Edward Eggleston

President of the Association, 1900

Mr. Eggleston was prevented by severe illness from delivering the annual address of the president of the American Historical Association at the meeting at Detroit. However, the address which he intended to read was printed in the American Historical Review 16, no. 2, 217–33.

The New History

Members of the American Historical Association, fellow-students of history: I thank you to-night for your preference in choosing me to the presidency of the historical association. It is one of the honors of my life.

Members of the American Historical Association, ladies and gentlemen: I remember hearing Mr. Lowell apologize for reading an address—he had been accustomed to speak off-hand. He said “I have suffered a loss of the memory of names. It is the first falling of the leaves of memory.” I, who have been wont to speak without notes for more than forty years, must come here to-night with Lowell’s beautiful apology on my lips. Since a little more than a year ago my memory can not be depended on for names, and I too am forced to plead the first falling of the leaves of memory.

Let me begin without further introduction. Let me speak the things in my heart. “Let me bring myself along with me,” as Wendell Phillips said at Harvard. I propose to speak to you mainly of the new history. All our learning takes its rise from Greece. No other superstition has held so long as the classic. For five hundred years nearly every historical writer has felt it necessary to touch his cap in a preface to Herodotus and Thucydides. They are certainly models of style, no one contradicting. A man, like myself, on whose Greek the rust of thirty-five years has fallen, may be permitted to shelter himself behind so great a Grecian as Professor Jebb. In the following keen words he makes retrenchments on Thucydides: “It is a natural subject of regret, though not a just cause of surprise or complaint, that the history (of Thucydides) tells us nothing of the literature, the art, or the social life under whose influences the author had grown up.” ... “Among the illustrious contemporaries,” says Jebb, “whose very existence would be unknown to us from his pages, are the dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes; the architect, Ictinius; the sculptor, Phidias; the physician, Hippocrates; the philosophers, Anaxagoras and Socrates. ... If Thucydides had mentioned Sophocles,” continues he, “as a general in the Samian war, it may be doubted whether he would have noticed the circumstance that Sophocles also wrote dramas, unless it had been for the purpose of distinguishing him from a namesake.” Jebb qualifies his statement by urging that Thucydides sought to do only one thing, to write the history of the Peloponnesian war without permitting the intrusion of anything else. But Thucydides must have had the notion that war was the most important thing in the world and that all the art and eloquence of his time were, as he calls them, merely “recreations o the human spirit.” Add to this that nearly one-fourth of Thucydides’s history is made up of speeches imitated from the epic poets and that most of them were the work of the author. His history is a splendid piece of literature, but it is not a model for a modern writer.

The reductions on Herodotus are essential. His credulity alone is an impairment to his character as a historian. Neither from Herodotus nor from Thucydides nor from Tacitus can we learn to write history in the modern sense. Their histories will remain,as Thucydides said of his, “a possession forever.” But it would be strange if we had not learned anything of the art of writing history in a cycle of nearly twenty-four hundred year. Let us brush aside once for all the domination of the classic tradition.

Let us come to English letters. One of our early examples is one of our best. In English literature Sir Walter Raleigh is in a sense both Herodotus and Thucydides and something more, as became a modern. The title of his fragment, The History of the World, repels many people, but it were well if his incomparable work were not neglected. What is most admirable in it is its keen modern interest in the little details of life, which are a part of what I call the New History. Occasionally it rises into the grandest style. As an instance of felicitous detail, how there lingers in the memory his treatment of the coracle, the little boat made of a bull’s hide stretched over a frame! He seizes on a passage of Lucan’s and renders it exquisitely and almost literally:

“The moistened osier of a hoary willow
Is fashioned first into a little boat,
Then, clad in bullock’s hide, upon the billow
Of a proud river lightly doth it float
Beneath the waterman.
So, on the waves of overswelling Po
Rides the Venetian and the Briton so,
On the outspread ocean.”

I have seen in use on the western bays of Ireland the same little boat, there called not a coracle but a curragh—the original form of the word, no doubt. It was usually occupied by a priest, being rowed from island to island to hear confessions. The bull’s hide had gone out and a stout canvas had taken its place. But the veritable bull’s-hide boat of Lucan was in use in our Southern colonies down to the Revolution, and this classic mode of conveyance is yet seen on the Western frontier.

Another instance of Raleigh’s delightful particularity is seen in his caution about misunderstanding the speech of savages. All who have seen the ancient maps of North Carolina will remember Win-gin-da-coa as its name. This was the first thing said by a savage to Raleigh’s men. In reply to the question, “What is the name of this country?” he answered, “Win-gin-da-coa.” It was afterwards learned that the North Carolina aborigine said in this phrase, “Those are very fine clothes you have on.” And so North Carolina carried a fashion-plate label to unsuspecting readers. With such little incidents Raleigh diversifies his history, and with great passages like his apostrophe to death he carries it to its loftiest climaxes. Its eloquent by-passages of one kind and another remain to fructify the imagination of later ages.

Never was a falser thing said than that history is dead politics and politics living history. Some things are false and some things are perniciously false. This is one of the latter kind. In this saying Freeman expressed his whole theory of history writing, and one understands the point of Green’s remark to him: “Freeman, you are neither social, literary, nor religious.” A worse condemnation of a historian could hardly be made. Politics is the superficial struggle of human ambitions crossed occasionally, but rarely, by a sincere desire to do good. History must take account of politics, as of everything else, but let it remember that politics is in its very nature bold and encroaching, a part of the fierce struggle for existence—a part of that fierce striving for power which is so unlovely. It often sails under false colors, and it will deceive the historian unless he is exceedingly vigilant. It likes to call itself patriotism. Lincoln, all ready to carry through a great measure by means that were doubtful—this one an office, that one something else—looked at the work of his hands with disgust. “Hay,” he said to his private secretary, “what we call patriotic statesmanship is nothing but a combination of individual meannesses for the general good.” There is doubtless some admixture of real patriotism in politics. But what is patriotism? It is a virtue of the half-developed. Higher than tribal instinct and lower than that great world benevolence that is to be the mark of coming ages. Of all countries in the world we need to be cured of politics. We elect everything from a township trustee to the President of the United States. Every man, if he were an intelligent voter, under our system would be required to canvass every year the merits of whole yards of aspirants for petty office. Why not elect one in a city, a State, and the nation, and leave him to study the yards of aspirants and to appoint?

Buckle’s famous and much-controverted principle that the origin of all movements is to be sought in the people and not in the leader, is as true as it is false. Now and then a movement gets head; it has no apparent leader or it gains one who carries it safely to its goal. Such was the American Revolution. Look for its origin among the people. But many agitations go hither and thither until a leader arises, perhaps, entirely changes the character of the movement, and carries it off another way. Such was the French Revolution. Its beginning gave no hint of its end; it gave no hint of any possible end, indeed. But a Corsican general of ability unparalleled among military men, and of an ambition overflowing all bounds, arrested the mob in the streets of Paris and taught it to obey. From the moment that the young Bonaparte had cowed the mob the Revolution was not. Bonaparte dallied with its forms for a while; he would not check it too soon, but he steadily turned it in directions for his own glory. Its original ends were all lost sight of, and that most, remarkable movement of modern times, that most aimlesss and senseless movement, shaking and overturning the thrones of Europe, went where it would without any regulating principle but the will—the capricious will—of a single man. But, strangely enough, I may remark in passing, that agitation sowed broadcast over Europe certain notions that have proved and are yet proving fatal to despotism.

History must treat military affairs. War is essentially exciting. Bodies of men are seen in violent movement. Life and death hang upon a hair trigger; they are in the quick decision and the prompt action. The world looks on and applauds. It is a cockfight. It is a bullfight. It is the death struggle of the gladiator. It is all of these raised to the hundredth power. But the scene has been so often repeated, the subject has become trite.

Man is such a savage that until the lifetime of the present generation he has insisted on settling everything by the gage of battle. He has strewn the world with a thousand battlefields. He has strewn these battlefields with thousands of horses and men, with the hopes and fears of men and women, and the fate of little children. What a brute is man! What a hero is man! But the brute age and the age of heroism in the contest with the brute must pass. We can not always cover our pages with gore. It is the object of history to cultivate this out of man; to teach him the wisdom of diplomacy, the wisdom of avoidance—in short, the fine wisdom of arbitration, that last fruit of human experience.

But how can we treat war so as not to become on the one hand sensational or on the other hand trite? Can not some phildsophy be got out of it? All human progress is interesting, even that of the art of destruction. In all the past the distribution of the arts of living has depended largely upon war. Sometimes there came in a lucky piece of bigotry, like the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, to scatter widely the arts. Oftener war, with its attendant displacements of population, has served this end. In our day emigration and the diffusion of intelligence and a hundred other agencies do the work better, except among barbarians, where every war with a civilized nation brings the good and the evil of civilization to the conquered—education and greater facilities for intemperance, for example.

The buyer of rare books, whether for historic purposes or other, once in a long time finds a treasure. Such was my lot a few years ago. From the Earl of Westmoreland’s library I purchased, among other books, a little manuscript. It was a complete treatment of the private soldier’s duty, written in what is called the secretary’s hand. It is not legible except to those trained to read it—withal very beautiful. It was written by someone, I know not whom, for Charles I when he was Prince of Wales, to make him a competent officer. The date is fixed by an allusion to Charles’s romantic trip to Spain. What this little book tells I can not find anywhere else. Its information was drawn from the Dutch, who were the teachers of the English in so many ways. It is very minute and it almost always quotes Prince Maurice. An army was set forth in that day by solid squares of spearmen surrounded by a few scattering musketeers. The latter were obliged to set on the ground a little forked rest to sustain the weight of the musket; to fire they stooped down and took aim. The musketeers were, according to my manuscript, the poorest soldiers; the main dependence was upon the spearmen. Gunpowder was used thus awkwardly. “But,” says my writer, “Prince Maurice told me that if he had another army to set forth he would reverse the order and put the best soldiers to the musket.” It is precisely the point at which gunpowder became the main dependence. The ordinary spear was 18 feet long, or three times the height of the man, and from 1 inch to an inch and a half in thickness. The iron jaws of the head were 2½ feet in length.

With such spears the Massachusetts militia was trained for more than forty years, or until the outbreak of Philip’s war. I do not know how long they may have been used in Virginia. Poking Indians armed with muskets out of a swamp with a spear might do for imaginary warfare—for militia warfare—but when it came to real fighting it was very ugly business. The desperate character of the conflicts with Philip, and the necessity for the exclusive use of gunpowder, became apparent, and the edict went forth that the militia, who were trained to the useof the spear, should take up the musket. With this edict the spear disappeared in this country forever. It went out in England about the same time. Thus do we learn the progress of thei human mind in arts of destruction.

In this little book one may learn something of the action of the “forlorn hope.” Etymologists have thought, but they have doubted, too, that they have tracked this term to the Dutch “verloonen hoop”—lost troop. My little manuscript gives no direct evidence of this, and yet it confirms the theory, for everywhere in it the forlorn hope is called the “perdu”—the lost.

A great deal has been said of late about the use of history in secondary education. A hundred times more history, and what passes for history, is learned in the secondary schools than anywhere else. The celebrated report of the committee of seven a few years ago was particularly judicious. The errors of th e old schoolbooks are repeated from one to another, but they are not usually capital. The great mistake is the misapprehension of the purpose of history. The object of teaching history is narrowly said to be to make good citizens—inteligent voters. In this calculation the girls are left out. The main object of teaching history is to make good men and women, cultivated and broad men and women.

A great cry is made by the schoolbook agents on the importance of having the Constitution in the back of the text-book. Few children of 14 can understand this legal document; very few of them need to. I wonder how many of their elders have ever read the Constitution through attentively. The State of Tennessee will not allow the use of any history that does not include the Constitution. Triumphant politics! The Constitution is there. Aschoolboy in Brookland was asked, “What is the Constitution of the United States?” He replied, “lt is that part in small print, in the back of the book, that nobody reads.”

Some years ago, having an invalid to amuse, I picked upat random a great folio, one of twenty-six, that profess to give the history of the world. The volume was a history of Portugal. It was written in an animated style and served my purpose very well. There were weddings, battles, embassies, peace, and war, all springing out of the ground with marvelous spontaneity. It reminded me of a fairy story of the olden time, in which everything took place without any adequate cause. I read it day after day, and I forgot it almost as fast as I read it. There was not a word about the people, their manners or customs. Even the manners and customs of the court of Portugal were entirely ignored. It was history hung in the air. It was indeed history written after the manner of the early eighteenth century.

According to John Stuart Mill, we owe it to Sir Walter Scott that the change in history writing took place. Scott first related that there were Saxons and Normans living alongside of one another in England—neighbors, but most unneighborly—for generations after the Conquest. Why did not the historians tell us so much? Certain French historians—Augustin Thierry and his group—first took the hint f roin Scott, and in the Conquest of England and the Third Estate of Thierry and in other writings of the time told the history of the people. Michelet, who labored alimst to our time, was one of these. They wrote and men read with delight. The Germans took it up in their heavy way, generally writing one theil on politics and one theil on cultur-geschichte. Perhaps of all the peoples those who speak English have been the slowest to introduce the new history.

A few years after the French, and with a French impulse, no doubt, Macaulay began to write. His style was brilliant, balanced, antithetical. Shall we say it was too antithetical? Let us remember that he wrote in the first half of the nineteenth century. Macaulay’s famous third chapter came to interrupt the course of the history. It had all been brilliant, but if it needed anything to make its fortune, Chapter III did it. It begins with taxes and revenues; the customs and revenue lists of the princes are much elaborated and are not very interesting. But by degrees he draws near to manners, and he draws near to London. The picture of old London, turned over and over in his mind in those long walks Macaulay is said to have made through every street of the metropolis, is a wonderful piece of history. It is worth the whole history beside. And nobody, ever dreamed before that such a subject was in the province of history. I have lately read it over, and it excites my wonder again. It is so particular, so minute, so extraordinary. Occasionally he stops to remark on the shortcomings of other histories: “Readers who take an interest in the progress of civilization and of the useful arts will be grateful to the humble topographer who has recorded these facts, and will perhaps wish that historians of far higher pretensions had sometimes spared a few pages from military evolutions and political intrigues for the purpose of letting us know how the parlors and bedchambers of our ancestors looked.” It would have been in better taste if he had not done this. But it shows how conscious he was that he was attempting the new. It is the fashion to discredit Macaulay’s history. Every history goes through a period when its disadvantages of time have come to be appreciated—when it is antiqiiated without being ancient. But for the faithful use of authority, for the brilliant putting in of particulars, Macaulay remains what a German critic recently called him—the greatest historical writer of the nineteenth cqtitury. Time will come when we shall date from Macaulalay. English history will never be written just as it was before. He was partisan. It is in unforgivable offense in our time. Macaulay’s Puritans, “lank-haired men who discussed election and reprobation through their noses,” are mere creatures of prejudice and burlesque figures, not, to our generation, funny. But it can be forgiven to one who says so many good things.

Green is not to be omitted. He is not an authority on facts. No man can treat history for a long period, as Green did, without depending on the authority of others. Green put himself into his history. The narrow critic calls it “at least literature.” It is literature of a high kind. It is a high and warm nature judging the events of English history. This is why Green’s Shorter History must remain his great work. Not history in one sense, ten times more history than history itself in another. A philanthropic clergymen, lover of his race to begin with, he gradually outgrew all his doctrinal predilections, until at length there was only the philanthropic impulse left. From this point, and not at all from the theological, he judged all religious life. What is it worth to men, and what has it accomplished? He greets the barefoot friar, the Lollard, the Puritan, and the Primitive Methodist with the same question. He treats them all as of beneficent origin.

Let us pass by Gardiner, great and in some respects unparalelled historian that he is. He writes with the day of doom in mind, and the crack of doom may be here before the end of his piece. The writings of a more popular if less able man must take precedence of Gardiner’s. Lecky comes the nearest to realizing the true all-round history. His History of England in the Eighteenth Century is in parts exceedingly eloquent and strong. I think I shall find myself on one point af difference with the body of American scholars. Lecky is not wholly satisfactory on the American Revolution. A man can not embrace two countries. At least no one except De Tocqueville and Bryce has done so.

Incomparable Burke pointed out that the whole commerce of America had grown up under a system of smuggling and violation of customs laws made abroad. The attempt to suppress this was an attempt to put down trade entirely—to reduce the colonies to gaunt famine. No man can judge America in the eighteenth century without taking her circumstances into account. Even in little things Lecky fails to understand us; he says Americans invented a new punishment of riding a man on an iron bar. He means riding on a rail, and only a few years before a man had died in the process in London. For the state of America he depends on Washington’s letters—letters written always to procure appropriations. But, America aside, his England, and especially his Ireland in the Eighteenth Century, are very great books. Leave the American Revolution to be written by one who understands it and knows what it was.

I remember the enjoyment with which I discovered that Hilliard had inserted here a little and there a little paragraph on manners. Hilliard used only printed authorities; he was dry; he did not make a lasting history. His touches of folk history are his best work. Bancroft labored long; he labored learnedly. But he has repelled more young people from the study of history than all other influences in America. Nearly twenty years ago I sat at Mr. Parkman’s table one Sunday, and he remarked with that sweet candor which was characteristic, “I can not read Bancroft.” I replied, “Mr. Parkman, if you had not said it, I should not have dared to say so, but I can not read Bancroft.” A cultivated lady at the table said, “If you gentlemen say that, what is the ground of his great reputation?” We answered simultaneously, “His great knowledge.” He knew nearly everything a historian ought to know except culture history. He never conceived of the seventeenth-century man as living before science. And one other difficulty he had. He was a politician, or, if you please, a statesman. He was a diplomatist. He could not speak candidly. “I hold my hand full,” he said; “I open my little finger. The American people can not stand more.” Mr. Bancroft held in his hand a lot of disagreeables. He knew, for instance, that a majority of the pre-Revolutionary ancestors of the post-Revolutionary Americans—Colonial Dames, as like as not—came to this country in an unfree condition and were sold off the ship to pay their passage. But he left all that on one side as contemned culture history. This is why his volumes stand in undisturbed repose on the shelves where are those books which no gentleman’s library is complete without.

I must avoid mention of books whose authors are still alive. I must, for want of time, avoid more than complimentary mention of the special studies of our post-graduates on the township community and other institutional history. I am myself greatly indebted to them. See how lame is Macaulay’s allusion to inclosures in his third chapter for want of such knowledge.

I must mention with praise the humble historian who writes of town or city the annals that will be greedily sought after in time to come. And I may say that history is the great prophylactic against pessimism. There never was a bad, in the five progressive centuries, that was not preceded by a worse. Our working people live from hand to mouth; in the eighteenth century and in England it was from half empty hand to starving mouth. Never was the race better situated than in this nineteenth century—this twentieth century on the very verge of which we stand. History will be better written in the ages to come. The soldier will not take the place he has taken. I do not say that the drum and trumpet history will have gone out; but when the American Historical Association shall assemble in the closing week a hundred years hence, there will be, do not doubt it, gifted writers of the history of the people. It will not seem so important for impartial Gardiner to weigh the men and motives of the commonwealth history. We shall have the history of culture, the real history of men and women.

Edward Eggleston (December 10, 1837–September 3, 1902) was a historian and novelist. He wrote local-color fiction and was an editor of the New York Independent.