot without violating its constitution teach to its children the principles of morality, have proposed to correct the alleged evil: the one class by supplying to the schools denominational teachings in defiance of the Constitution, and the other by inserting the name of God in the national Constitution. The prevalence and power of the religious sentiment in America thus recognized by the courts has not been unnoticed by the most observant and impartial critics of American institutions.
Dr. Schaff also shows that the United States Supreme Court in Reynolds vs. The United States, in a recent case affirming the right of Congress to prohibit polygamy in the territories, held that “Congress cannot pass a law for the government of the territories which prohibits the free exercise of religion. The first amendment to the Constitution expressly prohibits such legislation.” And the court quoted Mr. Thomas Jefferson’s reply to an address from the Dunbury Baptist Association, when he said: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God; that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship; that the legislative powers of the government reach actions only and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the American people which declared that the legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
Another paper, by Dr. Blackmar, on Federal and State aid to higher education in the United States, gave a complete historical sketch of national grants in aid of State education, which appeared soon after the denial of these grants had been made with such persistency and emphasis as to confuse the public and the press, despite the able argument of Dr. White on “National and State Governments and Advanced Education.” Dr. Blackmar quoted Huxley’s dictum: “No system of public education is worth the name of national unless it creates a great educational ladder with one end in the gutter and the other in the university”—which recalls Washington’s desire for a universal education and a national university; and he spoke of the first educational grants of the general government, in 1787, to support schools and advance the cause of education. Of that ordinance which declared that “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged,” Webster said: “I doubt whether one single law of any lawgiver, ancient or modern, has produced effects of more distinct, marked, and lasting character.” Next in educational importance to the ordinance of 1787 comes the Congressional grant of 1862 providing for mechanical and agricultural schools, with the supplemental act of March 2, 1887, with its far-reaching results, by which forty-six colleges and universities have benefited, thirty-three of which were called into existence by the act.
In 1803 Congress extended the privileges of the ordinance of 1787 to the States in the Mississippi territory, granting the sixteenth of every township for the purposes of common-school education, and one entire township for the support of a seminary of learning. The distribution of the surplus in the national treasury in 1836 was in its aim, as far as the national government was concerned, financial and not educational, but in sixteen States it was devoted wholly or in part to educational purposes. Among the States that were specially benefited by national aid to education was Connecticut, which received about twenty-three thousand acres for the education of the deaf and dumb.
A chief point of historic interest prominently noted by Dr. Blackmar was the effect of national aid in developing and strengthening the educational spirit of the States, and since the results of the Congressional grants of 1862 have begun to be seen, there has been an upward tendency of State education. Of the last grant Dr. Blackmar says: “Far-reaching results have already been attained from this well-timed donation but its chief excellence consists in the stimulation which it gave to State and local enterprise.” This historic fact confirming the profound wisdom of the framers of the ordinance of 1787, and of the successive Congresses for an hundred years, is one happily recalled to the country, although, as the Hon. N. H. R. Dawson, commissioner of education, said in his letter transmitting Dr. Blackmar’s monograph to Secretary Vilas: “The monograph was written with an earnest desire to present facts and not with a view to prove any particular thesis.”
It may be difficult to understand how the country should have required this exposition of our ancient and continuous policy of national aid to State education on a scale without a parallel in history, and with a beneficent effect so marvellous as to astonish the world, but the recent discussion of the subject by a large part of the press showed a singular misapprehension of both of these prominent historic facts with which every citizen should be familiar. It was gravely said that a bill to grant national aid to State education would be a violation of the national Constitution and without precedent in Congressional history; that the ultimate effect of such aid would be “a paralysis of local effort”; that the offer of national aid to a State would be an affront; that its acceptance would be an act of humiliation, inconsistent with manly spirit and State pride; and that national aid if accepted would weaken the national spirit of the States, and tend to the neglect of their State schools and the promotion of ignorance and mendicancy.
The Secretary of the Interior has done much to enlighten the American people in regard to the history of national aid to education by the work of Dr. Blackmar, reminding them of the opinions of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, and the framers generally of the Constitution on the subject, and the action for more than a century of the continental and constitutional congresses. Additional information in regard to the views of Jefferson on this subject is furnished by a separate work on his views on public education,9 published this year by Mr. John C. Henderson. Jefferson believed, as shown by one of his letters to Lafayette, that “ignorance and bigotry, like other insanities, are incapable of self-government.” In writing (April 28, 1814,) to the Chevalier de Oris, the Spanish printer of the constitution which had been adopted by the Spanish patriots, and regretting the union of church and state, he continued: “But there is one provision which will immortalize its inventors. It is that which after a certain epoch disfranchises every citizen who cannot read and write.... This will give you an enlightened people and an energetic public opinion.” To Wythe he wrote from Paris, April 13, 1786: “Preach, my dear sir, a crusade against ignorance. Establish and improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils, and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests, and nobles who will rise up amongst us if we leave the public in ignorance.”
Dr. White, with his large scholarly and diplomatic experience in the various countries of Europe, and his most skilful application of European experience to ourselves, has presented to the country a field of inquiry of great interest, and all true Americans will accept his proposition that “the demand of the nation for men trained in history, political and social science, and general jurisprudence can hardly be overstated.” He reminded us that in addition to Congress acting for sixty-three millions of people who are increasing in great part by immigration at an appalling rate, with some forty State legislatures, and county, town, and municipal boards innumerable; with executive officers and constitutional conventions and judges of every grade discussing political and social questions and fixing the grooves in which our political, and social development will largely run; with the grave questions of the relation of capital and labor, production and distribution, education, taxation, general, municipal, and international law—pauperism, crime, insanity, and whatnot—policies are being fixed, institutions created, laws made with reference to these questions, policies, institutions, and laws in which lie the germs of glory or anarchy, of growth or revolution.
Dr. White quotes an able and devoted foreigner, that it saddened him to see so many of the same lines of policy adopted in America that had brought misery upon Europe. “In various constituted bodies theories have been proposed which were long ago extinguished in blood; plans solemnly considered which have led without exception, wherever tried, to ruin, moral and financial; systems adopted which have caused, sometimes the tragedies, sometimes the farces, upon the stage of human affairs”—an expression that recalls the warning of Madison more than an hundred years ago, that popular government without popular education or the means of obtaining it is “but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or to both.” After referring to the prodigious amount of waste and error in dealing with political and social questions, Dr. White remarked that abuses found in France under Louis IV, and in England under George III, seem to find their counterpart in our own land, with criminal high schools taking large numbers of novices and graduating them masters of criminal arts, and this not from want of integrity but from lack of adequate training. He based on the same and similar facts the demand for a close study of the political and social history of those people who have had the most important experience, and especially of our own; and he supplemented his powerful argument with a startling reminder of the fearful price that has been paid hitherto for the simplest advances in political and social science when achieved by the gradual growth of the human mind. The entire paper of Dr. White, to some of the chief points of which I have ventured to allude, deserves the most careful study as an argument, based on acknowledged facts and enforced by the testimony of scholars, for the general and thorough incorporation of the improved methods of historic study with American education.
There is one point on which the history especially of England and America is regarded as teaching a lesson of confidence in their basis of national character and national stability. In England the age of corruption in the time of Walpole was marked, as Professor Goldwin Smith observes, by the still darker records of faction, misgovernment, and iniquity in the high places both of church and state, and in the political evils and fiscal burdens which have been bequeathed by those bad rulers even to our own times. The historian reminds us that if corruption had been universal, the people might never have lifted up their heads again, but that the people received the religion which the gentry and even some of the clergy had rejected. The people preserved the traditions of English morality and English study, and repaired by their unflagging industry and their sturdy integrity, the waste and demoralization of the classes about them.
Thus far public corruption, however flagrant, is but partial, even when it may sometimes seem to be almost universal. Goldwin Smith says. “Effort is the law, if law it is to be called, of history. History is a series of struggles to elevate the character of humanity in all its aspects—religious, intellectual, social, and political—sometimes rising in an agony of aspiration and exertion, and frequently followed by lassitude and relapses, as great moral efforts are in the case of individual men.” The revolution in England, so full of inspiring thoughts and noble deeds that were to fix on a firm foundation the constitutional liberties of the empire, was followed by a relapse into political corruption that indicated a complete swing of the pendulum from the highest to the lowest point of English patriotism. Of this Macaulay said, and our own history may furnish examples of its truth: “Public opinion has its natural flux and reflux; after a violent burst there is commonly a reaction.” Goldwin Smith further remarks: “If public life is the noblest of all callings, it is the vilest of all trades,” and “the real current of a great nation’s life may run calmly beneath the seething and frothy surface which alone meets our eyes.”
The question that seems to be forcibly suggested by the paper of Dr. White, and enforced by the teachings of our chief experts in historic studies, American and German, is whether the olden methods of teaching history now prevailing in our common schools and academies should not be at once improved by the general adoption of the scientific method, to the great advantage of American youth, whether their education is to end with the common school or the academy, or whether it is to be continued to the highest course of the university. Nothing could more tend to strengthen and confirm the American character of our common schools, so absolutely essential in fitting our youth for their duties as American citizens, and the historic training to that end will no longer be confined to the select few who enjoy the higher education given in our colleges and universities, but will be shared by the masses, “the plain people,” who constitute the great majority, whose character and life are to raise or to lower the standard of our civilization, and whose votes are to elect the rulers and determine the destiny of the republic.
Our common schools are intended to fit the youth of America for what Arnold calls “the highest earthly work—the work of government”; and that work is becoming more complex and difficult with the advance of our civilization to the Pacific, and with the problems political and industrial, financial and commercial, educational and social, that in succession or in joint array arise and confront us. To these are added a continuing wave of immigration of unexpected magnitude, and representing frequently civilizations inferior, alien, and hostile to our own. It is true that the more intelligent and better part come to appreciate and cherish American institutions, and to welcome for their children the common school that will fit them for American citizenship, and raise them politically and socially to a higher plane of civilization; but there comes also a vast multitude who in their ignorance are ready to subvert our institutions, to supersede our national principles and rights, which they do not understand, and even in some cases to force into our public schools not only un-American ideas, but a foreign tongue.
During the last century, when there was little danger from such influences at home, Washington, desiring for American youth an American character, objected to foreign education as encouraging “not only habits of dissipation and extravagance, but principles unfriendly to republican government and to the true and generous liberation of mankind.” The simple and sure mode of inculcating these American principles and ideas is the scientific study of American history. Our great authorities on history-teaching are agreed that rightly to understand, appreciate, and defend American institutions, the true plan is to know their origin and their history, and so to learn the true policy required for our safety; and in this light history appears as the true basis of national character and of national wisdom, and there seems no reason to suppose that lessons in history may not be given in our common schools in a way to influence the ideas and character of our children.
Dr. Diesterweg, who speaks with so much authority for the scholarship of Germany and of the world, dwells upon the importance of making historical ideas understood by showing their effect and developing ideal impulses in the pupils, and refers to the regrettable position of Germany, in a time not long past, when the most scholarly institutions had no special instructor in history, and when a place was made for history the pupils were burdened with a load of facts. The learned author says: “It is clear that the same impulse and the same dangers threaten the public school of to-day. The most important subjects must be given with sufficient detail to make them interesting.” If a question should be raised as to the feasibility of applying to children the improved method, on this point both German and American experts express no doubt. Dr. Diesterweg, in expressing his unwillingness to agree to any plan that purposes to exclude the “silent work of civilization” from an elementary course, quotes Benke as saying: “During the same period, from the eighth to the fourteenth year, the power of understanding, comprehending, thinking, the faculty of developing general truths from special ones, begins to awaken and assert itself.” Mr. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who has happily illustrated his views by his own delightful volumes, said in a paper entitled “Why Children Dislike History”: “The moral of all is that the fault is not in the child, but in us who write the books and teach the lessons. History is but a series of tales of human beings; human beings form the theme which is of all things the most congenial to the child’s mind. If the subject loses all its charm by our handling, the fault is ours, and we should not blame the child.”
We are reminded that the first step in geography is to know thoroughly the district wherein we live, and that American local history should be first studied as a contribution to national history; and President Adams suggested that “the development of local consciousness can perhaps be best stimulated through the common school,” with the usual adjuncts of the academy and local libraries, the local press, local societies, and local clubs. It would seem clear from such testimony that there is no reason why the elementary principles of the improved methods of teaching history may not be wisely introduced into the education of our common schools; that there, as well as in our colleges and universities, history may become, in President Adams’s words, “an active instead of a passive process—an increasing joy instead of a depressing burden.”
Of the fascination which the varied European origin of our early colonists will have for American youth, perhaps no better example can be cited than the remarkable address of Dr. Richard S. Storrs in 1876 before the New York Historical Society, on “The Early American Spirit and the Genesis of it.” I have before quoted this address in connection with American education, but I may be pardoned for a brief reference to it on this occasion as illustrating the point, and as an historic sketch parts of which might be advantageously introduced into every normal school of the republic, in view of the truth never to be forgotten, that for good education we must have good educators. Regarding histories as the biographies of communities, and recognizing the fact that we are in the presence of a commanding past, tracing the outlines of the fascinating history of our Revolution, showing that it was the spirit behind our little forces that compelled the events and gave them importance in history, Dr. Storrs recalled the fact that the early settlers in this country were not of one stock but of many, and that they brought with them a power and a promise from the greatest age of European advancement. With a rapid and masterly pen he portrayed that brilliant century which saw at its beginning the coronation of Elizabeth and at its end the death of Cromwell—a century marked by extraordinary genius, amazing achievements, the decay of authority, and the swift advance of popular power; the age of Raleigh, Drake, Bacon, Shakespeare, and Milton; illumined by printing, and stirred with tumultuous force by the Reformation. Glancing at the vehement public life of Northern Europe, in England, the Netherlands, Germany, and Sweden, he showed that out of this century, so full of enterprise and productive force, came the early settlers of America, bringing with them the energies of the continent, and with the push of a century behind them, forming in their constituent moral life one people, fearless, reflective, energetic, constructive, industrious, and martial; intensely practical, politically active, religiously free, with successful labor as their primary teacher. Hence came the early American spirit in whose light arose the republic “which interlinks our annals with those of the noblest time in Europe, and makes us heirs to the greatness of its history.”
Is there any good reason to believe that the American boy with his bright intelligence and active imagination is incapable of understanding the two historic ideas of the continuous and changing movement of human affairs and the permanence of principles? that he cannot learn to trace the connection between Runnymede, the battle of the Boyne, Bunker Hill, and Yorktown; the constitutional establishment of civil and religious freedom in the last century, and the constitutional emancipation in our own day? As he reads of the Magna Charta extorted from King John in 1215, and of its confirmation in England some thirty times as was deemed conducive to the liberties of Englishmen; when he recognizes that Charta as the basis of the Petition of Right in 1628, and of the Bill of Rights in 1688, will he not the more appreciate the fact that it was the basis of our Declaration of Independence in 1776, and of the first and latest amendments to our national Constitution?
Already school committees have begun to provide new historic and constitutional histories, primers for children, such as Nordhoff’s “Politics for Young Americans,” and of elementary works, Jevons’s “Primer of Political Economy” and the “Origin of New England Towns”; and what a field is opened for new histories for children by Professor Jameson’s announcement that the most neglected field of American history is the field of States, with the suggestion that boys should be early taught “the real, homely facts of government,” to which the local color added by the annals of the neighborhood Would add a homelike and inspiring interest. Upon the integrity and efficiency of the common school depend not only the right conduct of our affairs social, industrial, and political, but the public opinion of the country, of which Webster said: “Moral causes come into consideration in proportion as the progress of knowledge is advanced; and the public opinion of the civilized world is rapidly gaining an ascendancy over mere brute force,... and as it grows more intelligent and intense, it will be more and more formidable.... It is elastic, irrepressible, and invulnerable to the weapons of ordinary warfare.... Until this be propitiated or ratified it is vain for power to talk of triumphs or of repose.”
But the public opinion which Webster magnified and which is to subject the world to the empire of reason, is the opinion of an American people thoroughly educated in their own history and their own principles, a public opinion inspired by the intelligence and patriotism of the common school, which, while preparing the way to the college and university, can give all that the nation has a right to demand for her voters—the elements of knowledge, with a true idea of the history and the principles of the republic, and of the rights and duties of citizens. Dr. Woodrow Wilson remarks in his recent work, speaking of the convictions of our great statesmen from Washington to our own day: “No free government can last in health if it lose hold of its traditions in history; and in the public schools these may be and should be sedulously preserved,” carefully replanted in the thought and consciousness of each succeeding generation.
The necessity of a thorough and manly training to secure prosperity and strength has been forced, by our example and by the warnings presented by other nations, upon all classes in Europe, the governors and the governed; and Dr. Max Müller says that “every nation at present is trying to improve its material by national education.” In this international competition for supreme excellence in the common schools, our republic should be among the first, for the necessity of educating the American children, whether native or foreign-born, for their high duties as sovereign citizens is one that impresses more and more deeply our most far-sighted and earnest thinkers.
Bishop Henry C. Potter, of New York, in his recent address on “The Scholar and the State” before the Phi Beta Kappa chapter of Harvard, after referring to “that eminent and gifted Englishman, Professor James Bryce,” and to De Tocqueville with his rare foresight, touched upon the great possibilities of a government so nobly conceived and so finely governed as our own, and upon the fact, noted by De Tocqueville, that the excellence and delicacy of a vast civil mechanism only the more demands intelligent, prudent, and reverent handling, and that “no form or combination of social polity has yet been devised to make an energetic people out of a community of pusillanimous and enfeebled citizens.”
An historic view of the difference in the effect upon the strength of a people of a system of education in which the weight of authority is placed on the side of restraining, and a system that develops personal independent action, was presented by the late venerable Father Hecker, of New York, the founder of the Paulists, in his last instructive work, “The Church and the Age.” After alluding to the teachings adopted by the society founded by St. Ignatius, of Loyola, and to the remark, “Men whose wills never conflict with the authority of the Church perinde cadaver, the distinguishing traits of a perfect Jesuit form the antithesis of a thorough Protestant,”10 Father Hecker said: “The weight of authority was placed on the side of retraining rather than of developing personal independent action. The defense of the Church and the salvation of the soul were ordinarily secured at the expense necessarily of those virtues which go to make up the strength of Christian manhood. In the principles above briefly stated may be found the explanation why fifty millions of Protestants have had generally a controlling influence for a long period over two hundred millions of Catholics, in directing the movements and destinies of nations.”
The lesson taught by the impressive warning of Father Hecker in regard to the education on which depends the strength and controlling influence of nations, as he points the American people to the statistics of history, confirms the views of the fathers of the republic and of our wisest statesmen throughout a century as presented by Dr. Blackmar, to aid the States in making their school education universal and complete. “The first duty of government,” says the Hon. J. L. M. Curry, our late Minister to Spain, and again the chief manager of the Peabody fund, “is to develop and use to the maximum degree the brain power of the country. In the use or non-use of this intellectual power lies the difference betwixt nations and epochs.” “The end for which the schools are established,” says Hon. Andrew S. Draper, the able superintendent of public instruction in New York State, “is the safety of the State.... The schools are maintained at general expense to perpetuate the Constitution and to make citizenship safe and secure.” And President Harrison aptly asked in a speech at Galesburg, “How shall one be a safe citizen who is not intelligent?”
The national interest in education and the importance of a national system and a national standard of excellence are topics which abroad are being carefully studied, and Dr. Max Müller remarks:
“The great principle that the school belongs to the state, and that the state is responsible for its efficiency as it is responsible for the efficiency of the army, the navy, nay, even of the post-office. It is criminal to sell poison. Would it be carrying the same principle too far if Parliament insisted that no one should open a private school unless the government was satisfied of the wholesomeness of the moral and intellectual food sold in these schools to helpless children? Paternal government I know has not a good sound to English ears, but if anybody has a right to a paternal government, surely it is those little ones who should not perish.”
Our Association has an opportunity greater, perhaps, than ever before enjoyed by any similar institution of impressing upon the American people the profound importance of their own history, and of the example and counsels of the fathers of the republic in reference to the education of the people. The work so well begun indicates the vastness of the field to be explored, and the gravity of the tasks yet to be accomplished. Dr. Blackmar’s treatise on national aid to State education is still to be supplemented by the history of national aid to State education in the public school—aid that in land alone has exceeded the area of Great Britain and Ireland, securing an American education to the children of the Western States, to whom is rapidly passing the controlling power of the republic. The horizon of historic inquiry, as Professor Herbert B. Adams has said, should be enlarged “until the whole field of secondary and school education is embraced in the retrospect”; and he reminded us of the truth, which recalls also the inexorable responsibility of educated Americans, that “the broadening plains are best seen from the hill-tops.” Then came the suggestion to which our countrymen will respond, and especially the accomplished educationalists of the republic, who have a right to speak with the power that belongs to knowledge and position, that with a Secretary of Agriculture holding a place in the Cabinet, the Bureau of Instruction should become a Ministry of public instruction, stimulating and strengthening the colleges and universities, as well as the school system of the whole country. Then, too, comes the ardent wish of Washington, embodied in his last will and testament, but still unfilled, of a national university. It is a thought to which the establishment at the capital of a foreign university with a chair devoted to the canon law, a system in antagonism with the Constitution and the common law on which the entire fabric of the Republic rests, gives a new and profound significance.
On all these questions the lessons of history, American and European, throw a world of light, and especially on the point that every teacher in the common school should be well grounded in American history. Whatever the extent, the wealth, or the material power of our country, it will depend chiefly upon the State common school, and its American training, whether she is to retain her manly, independent American character, the chief element of her strength, the only sure guaranty of her continued greatness. Many of our countrymen have indulged the hope, if not the belief, that our republic was destined at no distant time to rule the world more widely than Rome in her proudest days, not by reason of her continual power, but by her example and far-extending influence, non ratione imperii, sed imperio rationis.
If that dream be destined to fulfilment, do not the counsels of our wise citizens, from Washington and Jefferson to our martyr Presidents Lincoln and Garfield, assure us that it will be due to the force of the American idea, taught to the youth of the republic by the inspiring lessons of American history?
Robert Townsend 7/14/00
Text proofing and correction: Liz Townsend 8/1/00; 11/19/11
Text encoding and annotation: Robert Townsend 1/19/01
Version © 2001, American Historical AssociationLast Updated: November 21, 2011 11:50 AM