Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
A Broad Method Commended to Historians
By Andrew Dickson White (18321918)
[Born in Homer, N. Y., 1832. Died in Ithaca, N. Y., 1918. On Studies in General History and the History of Civilization. 1885.]
I REMEMBER several years ago hearing a gentleman, temporarily eminent in politics (one of Carlyles hommes alors célèbres), in a speech before the authorities of an American university, declare that all history must be rewritten from an American point of view. This assertion, at the time, seemed to savor of that vagueness and largeness often noted in the utterances of the American politician upon his travels, which, in our vernacular, is happily named tall talk; but as the statement has recurred to my mind at various periods since, it has seemed to me that our political friend uttered more wisely than he knew. For is it not true that we, in this republic, called upon to help build up a new civilization, with a political and social history developing before us of which the consequences for good or evil are to rank with those which have flowed from the life of Rome and the British Empire,is it not true that, for us, the perspective of a vast deal of history is changed; that the history which, for the use of various European populations, has been written with minute attention to details, must be written for us in a larger and more philosophical way?
And is it not true that the history so rapidly developing here is throwing back a new light upon much history already developed? What legislator cannot see that the history of our American municipalities throws light upon the republics of the Middle Ages, and derives light from them? What statesman cannot understand far better the problem of the British government in Ireland in the light of our own problem in the city of New York? What classical scholar cannot better understand Cleon the leather-seller, as we laugh at the gyrations of a certain American politician now starring it in the provinces? What publicist cannot weigh more justly the immediate pre-revolutionary period in France as he notes a certain thin, loose humanitarianism of our day which is making our land the paradise of murderers? What historical student cannot more correctly estimate the value of a certain happy-go-lucky optimism which sees nothing possible but good in the future, when he recalls the complacent public opinion, voiced by the Italian historian just before 1789, that henceforth peace was to reign in Europe, since great wars had become an impossibility? What student of social science cannot better estimate the most fearful anti-social evil among us by noting the sterility of marriage in the decline of Rome and in the eclipse of France?
In this sense I think that the assertion referred to as to the rewriting of history from the American point of view contains a great truth; and it is this modified view of the evolution of human affairs, of the development of man as man, and of man in society, that opens a great field for American philosophic historians, whether they shall seek to round the whole circle of human experience, or simply to present some arc of it.
The want of such work can be clearly seen on all sides. Not one of us reads the current discussions of public affairs in Congress, in the State Legislatures, or in the newspapers, who does not see that strong and keen as many of these are, a vast deal of valuable light is shut out by ignorance of turning-points in the history of human civilization thus far. Never was this want of broad historical views in leaders of American opinion more keenly felt than now. Think of the blindness to one of the greatest things which gives renown to nations, involved in the duty levied by Congress upon works of art. Think, too, of the blindness to one of the main agencies in the destruction of every great republic thus far, shown in the neglect to pass a constitutional amendment which shall free us from the danger of coups détat at the counting of the electoral vote. Think of the cool disregard of the plainest teachings of general history involved in legislative carelessness or doctrinaire opposition to measures remedying illiteracy in our Southern States. Never was this want of broad historical views more evident in our legislation than now. In the early history of this republic we constantly find that such men as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, to say nothing of the lesser lights, drew very largely and effectively from their studies of human history. In the transition period such men as Calhoun, John Quincy Adams, Everett, and Webster drew a large part of their strength from this source. And in the great period through which we have recently passed the two statesmen who wrought most powerfully to shape vague hopes into great eventsWilliam Henry Seward and Charles Sumnerwere the two of all American statesmen in their time who drew inspiration and strength from a knowledge of the general history of mankind. Nothing but this could have kept up Sewards faith or Sumners purpose. The absence of this sort of light among our public men at present arises doubtless from the necessities of our material development since the Civil War, and the demand for exact arithmetical demonstration in finance rather than moral demonstration in broad questions of public policy; but as we approach the normal state of things more and more, the need of such general studies must grow stronger and stronger.
As regards the work of our American universities and colleges in the historical field, we must allow that it is wofully defective; but there are signs, especially among those institutions which are developing out of the mass of colleges into universities, of a better time coming. They must indeed yield to the current sweeping through the age. This is an epoch of historical studies. It is a matter of fact, simple and easily verified, that whereas in the last century state problems and world problems were as a rule solved by philosophy, and even historians such as Voltaire and Gibbon and Robertson were rather considered as philosophers than as historians, in this century such problems are studied most frequently in the light of history.
Still another encouraging fact is that advanced studies of every sort are more and more thrown into the historic form. The growth of the historical school in political economy is but one of many examples of this. More and more it is felt that the proper study of mankind is man; more and more clear becomes the idea enforced by Draper, that the greatest problems of humanity must be approached not so much by the study of the individual man as by the study of man in general and historically.