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John Franklin Jameson

The History of Historical Writing in America

Note editoriali

Index & preface | Ch. I | Ch. II | Ch. III | Ch. IV



It is difficult to make any general statement concerning the relation which great national crises bear to the development of literature as a whole, or of historical literature in particular. Sometimes, after a nation has passed through a period of struggle, the same mental energy which has carried it through the conflict bursts forth into great literary activity. Sometimes such a period is followed by a time of silence, as if the national forces had been exhausted in military and political effort. In the ease of wars for freedom and independence, however, it is generally the former which happens; for, however great the losses of war, the gain of liberty and of opportunity for free expansion is felt to be far more than a compensation, and the sense of freedom gives a freshness and spontaneity that urge toward literary expression. Thus the French Revolution, unfettering all the forces of the [81] national life, brought on a period of activity in historical production more remarkable than any since the sixteenth century, and one noteworthy in general literary activity. The same is in a very high degree true of the heroic and successful struggle of the Netherlanders for freedom. No period in the history of Dutch literature is more brilliant than that which followed the virtual securing of freedom by the Twelve Years' Truce — a period made brilliant not only by the work of the best poets of the nation, but also by that of some of its best scholars and historians.

In the United States, no movement so notesworthy resulted from the successful accomplishment of the War for Independence. Not much literature of considerable value, historical or other, appeared during or immediately after the Revolution. One reason, no doubt, was that crudity of life and thought which is inevitable to the colonial state; the country was too young and too immature to make it reasonable to expect a great literature. And yet it is to be remembered that, in the period just preceding, so very creditable a piece of work as Hutchinson's History of Massachusetts Bay had appeared, [82] giving promise of good things in literature and history. Nor is it an adequate explanation to adduce the undoubtedly great losses which Tory emigration had brought to the classes most likely to be interested in literary development and to further it.

The truth seems to be that, by great and perhaps premature efforts to secure independence, the States had become exhausted to such a degree that the eventual acquisition of freedom, though hailed with loud rejoicings, could not have, upon a people wearied, discordant, and drained of their resources, the vivifying effect which such achievements are wont to have. If one keeps in mind only the year 1776, he will think of the Revolutionary era as a period of national glory; but if he takes into consideration the year 1786, and such incidents as Shays's Rebellion, he will see that at its close the condition of the thirteen bodies politic was far from sound, even though independence had at length been secured. Even the union of 1789 did not at once bring on a healthier state. It was entered into with reluctance, and it was followed by discord. Alexander Hamilton, the young Federalist Rehoboam, laid upon the necks of an unwilling people [83] the yoke of a national consolidation which their fathers had never borne. Availing himself of the general uneasiness, like the wily Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, his astute opponent, Jefferson, summoning discontented Israel to its tents, erected at ancient Beersheba and newly settled Dan the golden calves of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, and through their worship prolonged the congenial Separatism which had descended to this generation from its predecessors. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars in Europe delayed still longer the advent of internal tranquillity.

Nevertheless, the years that intervened between the first and the second war with Great Britain were not wholly barren. Something of literature began to grow up, though the flowers that blossomed in the prim and formal inclosures of the Monthly Anthology and the Portfolio seem to our eyes but a pale and sickly product. Even for history something was being done. The events of the Revolution, still fresh in remembrance, were commemorated in several histories, of which one, at least — that written by the Rev. William Gordon — was of great excellence. Biographies of those who [84] had taken a leading part in its events, such as Chief Justice Marshall's celebrated Life of Washington, were in several instances written with so much care and information that they are among the most important historical authorities for the story of the War for Independence. Often, indeed, those earlier lives have for the student of to-day much more of the attraction of freshness and originality than the biographies written in our own time; the writers of these latter have frequently so full a sense of the American political history of which their subject forms a part that the individuality of the portrait is impaired by the attention paid to the background.

There was also a third class of historical works, to which, in the first years of the republic, important contributions were made. To our minds, the great glory of that period seems manifestly to be the attainment of national independence and national union. To the man of that day, inhabitant of a particular State, and little accustomed to «think continentally», as the phrase was, the thought that his colony had become an independent and sovereign State was often quite as prominent, and was a source of pride and inspiration [85] to a degree difficult for us to conceive. So it was that all at once, in several of the newly fledged States, zealous and sometimes able hands undertook the task of writing their histories. Several such works, of various degrees of merit, appeared during the interval between the two wars. Within two or three years after the conclusion of peace, David Ramsay, a doctor in Charleston, and member of the Continental Congress, published a history of South Carolina during the Revolutionary War, followed later by a history of the colony and State from the beginning, which has enjoyed and deserved a good reputation. Another ex-member of Congress, Hugh Williamson, published in 1812 a history of North Carolina. In 1804 came a history of Virginia by an Irish journalist in that State, John Daly Burk. It cannot be highly praised. But the success of a book so extensive (four volumes) shows that, in that commonwealth and elsewhere, interest in history had advanced greatly since the time when poor Stith cut short the superabundant product of his pen because of inadequate support from «persons of high Fortune and Distinction». A few years earlier came Robert Proud's valued [86] History of Pennsylvania, and Benjamin Trumbull's History of Connecticut; while, in Massachusetts, George Minot wrote a continuation of Hutchinson's history; and in Georgia, Edward Langworthy prepared a history of that State, since lost. But the best of them all was the Rev. Jeremy Belknap's History of New Hampshire, which, though published more than a hundred years ago, has never yet been superseded. Beside his industry and fidelity as an investigator, Belknap had a singularly good style. He also edited and published two volumes of American biography, by various hands, which were of real service to American history.

Belknap's writings, however, are not his only, perhaps not his chief, title to recognition by our generation. Our principal debt to him is for his influence, which seems without doubt to have been the dominant influence, in founding the first of the local historical associations of America, the Massachusetts Historical Society, in January, 1791. This was in some degree the beginning of a new phase in the development of American history, though by means of the same local channels through which, as has been said [87] the current of American historical work mostly ran during the generation succeeding the Revolution. It was the beginning of organized effort. The local historical societies of the present time in the United States are in many eases far from being what we could wish them to be. Some are lifeless, or, like Pope and Pagan in Bunyan's allegory, are toothlessly mumbling over and over again the same innutritious materials; some, that seem full of activity, direct that activity toward any but the most scientific ends. But in their day they have certainly been of great use, and that in two ways: First, they have heightened and fostered by association the growing interest in American history, so long as that interest was mostly for colonial and local history, and until a wider interest should prevail. The local historical society has been, in Paul's phrase, our schoolmaster to lead us to the general study of American history; the study of that national life which in Belknap's time had hardly begun, and which long remained latent or unattractive to the eye of local patriotism.

In the second place, the historical societies have done good service as collectors and publishers of historical materials. The sets [88] of publications of the Massachusetts Historical Society dating from 1792, and those of the New York Historical Society dating from 1811, are invaluable and indispensable. We smile a little over some of the contents of their early volumes, the remarkable articles and bits of information which our naive great-grandfathers thought worth preserving, but which are to us as the poke bonnets and spinning-wheels of old garrets. But side by side with the topographical descriptions of towns, the copies of epitaphs, the accounts of the northern lights, and the letters from a gentleman recently returned from Niagara, there is a part — and really much the larger part — of the early work of these societies which is still valuable. Not only was it of a more scientific character than most of what had preceded it, but it was of peculiar value as establishing a certain tendency in our historical work; a tendency, namely, to make the publication of materials as much an object of the historical scholar's care as the publication of results. The idea has, to be sure, been slow in taking root. Even at the present day it is but a very small part of the population of the United States that can be induced to believe the publication of dry [89] records and documents, well edited, to be not only as useful as the publication of interesting books of history, but, as a general rule, considerably more useful. But in so far as the salutary notion has permeated the public mind, that happy result has been largely due to the wise efforts of those who, eighty or a hundred years ago, were establishing the first local historical societies. A zeal for the collection and preservation of such materials at once arose, one of the first fruits of which was the Annals of America, which Dr. Abiel Holmes, father of Dr. Oliver Holmes, published in 1805.

It creates some surprise to observe how little was done in the domain of American historical literature in the period between the end of the first administration of Jefferson, that golden age of the young republic and of the Democratic-Republican party, and the times of the rule of Jackson and the new Democracy. Especially singular, at first sight, is the absence of activity during the period immediately succeeding the War of 1812; for, as has already been observed, such activity commonly ensues upon wars which have had an inspiring effect upon the national consciousness. The War of 1812 was [90] anything but glorious, so far as military events were concerned. But, for all that, the popular consciousness was not mistaken in obtaining from it a powerful stimulus to national feeling. Its great result, unmentioned though it was in the Treaty of Ghent, was the immediate emancipation of the United States from colonial dependence on Europe, and from the colonial ideas which still lingered in their politics, and the securing to them of opportunity for unlimited development, on their own lines, of freedom to live their own life.

How profoundly the national consciousness was affected by the opportunity and the responsibility of working out its own salvation may be seen even in the boastful confidence, the crude elation, the vociferous patriotism, and the national arrogance which were so painfully dominant in the America of fifty or sixty years ago, and to which we are wont to give colloquially the name of «Fourth of July». Undoubtedly, America was inspired by the rapidly opening prospect of a boundless career. If the characteristic historical fruits of such inspiration were absent, or at any rate not present in any abundance, we must look for the [91] explanation in that rapid expansion of the nation's material life which went on between 1815 and 1830, and of which the immense westward emigration of those years is but a single though a most conspicuous sign.

When historical literature did start into new life in the United States, such of it as was concerned with American history showed the influence of this popular impulse; but for a while the time of flowering seemed to have been delayed. Usually, periods in which party polities have become quiescent are favorable to the growth of historical literature; and the age of Monroe, an era of good feeling among the people, though one of extremely bad feeling among the politicians, was such a period. But it should be remembered that the impulse of the new era was more likely to be felt by those who were boys at the time of the War of 1812 than by their elders, and therefore would show its effects in literature at a somewhat later date.

As we approach the consideration of the classical period of American historical literature, we find ourselves confronted with a striking fact of geographical distribution. If we tried to name the ten principal historical [92] writers of that period, we should find that seven or eight of them were Massachusetts men, of old New England families, born in or near Boston, and graduated at Harvard College. How are we to account for this extraordinary localization of our science ? Of course there are those general causes which produced the remarkable fertility of New England in good literature at that time, and made Boston for so long a period our literary centre — the greater prevalence of urban life in New England; the indelible intensities of Puritan blood; the inherited traditions of a capital city continuously literary from its origin, and of our oldest college; the stimulating influence of the recent Unitarian revolt, and the resulting controversies; that leaven of buoyant energy in political and literary thought which infused the world in or about the revolutionary year 1830; and other such general causes. But more special explanations are required, for in the case of other sciences and branches of learning we do not find such a proportion obtaining. The other muses were not thus partial to that one city and region; for instance, if political economy has a muse, she was not. Doubtless, something was due [93] to the presence of libraries. History is per- haps more dependent upon these than any other of the departments of literature or science then studied. Large libraries could be found only in those parts of the country where there were cities, and Boston and Cambridge, side by side, with the libraries of the Boston Athenaeum and of Harvard College, and later the Boston Public Library, were of all our cities the best provided in this respect. Here, therefore, it might have been expected that historians would congregate, and it has been so. There is one spot of a few acres in Cambridge upon which three of the most eminent historical scholars of the last generation dwelt, and on which have dwelt three of the most prominent historical writers of our own time.

But there was still another reason why history should spring up and flourish in New England, and that was a political one. Throughout our political history we have had two parties which, under various names, have preserved an essential identity. They are usually described as the party of loose construction and the party of strict construction. This is describing them with reference to their attitude toward the Constitution [94] only. A more penetrating analysis will discover in them the party of political measures and the party of political principles — a party with a programme and a party with a creed. The Democratic party, during its long history, has been main]y marked by its adherence to a certain definite set of political principles. The average American citizen, in quiet times, has had no other political platform than those principles, and bas therefore remained a member of the Democratic party. But from time to time there has arisen, out of this mass of Americans unanimous in adhesion to American political principles, a body of men eventually consti- tuting a great party, united in devotion to some great political measure or set of measures, in effort, that is, to alter or add to our political fabric. The Federalist party arose, with a strong sense of work to be done, made its contribution by cementing the Union more firmly, and subsided into the mass of Democracy. With other purposes, but still with purposes of contribution and of alteration, the Whig party arose, did its work, and dissolved. Still a third time, the desire for measures restricting slavery and consolidating still more firmly the national Union [95] drew together a great party which has left its impress indelibly upon our national institutions. Parties marked by this devotion to given political measures will infallibly be loose-constructionist in their view of the fundamental document, as will any body of men, acting under a given instrument, whose main desire is to get certain specific things done; the party of political principles meanwhile adheres to a strict construction.

Now there must of necessity be a radical difference between these two, and between any two bodies of population in which they are respectively dominant, in regard to their attitude toward history. The abstract principles of political philosophy may be supposed to remain ever the same. To the purely legal view of the strict-constructionist, based on these principles, the fundamental relations of polities remain unchanged. That which was the Constitution in 1789 is the Constitution in 1891; and what it is, is to be found by logical reasoning from political principles. The advocate of a programme of measures, of political change, on the other hand, will be constantly recurring to notions of development. To the practical aims which are foremost in his mind the [96] study of human experience will be of the most direct service, and he and his will incline to historical ways of thinking and to historical studies. It is not an accident that the founder of the Democratic party, with all his interest in science, in philosophy, and in the theory of polities, was but little addicted to the study of history; while his rival, the first Federalist President, was, of all the statesmen of his time and country, the most learned in that department.

To come, then, to the application. Our explanation of the concentration of historical science in the northeastern corner of our country is, in addition to the general reasons for its literary fertility, that the political predilections of the region were such as made the study of human history natural and congenial there. As New England was the chief seat of the Federalist, the Whig, and the Republican parties, the chosen abode of loose construction, it was natural that it should also be the chosen abode of historical science; for no man can escape sharing the interests which political or economical conditions have made most vivid in those around him. We may be confirmed in our view by observing that in respect to writings of a [97] purely political or economical character, the superiority of the South in both quantity and quality was no less incontestable. As for Massachusetts in especial, it may be observed that in a State where public spirit has always been so strong — in other words, in a State where the interests and life of the community have been so highly regarded by individuals — a deep interest in the life and the progressive development of communities is likely to follow.

But before passing to the consideration of our principal schools of classical historians, it may be well to say a word concerning one who belongs to neither North or South — Washington Irving. We need not speak of him at great length, for his strictly historical works were few, and his fame was mainly achieved in other walks of literature. Nor did he have a great influence upon the development of historical writing among us, unless in the way of general influence upon American style. In fact, it is quite possible that no one of his mature and sober pieces of writing had as much real effect on the progress of American historiography as the admirable humorous composition with which he began, as far back as 1809 — the History [98] of New York by Dietrich Knickerbocker. Aside from its striking success as a literary production, the book had a great effect in awakening interest in the early or Dutch period of New York history. Descendants rushed with sober indignation to the defense of ancestors at whom the genial humorist poked his fun, and very likely the great amount of work which the state government in the next generation did for the historical illustration of the Dutch period, through the researches of Mr. Brodhead in foreign archives, had this unhistorical little book for one of its principal causes. But, on the other hand, he made it permanently difficult for the American public to take a serious view of those early Dutch days. Oloffe the Dreamer and Walter the Doubter, Abraham with the ten breeches and Stuyvesant with the wooden leg, have become too thoroughly domesticated among us to admit of that.

In 1828 appeared the Life and Voyages of Columbus. The short time in which it was prepared, not more at any rate than two years, shows that it cannot have been a work of original research carried out absolutely after the modern manner. It was in fact [99] based on the documentary publications of Don Martin Fernandez de Navarrete, though with much use of the libraries of Obadiah Rich, then our consul at Madrid, of Navarrete himself, of the Duke of Veragua, and of the Council of the Indies, and of other libraries at Madrid and Seville. The result was an excellent piece of historical work, as well as a literary production which it would be superfluous to praise. At about the same time the author proposed a series of writings on the Arabs in Spain, beginning with some account of Mohammed himself. The fruit of this project, the book entitled Mahomet and his Successors, made no pretensions to original research, and appeared, as did the Life of Washington, many years after the period which we have been considering.

The very fact that we pass over books not based on original research shows of itself that the period which we are approaching was one marked by higher ideals of historical scholarship than had prevailed before. When this classical period of American historical writing does arrive, it is found to be marked from the first by two separate tendencies; there are, we may almost say, two schools, distinct throughout the period.

[100] On the one hand, we have the historians who have devoted themselves to pictur- esque themes lying outside the history of the United States — men whose traditions and associations have been mainly literary, of whom Prescott, Motley, and Parkman are the types. On the other hand, there are the historians who have interested themselves in American affairs, whose associations and impulses have in many cases been in a great degree political, but who have been more especially the inheritors of those impulses already spoken of as marking the early years of the century. The chief example of this last division is George Bancroft, whose honored life was so exceptionally prolonged that he was enabled to give to one great work the labor of fifty years, an experience unex- ampled in the annals of historical literature. The first volume of his History of the United States was published in 1834; the author's last revision was put forth in 1883; and he died but a few months ago, at the age of ninety, having lived almost as many years as Ranke, and with as severe an industry.

If we speak of the product of his period of labor in connection with the date of its commencement rather than of its close, [101] it is because the work, from its very beginning, has not ceased to bear some marks of an origin in the year 1834. At that time Mr. Bancroft was thirty-four years old. Graduated early from Harvard, he had next had the privilege of university training in Germany. This was in those days a very unusual opportunity. It is amusing to read of the difficulties which, at the modern Athens itself, George Ticknor encountered in 1813 in preliminary movements toward a course of study at Göttingen. «I was sure», he relates, «that I should like to study at such a university, but it was in vain that I endeavored to get farther knowledge upon the subject. I would gladly have prepared for it by learning the language I should have to use there, bat there was no one in Boston who could teach me [...] Nor was it possible to get books. I borrowed a Meidinger's Grammar, French and German, from my friend Mr. Everett, and sent to New Hampshire, where 1 knew there was a German Dictionary, and procured it. I also obtained a copy of Goethe's Werther, in German [...] from amongst Mr. J. Q. Adams's books, deposited by him, on going to Europe, in the Athenæum», etc. [102] This was in 1813, and it cannot have been much different in 1818, when Bancroft went to Göttingen. The two years spent there seem to have been given to quite general studies. In such studies as were historical, it is not to be thought that in the days before Ranke had appeared, and before any permanent work of Niebuhr had been published, it was possible to find in Germany such inspiration for historical studies as in times more recent, even had the young American yet resolved upon such studies. What could be obtained was a much better knowledge of methods and results than America afforded. Of those historians under whom Bancroft studied, Heeren, Savigny, Schlosser, one cannot in his History find trace of much influence, except that Heeren's interest in the history of colonies and of their reflex action upon the mother country probably bore fruit later. Of method he may have earned much from these teachers; his ideas were derived elsewhere, and mainly, in truth, from the soil from which they sprang. They are the ideas of America in the year 1834. The extraordinary popularity of the early volumes can be accounted for only in view of this fact. For the popularity of the later [103] volumes, it is not necessary to resort to any other explanation than that of the enormous amount of labor and care expended on them, the very unusual facilities in respect to access to archives and masses of correspondence which the author's diplomatic positions afforded him, and the encyclopedic fullness and minuteness of his knowledge of his subject. But for the earlier volumes these explanations fail us. If they surpassed in research and scientific value the average of that time, they were still not highly remarkable in those respects. And yet the tenth edition of the first volume was published within ten years of the date of the original edition. The book at once took rank as the standard history of the United States. Thousands and thousands of copies have since been sold. At Washington, upon the doors of the Senate and House of Representatives, its writer's name has long appeared, almost the sole name of a private person in the brief list of those to whom our legislative bodies have given the privilege of entrance upon their floors.

Whence did this immediate and Unbounded popularity and acceptance arise ? Mainly, I believe, from the fact that the historian [104] caught, and with sincere and enthusiastic conviction repeated to the American people, the things which they w ere saying and thinking concerning themselves. One need not imitate the professional scorn of the Pharisee and declare that the people that knoweth not the esoteric law is cursed, and yet may freely hold the opinion that the popularity of a work of national history does not depend on the profundity and skill of its research, nor on the correctness and completeness of its results, nor even on its qualities of arrangement and style, so much as on the acceptableness to the national mind of the general idea which it exhibits in regard to the nation's development. Bancroft's first volume succeeded mainly because it was redolent of the ideas of the new Jacksonian democracy — its exuberant confidence, its uncritical self-laudation, its optimistic hopes. The Demos heard, as an undercurrent to his narrative, the same music which charmed its ears in the Fourth of July oration; indeed, many of Bancroft's most characteristic ideas are to be found in his own oration pronounced at Northampton on July 4, 1826; and the style was one whose buoyancy of rhetoric was well suited to those [105] sanguine times. It would be but a shallow criticism that should see in all this only the ebullition of national vanity. The uncritical patriotism of those times, as of other times in the course of history, was in some respects admirable, and in many respects useful. But we need not forget that it was uncritical. The opening words of the introduction to the book will serve as well as any to exhibit what is meant:

The United States of America [it begins] constitute an essential portion of a great political system, embracing all the civilized nations of the earth. [This bears the stamp of Heeren's ideas.] At a period when the force of moral opinion is rapidly increasing, they have the precedence in the practice and the defense of the equal rights of man. The sovereignty of the people is here a conceded axiom, and the laws, established upon that basis, are cherished with faithful patriotisrn. While the nations of Europe aspire after change, our Constitution engages the fond admiration of the people by which it has been established [...] Our government, by its organization, is necessarily identified with the interests of the people, and relies exclusively on their attachment [106] for its durability and support. Even the enemies of the state, if there are any among us, have liberty to express their opinions undisturbed, and are safely tolerated where reason is left free to combat their errors. Nor is the Constitution a dead letter, unalterably fixed; it has the capacity for improvement, adopting whatever changes time and the public will may require, and safe frorn decay, so long as that will retains its energy [...] Other governments are convulsed by the innovations and reforms of neighboring, states; our Constitution, fixed in the affections of the people, from whose choice it has sprung, neutralizes the influence of foreign principles, and fearlessly opens an asylum to the virtuous, the unfortunate, and the oppressed of every nation. The passage is typical, both as to style and as to doctrine. Its sincerity is so manifest that it is impossible not to admire and be touched by its ardent Americanism, its faith in popular government, in the American constitution, and in the boundless success of the United States though material progress and the simple arts of peace. But a generation which has grown accustomed to less use of literary as well as other stimulants [107] probably finds its eloquence somewhat turgid, and tempers its enthusiasm with the sadder consciousness of a success less perfect than was anticipated.

The same qualities and the same defects are to be found in all the subsequent volumes of the work; up to its completion in 1885, it still continued, as our phrase is, to vote for Jackson. But if there had been, meantime, no change in the fundamental principles, there was a great improvement in the workmanship. It is sufficient evidence of this to point to the rate of production of the individual volumes. The first three volumes appeared in 1834, 1837, and 1840; the next three, after a period of political and diplomatic life, in 1859, 1853, and 1854; the seventh and eighth, at intervals a little greater; the ninth, not until 1866; the tenth, in 1874; the two concluding volumes, as late as 1882.

From 1846 to 1849, the historian was our minister to England, and from 1866 to 1874 he was minister in Germany. The result was the collection of an enormous mass of material from the archives of foreign states, and from the stores of family correspondence. Because of the long duration and the great fame of his researches, similar [108] opportunities, almost unlimited in extent, were at his service in this country. Sometimes his narrative seems too much dominated by the possession of the abundant materials of this class to which his prefaces refer with so conscious a pride. The last volumes are limited in scope, giving a history of little but military and diplomatic movements during the Revolution. Perhaps it is as well. Bancroft's talents for the narration of military and diplomatic history were of a very high order. He had great skill in marshalling large arrays of facts, good judgment, and a lucid and picturesque style. On the other hand, a history of pop- ular movements, of public opinion and of the internal development of the United States, would exhibit at the greatest disadvantage the author's faults — not only his loud and uncritical Americanism and his rhetorical bias, but the superficiality of his insight into national psychology, his failure to perceive its complexities, his tendency to conventionalize, to compose his American populations of highly virtuous Noah's-ark men. The excursuses in which he attempts this are among the least happy and adequate portions of his work.

[109] An interesting though far from pleasing episode in the history of Bancroft's labors was the chapter of controversies with critics. A slighting remark respecting a predecessor, in the second volume of the history, had drawn upon the historian the wrath of the old president of Harvard College, who soon showed that his Federalist pen had not lost its incisiveness and vigor. For reasons partly personal, partly political, Bancroft was highly unpopular in the literary society of Boston, and not a few attacks followed. The ninth volume of the history, dealing with a great part of the military history of the Revolution, aroused an especially large number of assailants. Descendants of Greene, Reed, Schuyler, and Sullivan, in able pamphlets, attempted to show that the historian had dealt unjustly with their respective ancestors. The historian was so much superior to his critics in knowledge and skill, that in most eases he seemed to come off victorious from the encounter. But the careful reader of this mass of controversial literature will probably feel that a good number of the criticisms made were just, especially as concerned Bancroft's use of quotations, which he sometimes so excises and transposes as [110] strangely to pervert their meaning. I le will note, too, the haughtiness and acerbity of temper with which criticisms were received, the slender recognition of fellow-laborers, and, where criticisms had been supported by proof, the grudging and minimized acknowledgment of error. But, in spite of all these defects, the American people owe a great debt to the famous historian who has just departed, after a long lifetime spent in enthusiastic study and inspiring exposition of their history.

A few words should be said concerning some other writers of the period, who gave themselves to the sober field of American history. It would be pleasant to be able to say more than a word of Peter Force, of whose great collection of the «American Archives» Congress published nine volumes and then stopped. To the lasting disgrace of Congress, all subsequent efforts have failed to obtain appropriations for the completion of this monumental work. The work of collection and publication was carried on in more varied ways by President Sparks. In making his large collections in America and Europe, and in editing the «Library of American Biography», the writings of Washington [111] and Franklin, and the «Diplomatic Correspondence of the Revolution», he performed services of inestimable value to American history. That he at the same time did it no small disservice by his mode of editing, as when he toned down the actual words of Washington into tame correctness, was vigorously charged by Lord Mahon and others. Sparks's letters in answer to Mahon were models of dignified reply to criticism. The view of the controversy which would now be taken is, probably, that President Sparks did not conform to all the best rules of editing as they were then known. It is quite true that he ought not to be judged by the more exacting standards of the present day; yet 1833, when Ranke was already teaching and writing, and the Monumenta had begun to be published, was by no means in the dark ages of historical method. But there was much exaggeration in the fault found with Sparks, and due recognition of his invaluable pioneer work will prevent extreme censoriousness as to defects of workmanship. Gentle Washington Irving thus alludes to the fault, when speaking of these letters in the preface of his Life of Washington: [112]

A careful collation of many of them with the originals [Sparks had to work from the letter-books mostly] convinced me of the general correctness of the collection [...] and I am happy to bear this testimony to the essential accuracy of one whom I consider among the greatest benefactors to our national literature.

Downright Hildreth alluded to it in terms more direct. Hildreth's own work came later — late enough to feel the force of increasing sectional animosities, and to show the effects of them in an unfortunate degree. A man of very decided convictions, and ardently interested in polities, the Whig editor wrote the History of the United States with a strong partisan bias. In the first three volumes, bringing the story down to the close of the Revolution, this naturally finds less place, and the lucidity, directness, and accuracy of the writer made his book one of much value, though a little dry to the general reader. But in the last three volumes, treating the history of our national polities down to 1821, its partisanship of the Federalists is so manifest that all its lucidity, directness, and general accuracy cannot wholly redeem [113] it. If for Federalists we substitute Democrats, we shall have to say much the same things of the otherwise excellent History of the United States to 1841, which George Tucker of Virginia published just before the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1859 and 1860 appeared the first two volumes of the History of New England by John Gorham Palfrey, as good a piece of work as had ever been done among us; but it belongs quite as much to the next period, in which the remaining volumes were published; and it is time to turn to the writers of what I have called another school.

It was something more than a difference of subject that separated the writers already characterized from Prescott and Motley. A difference of attitude underlay the difference in choice of subject. The impulses which actuated the former were founded, sometimes in political but at any rate in national feelings. Those of the latter were rather those of the literary man. It was only after long hesitation and with some regret that Prescott abandoned the plan of devoting himself entirely to the history of literature. He was averse to polities, though the historians of Europe have seldom been more engaged [114] in them than they were in his time. His correspondence and his prefaces show us how much the literary aspect of his work occupied him; truthful and artistic narration was his main aim. Writers of such predilections as these would be likely to turn away from the sober history of their own country, and seek their themes in the more picturesque fields of European history. The choice of subjects which Prescott made gives the plainest evidence of such purposes. Even apart from the brilliant treatment which his genius gave them, and from which it is hard for our minds now to separate them, it is plain that the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the conquest of Mexico, the conquest of Peru, the history of Philip the Second, were subjects eminently capable of picturesque treatment.

The reader's interest in the volumes written upon these engaging themes is heightened by the knowledge of the difficulties surmounted in their preparation. Like three other eminent historians, his contemporaries, Augustin Thierry, Karl Szaynocha, and the Marquis Gino Capponi, he was blind, or nearly so. Everett, speaking at the memorial meeting of the Massachusetts [115] Historical Society just after his death, beautifully applied to him the words of the Greek poet, «Greatly the Muse loved him, and she gave him both good and evil; she deprived him of his eyes, but gave him the gift of sweet song». Only during the composition of the second of his books, The Conquest of Mexico, was he able to make any considerable use of his eyes. During a part of the ten years given to the preparation of the History of Ferdinand and Isabella, and of the time spent on the Conquest of Peru, he could use them for an hour or two each day. During the rest of the time, including the whole period given to the History of Philip the Second, he was forced to rely entirely upon the eyes of others. In fact, his investigations for the first of his books began by going through seven quarto volumes in Spanish, with a reader who understood not a word of the language. Better assistance was eventually procured, and great amounts of reading were done. The writing machine now preserved in the cabinet of the Massachusetts Historical Society was obtained, and released the patient scholar from the necessity of constant dictation. Fortunately, he possessed ample [116] means for the purchase of books. The consultation of foreign archives in person was, indeed, impracticable. But, through the kindness and exertions of devoted friends, of whom his amiable and winning character had attracted a large number, this obstacle was in a great degree removed, and the successive narratives rest on an increasing amplitude of original and unpublished documents, drawn not only from public and private repositories in Spain, but in the ease of Philip the Second from most of the great collections of Western Europe. But, for all this, the writing of these eleven volumes under such disabilities remains a most remarkable achievement, and one which bears strong testimony to the high qualities of Prescott's character.

The books themselves need no factitious interest arising from the knowledge of the circumstances of their production. They are too admirable and too familiar to need praise in respect to interest of narrative, grace of style, or artistic skill in the management and marshaling of the various parts. The unity of design and beauty of detail, the romantic charm and picturesqueness which the author sought, he certainly obtained. Scarcely less [117] praise must be given to the conscientiousness of his research, though it may be doubted whether his critical insight was of the most penetrating sort. Nor was he a profoundly philosophical historian, distinguished for searching analysis. In one of his early private memoranda, he confesses that he hates «hunting up latent, barren antiquities», and though he later, to some extent, conquered this repugnance, the studies which make the analytical and sociological historian were never thoroughly congenial to him. It is mainly the concrete aspects of life that engage his interest, and as a historical painter of these, he was, in the period of the publication of his works, the years from 1837 to 1858, without a rival, save Macaulay and Michelet.

In the preface to the first volume of his Philip the Second, confessing the difficulty of imparting unity of interest to a narrative which must necessarily embrace topics so various, Prescott had alluded particularly to the subject of the revolt of the Netherlands. He had said that, though but an episode to his own subject, this alone might well form the theme of a separate and extensive work. and had announced that [118] before long such a work might be «expected», to use his own words, "from the pen of our accomplished countryman, Mr. J. Lothrop Motley, who, during the last few years, for the better prosecution of his labors, has established his residence in the neighborhood of the scenes of his narrative». The work thus announced, the famous Rise of the Dutch Republic, was published in 1856. Accordingly when, in 1859, Prescott died, leaving his History of Philip the Second no farther advanced than to the year 1580, the historian who should in a sense continue his work was already in the field. The first of Motley's works carried down to the year 1584 a narrative whose subject, though not the same as that of Prescott's last work, necessarily had much in common with it. For the history of the Dutch revolt against Philip could hardly be written without saying much concerning other aspects or portions of his reign. In the year 1860 appeared the first two, in 1868 the last two, volumes of the History of the United Netherlands, embracing the years 1584 to 1609. The Life and Death of John of Barneveld, a work in form biographical, but really continuing the History of the [119] Netherlands for a decade more, appeared in 1874.

Enormous labors in the investigation of archives were performed in the preparation of these books. Motley had the intense zeal of the born investigator, a rare and heroic qualities of which the world takes little note in historians. He had likewise in full possession those qualities which engage the reader. No American has ever written a history more brilliant and dramatic. The subject was a noble one. It was full of picturesque incident, of opportunities for glowing description, of thrilling tales of heroism. But it was not simply these that so engaged Motley's interest that, as he afterwards said, he felt as if he must write upon it. It was a great national conflict for freedom, and as such was profoundly congenial to one who, above all things, loved liberty. The warm health and enthusiastic, ardent temper of the historian laid him open to dangers of partiality which, it must be confessed, he was far from wholly escaping. The American public little appreciate the extent to which he was influenced by such feelings. Guizot, in a review article, noted Motley's advocacy, but thought it too apparent [120] to do harm, and excused it as being on the right side, that of political and religious liberty. Throughout the volumes on the Rise of the Dutch Republic, Motley is a thorough partisan of William the Silent — a sincere and conscientious partisan, to be sure, but a partisan none the less. Son e may think that it is little harm to exaggerate the virtues of William the Silent, or to soften the defects of a character so heroic; but certainly it is a pity to add one more to the long chain of English writers who, out of ancestral prejudice, have dealt hard measure to all Spaniards. Similarly, in his narrative of the great internal contest between the adherents of Prince Maurice and the adherents of Oldenbarneveld, the Calvinists and the Arminians, it must be declared deliberately that Motley is a partisan of the latter, and is distinctly unfair to the former. It is easy to see the reasons in both eases. As a lover of liberty, the cause of William and the Netherlanders, fighting for freedom, engaged his warm affection. In the later period, his Unitarian sympathies made it natural for him to embrace the cause of the Arminians against the Calvinists. Dr. Holmes, to be sure, in his memoir of Motley, [121] defends him from this latter charge. The Dutch historian, Groen van Prinsterer, in his Maurice et Barneveld, though expressing a warm admiration for Motley, has criticised him as unfair to the Remonstrant cause. With his usual keen scent for Calvinism, the doctor endeavors to show that Mr. Groen van Prinsterer has taken up this position because he is himself a Calvinist. Bat Mr. Groen van Prinsterer does not stand alone. It should not be forgotten that, if none of the Dutch historical writers were as brilliant as Motley, the nation stood, in historical scholarship, hardly second to any in Europe; five historians could be named every one of whom was probably as learned in the facts as Motley himself. The dispute is, in the end, one for the Dutch to settle, and Dutch opinion is still divided. But so long as the leading opinions are in general more moderate than Motley's, and so long as the Dutch are not «vehemently suspected» of having more of the ardent temper of the advocate than Motley had, we may feel justified in mingling a certain sense of partiality with our strong admiration of his warmth, his brilliancy, and his dramatic force.


Index & preface | Ch. I | Ch. II | Ch. III | Ch. IV