Historical Essays
by James Ford Rhodes
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Author of the History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 to the Final Restoration of Home Rule at the South in 1877


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Copyright, 1909, By THE MACMILLAN COMPANY.

Set up and electrotyped. Published December, 1909.

Norwood Press J. S. Cushing Co.—Berwick & Smith Co. Norwood, Mass., U.S.A.


In offering to the public this volume of Essays, all but two of which have been read at various places on different occasions, I am aware that there is some repetition in ideas and illustrations, but, as the dates of their delivery and previous publication are indicated, I am letting them stand substantially as they were written and delivered.

I am indebted to my son, Daniel P. Rhodes, for a literary revision of these Essays; and I have to thank the editors of the Atlantic Monthly, of Scribner's Magazine, and of the Century Magazine for leave to reprint the articles which have already appeared in their periodicals.

Boston, November, 1909.


I. History 1 President's Inaugural Address, American Historical Association, Boston, December 27, 1899; printed in the Atlantic Monthly of February, 1900.

II. Concerning the Writing of History 25 Address delivered at the Meeting of the American Historical Association in Detroit, December, 1900.

III. The Profession of Historian 47 Lecture read before the History Club of Harvard University, April 27, 1908, and at Yale, Columbia, and Western Reserve Universities.

IV. Newspapers as Historical Sources 81 A Paper read before the American Historical Association in Washington on December 29, 1908; printed in the Atlantic Monthly of May, 1909.

V. Speech prepared for the Commencement Dinner at Harvard University, June 26, 1901. (Not delivered) 99

VI. Edward Gibbon 105 Lecture read at Harvard University, April 6, 1908, and printed in Scribner's Magazine of June, 1909.

VII. Samuel Rawson Gardiner 141 A Paper read before the Massachusetts Historical Society at the March Meeting of 1902, and printed in the Atlantic Monthly of May, 1902.

VIII. William E. H. Lecky 151 A Paper read before the Massachusetts Historical Society at the November Meeting of 1903.

IX. Sir Spencer Walpole 159 A Paper read before the Massachusetts Historical Society at the November Meeting of 1907.

X. John Richard Green 169 Address at a Gathering of Historians on June 5, 1909, to mark the Placing of a Tablet in the Inner Quadrangle of Jesus College, Oxford, to the Memory of John Richard Green.

XI. Edward L. Pierce 175 A Paper read before the Massachusetts Historical Society at the October Meeting of 1897.

XII. Jacob D. Cox 183 A Paper read before the Massachusetts Historical Society at the October Meeting of 1900.

XIII. Edward Gaylord Bourne 189 A Paper read before the Massachusetts Historical Society at the March Meeting of 1908.

XIV. The Presidential Office 201 An Essay printed in Scribner's Magazine of February, 1903.

XV. A Review of President Hayes's Administration 243 Address delivered at the Annual Meeting of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University, on October 8, 1908; printed in the Century Magazine for October, 1909.

XVI. Edwin Lawrence Godkin 265 Lecture read at Harvard University, April 13, 1908; printed in the Atlantic Monthly for September, 1908.

XVII. Who Burned Columbia? 299 A Paper read before the Massachusetts Historical Society at the November Meeting of 1901, and printed in the American Historical Review of April, 1902.

XVIII. A New Estimate of Cromwell 315 A Paper read before the Massachusetts Historical Society at the January Meeting of 1898, and printed in the Atlantic Monthly of June, 1898.

Index 325


President's Inaugural Address, American Historical Association, Boston, December 27, 1899; printed in the Atlantic Monthly of February, 1900.



My theme is history. It is an old subject, which has been discoursed about since Herodotus, and I should be vain indeed if I flattered myself that I could say aught new concerning the methods of writing it, when this has for so long a period engaged the minds of so many gifted men. Yet to a sympathetic audience, to people who love history, there is always the chance that a fresh treatment may present the commonplaces in some different combination, and augment for the moment an interest which is perennial.

Holding a brief for history as do I your representative, let me at once concede that it is not the highest form of intellectual endeavor; let us at once agree that it were better that all the histories ever written were burned than for the world to lose Homer and Shakespeare. Yet as it is generally true that an advocate rarely admits anything without qualification, I should not be loyal to my client did I not urge that Shakespeare was historian as well as poet. We all prefer his Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar to the Lives in North's Plutarch which furnished him his materials. The history is in substance as true as Plutarch, the dramatic force greater; the language is better than that of Sir Thomas North, who himself did a remarkable piece of work when he gave his country a classic by Englishing a French version of the stories of the Greek. It is true as Macaulay wrote, the historical plays of Shakespeare have superseded history. When we think of Henry V, it is of Prince Hal, the boon companion of Falstaff, who spent his youth in brawl and riot, and then became a sober and duty-loving king; and our idea of Richard III. is a deceitful, dissembling, cruel wretch who knew no touch of pity, a bloody tyrant who knew no law of God or man.

The Achilles of Homer was a very living personage to Alexander. How happy he was, said the great general, when he visited Troy, "in having while he lived so faithful a friend, and when he was dead so famous a poet to proclaim his actions"! In our century, as more in consonance with society under the regime of contract, when force has largely given, pay to craft, we feel in greater sympathy with Ulysses; "The one person I would like to have met and talked with," Froude used to say, "was Ulysses. How interesting it would be to have his opinion on universal suffrage, and on a House of Parliament where Thersites is listened to as patiently as the king of men!"

We may also concede that, in the realm of intellectual endeavor, the natural and physical sciences should have the precedence of history. The present is more important than the past, and those sciences which contribute to our comfort, place within the reach of the laborer and mechanic as common necessaries what would have been the highest luxury to the Roman emperor or to the king of the Middle Ages, contribute to health and the preservation of life, and by the development of railroads make possible such a gathering as this,—these sciences, we cheerfully admit, outrank our modest enterprise, which, in the words of Herodotus, is "to preserve from decay the remembrance of what men have done." It may be true, as a geologist once said, in extolling his study at the expense of the humanities, "Rocks do not lie, although men do;" yet, on the other hand, the historic sense, which during our century has diffused itself widely, has invaded the domain of physical science. If you are unfortunate enough to be ill, and consult a doctor, he expatiates on the history of your disease. It was once my duty to attend the Commencement exercises of a technical school, when one of the graduates had a thesis on bridges. As he began by telling how they were built in Julius Caesar's time, and tracing at some length the development of the art during the period of the material prosperity of the Roman Empire, he had little time and space left to consider their construction at the present day. One of the most brilliant surgeons I ever knew, the originator of a number of important surgical methods, who, being physician as well, was remarkable in his expedients for saving life when called to counsel in grave and apparently hopeless cases, desired to write a book embodying his discoveries and devices, but said that the feeling was strong within him that he must begin his work with an account of medicine in Egypt, and trace its development down to our own time. As he was a busy man in his profession, he lacked the leisure to make the preliminary historical study, and his book was never written. Men of affairs, who, taking "the present time by the top," are looked upon as devoted to the physical and mechanical sciences, continually pay tribute to our art. President Garfield, on his deathbed, asked one of his most trusted Cabinet advisers, in words that become pathetic as one thinks of the opportunities destroyed by the assassin's bullet, "Shall I live in history?" A clever politician, who knew more of ward meetings, caucuses, and the machinery of conventions than he did of history books, and who was earnest for the renomination of President Arthur in 1884, said to me, in the way of clinching his argument, "That administration will live in history." So it was, according to Amyot, in the olden time. "Whensoever," he wrote, "the right sage and virtuous Emperor of Rome, Alexander Severus, was to consult of any matter of great importance, whether it concerned war or government, he always called such to counsel as were reported to be well seen in histories." "What," demanded Cicero of Atticus, "will history say of me six hundred years hence?"

Proper concessions being made to poetry and the physical sciences, our place in the field remains secure. Moreover, we live in a fortunate age; for was there ever so propitious a time for writing history as in the last forty years? There has been a general acquisition of the historic sense. The methods of teaching history have so improved that they may be called scientific. Even as the chemist and physicist, we talk of practice in the laboratory. Most biologists will accept Haeckel's designation of "the last forty years as the age of Darwin," for the theory of evolution is firmly established. The publication of the Origin of Species, in 1859, converted it from a poet's dream and philosopher's speculation to a well-demonstrated scientific theory. Evolution, heredity, environment, have become household words, and their application to history has influenced every one who has had to trace the development of a people, the growth of an institution, or the establishment of a cause. Other scientific theories and methods have affected physical science as potently, but none has entered so vitally into the study of man. What hitherto the eye of genius alone could perceive may become the common property of every one who cares to read a dozen books. But with all of our advantages, do we write better history than was written before the year 1859, which we may call the line of demarcation between the old and the new? If the English, German, and American historical scholars should vote as to who were the two best historians, I have little doubt that Thucydides and Tacitus would have a pretty large majority. If they were asked to name a third choice, it would undoubtedly lie between Herodotus and Gibbon. At the meeting of this association in Cleveland, when methods of historical teaching were under discussion, Herodotus and Thucydides, but no others, were mentioned as proper object lessons. What are the merits of Herodotus? Accuracy in details, as we understand it, was certainly not one of them. Neither does he sift critically his facts, but intimates that he will not make a positive decision in the case of conflicting testimony. "For myself," he wrote, "my duty is to report all that is said, but I am not obliged to believe it all alike,—a remark which may be understood to apply to my whole history." He had none of the wholesome skepticism which we deem necessary in the weighing of historical evidence; on the contrary, he is frequently accused of credulity. Nevertheless, Percy Gardner calls his narrative nobler than that of Thucydides, and Mahaffy terms it an "incomparable history." "The truth is," wrote Macaulay in his diary, when he was forty-nine years old, "I admire no historians much except Herodotus, Thucydides, and Tacitus." Sir M. E. Grant Duff devoted his presidential address of 1895, before the Royal Historical Society, wholly to Herodotus, ending with the conclusion, "The fame of Herodotus, which has a little waned, will surely wax again." Whereupon the London Times devoted a leader to the subject. "We are concerned," it said, "to hear, on authority so eminent, that one of the most delightful writers of antiquity has a little waned of late in favor with the world. If this indeed be the case, so much the worse for the world.... When Homer and Dante and Shakespeare are neglected, then will Herodotus cease to be read."

There we have the secret of his hold upon the minds of men. He knows how to tell a story, said Professor Hart, in the discussion previously referred to, in Cleveland. He has "an epic unity of plan," writes Professor Jebb. Herodotus has furnished delight to all generations, while Polybius, more accurate and painstaking, a learned historian and a practical statesman, gathers dust on the shelf or is read as a penance. Nevertheless, it may be demonstrated from the historical literature of England of our century that literary style and great power of narration alone will not give a man a niche in the temple of history. Herodotus showed diligence and honesty, without which his other qualities would have failed to secure him the place he holds in the estimation of historical scholars.

From Herodotus we naturally turn to Thucydides, who in the beginning charms historical students by his impression of the seriousness and dignity of his business. History, he writes, will be "found profitable by those who desire an exact knowledge of the past as a key to the future, which in all human probability will repeat or resemble the past. My history is an everlasting possession, not a prize composition which is heard and forgotten." Diligence, accuracy, love of truth, and impartiality are merits commonly ascribed to Thucydides, and the internal evidence of the history bears out fully the general opinion. But, in my judgment, there is a tendency to rate, in the comparative estimates, the Athenian too high, for the possession of these qualities; for certainly some modern writers have possessed all of these merits in an eminent degree. When Jowett wrote in the preface to his translation, Thucydides "stands absolutely alone among the historians, not only of Hellas, but of the world, in his impartiality and love of truth," he was unaware that a son of his own university was writing the history of a momentous period of his own country, in a manner to impugn the correctness of that statement. When the Jowett Thucydides appeared, Samuel R. Gardiner had published eight volumes of his history, though he had not reached the great Civil War, and his reputation, which has since grown with a cumulative force, was not fully established; but I have now no hesitation in saying that the internal evidence demonstrates that in impartiality and love of truth Gardiner is the peer of Thucydides. From the point of view of external evidence, the case is even stronger for Gardiner; he submits to a harder test. That he has been able to treat so stormy, so controverted, and so well known a period as the seventeenth century in England, with hardly a question of his impartiality, is a wonderful tribute. In fact, in an excellent review of his work I have seen him criticised for being too impartial. On the other hand, Grote thinks that he has found Thucydides in error,—in the long dialogue between the Athenian representatives and the Melians. "This dialogue," Grote writes, "can hardly represent what actually passed, except as to a few general points which the historian has followed out into deductions and illustrations, thus dramatizing the given situation in a powerful and characteristic manner." Those very words might characterize Shakespeare's account of the assassination of Julius Caesar, and his reproduction of the speeches of Brutus and Mark Antony. Compare the relation in Plutarch with the third act of the tragedy, and see how, in his amplification of the story, Shakespeare has remained true to the essential facts of the time. Plutarch gives no account of the speeches of Brutus and Mark Antony, confining himself, to an allusion to the one, and a reference to the other; but Appian of Alexandria, in his history, has reported them. The speeches in Appian lack the force which they have in Shakespeare, nor do they seemingly fit into the situation as well. I have adverted to this criticism of Grote, not that I love Thucydides less, but that I love Shakespeare more. For my part, the historian's candid acknowledgment in the beginning has convinced me of the essential—not the literal—truth of his accounts of speeches and dialogues. "As to the speeches," wrote the Athenian, "which were made either before or during the war, it was hard for me, and for others who reported them to me, to recollect the exact words. I have therefore put into the mouth of each speaker the sentiments proper to the occasion, expressed as I thought he would be likely to express them; while at the same time I endeavored, as nearly as I could, to give the general purport of what was actually said." That is the very essence of candor. But be the historian as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, he shall not escape calumny. Mahaffy declares that, "although all modern historians quote Thucydides with more confidence than they would quote the Gospels," the Athenian has exaggerated; he is one-sided, partial, misleading, dry, and surly. Other critics agree with Mahaffy that he has been unjust to Cleon, and has screened Nicias from blame that was his due for defective generalship.

We approach Tacitus with respect. We rise from reading his Annals, his History, and his Germany with reverence. We know that we have been in the society of a gentleman who had a high standard of morality and honor. We feel that our guide was a serious student, a solid thinker, and a man of the world; that he expressed his opinions and delivered his judgments with a remarkable freedom from prejudice. He draws us to him with sympathy. He sounds the same mournful note which we detect in Thucydides. Tacitus deplores the folly and dissoluteness of the rulers of his nation; he bewails the misfortunes of his country. The merits we ascribe to Thucydides, diligence, accuracy, love of truth, impartiality, are his. The desire to quote from Tacitus is irresistible. "The more I meditate," he writes, "on the events of ancient and modern times, the more I am struck with the capricious uncertainty which mocks the calculations of men in all their transactions." Again: "Possibly there is in all things a kind of cycle, and there may be moral revolutions just as there are changes of seasons." "Commonplaces!" sneer the scientific historians. True enough, but they might not have been commonplaces if Tacitus had not uttered them, and his works had not been read and re-read until they have become a common possession of historical students. From a thinker who deemed the time "out of joint," as Tacitus obviously did, and who, had he not possessed great strength of mind and character, might have lapsed into a gloomy pessimism, what noble words are these: "This I regard as history's highest function: to let no worthy action be uncommemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds." The modesty of the Roman is fascinating. "Much of what I have related," he says, "and shall have to relate, may perhaps, I am aware, seem petty trifles to record.... My labors are circumscribed and unproductive of renown to the author." How agreeable to place in contrast with this the prophecy of his friend, the younger Pliny, in a letter to the historian: "I augur—nor does my augury deceive me—that your histories will be immortal: hence all the more do I desire to find a place in them."

To my mind, one of the most charming things in historical literature is the praise which one great historian bestows upon another. Gibbon speaks of "the discerning eye" and "masterly pencil of Tacitus,—the first of historians who applied the science of philosophy to the study of facts," "whose writings will instruct the last generations of mankind." He has produced an immortal work, "every sentence of which is pregnant with the deepest observations and most lively images." I mention Gibbon, for it is more than a strong probability that in diligence, accuracy, and love of truth he is the equal of Tacitus. A common edition of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is that with notes by Dean Milman, Guizot, and Dr. Smith. Niebuhr, Villemain, and Sir James Mackintosh are each drawn upon for criticism. Did ever such a fierce light beat upon a history? With what keen relish do the annotators pounce upon mistakes or inaccuracies, and in that portion of the work which ends with the fall of the Western Empire how few do they find! Would Tacitus stand the supreme test better? There is, so far as I know, only one case in which we may compare his Annals with an original record. On bronze tablets found at Lyons in the sixteenth century is engraved the same speech made by the Emperor Claudius to the Senate that Tacitus reports. "Tacitus and the tablets," writes Professor Jebb, "disagree hopelessly in language and in nearly all the detail, but agree in the general line of argument." Gibbon's work has richly deserved its life of more than one hundred years, a period which I believe no other modern history has endured. Niebuhr, in a course of lectures at Bonn, in 1829, said that Gibbon's "work will never be excelled." At the Gibbon Centenary Commemoration in London, in 1894, many distinguished men, among whom the Church had a distinct representation, gathered together to pay honor to him who, in the words of Frederic Harrison, had written "the most perfect book that English prose (outside its fiction) possesses." Mommsen, prevented by age and work from being present, sent his tribute. No one, he said, would in the future be able to read the history of the Roman Empire unless he read Edward Gibbon. The Times, in a leader devoted to the subject, apparently expressed the general voice: "'Back to Gibbon' is already, both here and among the scholars of Germany and France, the watchword of the younger historians."

I have now set forth certain general propositions which, with time for adducing the evidence in detail, might, I think, be established: that, in the consensus of learned people, Thucydides and Tacitus stand at the head of historians; and that it is not alone their accuracy, love of truth, and impartiality which entitle them to this preeminence since Gibbon and Gardiner among the moderns possess equally the same qualities. What is it, then, that makes these men supreme? In venturing a solution of this question, I confine myself necessarily to the English translations of the Greek and Latin authors. We have thus a common denominator of language, and need not take into account the unrivaled precision and terseness of the Greek and the force and clearness of the Latin. It seems to me that one special merit of Thucydides and Tacitus is their compressed narrative,—that they have related so many events and put so much meaning in so few words. Our manner of writing history is really curious. The histories which cover long periods of time are brief; those which have to do with but a few years are long. The works of Thucydides and Tacitus are not like our compendiums of history, which merely touch on great affairs, since want of space precludes any elaboration. Tacitus treats of a comparatively short epoch, Thucydides of a much shorter one: both histories are brief. Thucydides and Macaulay are examples of extremes. The Athenian tells the story of twenty-four years in one volume; the Englishman takes nearly five volumes of equal size for his account of seventeen years. But it is safe to say that Thucydides tells us as much that is worth knowing as Macaulay. One is concise, the other is not. It is impossible to paraphrase the fine parts of Thucydides, but Macaulay lends himself readily to such an exercise. The thought of the Athenian is so close that he has got rid of all redundancies of expression: hence the effort to reproduce his ideas in other words fails. The account of the plague in Athens has been studied and imitated, and every imitation falls short of the original not only in vividness but in brevity. It is the triumph of art that in this and in other splendid portions we wish more had been told. As the French say, "the secret of wearying is to say all," and this the Athenian thoroughly understood. Between our compendiums, which tell too little, and our long general histories, which tell too much, are Thucydides and Tacitus.

Again, it is a common opinion that our condensed histories lack life and movement. This is due in part to their being written generally from a study of second-hand—not original—materials. Those of the Athenian and the Roman are mainly the original.

I do not think, however, that we may infer that we have a much greater mass of materials, and thereby excuse our modern prolixity. In written documents, of course, we exceed the ancients, for we have been flooded with these by the art of printing. Yet any one who has investigated any period knows how the same facts are told over and over again, in different ways, by various writers; and if one can get beyond the mass of verbiage and down to the really significant original material, what a simplification of ideas there is, what a lightening of the load! I own that this process of reduction is painful, and thereby our work is made more difficult than that of the ancients. A historian will adapt himself naturally to the age in which he lives, and Thucydides made use of the matter that was at his hand. "Of the events of the war," he wrote, "I have not ventured to speak from any chance information, nor according to any notion of my own; I have described nothing but what I either saw myself, or learned from others of whom I made the most careful and particular inquiry. The task was a laborious one, because eye-witnesses of the same occurrences gave different accounts of them, as they remembered or were interested in the actions of one side or the other." His materials, then, were what he saw and heard. His books and his manuscripts were living men. Our distinguished military historian, John C. Ropes, whose untimely death we deplore, might have written his history from the same sort of materials; for he was contemporary with our Civil War, and followed the daily events with intense interest. A brother of his was killed at Gettysburg, and he had many friends in the army. He paid at least one memorable visit to Meade's headquarters in the field, and at the end of the war had a mass of memories and impressions of the great conflict. He never ceased his inquiries; he never lost a chance to get a particular account from those who took part in battles or campaigns; and before he began his Story of the Civil War, he too could have said, "I made the most careful and particular inquiry" of generals and officers on both sides, and of men in civil office privy to the great transactions. His knowledge drawn from living lips was marvelous, and his conversation, when he poured this knowledge forth, often took the form of a flowing narrative in an animated style. While there are not, so far as I remember, any direct references in his two volumes to these memories, or to memoranda of conversations which he had with living actors after the close of the war drama, and while his main authority is the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,—which, no one appreciated better than he, were unique historical materials,—nevertheless this personal knowledge trained his judgment and gave color to his narrative.

It is pretty clear that Thucydides spent a large part of a life of about threescore years and ten in gathering materials and writing his history. The mass of facts which he set down or stored away in his memory must have been enormous. He was a man of business, and had a home in Thrace as well as in Athens, traveling probably at fairly frequent intervals between the two places; but the main portion of the first forty years of his life was undoubtedly spent in Athens, where, during those glorious years of peace and the process of beautifying the city, he received the best education a man could get. To walk about the city and view the buildings and statues was both directly and insensibly a refining influence. As Thucydides himself, in the funeral oration of Pericles, said of the works which the Athenian saw around him, "the daily delight of them banishes gloom." There was the opportunity to talk with as good conversers as the world has ever known; and he undoubtedly saw much of the men who were making history. There was the great theater and the sublime poetry. In a word, the life of Thucydides was adapted to the gathering of a mass of historical materials of the best sort; and his daily walk, his reading, his intense thought, gave him an intellectual grasp of the facts he has so ably handled. Of course he was a genius, and he wrote in an effective literary style; but seemingly his natural parts and acquired talents are directed to this: a digestion of his materials, and a compression of his narrative without taking the vigor out of his story in a manner I believe to be without parallel. He devoted a life to writing a volume. His years after the peace was broken, his career as a general, his banishment and enforced residence in Thrace, his visit to the countries of the Peloponnesian allies with whom Athens was at war,—all these gave him a signal opportunity to gather materials, and to assimilate them in the gathering. We may fancy him looking at an alleged fact on all sides, and turning it over and over in his mind; we know that he must have meditated long on ideas, opinions, and events; and the result is a brief, pithy narrative. Tradition hath it that Demosthenes copied out this history eight times, or even learned it by heart. Chatham, urging the removal of the forces from Boston, had reason to refer to the history of Greece, and, that he might impress it upon the lords that he knew whereof he spoke, declared, "I have read Thucydides."

Of Tacitus likewise is conciseness a well-known merit. Living in an age of books and libraries, he drew more from the written word than did Thucydides; and his method of working, therefore, resembled more our own. These are common expressions of his: "It is related by most of the writers of those times;" I adopt the account "in which the authors are agreed;" this account "agrees with those of the other writers." Relating a case of recklessness of vice in Messalina, he acknowledges that it will appear fabulous, and asserts his truthfulness thus: "But I would not dress up my narrative with fictions, to give it an air of marvel, rather than relate what has been stated to me or written by my seniors." He also speaks of the authority of tradition, and tells what he remembers "to have heard from aged men." He will not paraphrase the eloquence of Seneca after he had his veins opened, because the very words of the philosopher had been published; but when, a little later, Flavius the tribune came to die, the historian gives this report of his defiance of Nero. "I hated you," the tribune said to the emperor; "nor had you a soldier more true to you while you deserved to be loved. I began to hate you from the time you showed yourself the impious murderer of your mother and your wife, a charioteer, a stage-player, an incendiary." "I have given the very words," Tacitus adds, "because they were not, like those of Seneca, published, though the rough and vigorous sentiments of a soldier ought to be no less known." Everywhere we see in Tacitus, as in Thucydides, a dislike of superfluous detail, a closeness of thought, a compression of language. He was likewise a man of affairs, but his life work was his historical writings, which, had we all of them, would fill probably four moderate-sized octavo volumes.

To sum up, then: Thucydides and Tacitus are superior to the historians who have written in our century, because, by long reflection and studious method, they have better digested their materials and compressed their narrative. Unity in narration has been adhered to more rigidly. They stick closer to their subject. They are not allured into the fascinating bypaths of narration, which are so tempting to men who have accumulated a mass of facts, incidents, and opinions. One reason why Macaulay is so prolix is because he could not resist the temptation to treat events which had a picturesque side and which were suited to his literary style; so that, as John Morley says, "in many portions of his too elaborated history of William III. he describes a large number of events about which, I think, no sensible man can in the least care either how they happened, or whether indeed they happened at all or not." If I am right in my supposition that Thucydides and Tacitus had a mass of materials, they showed reserve and discretion in throwing a large part of them away, as not being necessary or important to the posterity for which they were writing. This could only be the result of a careful comparison of their materials, and of long meditation on their relative value. I suspect that they cared little whether a set daily task was accomplished or not; for if you propose to write only one large volume or four moderate-sized volumes in a lifetime, art is not too long nor is life too short.

Another superiority of the classical historians, as I reckon, arose from the fact that they wrote what was practically contemporaneous history. Herodotus was born 484 B.C., and the most important and accurate part of his history is the account of the Persian invasion which took place four years later. The case of Thucydides is more remarkable. Born in 471 B.C., he relates the events which happened between 435 and 411, when he was between the ages of thirty-six and sixty. Tacitus, born in 52 A.D., covered with his Annals and History the years between 14 and 96. "Herodotus and Thucydides belong to an age in which the historian draws from life and for life," writes Professor Jebb. It is manifestly easier to describe a life you know than one you must imagine, which is what you must do if you aim to relate events which took place before your own and your father's time. In many treatises which have been written demanding an extraordinary equipment for the historian, it is generally insisted that he shall have a fine constructive imagination; for how can he re-create his historic period unless he live in it? In the same treatises it is asserted that contemporary history cannot be written correctly, for impartiality in the treatment of events near at hand is impossible. Therefore the canon requires the quality of a great poet, and denies that there may be had the merit of a judge in a country where there are no great poets, but where candid judges abound. Does not the common rating of Thucydides and Tacitus refute the dictum that history within the memory of men living cannot be written truthfully and fairly? Given, then, the judicial mind, how much easier to write it! The rare quality of a poet's imagination is no longer necessary, for your boyhood recollections, your youthful experiences, your successes and failures of manhood, the grandfather's tales, the parent's recollections, the conversation in society,—all these put you in vital touch with the life you seek to describe. These not only give color and freshness to the vivifying of the facts you must find in the record, but they are in a way materials themselves, not strictly authentic, but of the kind that direct you in search and verification. Not only is no extraordinary ability required to write contemporary history, but the labor of the historian is lightened, and Dryasdust is no longer his sole guide. The funeral oration of Pericles is pretty nearly what was actually spoken, or else it is the substance of the speech written out in the historian's own words. Its intensity of feeling and the fitting of it so well into the situation indicate it to be a living contemporaneous document, and at the same time it has that universal application which we note in so many speeches of Shakespeare. A few years after our Civil War, a lawyer in a city of the middle West, who had been selected to deliver the Memorial Day oration, came to a friend of his in despair because he could write nothing but the commonplaces about those who had died for the Union and for the freedom of a race which had been uttered many times before, and he asked for advice. "Take the funeral oration of Pericles for a model," was the reply. "Use his words where they will fit, and dress up the rest to suit our day." The orator was surprised to find how much of the oration could be used bodily, and how much, with adaptation, was germane to his subject. But slight alterations are necessary to make the opening sentence this: "Most of those who have spoken here have commended the law-giver who added this oration to our other customs; it seemed to them a worthy thing that such an honor should be given to the dead who have fallen on the field of battle." In many places you may let the speech run on with hardly a change. "In the face of death [these men] resolved to rely upon themselves alone. And when the moment came they were minded to resist and suffer rather than to fly and save their lives; they ran away from the word of dishonor, but on the battlefield their feet stood fast; and while for a moment they were in the hands of fortune, at the height, not of terror, but of glory, they passed away. Such was the end of these men; they were worthy of their country."

Consider for a moment, as the work of a contemporary, the book which continues the account of the Sicilian expedition, and ends with the disaster at Syracuse. "In the describing and reporting whereof," Plutarch writes, "Thucydides hath gone beyond himself, both for variety and liveliness of narration, as also in choice and excellent words." "There is no prose composition in the world," wrote Macaulay, "which I place so high as the seventh book of Thucydides.... I was delighted to find in Gray's letters, the other day, this query to Wharton: 'The retreat from Syracuse,—is it or is it not the finest thing you ever read in your life?'" In the Annals of Tacitus we have an account of part of the reign of Emperor Nero, which is intense in its interest as the picture of a state of society that would be incredible, did we not know that our guide was a truthful man. One rises from a perusal of this with the trite expression, "Truth is stranger than fiction;" and one need only compare the account of Tacitus with the romance of Quo Vadis to be convinced that true history is more interesting than a novel. One of the most vivid impressions I ever had came immediately after reading the story of Nero and Agrippina in Tacitus, from a view of the statue of Agrippina in the National Museum at Naples.[2]

It will be worth our while now to sum up what I think may be established with sufficient time and care. Natural ability being presupposed, the qualities necessary for a historian are diligence, accuracy, love of truth, impartiality, the thorough digestion of his materials by careful selection and long meditating, and the compression of his narrative into the smallest compass consistent with the life of his story. He must also have a power of expression suitable for his purpose. All these qualities, we have seen, were possessed by Thucydides and Tacitus; and we have seen furthermore that, by bringing to bear these endowments and acquirements upon contemporary history, their success has been greater than it would have been had they treated a more distant period. Applying these considerations to the writing of history in America, it would seem that all we have to gain in method, in order that when the genius appears he shall rival the great Greek and the great Roman, is thorough assimilation of materials and rigorous conciseness in relation. I admit that the two things we lack are difficult to get as our own. In the collection of materials, in criticism and detailed analysis, in the study of cause and effect, in applying the principle of growth, of evolution, we certainly surpass the ancients. But if we live in the age of Darwin, we also live in an age of newspapers and magazines, when, as Lowell said, not only great events, but a vast "number of trivial incidents, are now recorded, and this dust of time gets in our eyes"; when distractions are manifold; when the desire "to see one's name in print" and make books takes possession of us all. If one has something like an original idea or a fresh combination of truisms, one obtains easily a hearing. The hearing once had, something of a success being made, the writer is urged by magazine editors and by publishers for more. The good side of this is apparent. It is certainly a wholesome indication that a demand exists for many serious books, but the evil is that one is pressed to publish his thoughts before he has them fully matured. The periods of fruitful meditation out of which emerged the works of Thucydides and Tacitus seem not to be a natural incident of our time. To change slightly the meaning of Lowell, "the bustle of our lives keeps breaking the thread of that attention which is the material of memory, till no one has patience to spin from it a continuous thread of thought." We have the defects of our qualities. Nevertheless, I am struck with the likeness between a common attribute of the Greeks and Matthew Arnold's characterization of the Americans. Greek thought, it is said, goes straight to the mark, and penetrates like an arrow. The Americans, Arnold wrote, "think straight and see clear." Greek life was adapted to meditation. American quickness and habit of taking the short cut to the goal make us averse to the patient and elaborate method of the ancients. In manner of expression, however, we have improved. The Fourth of July spread-eagle oration, not uncommon even in New England in former days, would now be listened to hardly anywhere without merriment. In a Lowell Institute lecture in 1855 Lowell said, "In modern times, the desire for startling expression is so strong that people hardly think a thought is good for anything unless it goes off with a pop, like a ginger-beer cork." No one would thus characterize our present writing. Between reserve in expression and reserve in thought there must be interaction. We may hope, therefore, that the trend in the one will become the trend in the other, and that we may look for as great historians in the future as in the past. The Thucydides or Tacitus of the future will write his history from the original materials, knowing that there only will he find the living spirit; but he will have the helps of the modern world. He will have at his hand monographs of students whom the professors of history in our colleges are teaching with diligence and wisdom, and he will accept these aids with thankfulness in his laborious search. He will have grasped the generalizations and methods of physical science, but he must know to the bottom his Thucydides and Tacitus. He will recognize in Homer and Shakespeare the great historians of human nature, and he will ever attempt, although feeling that failure is certain, to wrest from them their secret of narration, to acquire their art of portrayal of character. He must be a man of the world, but equally well a man of the academy. If, like Thucydides and Tacitus, the American historian chooses the history of his own country as his field, he may infuse his patriotism into his narrative. He will speak of the broad acres and their products, the splendid industrial development due to the capacity and energy of the captains of industry; but he will like to dwell on the universities and colleges, on the great numbers seeking a higher education, on the morality of the people, their purity of life, their domestic happiness. He will never be weary of referring to Washington and Lincoln, feeling that a country with such exemplars is indeed one to awaken envy, and he will not forget the brave souls who followed where they led. I like to think of the Memorial Day orator, speaking thirty years ago with his mind full of the Civil War and our Revolution, giving utterance to these noble words of Pericles: "I would have you day by day fix your eyes upon the greatness of your country, until you become filled with love of her; and when you are impressed by the spectacle of her glory, reflect that this empire has been acquired by men who knew their duty and had the courage to do it; who in the hour of conflict had the fear of dishonor always present to them; and who, if ever they failed in an enterprise, would not allow their virtues to be lost to their country, but freely gave their lives to her as the fairest offering which they could present at her feast. They received each one for himself a praise which grows not old, and the noblest of all sepulchers. For the whole earth is the sepulcher of illustrious men; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone, but in the hearts of men."

[1] President's Inaugural Address, American Historical Association, Boston, December 27, 1899; printed in the Atlantic Monthly of February, 1900.

[2] Since this essay was first printed I have seen the authenticity of this portrait statue questioned.


Address delivered at the Meeting of the American Historical Association in Detroit, December, 1900.


Called on at the last moment, owing to the illness of Mr. Eggleston, to take the place of one whose absence can never be fully compensated, I present to you a paper on the writing of history. It is in a way a continuance of my inaugural address before this association one year ago, and despite the continuity of the thought I have endeavored to treat the same subject from a different point of view. While going over the same ground and drawing my lessons from the same historians, it is new matter so far as I have had the honor to present it to the American Historical Association.

A historian, to make a mark, must show some originality somewhere in his work. The originality may be in a method of investigation; it may be in the use of some hitherto inaccessible or unprinted material; it may be in the employment of some sources of information open to everybody, but not before used, or it may be in a fresh combination of well-known and well-elaborated facts. It is this last-named feature that leads Mr. Winsor to say, in speaking of the different views that may be honestly maintained from working over the same material, "The study of history is perennial." I think I can make my meaning clearer as to the originality one should try to infuse into historical work by drawing an illustration from the advice of a literary man as to the art of writing. Charles Dudley Warner once said to me, "Every one who writes should have something to add to the world's stock of knowledge or literary expression. If he falls unconsciously into imitation or quotation, he takes away from his originality. No matter if some great writer has expressed the thought in better language than you can use, if you take his words you detract from your own originality. Express your thought feebly in your own way rather than with strength by borrowing the words of another."

This same principle in the art of authorship may be applied to the art of writing history. "Follow your own star," said Emerson, "and it will lead you to that which none other can attain. Imitation is suicide. You must take yourself for better or worse as your own portion." Any one who is bent upon writing history, may be sure that there is in him some originality, that he can add something to the knowledge of some period. Let him give himself to meditation, to searching out what epoch and what kind of treatment of that epoch is best adapted to his powers and to his training. I mean not only the collegiate training, but the sort of training one gets consciously or unconsciously from the very circumstances of one's life. In the persistence of thinking, his subject will flash upon him. Parkman, said Lowell, showed genius in the choice of his subject. The recent biography of Parkman emphasizes the idea which we get from his works—that only a man who lived in the virgin forests of this country and loved them, and who had traveled in the far West as a pioneer, with Indians for companions, could have done that work. Parkman's experience cannot be had by any one again, and he brought to bear the wealth of it in that fifty years' occupation of his. Critics of exact knowledge—such as Justin Winsor, for instance—find limitations in Parkman's books that may impair the permanence of his fame, but I suspect that his is the only work in American history that cannot and will not be written over again. The reason of it is that he had a unique life which has permeated his narrative, giving it the stamp of originality. No man whose training had been gained wholly in the best schools of Germany, France, or England could have written those books. A training racy of the soil was needed. "A practical knowledge," wrote Niebuhr, "must support historical jurisprudence, and if any one has got that he can easily master all scholastic speculations." A man's knowledge of everyday life in some way fits him for a certain field of historical study—in that field lies success. In seeking a period, no American need confine himself to his own country. "European history for Americans," said Motley, "has to be almost entirely rewritten."

I shall touch upon only two of the headings of historical originality which I have mentioned. The first that I shall speak of is the employment of some sources of information open to everybody, but not before used. A significant case of this in American history is the use which Doctor von Holst made of newspaper material. Niles's Register, a lot of newspaper cuttings, as well as speeches and state papers in a compact form, had, of course, been referred to by many writers who dealt with the period they covered, but in the part of his history covering the ten years from 1850 to 1860 von Holst made an extensive and varied employment of newspapers by studying the newspaper files themselves. As the aim of history is truth, and as newspapers fail sadly in accuracy, it is not surprising that many historical students believe that the examination of newspapers for any given period will not pay for the labor and drudgery involved; but the fact that a trained German historical scholar and teacher at a German university should have found some truth in our newspaper files when he came to write the history of our own country, gives to their use for that period the seal of scientific approval. Doctor von Holst used this material with pertinence and effect; his touch was nice. I used to wonder at his knowledge of the newspaper world, of the men who made and wrote our journals, until he told me that when he first came to this country one of his methods in gaining a knowledge of English was to read the advertisements in the newspapers. Reflection will show one what a picture of the life of a people this must be, in addition to the news columns.

No one, of course, will go to newspapers for facts if he can find those facts in better-attested documents. The haste with which the daily records of the world's doings are made up precludes sifting and revision. Yet in the decade between 1850 and 1860 you will find facts in the newspapers which are nowhere else set down. Public men of commanding position were fond of writing letters to the journals with a view to influencing public sentiment. These letters in the newspapers are as valuable historical material as if they were carefully collected, edited, and published in the form of books. Speeches were made which must be read, and which will be found nowhere but in the journals. The immortal debates of Lincoln and Douglas in 1858 were never put into a book until 1860, existing previously only in newspaper print. Newspapers are sometimes important in fixing a date and in establishing the whereabouts of a man. If, for example, a writer draws a fruitful inference from the alleged fact that President Lincoln went to see Edwin Booth play Hamlet in Washington in February, 1863, and if one finds by a consultation of the newspaper theatrical advertisements that Edwin Booth did not visit Washington during that month, the significance of the inference is destroyed. Lincoln paid General Scott a memorable visit at West Point in June, 1862. You may, if I remember correctly, search the books in vain to get at the exact date of this visit; but turn to the newspaper files and you find that the President left Washington at such an hour on such a day, arrived at Jersey City at a stated time, and made the transfer to the other railroad which took him to the station opposite West Point. The time of his leaving West Point and the hour of his return to Washington are also given.

The value of newspapers as an indication of public sentiment is sometimes questioned, but it can hardly be doubted that the average man will read the newspaper with the sentiments of which he agrees. "I inquired about newspaper opinion," said Joseph Chamberlain in the House of Commons last May. "I knew no other way of getting at popular opinion." During the years between 1854 and 1860 the daily journals were a pretty good reflection of public sentiment in the United States. Wherever, for instance, you found the New York Weekly Tribune largely read, Republican majorities were sure to be had when election day came. For fact and for opinion, if you knew the contributors, statements and editorials by them were entitled to as much weight as similar public expressions in any other form. You get to know Greeley and you learn to recognize his style. Now, an editorial from him is proper historical material, taking into account always the circumstances under which he wrote. The same may be said of Dana and of Hildreth, both editorial writers for the Tribune, and of the Washington despatches of J. S. Pike. It is interesting to compare the public letters of Greeley to the Tribune from Washington in 1856 with his private letters written at the same time to Dana. There are no misstatements in the public letters, but there is a suppression of the truth. The explanations in the private correspondence are clearer, and you need them to know fully how affairs looked in Washington to Greeley at the time; but this fact by no means detracts from the value of the public letters as historical material. I have found newspapers of greater value both for fact and opinion during the decade of 1850 to 1860 than for the period of the Civil War. A comparison of the newspaper accounts of battles with the history of them which may be drawn from the correspondence and reports in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion will show how inaccurate and misleading was the war correspondence of the daily journals. It could not well be otherwise. The correspondent was obliged in haste to write the story of a battle of which he saw but a small section, and instead of telling the little part which he knew actually, he had to give to a public greedy for news a complete survey of the whole battlefield. This story was too often colored by his liking or aversion for the generals in command. A study of the confidential historical material of the Civil War, apart from the military operations, in comparison with the journalistic accounts, gives one a higher idea of the accuracy and shrewdness of the newspaper correspondents. Few important things were brewing at Washington of which they did not get an inkling. But I always like to think of two signal exceptions. Nothing ever leaked out in regard to the famous "Thoughts for the President's consideration," which Seward submitted to Lincoln in March, 1861, and only very incorrect guesses of the President's first emancipation proclamation, brought before his Cabinet in July, 1862, got into newspaper print.

Beware of hasty, strained, and imperfect generalizations. A historian should always remember that he is a sort of trustee for his readers. No matter how copious may be his notes, he cannot fully explain his processes or the reason of his confidence in one witness and not in another, his belief in one honest man against a half dozen untrustworthy men, without such prolixity as to make a general history unreadable. Now, in this position as trustee he is bound to assert nothing for which he has not evidence, as much as an executor of a will or the trustee for widows and orphans is obligated to render a correct account of the moneys in his possession. For this reason Grote has said, "An historian is bound to produce the materials upon which he builds, be they never so fantastic, absurd, or incredible." Hence the necessity for footnotes. While mere illustrative and interesting footnotes are perhaps to be avoided, on account of their redundancy, those which give authority for the statements in the text can never be in excess. Many good histories have undoubtedly been published where the authors have not printed their footnotes; but they must have had, nevertheless, precise records for their authorities. The advantage and necessity of printing the notes is that you furnish your critic an opportunity of finding you out if you have mistaken or strained your authorities. Bancroft's example is peculiar. In his earlier volumes he used footnotes, but in volume vii he changed his plan and omitted notes, whether of reference or explanation. Nor do you find them in either of his carefully revised editions. "This is done," Bancroft wrote in the preface to his seventh volume, "not from an unwillingness to subject every statement of fact, even in its minutest details, to the severest scrutiny; but from the variety and the multitude of the papers which have been used and which could not be intelligently cited without a disproportionate commentary." Again, Blaine's "Twenty Years of Congress," a work which, properly weighed, is not without historical value, is only to be read with great care on account of his hasty and inaccurate generalizations. There are evidences of good, honest labor in those two volumes, much of which must have been done by himself. There is an aim at truth and impartiality, but many of his general statements will seem, to any one who has gone over the original material, to rest on a slight basis. If Blaine had felt the necessity of giving authorities in a footnote for every statement about which there might have been a question, he certainly would have written an entirely different sort of a book.

My other head is the originality which comes from a fresh combination of known historical facts.

I do not now call to mind any more notable chapter which illustrates this than the chapter of Curtius, "The years of peace." One is perhaps better adapted for the keen enjoyment of it if he does not know the original material, for his suspicion that some of the inferences are strained and unwarranted might become a certainty. But accepting it as a mature and honest elaboration by one of the greatest historians of Greece of our day, it is a sample of the vivifying of dry bones and of a dovetailing of facts and ideas that makes a narrative to charm and instruct. You feel that the spirit of that age we all like to think and dream about is there, and if you have been so fortunate as to visit the Athens of to-day, that chapter, so great is the author's constructive imagination, carries you back and makes you for the moment live in the Athens of Pericles, of Sophocles, of Phidias and Herodotus.

With the abundance of materials for modern history, and, for that reason, our tendency to diffuseness, nothing is so important as a thorough acquaintance with the best classic models, such as Herodotus, Thucydides, and Tacitus. In Herodotus you have an example of an interesting story with the unity of the narrative well sustained in spite of certain unnecessary digressions. His book is obviously a life work and the work of a man who had an extensive knowledge gained by reading, social intercourse, and travel, and who brought his knowledge to bear upon his chosen task. That the history is interesting all admit, but in different periods of criticism stress is sometimes laid on the untrustworthy character of the narrative, with the result that there has been danger of striking Herodotus from the list of historical models; but such is the merit of his work that the Herodotus cult again revives, and, I take it, is now at its height. I received, six years ago, while in Egypt, a vivid impression of him whom we used to style the Father of History. Spending one day at the great Pyramids, when, after I had satisfied my first curiosity, after I had filled my eyes and mind with the novelty of the spectacle, I found nothing so gratifying to the historic sense as to gaze on those most wonderful monuments of human industry, constructed certainly 5000 years ago, and to read at the same time the account that Herodotus gave of his visit there about 2350 years before the date of my own. That same night I read in a modern and garish Cairo hotel the current number of the London Times. In it was an account of an annual meeting of the Royal Historical Society and a report of a formal and carefully prepared address of its president, whose subject was "Herodotus," whose aim was to point out the value of the Greek writer as a model to modern historians. The Times, for the moment laying aside its habitual attack on the then Liberal government, devoted its main leader to Herodotus—to his merits and the lessons he conveyed to the European writers. The article was a remarkable blending of scholarship and good sense, and I ended the day with the reflection of what a space in the world's history Herodotus filled, himself describing the work of twenty-six hundred years before his own time and being dilated on in 1894 by one of the most modern of nineteenth-century newspapers.

It is generally agreed, I think, that Thucydides is first in order of time of philosophic historians, but it does not seem to me that we have most to learn from him in the philosophic quality. The tracing of cause and effect, the orderly sequence of events, is certainly better developed by moderns than it has been by ancients. The influence of Darwin and the support and proof which he gives to the doctrine of evolution furnish a training of thought which was impossible to the ancients; but Thucydides has digested his material and compressed his narrative without taking the life out of his story in a manner to make us despair, and this does not, I take it, come from paucity of materials. A test which I began to make as a study in style has helped me in estimating the solidity of a writer. Washington Irving formed his style by reading attentively from time to time a page of Addison and then, closing the book, endeavored to write out the same ideas in his own words. In this way his style became assimilated to that of the great English essayist. I have tried the same mode with several writers. I found that the plan succeeded with Macaulay and with Lecky. I tried it again and again with Shakespeare and Hawthorne, but if I succeeded in writing out the paragraph I found that it was because I memorized their very words. To write out their ideas in my own language I found impossible. I have had the same result with Thucydides in trying to do this with his description of the plague in Athens. Now, I reason from this in the case of Shakespeare and Thucydides that their thought was so concise they themselves got rid of all redundancies; hence to effect the reproduction of their ideas in any but their own language is practically impossible.

It is related of Macaulay somewhere in his "Life and Letters," that in a moment of despair, when he instituted a comparison between his manuscript and the work of Thucydides, he thought of throwing his into the fire. I suspect that Macaulay had not the knack of discarding material on which he had spent time and effort, seeing how easily such events glowed under his graphic pen. This is one reason why he is prolix in the last three volumes. The first two, which begin with the famous introductory chapter and continue the story through the revolution of 1688 to the accession of William and Mary, seem to me models of historical composition so far as arrangement, orderly method, and liveliness of narration go. Another defect of Macaulay is that, while he was an omnivorous reader and had a prodigious memory, he was not given to long-continued and profound reflection. He read and rehearsed his reading in memory, but he did not give himself to "deep, abstract meditation" and did not surrender himself to "the fruitful leisures of the spirit." Take this instance of Macaulay's account of a journey: "The express train reached Hollyhead about 7 in the evening. I read between London and Bangor the lives of the emperors from Maximin to Carinus, inclusive, in the Augustine history, and was greatly amused and interested." On board the steamer: "I put on my greatcoat and sat on deck during the whole voyage. As I could not read, I used an excellent substitute for reading. I went through 'Paradise Lost' in my head. I could still repeat half of it, and that the best half. I really never enjoyed it so much." In Dublin: "The rain was so heavy that I was forced to come back in a covered car. While in this detestable vehicle I looked rapidly through the correspondence between Pliny and Trajan and thought that Trajan made a most creditable figure." It may be that Macaulay did not always digest his knowledge well. Yet in reading his "Life and Letters" you know that you are in company with a man who read many books and you give faith to Thackeray's remark, "Macaulay reads twenty books to write a sentence; he travels a hundred miles to make a line of description." It is a matter of regret that the progress of historical criticism and the scientific teaching of history have had the tendency to drive Macaulay out of the fashion with students, and I know not whether the good we used to get out of him thirty-five years ago can now be got from other sources. For I seem to miss something that we historical students had a generation ago—and that is enthusiasm for the subject. The enthusiasm that we had then had—the desire to compass all knowledge, the wish to gather the fruits of learning and lay them devoutly at the feet of our chosen muse—this enthusiasm we owed to Macaulay and to Buckle. Quite properly, no one reads Buckle now, and I cannot gainsay what John Morley said of Macaulay: "Macaulay seeks truth, not as she should be sought, devoutly, tentatively, with the air of one touching the hem of a sacred garment, but clutching her by the hair of the head and dragging her after him in a kind of boisterous triumph, a prisoner of war and not a goddess." It is, nevertheless, true that Macaulay and Buckle imparted a new interest to history.

I have spoken of the impression we get of Macaulay through reading his "Life and Letters." Of Carlyle, in reading the remarkable biography of him, we get the notion of a great thinker as well as a great reader. He was not as keen and diligent in the pursuit of material as Macaulay. He did not like to work in libraries; he wanted every book he used in his own study—padded as it was against the noises which drove him wild. H. Morse Stephens relates that Carlyle would not use a collection of documents relating to the French Revolution in the British Museum for the reason that the museum authorities would not have a private room reserved for him where he might study. Rather than work in a room with other people, he neglected this valuable material. But Carlyle has certainly digested and used his material well. His "French Revolution" seems to approach the historical works of the classics in there being so much in a little space. "With the gift of song," Lowell said, "Carlyle would have been the greatest of epic poets since Homer;" and he also wrote, Carlyle's historical compositions are no more history than the historical plays of Shakespeare.

The contention between the scientific historians and those who hold to the old models is interesting and profitable. One may enjoy the controversy and derive benefit from it without taking sides. I suspect that there is truth in the view of both. We may be sure that the long-continued study and approval by scholars of many ages of the works of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Tacitus implies historical merit on their part in addition to literary art. It is, however, interesting to note the profound difference between President Woolsey's opinion of Thucydides and that of some of his late German critics. Woolsey said, "I have such confidence in the absolute truthfulness of Thucydides that were he really chargeable with folly, as Grote alleges [in the affair of Amphipolis], I believe he would have avowed it." On the other hand, a German critic, cited by Holm, says that Thucydides is a poet who invents facts partly in order to teach people how things ought to be done and partly because he liked to depict certain scenes of horror. He says further, a narrative of certain occurrences is so full of impossibilities that it must be pure invention on the part of the historian. Another German maintains that Thucydides has indulged in "a fanciful and half-romantic picture of events." But Holm, whom the scientific historians claim as one of their own, says, "Thucydides still remains a trustworthy historical authority;" and, "On the whole, therefore, the old view that he is a truthful writer is not in the least shaken." Again Holm writes: "Attempts have been made to convict Thucydides of serious inaccuracies, but without success. On the other hand, the writer of this work [that is, the scientific historian, Holm] is able to state that he has followed him topographically for the greater part of the sixth and seventh books—and consequently for nearly one fourth of the whole history—and has found that the more carefully his words are weighed and the more accurately the ground is studied the clearer both the text and events become, and this is certainly high praise." Holm and Percy Gardner, both of whom have the modern method and have studied diligently the historical evidence from coins and inscriptions, placed great reliance on Herodotus, who, as well as Thucydides and Tacitus, is taken by scholars as a model of historical composition.

The sifting of time settles the reputations of historians. Of the English of the eighteenth century only one historian has come down to us as worthy of serious study. Time is wasted in reading Hume and Robertson as models, and no one goes to them for facts. But thirty years ago no course of historical reading was complete without Hume. In this century the sifting process still goes on. One loses little by not reading Alison's "History of Europe." But he was much in vogue in the '50's. Harper's Magazine published a part of his history as a serial. His rounded periods and bombastic utterances were quoted with delight by those who thought that history was not history unless it was bombastic. Emerson says somewhere, "Avoid adjectives; let your nouns do the work." There was hardly a sentence in Alison which did not traverse this rule. One of his admirers told me that the great merit of his style was his choiceness and aptness in his use of adjectives. It is a style which now provokes merriment, and even had Alison been learned and impartial, and had he possessed a good method, his style for the present taste would have killed his book. Gibbon is sometimes called pompous, but place him by the side of Alison and what one may have previously called pompousness one now calls dignity.

Two of the literary historians of our century survive—Carlyle and Macaulay. They may be read with care. We may do as Cassius said Brutus did to him, observe all their faults, set them in a note-book, learn and con them by rote; nevertheless we shall get good from them. Oscar Browning said—I am quoting H. Morse Stephens again—of Carlyle's description of the flight of the king to Varennes, that in every one of his details where a writer could go wrong, Carlyle had gone wrong; but added that, although all the details were wrong, Carlyle's account is essentially accurate. No defense, I think, can be made of Carlyle's statement that Marat was a "blear-eyed dog leach," nor of those statements from which you get the distinct impression that the complexion of Robespierre was green; nevertheless, every one who studies the French Revolution reads Carlyle, and he is read because the reading is profitable. The battle descriptions in Carlyle's "Frederick the Great" are well worth reading. How refreshing they are after technical descriptions! Carlyle said once, "Battles since Homer's time, when they were nothing but fighting mobs, have ceased to be worth reading about," but he made the modern battle interesting.

Macaulay is an honest partisan. You learn very soon how to take him, and when distrust begins one has correctives in Gardiner and Ranke. Froude is much more dangerous. His splendid narrative style does not compensate for his inaccuracies. Langlois makes an apt quotation from Froude. "We saw," says Froude, of the city of Adelaide, in Australia, "below us in a basin, with the river winding through it, a city of 150,000 inhabitants, none of whom has ever known or ever will know one moment's anxiety as to the recurring regularity of three meals a day." Now for the facts. Langlois says: "Adelaide is built on an eminence; no river runs through it. When Froude visited it the population did not exceed 75,000, and it was suffering from a famine at the time." Froude was curious in his inaccuracies. He furnished the data which convict him of error. He quoted inaccurately the Simancas manuscripts and deposited correct copies in the British Museum. Carlyle and Macaulay are honest partisans and you know how to take them, but for constitutional inaccuracy such as Froude's no allowance can be made.

Perhaps it may be said of Green that he combines the merits of the scientific and literary historian. He has written an honest and artistic piece of work. But he is not infallible. I have been told on good authority that in his reference to the Thirty Years' War he has hardly stated a single fact correctly, yet the general impression you get from his account is correct. Saintsbury writes that Green has "out-Macaulayed Macaulay in reckless abuse" of Dryden. Stubbs and Gardiner are preeminently the scientific historians of England. Of Stubbs, from actual knowledge, I regret that I cannot speak, but the reputation he has among historical experts is positive proof of his great value. Of Gardiner I can speak with knowledge. Any one who desires to write history will do well to read every line Gardiner has written—not the text alone, but also the notes. It is an admirable study in method which will bear important fruit. But because Gibbon, Gardiner, and Stubbs should be one's chief reliance, it does not follow that one may neglect Macaulay, Carlyle, Tacitus, Thucydides, and Herodotus. Gardiner himself has learned much from Macaulay and Carlyle. All of them may be criticised on one point or another, but they all have lessons for us.

We shall all agree that the aim of history is to get at the truth and express it as clearly as possible. The differences crop out when we begin to elaborate our meaning. "This I regard as the historian's highest function," writes Tacitus, "to let no worthy action be uncommemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds;" while Langlois and the majority of the scholars of Oxford are of the opinion that the formation and expression of ethical judgments, the approval or condemnation of Julius Caesar or of Caesar Borgia is not a thing within the historian's province. Let the controversy go on! It is well worth one's while to read the presentations of the subject from the different points of view. But infallibility will nowhere be found. Mommsen and Curtius in their detailed investigations received applause from those who adhered rigidly to the scientific view of history, but when they addressed the public in their endeavor, it is said, to produce an effect upon it, they relaxed their scientific rigor; hence such a chapter as Curtius's "The years of peace," and in another place his transmuting a conjecture of Grote into an assertion; hence Mommsen's effusive panegyric of Caesar. If Mommsen did depart from the scientific rules, I suspect that it came from no desire of a popular success, but rather from the enthusiasm of much learning. The examples of Curtius and Mommsen show probably that such a departure from strict impartiality is inherent in the writing of general history, and it comes, I take it, naturally and unconsciously. Holm is a scientific historian, but on the Persian Invasion he writes: "I have followed Herodotus in many passages which are unauthenticated and probably even untrue, because he reproduces the popular traditions of the Greeks." And again: "History in the main ought only to be a record of facts, but now and then the historian may be allowed to display a certain interest in his subject." These expressions traverse the canons of scientific history as much as the sayings of the ancient historiographers themselves. But because men have warm sympathies that cause them to color their narratives, shall no more general histories be written? Shall history be confined to the printing of original documents and to the publication of learned monographs in which the discussion of authorities is mixed up with the relation of events? The proper mental attitude of the general historian is to take no thought of popularity. The remark of Macaulay that he would make his history take the place of the last novel on my lady's table is not scientific. The audience which the general historian should have in mind is that of historical experts—men who are devoting their lives to the study of history. Words of approval from them are worth more than any popular recognition, for theirs is the enduring praise. Their criticism should be respected; there should be unceasing effort to avoid giving them cause for fault-finding. No labor should be despised which shall enable one to present things just as they are. Our endeavor should be to think straight and see clear. An incident should not be related on insufficient evidence because it is interesting, but an affair well attested should not be discarded because it happens to have a human interest. I feel quite sure that the cardinal aim of Gardiner was to be accurate and to proportion his story well. In this he has succeeded; but it is no drawback that he has made his volumes interesting. Jacob D. Cox, who added to other accomplishments that of being learned in the law, and who looked upon Gardiner with such reverence that he called him the Chief Justice, said there was no reason why he should read novels, as he found Gardiner's history more interesting than any romance. The scientific historians have not revolutionized historical methods, but they have added much. The process of accretion has been going on since, at any rate, the time of Herodotus, and the canons for weighing evidence and the synthesis of materials are better understood now than ever before, for they have been reduced from many models. I feel sure that there has been a growth in candor. Compare the critical note to a later edition which Macaulay wrote in 1857, maintaining the truth of his charge against William Penn, with the manly way in which Gardiner owns up when an error or insufficient evidence for a statement is pointed out. It is the ethics of the profession to be forward in correcting errors. The difference between the old and the new lies in the desire to have men think you are infallible and the desire to be accurate.


Lecture read before the History Club of Harvard University, April 27, 1908, and at Yale, Columbia, and Western Reserve Universities.


I am assuming that among my audience there are some students who aspire to become historians. To these especially my discourse is addressed.

It is not to be expected that I should speak positively and in detail on matters of education. Nevertheless, a man of sixty who has devoted the better part of his life to reading, observation, and reflection must have gained, if only through a perception of his own deficiencies, some ideas that should be useful to those who have, life's experience before them. Hence, if a Freshman should say to me, I wish to be a historian, tell me what preliminary studies you would advise, I should welcome the opportunity. From the nature of the case, the history courses will be sought and studied in their logical order and my advice will have to do only with collateral branches of learning.

In the first place, I esteem a knowledge of Latin and French of the highest importance. By a knowledge of French, I mean that you should be able to read it substantially as well as you read English, so that when you have recourse to a dictionary it will be a French dictionary and not one of the French-English kind. The historical and other literature that is thus opened up to you enables you to live in another world, with a point of view impossible to one who reads for pleasure only in his own tongue. To take two instances: Moliere is a complement to Shakespeare, and the man who knows his Moliere as he does his Shakespeare has made a propitious beginning in that study of human character which must be understood if he desires to write a history that shall gain readers. "I have known and loved Moliere," said Goethe, "from my youth and have learned from him during my whole life. I never fail to read some of his plays every year, that I may keep up a constant intercourse with what is excellent. It is not merely the perfectly artistic treatment which delights me; but particularly the amiable nature, the highly formed mind of the poet. There is in him a grace and a feeling for the decorous, and a tone of good society, which his innate beautiful nature could only attain by daily intercourse with the most eminent men of his age."[3]

My other instance is Balzac. In reading him for pleasure, as you read Dickens and Thackeray, you are absorbing an exact and fruitful knowledge of French society of the Restoration and of Louis Philippe. Moreover you are still pursuing your study of human character under one of the acute critics of the nineteenth century. Balzac has always seemed to me peculiarly French, his characters belong essentially to Paris or to the provinces. I associate Eugenie Grandet with Saumur in the Touraine and Cesar Birotteau with the Rue St. Honore in Paris; and all his other men and women move naturally in the great city or in the provinces which he has given them for their home. A devoted admirer however tells me that in his opinion Balzac has created universal types; the counterpart of some of his men may be seen in the business and social world of Boston, and the peculiarly sharp and dishonest transaction which brought Cesar Birotteau to financial ruin was here exactly reproduced.

The French language and literature seem to possess the merits which ours lack; and the writer of history cannot afford to miss the lessons he will receive by a constant reading of the best French prose.

I do not ask the Freshman who is going to be a historian to realize Macaulay's ideal of a scholar, to "read Plato with his feet on the fender,"[4] but he should at least acquire a pretty thorough knowledge of classical Latin, so that he can read Latin, let me say, as many of us read German, that is with the use of a lexicon and the occasional translation of a sentence or a paragraph into English to arrive at its exact meaning. Of this, I can speak from the point of view of one who is deficient. The reading of Latin has been for me a grinding labor and I would have liked to read with pleasure in the original, the History and Annals of Tacitus, Caesar's Gallic and Civil wars and Cicero's Orations and Private Letters even to the point of following Macaulay's advice, "Soak your mind with Cicero."[4] These would have given me, I fancy, a more vivid impression of two periods of Roman history than I now possess. Ferrero, who is imparting a fresh interest to the last period of the Roman republic, owes a part of his success, I think, to his thorough digestion and effective use of Cicero's letters, which have the faculty of making one acquainted with Cicero just as if he were a modern man. During a sojourn on the shores of Lake Geneva, I read two volumes of Voltaire's private correspondence, and later, while passing the winter in Rome, the four volumes of Cicero's letters in French. I could not help thinking that in the republic of letters one was not in time at a far greater distance from Cicero than from Voltaire. While the impression of nearness may have come from reading both series of letters in French, or because, to use John Morley's words, "two of the most perfect masters of the art of letter writing were Cicero and Voltaire,"[5] there is a decided flavor of the nineteenth century in Cicero's words to a good liver whom he is going to visit. "You must not reckon," he wrote, "on my eating your hors d'oeuvre. I have given them up entirely. The time has gone by when I can abuse my stomach with your olives and your Lucanian sausages."[6]

To repeat then, if the student, who is going to be a historian, uses his acquisitive years in obtaining a thorough knowledge of French and Latin, he will afterwards be spared useless regrets. He will naturally add German for the purpose of general culture and, if languages come easy, perhaps Greek. "Who is not acquainted with another language," said Goethe, "knows not his own." A thorough knowledge of Latin and French is a long stride towards an efficient mastery of English. In the matter of diction, the English writer is rarely in doubt as to words of Anglo-Saxon origin, for these are deep-rooted in his childhood and his choice is generally instinctive. The difficulties most persistently besetting him concern words that come from the Latin or the French; and here he must use reason or the dictionary or both. The author who has a thorough knowledge of Latin and French will argue with himself as to the correct diction, will follow Emerson's advice, "Know words etymologically; pull them apart; see how they are made; and use them only where they fit."[7] As it is in action through life, so it is in writing; the conclusions arrived at by reason are apt to be more valuable than those which we accept on authority. The reasoned literary style is more virile than that based on the dictionary. A judgment arrived at by argument sticks in the memory, while it is necessary for the user of the dictionary constantly to invoke authority, so that the writer who reasons out the meaning of words may constantly accelerate his pace, for the doubt and decision of yesterday is to-day a solid acquirement, ingrained in his mental being. I have lately been reading a good deal of Gibbon and I cannot imagine his having had frequent recourse to a dictionary. I do not remember even an allusion either in his autobiographies or in his private letters to any such aid. Undoubtedly his thorough knowledge of Latin and French, his vast reading of Latin, French, and English books, enabled him to dispense with the thumbing of a dictionary and there was probably a reasoning process at the back of every important word. It is difficult, if not impossible, to improve on Gibbon by the substitution of one word for another.

A rather large reading of Sainte-Beuve gives me the same impression. Indeed his literary fecundity, the necessity of having the Causerie ready for each Monday's issue of the Constitutionnel or the Moniteur, precluded a study of words while composing, and his rapid and correct writing was undoubtedly due to the training obtained by the process of reasoning. Charles Sumner seems to be an exception to my general rule. Although presumably he knew Latin well, he was a slave to dictionaries. He generally had five at his elbow (Johnson, Webster, Worcester, Walker, and Pickering) and when in doubt as to the use of a word he consulted all five and let the matter be decided on the American democratic principle of majority rule.[8] Perhaps this is one cause of the stilted and artificial character of Sumner's speeches which, unlike Daniel Webster's, are not to be thought of as literature. One does not associate dictionaries with Webster. Thus had I written the sentence without thinking of a not infrequent confusion between Noah and Daniel Webster, and this confusion reminded me of a story which John Fiske used to tell with gusto and which some of you may not have heard. An English gentleman remarked to an American: "What a giant intellect that Webster of yours had! To think of so great an orator and statesman writing that dictionary! But I felt sure that one who towered so much above his fellows would come to a bad end and I was not a bit surprised to learn that he had been hanged for the murder of Dr. Parkman."

To return to my theme: One does not associate dictionaries with Daniel Webster. He was given to preparing his speeches in the solitudes of nature, and his first Bunker Hill oration, delivered in 1825, was mainly composed while wading in a trout stream and desultorily fishing for trout.[9] Joe Jefferson, who loved fishing as well as Webster, used to say, "The trout is a gentleman and must be treated as such." Webster's companion might have believed that some such thought as this was passing through the mind of the great Daniel as, standing middle deep in the stream, he uttered these sonorous words: "Venerable men! You have come down to us from a former generation. Heaven has bounteously lengthened out your lives that you might behold this joyous day." I think Daniel Webster for the most part reasoned out his choice of words; he left the dictionary work to others. After delivery, he threw down the manuscript of his eulogy on Adams and Jefferson and said to a student in his law office, "There, Tom, please to take that discourse and weed out the Latin words."[10]

When doubtful as to the use of words, I should have been helped by a better knowledge of Latin and enabled very often to write with a surer touch. Though compelled to resort frequently to the dictionary, I early learned to pay little attention to the definition but to regard with care the illustrative meaning in the citations from standard authors. When I began writing I used the Imperial Dictionary, an improvement over Webster in this respect. Soon the Century Dictionary began to appear, and best of all the New English Dictionary on historical principles edited by Murray and Bradley and published by the Clarendon Press at Oxford. A study of the mass of quotations in these two dictionaries undoubtedly does much to atone for the lack of linguistic knowledge; and the tracing of the history of words, as it is done in the Oxford dictionary, makes any inquiry as to the meaning of a word fascinating work for the historian. Amongst the multiplicity of aids for the student and the writer no single one is so serviceable as this product of labor and self-sacrifice, fostered by the Clarendon Press, to whom, all writers in the English language owe a debt of gratitude.

Macaulay had a large fund of knowledge on which he might base his reasoning, and his indefatigable mind welcomed any outside assistance. He knew Greek and Latin thoroughly and a number of other languages, but it is related of him that he so thumbed his copy of Johnson's Dictionary that he was continually sending it to the binder. In return for his mastery of the languages, the dictionaries are fond of quoting Macaulay. If I may depend upon a rough mental computation, no prose writer of the nineteenth century is so frequently cited. "He never wrote an obscure sentence in his life," said John Morley;[11] and this is partly due to his exact use of words. There is never any doubt about his meaning. Macaulay began the use of Latin words at an early age. When four and a half years old he was asked if he had got over the toothache, to which question came this reply, "The agony is abated."

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