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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



We were able to make a sharp division between the first period in the history of American historical writing and the second; the first chapter including writers who were themselves of the emigrating generation, while in the second none were included who were separated from the original settlers by a less interval than two generations. Similarly, the second period was plainly separated from the third by the revolutionary war, during the distresses and troubles of which there was little leisure for historical or other composition. The historical literature of the colonial period was confined to a few sporadic writers, not organically connected one with another; it had not acquired momentum enough to carry it in continuous life across that time of difficulty and preoccupying care.

But with the third and fourth periods the case is different. American historical literature [123] had now acquired vitality, and henceforth its development was uninterrupted. If, therefore, we select any chronological point at which to divide this last and most important period, the point chosen will necessarily seem from some points of view an arbitrary one. It is quite true that the civil war formed the starting point for many new tendencies in our historical, as in our general literature. But, on the other hand, much went on as before. In the first place, some of the histories spoken of in the last paper, though begun before the war, were not completed until after it. The first two volumes of Motley's History of the United Netherlands had appeared in 1860; the last two were published in 1868; and his Barneveld, which is virtually a continuation of them, in 1874. Another work, whose publication similarly overlapped the fourth period, was Palfrey's History of New England, probably the best single large piece of work that has been done in America on any part of our colonial period. After much labor in America and considerable research in England, the first and second volumes had been successively published just before the war broke out. The third did not follow [124] until 1865; the fourth, not until 1875. At the writer's death the history of the New England colonies had been brought down to the year 1740; the fifth volume, recently published, carries it to the outbreak of the Revolution. If Dr. Palfrey was not a man of great insight into popular movements, and was too constant an apologist of the rulers of New England, his book was nevertheless admirable on account of his extensive knowledge of sources, his industry, clearness, accuracy, and skill in narration. Among its many excellencies, one which deserves particular notice is the degree of attention which it bestows upon the history of England itself during the Puritan era, and upon the mutual influence of Old England and New England during that period of exceptionally close sympathy and connection. Often the genius of a writer is quite as much displayed by new apportionments of their relative amounts of attention to the different aspects of his subject as in any other way, for thus his insight into the proportions and relations of various factors is practically displayed.

Meanwhile, other historians, not in the field during the preceding period, have continued the traditions of the school which has [125] been described in a previous article under the names of Prescott and Motley. An especially close example of this is the case of John Foster Kirk, who was one of the private secretaries successively employed by Prescott, and who, after Prescott's death, wrote a valuable book upon the History of Charles the Bold, a contribution in the same general field as that of his master's labors. But the author who has most conspicuously continued the school of picturesque historians is Francis Parkman, the eminent historian of the French dominion in North America.

The subject is one highly attractive to an American historical writer of this school, who wishes at the same time that his studies shall not be too remote from his own age and country. Chivalry and heroism and romantic adventure, the glamour of a foreign civilization and the poetic charm of unfamiliar forms of religion, are all there; but the story has also a close and important relation with the growth of our own nation. Prescott had been able to impart an additional interest to his History of Ferdinand and Isabella because of the episode formed by the voyages of Columbus; and perhaps Motley's [126] history of the struggle of the Dutch for independence may have had a special interest for the general reader in a country of whose history a struggle for independence is one of the most familiar portions. Prescott, too, had chosen distinctly American subjects in his Conquest of Mexico and his Conquest of Peru. But no one of these had so direct a bearing on our national history as the story of New France. For several generations some of the most important English colonies were occasionally menaced and always limited by the presence upon their frontier of a considerable military power established there by a nation usually unfriendly. Furthermore, the presence of this power was one of the chief influences toward colonial consolidation, and its final removal was one of the causes which made possible the revolt from the government of Great Britain. It is therefore with good reason that the general title given to the whole series of Mr. Parkman's narratives is, «France and England in North America».

The project of a series of so wide a scope developed gradually in the writer's mind. Soon after graduation from college he had gone on several occasions to make more or [127] less extensive visits to the wild regions of the Northwest. Much of his subsequent historical work shows the effects of the familiarity thus gained with the scenery and men of the wilderness. One of these effects was the choice, for the subject of his first historical production, of the Conspiracy of Pontiac. It was from this work that the writer was led on to the preparation of a series of historical narratives upon the whole course of the French dominion in America, its relations to the English colonies, and its final destruction by the military power of Great Britain. For the history of Pontiac's conspiracy forms a natural sequel to the history of the French and Indian war, and to that of New France generally.

This book completed, therefore, and published in 1851, the author went back to take up at the beginning the history of the French in North America, the great task upon which he has been engaged ever since, and which is now nearly completed. As in the case of Prescott, physical difficulties which might well seem insurmountable opposed. Extreme ill health made it always necessary to confine mental exertion within narrow limits, and more than once stopped it entirely for [128] several years at a time. Weakness of sight seems to have made it always impossible to read or write continuously for much more than five minutes, while once, at least, it has been for a period of three years impossible to endure the light of day, or to read or write to the smallest extent.

But the volumes composed under the pressure of these calamities need no indulgence from the critic. It may almost be said that they need no praise, so widely spread and so permanent has been their fame. The first of the series, though published only twenty seven years ago, has already long passed its twentieth edition. Others are approaching it. The series has shown a continuous improvement, and especially in thoroughness and fullness of research. It is in this respect, indeed, that American historians have, at the outset of their careers, been least adequately provided. In Germany the class of historical writers and the class of historical professors are so nearly identical that the young student who starts out upon a career of historical authorship has almost always the advantage of having learned his trade under a teacher experienced in it. In other words, with all the opportunity it presents, [129] and the need it has for that genius and insight and maturity which can neither be communicated nor described, there are many things in the more technical portions of the pursuit which by long experience have been reduced to practical rules; and these rules can be learned of a master, if only by imitation. But English and American historical writers have till lately worked so much in isolation that they could have no apprenticeship in the communicable portions of the art. In the highly developed arts of research and of historical criticism, therefore, our historians have started out uninstructed, and have learned these as they went on, with no other teachers than their own mistakes and their constant desire for completeness. There has also been a great improvement in the always brilliant and engaging style of Mr. Parkman, which, with increasing years, has grown more severe in taste.

The first book of the projected series was called Pioneers of France in the New World. Its first part described in fascinating narrative the history of the Huguenot settlement in Florida, and its extinction by the Spanish; the second took up the story of the permanent beginnings of the French [130] dominion, the settlement of Acadia, and the labors of Champlain and his associates. The next volume, published two years later, continues the story from 1635 to 1652, under the title of The Jesuits in North America. For this volume especially, the author was able to make great use of his early acquired knowledge of Indian character and civilization; the sublime devotion of the missionaries and their heroic endurance of torture and martyrdom at the hands of the savages confer upon it an additional and most touching interest. The next volume, La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West, treats of an episode, though an episode whose consequences were at one time likely to be highly important. The volume called The Old Régime in Canada is devoted, after the narration of the history of the transitional period 1652-1672, to a description of Canadian government and life, in chapters carefully based on original sources, and of surpassing interest. The ablest of the colonial governors and the history down to 1701 are treated in the volume called Count Frontenac and New France under Louis XIV. The intermediate period to 1748 having been left for the time being, Mr. [131] Parkman has given us the conclusion in Montcalm and Wolfe, two volumes, the best in the series on that American portion of the seven years' war which we are wont to call the French and Indian war.

It will be seen how wide is the range of interest covered by these volumes. They are not simply a history of a great attempt to create, under the forms of absolute monarchy, feudalism, and Catholicism, a centralized and military power. Nor are they simply a history of the efforts of that power to overbalance and check the system of free, Protestant and English colonies, unorganized and discordant indeed, but strong with the strength of popular institutions, of love of freedom, and of habits of individual initiative. This alone would be sufficient to make the tale bright and commanding. But we have also the adventures of explorers and traders, the achievements of missionaries, the heroism of martyrs, the wild life of the Indian tribes, the scenery of the forest, the events of war, the brilliant picture of French aristocracy transferred, for purposes of war or government or devotion, to the wilds of America; and it cannot be said that the writer has proved unequal to the adequate [132] treatment of a single one of these so varied elements of interest.

I have devoted much space to Mr. Parkman as being, next after one or two who survived from the preceding period, the most conspicuous figure in the American historiography of the last twenty-five years, the only historian who can fairly be called classical. No one can predict the advent of genius, but it appears not very likely that the roll of the classical historians will be much increased in the immediate future, or that the next generation will in this respect abound in eminent names. Amiel says:

The era of mediocrity in all things is commencing. Equality begets uniformity, and we divest ourselves of the bad by sacrificing the eminent, the remarkable, the extraordinary. Such, at any rate, is likely to be the ease with our historical writing for a long time. Nor is it in the main to be regretted. If there is not produced among us any work of supereminent genius, there will surely be a large amount of good second-class work [133] done; that is, of work of the second class in respect to purely literary qualities. Now it is the spread of thoroughly good second-class work — second-class in this sense — that our science most needs at present; for it sorely needs that improvement in technical process, that superior finish of workmanship, which a large number of works of talent can do more to foster than a few works of literary genius. If, therefore, that leveled Americanism toward which M. Renan tens us that the world is now progressing is, in the matter of historical work, to take among us the form which we have been supposing, we need not lament. We may even hope that out of improved scholarship may grow in time a superior profundity of thought; for in truth profundity of thought has not been among the merits of any of our most distinguished historians. We may do well to remember that, in the historical literature of Europe, when the Anakim of the sixteenth century were replaced by the mousing but erudite Bollandists and Benedictines of the seventeenth and the first half of the eighteenth, it was only that the way might be prepared, by patient and scholarly accumulation of materials, for the advent of a school of historians more philosophical and profound than any that had preceded.

But the series of American historians to [134] which Motley and Parkman belong was not characterized solely by the pursuit, in general, of literary ends. Another distinguishing mark was its devotion to European rather than to American history. In our time the devotees of European history are not numerous in the United States (indeed, if one can judge from the contents of our magazines, European history is hardly at all a matter of interest to most Americans); and such devotees as there are have not all inherited the literary traditions. A few scholars have done excellent work in church history, for the cultivation of which a special society has been formed. Most eminent among these is tie learned layman whose History of the Inquisition has reflected so much honor upon American scholarship. Almost no American has done anything worth while in the study of ancient history. This is a striking fact, when one thinks of it. The history of Rome, especially, offers, one would think, much that should interest Americans. There is even a similarity of national character; the faces upon Roman busts are such as one might see any day in the streets of New York or Philadelphia. When one considers how large a place the study of the classics [135] has long had in American education, one cannot help feeling that such lack of interest in the history of the classical nations indicates that the instruction has not been sufficiently vital. On the other hand, a very respectable number of scholars are at work in lines of Oriental history.

Of those who have occupied themselves with modern history, some indeed have written with a view mainly to the construction of a picturesque narrative; but mixed with these there has been an increasing number of workers whose aims have been chiefly scientific. An accomplished teacher, with a few advanced students, has published essays upon Anglo-Saxon law. Several Boston lawyers have published important studies in the history of English law. Here a historical scholar devotes himself to the study of the merchant-guild, or meditates the vexed subject of early landholding among the Germans; there another illustrates the history of the Prussian state. Another labors upon the history of sacerdotal celibacy, benefit of clergy, ordeal, and wager of battle. All this would have seemed very dry to the last generation; but the most judicious of the moderns see in it a hopeful sign for the future [136] of the science, a sign that what work is done among us in European history hereafter will be, in increasing proportion, solid in construction and addressed not unsuccessfully to superior and specialized intelligence.

We have been speaking of departments of historical work in America upon which the war had little effect, and in whose development it could only arbitrarily be taken as a dividing point. But with work upon our own history, which has occupied an increasing proportion of our attention, it is otherwise. Its character has been profoundly affected by that great conflict. Not that we have yet had the best that we shall have in the way of books on the conflict itself. We have had excellent pieces of military history, a host of regimental histories and war articles. But the books which have attempted to deal with its political aspects have been, with a few exceptions like that of Mr. Alexander Stephens, hopelessly unfair, full of crude assumption, impervious to argument. The remedy for all these things will be the coming forward of the younger generation, whose motive for studying the war is not that of personal participation.

But the mental effects have extended far [137] more widely than this, far more widely than the whole field of history, in fact. The literature, the art indeed, of the United States can never again he like what it was before the civil war. It was not simply that the government became more firmly consolidated, the people more closely bound together. The nation emerged from that terrible struggle adult and mature. It was able to look upon itself and the world around it, its past and its future, at once with more sobriety and discrimination, and with a heightened self-respect, born of the sense that great achievements and sacrifices for inspiring causes had vindicated to it a right to independent views. Colonial attitudes of thought ceased, as colonial attitudes in polities had ceased after the war of 1812. National sensitiveness to condescending criticism from Europeans lost its acuteness; we began to feel, not in vanity, but in sobriety, that now we were as worthy as they. We began to look at our characteristics and modes of life with an externality of view unknown to the preceding generation. It was possible for the international novelist to arise — that is, the novelist, to whom the Americans not undoubtedly the greatest of [138] all human types, but simply one human type among several, all alike to be exhibited with intelligent candor. Mr. Howens's voice, speaking to the American of forty years ago, would have been the voice of one crying in the wilderness — a wilderness of vociferous panegyric upon all things American, whose very vociferousness betrayed a latent uneasiness. The development of our architecture, the gradual abandonment of Gothic and Renaissance styles for earlier styles, plainer, more Roman, more suited to the genius of a practical people, is another illustration. For the first time in our history we have become a self-reliant nation.

In the domain of American history, the change has taken effect in two directions or modes. In the first place, we have become more critical and discriminating, have learned more nearly to look upon the course of American history with an impartial eye, from the standpoint of an outsider. In the second place, there has ensued a broadening of the field of investigation and work, that its scope may correspond to the scheme of things in America, to the configuration of actual affairs. We are no longer content to adopt the same plans of distribution [139] of attention to different phases of history which has seemed proper to European historians. Our writers recognize, consciously or unconsciously, that here the elements of life have been mixed in different proportions, and that history should conform to these different proportions as equally valid and worthy of observance.

To take at once one of the most important illustrations of this, one of the most vital differences between European history and that of the United States. It seems to be a fact that the scope of statesmanship, the influence of great individuals upon the general life, has been far less extensive here than there. It is certain to be so in new countries; in them Nature is supreme. Why was it that, while Greece itself was producing statesmen, the colonial Greeks of Sicily produced none ? Simply because the abundance of Nature left no field for them. In modern Europe the pressure of population upon the means of subsistence, and all the difficulties which beset the general life wherever the gifts of Nature are not superabundant for the needs of man, have raised such problems for man to cope with, such tasks for the forces of human intelligence, as have [140] necessarily evoked great administrative statesmen.

But with us it has not been so. Just as our national housekeeping has not needed, and therefore has not developed, the scientific financial methods of burdened Europe, the vastness of our national resources solving of itself every problem, so in general Nature has managed for us, and economic and other conditions have with peculiar completeness shaped our course. The governmental ideas which have been represented by the Straffords, the Richelieus, the Turgots, the Pitts, the Bismarcks of the old world d do not mean ideas of absolutism, but ideas of dominant influence of great intellects upon national destinies), have been alien to America. Once, indeed, the effort was made to apply to America the methods of European administrative statesmanship. That is, if I am not mistaken, the essence of the Federalist experiment, more deeply its characteristic than any phase of its attitude towards the American Constitution. And why did the Federalist experiment break down ? Simply because of those forces which the Hebrew war song indicates when it declares that the stars [141] in their courses fought against Sisera. Nature would rule. With the advent of Jeffersonian democracy, the reins were thrown upon her neck; and from that time to this the field of influence of natural conditions upon our na- tional destiny has been peculiarly great, the field of influence of great individuals far smaller than in the Old World. All this imposes upon our historical scholars a duty to which they have been far more disposed to conform since the attainment of a firmer national self-respect. They do not properly reflect the life that they seek to reflect if they write solely of individual persons or groups of persons and their conscious efforts; they must cease blindly to follow European schemes, and study economic and natural conditions and developments, the unintended growth of institutions and modes of life, the unconscious movements and changes of masses of men.

That this need of emancipation from the traditions and conventions of European historiography has been making itself felt, consciously or unconsciously, is plain to any one who surveys the historical literature of our day. Never was there a time in America when so great a proportion of the best historical [142] work was devoted to the subject of the history of institutions and economics. One writes of the history of finance; another, of the fortunes of institutions transplanted westward, and the genesis of governmental ideas among the lawless frontiersmen; another, of the history of cooperation; still another, of movements of migratory population, and the influence of German or other national elements absorbed into our mass. The magazine writers give us series of articles on colonial manners and customs rather than on colonial wars. One writer even attempts the difficult task of writing a general history of our people. The historical publications of our universities are mostly devoted to the history of institutions and economies. Forty years ago, a man might write on the diplomacy of the American Revolution; nowadays, he is much more likely to write on the history of the produce exchange, or government land-grants for railways, or education. Monographs in the field of sociological history or on special topics of the history of civilization are the characteristic feature of our present historical literature.

One field indeed, whose cultivation would [143] naturally go along with these, is not yet receiving adequate attention, the study, namely, of the thought or inner life of our nation, of public opinion, of popular movements, political and other. It is not that we have no one corresponding to M. Renan; for the union of so subtle and profound an insight, so delicate and sympathetic an appreciation, and so exquisite a style, is not to be expected in a raw and youthful nation, and indeed has scarcely appeared before in any nation. But it is a matter of surprise that, with the exception of a few such books as Mr. Royce's California, there seems but little tendency to the cultivation of that branch of history which may best be described as the study of the development of national psychology. But perhaps this will come in time.

This has been spoken of as the most important tendency of the historical writing of America to-day, not because its votaries or its productions are numerically in a majority, for that may very likely not be the case, but because of the belief that it is intrinsically the strongest tendency, and has the future with it. It is dangerous to prophesy; but there are good reasons why such a prophecy [144] may not be too audacious. The history of every science is in some degree conditioned by the natural course of things in the world at large; but it appears true, and will perhaps even have been shown by these papers, that this is in a peculiar degree the ease with the science of history. Views of the past, and ways of looking at it, change with the changing complexion of the present. But it is always found that the actual march of affairs is far in advance of its expression in literary theory and literary practice. Democracy had for some time been established among us before the poetry of democracy arose. The world changes, but our view of it does not change so fast; only with great effort can it be kept up to date, so to speak. Accordingly, it may be possible to discern in the face of things at present something which may be relied on to shape in part the historical science of the immediate future. Those characteristics of American existence which have been mentioned seem deeply rooted, permanent, essential; therefore it is likely that the adjustment of the sphere of our historical writing into conformity with the actual facts, relations, and proportions of our national existence will go [145] on to still further completeness, and that this tendency affords some presage as to its predominant qualities in the immediate future — qualities catholic and philosophical and contributory rather to historical science than to historical literature.

Of course not everything is sharing, or is likely to share, in this onward current. In particular, the tendencies of many of our numerous local historical societies form a counter-current, or, better, an eddy, in which chips of ancient timber float placidly round and round in the same little circle, quite unaffected by any general currents whatever. Most of them are very useful, and those of the West, at any rate, seem to be exceedingly active. But, with a few bright exceptions, our older historical societies seem a little inaccessible to new ideas, and more than a little wedded to tradition. The thought of touching anything that occurred since the Revolution, that is, of having anything to do with the most important part of our history, seems seldom to occur to them. Indeed, it is good fortune if the really active members are not absorbed exclusively in the study of the early voyages and discoveries, or of the Indians, the two subjects most remote [146] from the present affairs of the United States, and therefore great favorites.

It is not likely that the more popular sort of books will change greatly in any short time. The voluminous and copiously illustrated county and city histories, with which swift and enterprising compilers from time to time present us, will probably not be much affected. Provided adequate attention has been given to the essential parts of their work, the advertisements of important industries and the engravings of prominent citizens, it will not be worth while to alter a method which has hitherto served well enough the main purpose of such publications. Indeed, it is to be expected that a large number of even the books of leading importance, whose ideas gradually filter into the popular books and school text-books, will continue to be constructed in accordance with the plans traditional to the art. This, provided it is not done from mere blindness or imperviousness to new ideas, will not be regretted. No one quarrels with Mr. Henry Adams for confining his brilliant and instructive books mainly to the political and constitutional history of the periods which they treat, or with Mr. Schouler for a similar [147] course. There is still a vast work remaining to be done in our political history pure and simple. The main object is not the cessation of all former varieties of work, but the addition of numberless new ones, and the pervasion of all with more modern and catholic ideas.

But now as to the channels through which the historical movement of the present time goes on, and those likely to be used in the immediate future. With but a few exceptions, the local historical societies are not likely to be of great use in this way. Historical scholars of a modern spirit are no longer much in the habit of using their transactions as media of communication with the world. The newly founded American Historical Association, on the other hand, may be put to very good uses. The founding of that society was a most hopeful sign. If adequately supported by the real workers, it may prove of signal benefit to the progress of the science in the future. The scope of its publications is broad and national. Its connections with the government will enable it to publish still more, and out of it may grow a Historical Manuscripts Commission, which would be likely to accomplish as much [148] for history among us as the prototype has accomplished in England. Whether through this channel or not, the government will not probably much longer delay to engage in some scheme of historical publication. Several state governments are now carrying out such enterprises.

Of our few historical magazines, most are the organs of one or another of the local societies; and of the more general ones it is hard to speak with much patience. The fault lies mostly with the general public, who have not yet begun to care much for good historical work. Indeed, for any essay in the domain of European history it is scarcely possible to think of any American outlet, now that our oldfashioned reviews have become extinct or worse. As for American history, what appears in the historical magazines is mostly of a very popular sort; it is only on condition of their maintaining such a composition that the «intelligent public» allows them to continue to exist at all. Meanwhile, however, the great literary magazines have opened their columns to series of good popular articles upon colonial or revolutionary history, or even the general or the more recent history of the United States, the last [149] and apparently the most successful of such ventures being the war articles of The Century magazine. Very likely this indicates, or may succeed in creating, a more general interest in history among the unprofessional. Meanwhile, the scientific workers may find an avenue of publication through the hospitable columns of the new English Historical Review, since the prospect of having one of their own is exceedingly remote.

A method of historical publication much in vogue among us at present is that of putting forth a series of volumes by separate authors upon kindred subjects. We have had a series of «Campaigns of the Civil War», a series of «Lesser Wars of the United States», with some others, and, perhaps more conspicuous to the public eye, the «American Statesmen» series and the series on «American Commonwealths». The plan has its advantages and its defects. From the point of view of the publisher, it is eminently well- conceived. Greater attention is drawn to individual pieces of work when thus collected; greater interest is excited in the general subject when a mass of work upon it is presented. To some extent, the interests of the publishing business and of [150] historical scholarship are identical. Whatever increases the audience and the influence of good work must be welcomed by the scholar. But it must not be forgotten — and some of the volumes on «American Statesmen» and «American Commonwealths» are illustrations of the fact — that, in a series of this sort, the good books bolster up the poor ones, and gain them a factitious repute and power. At the same time, the best books suffer from the general average, seldom acquiring more weight than their fraction of the collective weight of the series, nor as much as might accrue to them as independent publications. Another result is, that all the kindred subjects therein comprised, however various in many characteristics, are bound down to the same uniform fullness and style of treatment. If Alexander Hamilton is to have a volume of three hundred pages sextodecimo, so must Gouverneur Morris. Statesman A, whose life was spent in executive affairs, may be treated differently from Statesman B, who spent his life on the bench, but he will not be treated with anything like so strong a difference as the facts demand. If, as Mr. Bagehot says, «the genius of great affairs abhors nicety of [151] division», still more does it abhor equality of division; and their treatment should correspond to their genius.

It is well worth while to take such considerations into account in any survey of our present state and prospects, because a tendency to more organization of historical work is just now very marked. It is not simply a result of that progression towards equality, that fading of individual saliency, which we have before noted. It is a tendency peculiarly American. A nation singularly devoted to business has transferred to the fields of literature and science the habits of business management. We educate by correspondence, we facilitate literary work by ingenious mechanical devices, we catalogue and systematize. No nation in the world is so addicted to bibliography and indexing. The English still, as frequently as not, publish books without indexes; the American who does such a thing is at once denounced by our reviewers as ripe for any atrocity. To say nothing of smaller bibliographies, Sabin's great dictionary of Americana already extends to about twoscore volumes, and will, when completed, embrace as many as a hundred thousand titles. [152]

But we are going further in the organization of historical work, even to the writing of histories by organized forces, or by cooperation. An excellent instance is the preparation of a most extensive history of the Pacific Coast by the staff of trained assistants employed by a wealthy, ab]e, and enthusiastic Californian historian, Mr. H. H. Bancroft. Retiring from the publishing business with great wealth, Mr. Bancroft has employed the energy and the methods of a business man in the collection, digestion, and presentation of materials. First, a great library has been collected, including all obtainable books bearing at all upon the history of Central America, Mexico, California, Utah, Oregon, British Columbia, and Alaska. Thousands of Mexican and Californian pamphlets have been gathered, and files of hundreds of newspapers from all parts of the Pacific Coast. Numerous valuable manuscripts have fallen into the collector's hands, and enormous masses of manuscript copies of state records and mission archives have been made specially for the library by his secretaries. Old pioneers still surviving have been visited, and their recollections taken down at great length. A Russian [153] assistant was sent to Alaska to copy the government records there. Half a dozen Spanish ones have done similar work. From twelve to twenty accomplished linguists, we are told, have been constantly employed in Mr. Bancroft's service since 1869. Secretaries have all this time been reading, translating, summarizing, cataloguing, and indexing the whole collection.

The result, attained at the cost of half a million dollars, is a mass of systematized information, such as must make the users and the desirers of historical materials elsewhere deeply envious, and for the collection of which, under ordinary methods, even an antediluvian lifetime would scarcely suffice a historian. The highest praise must be given to the zeal for research, the public spirit, and the enterprise and care which have presided over the formation of this priceless collection. But when it comes to writing history by this same method, some reserves are necessarily suggested to the mind. Mr. Bancroft has prepared from these materials, and published, a gigantic History of the Pacific States of America, in thirty-four unusually large volumes. It is obvious that a work of such magnitude, carried through in so few [154] years, could not possibly be written by a single hand. In fact, the books were first written by the various members of the cohort of assistants, and the person whose name they bear has simply revised, as a sort of managing editor, the productions of this highly-organized staff. Valuable as the work proves to be, some of the faults of such a plan are evident. There can be no fixing of responsibility. No one knows whom to criticize. No one can know whether the authority of this or that part of the book, or of the whole, should be much or little. Moreover, there is less likelihood, under such a system, of the best historical criticism, the most skillful sifting of the evidence thus elaborately collected. But all this is on the supposition that the main object of historical composition is correctness of detail, that a book is perfect if none of its information is erroneous; a supposition by no means to be admitted. To any one who has any conception of the use of the higher powers, the rarer qualities of the mind, in historical composition, it will be plain that no really great history can be written by the methods of the «literary bureau», by hiring a force of assistants and seeing that they do it. It [155] may almost be said that the historian, like the poet, is born, not made; but if he is made, he is not made by machinery.

Such dangers as have been above noted must always, in greater or less degree, attend work prepared by these or similar methods. It is important to observe this, because one sees, in this country so devoted to organization, a growing tendency toward the production of historical work in such ways, the application to it of the economic principle and method of division of labor. A far greater amount of work can thus be put forth, and, what perhaps is quite as important, can be put forth in such a way as greatly to increase its force upon the world; for work so combined and systematized with other work is not in danger of being lost or ineffectual, as are, for instance, the dissertations so ingeniously concealed in German university and school programmes. But it is well to remember that with these advantages there are some serious drawbacks. Good work of the second class, and great amounts of it, can thus be done; good work of the first class cannot. The tale of Pegasus in harness has this meaning, that the finest qualities of the human mind cannot [156] be thus systematized. The highest intellects are not at the service of the hirers of clerks, are not to be made cogs or wheels in a history-producing machine.

By far the most noteworthy of our cooperative histories is the Narrative and Critical History of America, edited by Mr. Justin Winsor. With its chapters of historical narrative by our most learned and able historical scholars, each writing upon his own special field, and with its critical essays upon the sources of information, it seems without doubt to be the most important and useful contribution ever yet made to American historical science. It splendidly sums up the historical labors of a century. And, by the way, consisting so largely as it does of a bibliographical record of what has been done, the proportion between its parts affords a striking indication of the relative amounts of work which Americans have ex- pended on different portions of American history. It has taken four volumes to set forth the results achieved in our colonial and revolutionary history, while a single volume is thought to suffice for the period from 1789 to 1850. Another editor might divide the work somewhat differently; but the fact [157] remains that we have expended much more labor on the earlier than on the later period of our history. Perhaps new nations have a passion for the study of origins; or perhaps even those who write history enjoy an interesting story, and find more such in colonial history than in later times. The disproportion indicated is a necessary incident to the scheme of the work. There are also, it should be noted, other limitations which must to some extent beset all cooperative or monographic histories alike. Stretched on the Procustean bed of uniform requirements in respect to extensiveness and general method of treatment, the authors can present only those things which they have in common — abundant and correct information, and acute historical criticism. Many of the finer qualities of the in- dividual mind are likely to evaporate in the process; much of what is most valuable in individual views and conceptions of history will find no place for itself. No one who appreciates these will readily assent to the assertion, in the prospectus to the Narrative and Critical History, that, «when the superiority of the cooperative method is fully understood, the individual historian, if he [158] ventures forth at all, will be read for entertainment rather than profit».

And now as to the agents by whom historical science is to be furthered. Here, also, the present enables us to judge somewhat of the future. It is not probable that the advance-guard of our army will be led by the ruling members of the various local historical societies. Nor, on the other hand, will much be done by the class of professionally literary men. At New York, we are assured, there is now a literary centre, and in and near it a literary class; and lest the public should lose sight of the fact, each of our great magazines has at times an article by some one of the number in which the rest are commemorated, each star being catalogued by these prompt astronomers as soon as it succeeds in getting at all above the horizon. But with these complacent Augustans, literature appears to be mostly a branch of journalism, and history has little to expect from them. No doubt their school surpasses in breadth and the cosmopolitan quality that which forty years ago had its centre in Boston, but it is as much inferior in scholarship as it is in dignity. The local antiquaries, the professionally literary men, and the [159] men of wealth and leisure devoted to study, will no doubt continue to write historical books. But an increasing proportion of the annual product now comes from the teachers of history in universities and colleges, and the signs are that the immediate future belongs to the professorial class.

The change is more significant than may at first be seen. Its meaning will appear if we bear in mind that want of early training in the technique of historical research and composition which has been already spoken of as characteristic of American historians hitherto. The increasing identification of the writing and the teaching classes may be relied on to remove this obstacle to progress. The next generation will have served an apprenticeship under men who write; and the superior finish, the improvement in scho- larly method, which have been so much needed, will be one of the results. Already, increasing numbers of special students of history are frequenting those universities which afford graduate instruction, and if the annual production of books and other publications giving evidence of scientific training and of high ideals of historical scholarship is still small, it is visibly increasing.

[160] Thus we have traced the development of our science from its half-conscious infancy down to the present time, and perhaps a little way into the future. It cannot truly be said that it has yet reached anything like maturity, but it is in a vigorous though raw adolescence.


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