IV. History and Centennials

The invitation to address the regional meeting of Phi Alpha Theta, national honorary society in history, held in Lawrence, Kansas, on May 7, 1960, provided an opportunity to explore the relationship between the study of history and the celebration of centennials. On this occasion it seemed appropriate to explore the historiographical positions of some book reviewers of 1860. In order to reduce the amount of repetition the original introduction has been shortened. The opening remarks were substantially the same as those which appear in the following essay, "Centennialitis."

The impending centennials of statehood and of the Civil War years have contributed to an increasing interest in the nature of appropriate celebrations and observances. There is some reason to believe that recalling the events of one hundred years ago and honoring the persons associated with them are not the over-riding objectives of some anniversary occasions. In the midst of the glamour and drama which will occupy the center of the stage, the still small voice of history will be heard faintly from the wings. Some years ago and in some quarters yet today it was the fashion to charge Herbert Hoover with favoring the "percolation" theory of relief for the indigent and unemployed, namely that if sufficient assistance were given to the employers of labor and suppliers of capital some benefits would trickle down to the people who were most seriously in need of help. Similarly, it seems to be the assumption of some that if enough promotional activity, enough emotion-packed pageants and parades are poured into the hopper of centennial observances some slight benefits will accrue to historical study will trickle down to Clio. It is hoped that some materials of priceless value will be brought out of the attics, the basements, and the sheds and be deposited in libraries where their safety can be assured. Perhaps it is gratuitous to point out that the same objective could be achieved much more economically and with richer results by a trained collector on the staff of a library or department of history.

But it is not the sponsorship of basically unhistorical observances in the name of history that constitutes the most serious aspect of the epidemic which we shall call Centennial-



itis. Of far greater significance is the concept of the nature of history which the centennial observances reflect. Ideally they should portray what the people of one hundred years ago considered to be important. It is their era that should be the focus of interest and not ours of today. Put in historiographical terms centennial observances no matter how carefully planned reflect a kind of presentism. A segment of the past, whether a battle, the birth of a person, a book, or a movement, is wrenched out of its historical context and made to speak to some present problem. American historians writing about the political campaigns in the quarter of a century that followed the Civil War love to point out how at the slightest opportunity the Republican orators "waved the bloody shirt" and how they charged their opponents with all of the crimes in the decalogue and forced them to bear the stigma of attempting to preserve the institution of slavery, of attempting to break the Union, of being responsible for the killing of more than six hundred thousand fine young Americans, and of destroying many hundreds of millions of dollars worth of property. Here was the virus of presentism put to a specific use a segment of the past wrenched out of context and used to belabor political opponents who had no connection with the events except that the name of their party happened to be the same. Nor does one need to retreat to the politics of the 1870's and 1880's to see this virus at work. If one reads the more recent political literature one can see the same process in action. It is not "waving the bloody shirt" but "flaunting the starving millions" the attempt to identify depression with a particular political party which is implicit in such words as "Hoovervilles," "Hoover wages," and "Hooverizing."

It should be said quickly that politicians like artists should not be held to strict accountability for their use of historical facts. Their purpose is to win elections and not to portray with faithful and objective accuracy a picture of the past. But can this same caveat be extended to those who seek to exploit, sometimes in the name of history, the popular interest in the events of one hundred years ago. The major case in point is of course the almost hysterical interest in the Civil War. Long before the one hundredth birthday of the

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firing of the first shot a veritable flood of published material has descended upon the body politic. It would appear that no engagement was too trivial, no participant too insignificant, no place too remote to provide fuel for someone's literary fire. Before five years have gone by we shall have seen in the name of centennial observances efforts to capitalize on the glamour and romance and more especially on the goriest aspects of the bloodiest war in our history. Why the American people want to immerse themselves in the tragedy, the cruelty, and the wanton destructiveness of the Civil War is a largely unanswered question. D. W. Brogan, among others, has attempted an explanation in a forthcoming book, a selection from which appears in the April issue of Harper's magazine. Can it be that all of this frenzy of interest in the war between the States has one source in a desire on the part of some to select those aspects of the 1850s and the 1860s which seem to bear upon the problems of the 1950s and 1960s? Are we witnessing another example of "waving the bloody shirt" for the express purpose of influencing the political future of southern aspirants to high national office or the fate of pending legislation. Are the ghosts of Calhoun and Cobb, Yancey and Rhett, and Davis, being summoned to reenforce the argument turn ad horrendum that the people from the southern states are benighted if not actually depraved and decadent. This was one possibility that Professor William B. Hesseltine foresaw in 1956 when he published a short article entitled "Andersonville Revisited." The obvious point of departure was the appearance of MacKinlay Kantor's novel Andersonville. After commenting that the passionate interest in the Civil War might have some positive benefits and predicting "the publication of an enormous amount of trivia" Professor Hesseltine continues,

But, far more serious is the clear possibility that the new Civil War books will serve to revive and perpetuate for another century the partisanship and psychoses of the 1860s. The Centennial of the Civil War may well become the occasion for dipping the bloody shirt anew and mounting it again over the parapets of sectional partisanship.l


Professor Hesseltine comes close to suggesting that "guilt-by-association" tactics may possess the vertical dimension of chronology. The result of this would be that the people of the 196Os will be made to bear the guilt and stigma attached to the people of the 186Os for no other reason than their residing in the same part of the nation. Aside from the impact of this form of presentism upon historical study it seems appalling that in a time so freighted with problems and dilemmas of tragic proportions that solutions should be made more difficult by robbing the grave of history and raising up ghosts of the past. If the present selects only those fragments of the past which relate to a present enterprise whether it is a centennial celebration, a political contest, or a debate over educational theory there can be no past because it is constantly being recreated in the image of the present. There can be no such thing as perspective because perspective depends in part upon depth. Surely there can be no such thing as depth if all we have is a never-ending present reaching back into the recesses of the past. And curiously enough the metamorphosing of the past into the likeness of the present cannot provide any sense of continuity. The egocentricity of presentism prevents its development. To develop a sense of continuity one must begin with the past and study it through the eyes of the men and women who participated in the events that we wish to describe.

To illustrate a few of the ideas that I have mentioned I have chosen to steep myself in the intellectual environment of a century ago in order to look briefly at a fragment of the past the view of the nature of history that was held by some of the writers of 1859 and 1860. Because there was no American Historical Review, no Mississippi Valley Historical Review, no Historian, I chose to scan and to read substantial portions of the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Hunt's Merchants Magazine, and the North American Review. It would be far too simple to tell you that the writers about history in 1859 and 1860 discussed the same issues that we discuss today. Literary style, the proper use of source material, objectivity, accuracy of statement all of these and many more were touched upon. To put it briefly one feels right at home when reading the historiographical literature of a century ago.

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The book reviews provide many interesting bits of information. In one it was stated, "As a general rule it is yet too soon to write the history of the United States since 1784. Half a century has not been sufficient to wear out the bitter feeling excited by the long struggle of Democrats and Federalists..., where so much temper exists impartial history is out of the question."2 An able writer in reviews of Palfrey's History of New England and Arnold's History of Rhode Island had this to say,

The historian's work, when done after the best pattern, involves a duty to his readers and a privilege for himself. To them he is bound to present all the essential facts, authenticated, illustrated, and carefully disposed in their natural relations. For himself, having done this, he is at liberty to construct his own theory, to follow his own philosophy, and to pronounce judicial decisions. The highest exaction to be made of an historian, and the loftiest function which he could claim to exercise, are expressed in these two conditions. The noble privilege and opportunity secured in the latter condition are the only adequate reward for the drudgery of the labor required in the former.3

The appearance of volume three of William H. Prescott's, A History of Philip the Second, elicited the opening remark in the review in the Atlantic that Prescott's work was "the most valuable contribution to European history ever made by an American scholar." Then followed a long and laudatory review which contained the following paragraph:

In truth, while the office of the speculative philosopher is to explore the principles that have the widest operation in the revolutions of society, the office of the historian is to represent society as it actually exists at any given period in all its various phenomena. The science of history has been first invented at least, he tells us so by Mr. Buckle. The art of history is older than Herodotus, older than Moses, older than printed language. It is based, like every other art, on certain truths, general and special, principles and facts; its process, like that of every other art, is the Imagination, the creative principle of genius, using these truths as its rules and its materials, working by them and upon them, applying and idealizing them. That there is such a thing as historical art has also, we know, been disputed.... In like manner, the historian


one to whom history is a genuine vocation applies to the facts with which he has to deal, to the evidence which he has to sift, to the relations which he has to peruse, a faculty which shall detect a meaning where the common reader would find none, which shall conceive a whole picture, a complete view, where another would see but fragments, which shall combine and reproduce in one distinct and living image the relics of a past age, which lie broken, scattered, and buried beneath the mounds of time. Such a work has Niebuhr performed for early Roman history, and Michelet for the confused epochs of medieval France. The spirit, instead of escaping in the process, was for the first time made visible. The historian did not merely anatomize the body of the Past, but with magic power summoned up its ghost.4

That all of the reviews were not laudatory is indicated by those of Charles Mackay's, Life and Liberty in America and Robert Anderson Wilson's A New History of the Conquest of Mexico. Of the former the reviewer said, "But it is perhaps the dullest of books. If not icily regular, it is splendidly null. The style is as oppressive as a London fog. It is marked, to use the author's own words, by `elegant and drowsy stagnation.'... Minute details of toilet agonies, pecuniary miseries, laundry tribulations, and anxieties of appetite may possess an interest abroad that we do not appreciate here.... The dreary solemnity with which these incidents are narrated renders them doubly tedious."

The review of Wilson's A New History... was much more severe. The criticisms suggest certain standards of historical scholarship:

But this book of Wilson's must, under all conditions, and in any contingency, be regarded as worthless. Be the story of the Conquest true or false, this contains no relation of it, this contains no refutation of it. Not content with vilifying his authorities, with impugning their faith, denying their existence, and mangling their names, he has disfigured their statements, corrupted their narrative, and substituted gross absurdities for what was at least beautiful and coherent, whether it was fiction or reality. His book is in every sense a fabrication. It is no record of the truth; it is not a romance or a fable, artfully constructed and elegantly told; it is to use that plain language which the occasion authorizes and demands a barefaced, but awkward falsification of history,

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so awkward, that it has cost us little trouble to detect it, so barefaced, that it has been a duty, though, of course, a painful one, to expose it.

Perhaps it will not seem inappropriate in this election year to quote briefly from the review of Ormsby's History of the Whig Party in order to indicate one aspect of the politics of a century ago. Apparently Ormsby condemned the Republican party and the Northern people, defended the South, and called for the revival of the Whig party as the best solution to the problem. That this proposal did not please the reviewer is evident from the following:

The duties of an historian, always difficult, are peculiarly so when he attempts to treat of recent events. In such a case, the historian whose mind is not so warped by sympathies and antipathies as to make him utterly incompetent to his task must possess a rare impartiality of judgment and extra- ordinary keenness of insight, all assisted by candid and painful research....it might be gravely debated whether the fortunate owner of this book would have any advantage over the man so unlucky as not to possess it.... This part is richly studded with blunders of every description, and written in language which for copiousness and clearness rivals the fertilizing inundations of the Nile.... The decorous appearance of impartiality, necessary to an historian, is well preserved by such choice language as `crusade against the institutions and people of the South,' `fratricidal hand in sectional warfare,' `first to arouse jealousy and hatred,' `the South at the mercy of the North,' `shriek for freedom,' `political mountebank,' `and it is to the stunted, obtuse, bigoted, fanatical, ignorant, jaundiced, self- righteous, and self-conceited millions of such in the North, that Mr. Seward, and others of his kidney, address' (their pleas).... After all, is there anything very strange in silly men writing silly books?6

It would be pleasant as well as profitable to pursue the subject of the historiography of a century ago, but time does not permit it even if your patience would endure. Perhaps it will be sufficient to let the reviewer of John L. Motley's History of the United Netherlands speak for a few minutes and then turn to an explicit discussion of history and a few concluding remarks. The reviewer of Motley's volumes, probably James Russell Lowell, had this to say,


These volumes bear the unmistakable mark, not merely of historical accuracy and research, but of historical genius; They evince throughout a patient, persistent industry in investigating original documents, from the mere labor of which an Irish hod-carrier would shrink aghast, and thank the Virgin that though born a drudge, he was not born to drudge in the bogs and morasses of unexplored domains of History; yet the genius and enthusiasm of the historian are so strong that he converts the drudgery into delight, and lives joyful, though laborious days.... The first requirement of an historian in the present century is original research, not merely research into rare printed books and pamphlets, but into unpublished and almost unknown manuscripts. No sobriety of judgment, no sagacity of insight, no brilliancy of imagination can compensate for defective information. The finest genius is degraded to the rank of a compiler, unless he sheds new light upon his subject by contributing new facts. The severest requirements of the Baconian method of induction requirements which have been notoriously disregarded by men of science in the investigation of Nature remain in force as regards the students of history....7

The article which dealt directly with the problems of writing history was published under the title "Something about History" in the September, 1860, issue of the Atlantic Monthly. It appeared in company with pieces entitled "Among the Trees," "Some Notes on Shakespeare," "A Day with the Dead," and "Culture." The opening lines of "Something about History" indicate the tone of the article. "There is no kind of writing which is undertaken so much from will and so little from instinct as History. It seems the great resource of baffled ambition, of leisure, of minds disciplined rather than inspired, of men with pecuniary means and without professional obligations...."

After discoursing on such aspects of historiography as objectivity (which the writer rejects as impossible and undesirable), and lack of literary quality in most historical writings and some brief comments on individual historians, the writer brings his indictment of history and historians to a conclusion in a series of paragraphs devoted to research, the evaluation of historical writings and popular reaction to them. In part he declared,

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A peculiar feature in the labors of modern historians is the research expended upon what the elder annalists regarded as purely incidental and extraneous. The collation of archives, official correspondence, and state-papers is now but the rough basis of research; memoirs are equally consulted, localities minutely examined, the art and literature of a given era analyzed, the geography, climate, and ethnology of the scene made to illustrate the life and policy, social phases, educational facts estimated as not less valuable than statistics of armies and judicial enactments.... Topography, botany, artistic knowledge are not less parts of the chronicler's equipment than philology, rhetoric, and philosophy; a newspaper is not beneath nor a traveller's gossip beyond his scope; architecture reveals somewhat which diplomacy conceals; an inscription is not more historical than the average temperature or the staple productions. Whatever affects national character and destiny, whatever accounts for national manners or confirms individual sway, is brought into the record.... Hence, to read history aright, we must read human nature as well; we must bring the light of philosophy and of faith, the calmness of judgment and the insight of love, to the record; collateral revelations drawn from our own experience, modified acceptance of both statement and inference, superiority to the blandishments of style, are as needful for the right interpretation of a chronicle as of a scientific problem. Thus history is perpetually rewritten; fresh knowledge opens new vistas in the past as well as the future; the discovery of to-day may rectify, in important respects, the statement which has been unchallenged for centuries; one new truth leavens a thousand old formulas; and nothing is more gradual than the elucidation of historical events and characters.... The vast number of intelligent readers, who have made no special study of this kind of literature, probably derive their most distinct and attractive impressions of the past from poetry, travel, and the choicest works of the novelist; local associa- tion and imaginative sympathy, rather than formal chronicles, have enlightened and inspired them in regard to Antiquity and the great events and characters of modern Europe. This fact alone suggests how inadequate for popular effect have been the average labors of historians; and so fixed is the opinion among scholars that it is impossible for the annalist to be profound and interesting, authentic and animated, at the same time, that a large class of the learned repudiate as spurious the renown of Macaulay, although his research and his minuteness cannot be questioned, and only in a few instances has his accuracy been successfully impugned.8


In subjecting you to a heavy burden of century-old material it has not been my purpose to launch a centennial observance of important developments in the field of American historiography. But if such were my objective it is clear that we could focus the celebration on the recognition of the importance of source materials or on the significance of literary style or, indeed, attention might be called to early manifestations of the conflict between the objectivists and the subjective relativists. Or we could celebrate with appropriate scholarly fanfare the discovery that scientific history originated with an English rather than a German historian. Or better yet we could observe the existence of a species of book reviews that is now almost as extinct as the Dodo the review which clearly reveals that the reviewer has read the book and is not prevented by a sense of professional "togetherness" from writing a critical analysis of it.

Rather than trying to initiate a centennial observance it has been my purpose to reenforce a sense of continuity by turning your thoughts back a century to discussions of problems that are very much alive today. I share with George F. Kennan the view that "the study of history is a lonely occupation"; lonely because it represents a turning of one's back on the interests and preoccupations of one's own age in favor of those of another; and lonely because "association with the past can come only at the expense of association with the present."9 It is the spirit of presentism which characterizes so much of our thinking about centennials that I am protesting against. And I have chosen to protest by using the method ascribed by the unknown reviewer to John Motley. "His plan," he said, "is always to allow the statesmen and soldiers who appear in his work to express themselves in their own way, and convey their opinions and purposes in their own words. This mode is opposed to compression, but favorable to truth...."

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1.Georgia Review, 10 (Spring. 1956), 92ff.
2.Atlantic Monthly, 4 (July, 1859).
3.Ibid., 3 (January, 1859), 122-128, quotation 126-127.

4.Ibid., 3 (January, 1859), 125 ff.
5.Ibid., 3 (April. 1859), 520 and 4 (September, 1859), 379 ff.
6.Ibid., 5 (March, 18601, 372 ff.
7.Ibid., 7 (March, 1861), 377.
8.Ibid., 6 (September, 1860, 298.309. The quotations are from paragraphs scattered throughout the article.
9.The Virginia Quarterly Review. 36 (Spring. 1960), 105.2 14.


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