William A. Dunning

President of the Association, 1912–13

A paper read before the American Historical Association's annual meeting at Charleston, December 29, 1913. Published in the American Historical Review 19, no. 2 (January 1914): 217–29.

Truth in History

“Pilate saith unto Him, What is Truth?” Thus ends the report of one of the most famous conversations ever recorded. That the colloquy should have terminated without an answer to the question of the Roman procurator, must always raise regret in the mind of the reader and the writer of history. For we are told often and conclusively that history has truth for its subject-matter and the discovery of truth for its end. An authoritative definition of truth, therefore, would have been a priceless boon. It has indeed been often asserted that the question of Pilate was interrogative in form only, and that his real thought was to affirm the hopelessness of ever reaching a definition. If such was the case, one might reasonably conjecture that the Roman had lately been engaged in historical research; for in no other occupation is there more powerful stimulus to the despair that his remark expresses. The optimist who has assured us that truth will out, even in an affidavit, was a lawyer; the devotee of history would never commit himself to so cheerful a dogma.

It is a commonplace, however, that the pursuit of an end is as useful, at least, as the attainment. The boy who seeks the pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow acquires valuable information in the quest. No limit can be imagined to the curiosity of man, once having become self-conscious, as to the past. History is the name we give to the result of his efforts to satisfy this curiosity. The earliest beginnings of these efforts bring perplexity. The phenomena of the past are no less complex than those of the present and the truth about them is no less elusive. History, therefore, as an aggregate of facts for investigation, requires subdivision and analysis. Not all truth, but certain aspects or classes of truth, are the subject-matter of the science, if science it be. I know of no serious contention by anybody that all past phenomena, without discrimination, are properly the field of the historian. I likewise am aware that no problem will call forth more violent debate than the bounding of the field—the determination of what is within and what is without it.

For my present purpose I am going to assume that the province of history is to ascertain and present in their causal sequence such phenomena of the past as exerted an unmistakable influence on the development of men in social and political life. Such an assumption will occasion, I suppose, certain liftings of the eyebrows and shruggings of the shoulders among colleagues in this association for whom I have the profoundest respect; but I must bear with such fortitude as is vouchsafed to me the consequences of my rashness.

How did the primitive Aryans fatten their swine for slaughtering (if there ever were Aryans, and if they ever were primitive, and if they ate pork); what was the favorite cosmetic of Alcibiades; what was the bacteriological species of the maggots that St. Simeon Stylites piously replaced when they lost their hold on his sores; what was the color of the horse that bore Washington at the battle of Monmouth: all these questions concern truth as to the past, but shall we call the answers to them history?

It would indeed be scientific heresy to deny that any of the phenomena referred to could possibly have been influential in human development. In these days no science is sure of its footing until it has proclaimed its special interpretation of history. The economic, the sociological, the metallurgical, the pathologic, the meteorological, the astronomical, the geological, and, for aught I know, the geometrical interpretations are in heated rivalry. It is therefore unsafe to say that the most obscure and least suspected fact of the past will not appear to-morrow as the hinge on which man’s whole career has turned. But pending the newest revelation of this sort we are privileged to approach the study of the past under guidance of a series of presumptions, among which is this, that such phenomena as have been mentioned are not of the first importance.

In dealing with matters that are presumed to be of high importance the student of history is confronted with the problems concerning truth in all their diversity. He must ascertain the objective actualities—the occurrences that impressed the senses of men; he must ascertain the chronological order of these occurrences; he must strive, at least, to ascertain the causal nexus between them.

The last of these tasks is by no means the least. As we have lately been warned by the dean of the historical gild in America, Dr. Jameson, with his wonted force and precision, “the stream of history is a stream of causation”. To resolve the forces and detect the relations that underlie the movement of this current, demands an exceptional endowment and an unstinted application of intellectual strength. For about a century now this particular field of activity has been less diligently cultivated by the scientific historian, and it has been his special aim to achieve exactness in the first of the above-mentioned aspects of truth. He must know precisely what happened and he must know it from the original contemporary evidence. A secondary or derived account of an event must be presumed false. The longer such an account has been accepted as true, the more likely it is false. If the account runs back into immemorial antiquity, the event never happened, and the matter does not concern history at all, but belongs in the outer darkness of anthropology or sociology.

The effects of this trend of thinking on the study and writing of history during the last two generations have been remarkable. A cyclone of criticism has swept through the populous realm of pseudo-historical traditions and the region is thickly strewn with the disjecta membra of their proud and often most beautiful forms. The search for original material has occupied the first place in the attention of historical students and has proved beneficent in two ways at least: it has enormously increased the mass of such material for the use of the man competent to make a synthesis from it, and it has furnished an all-engrossing occupation for many who might otherwise have tried their hands, and the patience of their readers, in the hopeless task of synthesizing. The high ratio of monographic collections of material to organized and literary narrative is one of the most familiar characteristics of recent publications in history.

The absorbing and relentless pursuit of the objective fact—of the thing that actually happened in exactly the form and manner of its happening, is, I take it, thus, the typical function of the modern devotee of history. Certain corollaries and consequences of this conception are obvious. In the first place it tends greatly to limit the scope of history. Again, it tends to stress the material as compared with the spiritual or psychic forces and influences in human life. Further, it reduces to the minimum the consideration of causal nexus, and tends to limit history to the post hoc, regardless of the propter hoc. Finally, it tends unduly to limit regard for the influence of what men believed to be true, as compared with what was true.

Every serious student of history knows the thrill that comes with the discovery of an unknown or a forgotten fact of the past. In comparison, the joy of the gold or diamond hunter over a “find” is indeed moderate. Especially keen and spicy is the satisfaction of historical discovery when it implies the erroneousness of long-standing beliefs and enables the discoverer to proclaim the most eminent and authoritative chroniclers of the past the victims of ignorance and illusion. The “reconstruction of history” is always in the mind of the investigator, whether consciously or unconsciously, and in the intoxication of an actual discovery of new truth he is very prone to foresee a reconstruction vastly greater than what actually takes place. The current of humanity’s past obstinately continues to move before his eyes in the same old channel with but a trifling little jog, though the new revelation seems to require a great displacement all along the course.

Why is this so? Why do the achievements of historical research, in bringing to light the truth about the individual events of the past, change so slightly the broad picture? This is the question to which I wish to devote some particular attention in this place. The answer to it cannot be a simple one, and I do not aspire to make mine complete. I would merely suggest, as in some measure, at least, influential, this fact, that the course of human history is determined no more by what is true than by what men believe to be true; and therefore that he who brings to light a past occurrence of which he is the first to have knowledge is likely to be dealing with what is no real part of history. The phenomena of social life, so far as they are determined at all by the will of man, are due in origin and sequence to conditions as they appear to contemporaries, not to conditions as revealed in their reality to the historian centuries later. Or if the lesson of the past is sought as a guide to any policy, the lesson that is learned and acted upon is derived from the error that passes as history at the time, not from the truth that becomes known long after.

Many a fact of history is like the grain of sand that intrudes within the shell of the pearl oyster. Tiny and insignificant, it is quickly lost to sight and knowledge; but about it are deposited the ensphering layers of myth and legend till a glimmering treasure is produced that excites the mightiest passions of men. Under the charm of its beauty, art, religion, civilization, is developed; through the lust to possess it a dynasty is overthrown, an empire falls into ruin. The historian may crush the pearl and bring to light the grain of sand; but he cannot persuade us that the sand made all the intervening history.

Consider some of the salient incidents in the history of history that throw light on this doctrine. Take the history of Rome, for example. Nothing is more familiar or more amazing than the influence of this history on certain phases of civilized life in Europe down to the nineteenth century of our era. So far as the moral, legal, and political development of West-European nations were determined by the conscious purpose of men, that purpose was shaped by the lessons of recorded Roman experience. All the great leaders of thought and action were steeped in the tradition .of the Tiberine city—its rise, its greatness, and its decay. Theologians, jurists, and statesmen of both the secular and the ecclesiastical class sought in the institutions of the Roman people solutions for the problems of medieval and modern times. And the solutions were in no rare instances forthcoming. But what was the character of the history on which depended thus the course of civilized life? It was for the most part the history that we find in Livy and Vergil—a congeries of myths, legends, traditions, and patriotic fancies, animated throughout by a purpose to glorify a not too glorious people. The superhuman valor and virtue of the early Roman heroes—Cincinnatus, Camillus, and the rest; the godlike sagacity of the lawmakers who devised and the statesmen who applied the constitution of the republic; the resplendent genius of the military leaders and the perfection of the military system in the days of the great conquests: all these have been reduced to the proper level by the critical historians of the nineteenth century. But this was after the fabulous elements so ruthlessly extirpated from Roman history had served effectively for ages in shaping the thoughts and deeds and aspirations of men. It was after the genius of Dante had fixed the trend of the medieval mind by assigning to Pagan Rome a high place in the favor of God and an indispensable part in the scheme of Christian redemption. It was after the cynical Machiavelli had projected a powerful influence into the affairs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by deriving from the tales of Romulus and Numa and Virginius and Fabius and Scipio his astute but unmoral maxims of both princely and popular polity. And it was after the erudite Montesquieu had found in the annals of Rome’s greatness and decay the most impressive illustrations of those principles which he so effectively taught to succeeding generations through his famous Spirit of the Laws.

Early in the nineteenth century Niebuhr began the process of proving that Dante and Machiavelli and Montesquieu, however ingenious and impressive in their conclusions, were sadly astray in their assumptions of fact. At the present day what is accepted as the history of Rome, especially in its earliest ages, would scarcely be recognized by either of those thinkers as concerned with any state of which they had ever heard. Romulus and Numa and Servius Tullius and a whole series of personages whose careers furnished delectable lessons have receded into the realm of myth; the curies, centuries, dictators, tribunes, and other stock properties of the drama of Rome have been so transformed as to contradict the deductions that were once drawn from them. The nineteenth-century conception of Roman history is far indeed from the conception that was influential during the centuries when Rome was a name to conjure with.

It may of course be denied that any ideas about Rome, whether true or false, ever had any actual influence on the course of history in later ages. We all have heard that the things which really and truly determine the sequence of human affairs are those of economic significance; that social and political systems take form, flourish, and decline according to the source and volume of the food or metal supply, the vagaries of commerce, and other such matters as are assumed to be independent of the will of men; and that appeals to the conscious human experience of the past are but the futile cries of deluded creatures who will not be reconciled to the idea of their own insignificance. If this is the truth of the matter, if the sufficient explanation of all social and political phenomena is to be found exclusively in the workings of the law of diminishing returns, the fluctuations in the value of gold, and other such impersonal causes, then is it vain indeed to compare the influence of true with that of false history, and this essay must stand as but one more futile cry of a deluded creature.

Let us turn, however, to another familiar illustration of the tendency that we are trying, with interest even if in error, to trace. The most hardened devotee of the economic interpretation of history would hesitate to deny that during the last thousand years, if for no longer, the history of the Jewish nation, as recorded in the Old Testament, has occupied a very large place among the cultural influences of Christendom. To the strongest minds of thirty generations it had the character of a divinely revealed record of the precise facts, given by God to men for the express purpose of infallibly guiding them in their earthly affairs. It was comprehensive in scope, narrating the origin of the human race and pointing by remorseless prophecy to its end. It was detailed in treatment, showing in minute revealings the course of social, legal, and political development among God’s chosen people. There was no question of public policy or of private conduct that could not be and was not answered by appeal to this history. Through a thousand years of West-European development emperors, popes, kings, bishops, and all minor authorities sustained themselves on the precedents of the Children of Israel. The succession of phenomena during that thousand years may have been determined in fact by fluctuations in the value of gold or by the law of diminishing returns; but Hildebrand and Innocent III. and Boniface VIII and Charles V and Martin Luther all thought, and all said, that the mainspring of the part that they took in trying, at least, to influence affairs, was the will and purpose of God as revealed in the Bible.

In the history of the Israelites the precedents were found for every species of social and political activity that was manifested in Christendom. Kings discovered there divine sanction for absolute monarchy; republicans, for popular sovereignty; moderate men, for the mixed form. If a tyrant was to be got rid of the way was pointed out by the achievements of Ehud and of Jehu and of Samuel, when he hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord. If a people was to be destroyed, the fate of the Amalekites and the recalcitrant tribes of Canaan furnished a divinely sanctioned model of efficiency. The Albigenses at Toulouse, the papists at Drogheda, and the Pequots in Connecticut were slaughtered with pious joy, based on the same historical evidence that the will of God was being executed. How thoroughly the social, economic, and political development of our own country in its early life was permeated with ideas derived from the Old-Testament history, it is unnecessary here to set forth. Suffice it to note that one authority at least has gravely ascribed our whole political system to the influence of the ancient Israelitish polity as described in the Scriptures.

What, now, is the present status of this body of historical narrative that was for so many ages a powerful factor in the conscious activities of Christendom? How has the critical spirit of the nineteenth century dealt with the ancient records and traditions of the Jews? The answer is so familiar as scarcely to need mention. Adam has gone into the same category of historical significance with Romulus. The trials and triumphs of the Israelites have taken their place as an epic version of an actual experience that was paralleled by many a nomad tribe of the Orient. Their heroes, lawgivers, and deliverers have been reduced, like those of the Romans, to the level of ordinary humanity. Their social and political institutions are known to have been, not an exceptional type set for the guidance of the nations, but in substance not different from what every primitive people in similar circumstances has evolved. The compilers of their records and the writers of their annals are proved to have worked under no more unerring inspiration than that which guided the historians of most other nations.

Will the history of the Israelites as thus transformed ever again influence the motives of men as it did in, say, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, while it still retained its ancient character? Will the Biblical Moses continue to inspire national patriots when it is known that our record of his career took shape a thousand years after his death in a literature of moral and religious propaganda, and is about as trustworthy as would be a life of Alfred the Great written to-day to promote Anglo-Saxon unity? Will constitution-makers ever again seek so anxiously for light from the system of the old Jewish government as they did before that system was known to have been described more in the light of hope for the future than of knowledge of the actual workings in a far-distant past? But one answer to these questions is possible. Of Jewish history as of Roman history it must be said: The deeds of men have been affected more by the beliefs in what was false than by the knowledge of what was true.

Here again, however, we must pause and qualify. We shall be told that we are hopelessly out of date to suppose that the deeds of medieval men were affected in any significant degree by belief in Jewish history whether true or false. The interpreter economic will assure us that the conflict between Papacy and Empire was but a struggle for land between two grasping monopolies. The interpreter meteorological will show us, from measurements of Sequoia stumps in California,1 that a decline of the rainfall in central Asia determined the Crusades without any reference to the historical beliefs of Peter the Hermit or of St. Bernard. And a host of miscellaneous interpreters will be sure that the Lutheran revolt was produced by a medley of racial, financial, and artistic incompatibilities amid which the convictions of the leaders in respect to Biblical history became a wholly negligible factor. If all these interpreters are right, the comparisons that have been suggested between the true and the erroneous ideas of Jewish history must be dropped as futile.

What I have sought to illustrate by the broad aspects of Roman and Jewish history may be as readily studied in familiar episodes in other fields. Take, for example, the origin of that mighty sanctuary of liberty and justice, trial by jury. Through six centuries of English history it was devoutly believed that this institution had either its source or its effective guarantee or both in Magna Carta. There in the famous article XXXIX. stood the familiar words: “No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or dispossessed, or outlawed, or banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him, nor send upon him, except by the legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”

Floods of ink and myriads of goose-quills were consumed by Fortescue and Coke and Hale and Blackstone and all the lesser lights of English constitutional history in the effort adequately to eulogize the foresight and wisdom of the barons of Runnymede in providing for later generations this singularly beneficent safeguard of human rights. It is hard to understand at times, when reading the declamation of the anti-prerogative men and Whigs, that Magna Carta was framed with any other conscious purpose than to furnish a firm basis for trial by jury. This was in large measure the idea that was transmitted to America, so that we find in Tucker and Story and the rest of the juristic Fathers Magna Carta and the jury system inseparably united as the foundation of our free institutions.

That the association of trial by jury with Magna Carta contributed much through the centuries to the realization and maintenance of constitutional government, is beyond all doubt. Nineteenth-century criticism has proved, however, that the association was, as an historical fact, utterly without foundation. The “judgment of his peers” referred to in the thirty-ninth article was a wholly different thing from the verdict of a jury; and no such institution as trial by jury of a person charged with crime was known to the law of the land when Magna Carta was formulated. The great charter of English liberties neither created nor sanctioned nor guaranteed trial by jury. Such is the actual fact of the matter. How great and important has been the part played in English history by the contrary idea, every one even moderately familiar with that history may easily estimate. It is another case where an effective (and apparently a beneficent) influence on the sequence of human affairs has been exercised, not by what really happened, but by what men erroneously believed to have happened.

Thus far I have sought to illustrate my theme by such misconceptions of fact as have been ancient and inveterate, and untraceable to any definite source in human volition. It would be hardly worth our while to detail the thronging examples where history has been deliberately falsified from motives of political or personal advantage. Conscious and willful misrepresentation of the actual facts has always been a feature of politics and diplomacy and has furnished historians with many of their most interesting problems. It is but a little over forty years now since a spectacular instance of such misrepresentation convulsed Europe. In 1870 the present German Empire came into being, and the impulse to its birth was given by a lie. We know this on the fully documented testimony of the liar. Bismarck, in deep despair at the apparent failure of a diplomatic enterprise intended to force a war with France, received a despatch from the Prussian king containing an account of the last interview of the king with the French ambassador. The meeting had been entirely amicable. Bismarck immediately made public a version of the king’s despatch so distorted as to produce in Germany the impression that the ambassador had insulted the king, and in France the impression that the king had insulted the ambassador. The result was an outburst of passion in both countries that at once precipitated the momentous war, with the fall of the French and the establishment of the German Empire.

American history teems with instances hardly less flagrant and malicious, though in none, so far as I know, has there been anything so cynically frank as Bismarck’s avowal of his part in the fraud. We might refer, for example, to the perversion of the record in the Dred Scott case so as to represent the Chief Justice as declaring that negroes had no rights that a white man was bound to respect—a view of the opinion that appears in more or less pretentious publications even down to the present day. But without multiplying examples, let us consider now some conclusions that may be drawn from the whole matter.

That the critical spirit in the study of history during the nineteenth century has produced some astonishing results, is beyond all controversy. Its reconstructions of human life in the past have been no less significant than the amazing changes wrought by the physical sciences in our ideas of the material universe. No wonder that the mantle of skepticism has enveloped the whole historical gild, so that only the hardiest of the fraternity dares venture a commonplace without the original source as a foot-note to sustain him. No wonder that the restless quest for new facts has overshadowed every other activity of the historical student. And no wonder that, in the search for new facts of the objective sort, familiar old facts of the other sort are neglected and crowded out of their due consideration. We are overwhelmed with the glory of our achievements in discovery and intoxicated with our superiority over the luckless generations that preceded us. A newly detected brick pile in Mesopotamia or a freshly opened tomb along the Nile reveals to us unsuspected information about Tiglath Pileser and the sixteenth dynasty; at once we feel a sense of pity for the Periclean Greeks, that, with all their culture, they lacked these facts. Excavations in Argos and Crete give us knowledge of Homer’s heroes that the most learned men of Augustan Rome never dreamed of; we pity the Romans so much the more than we pitied the Greeks, and we feel renewed confidence in the ancient judgment that the civilization of Rome was after all but a thin veneer. The higher criticism shows us that David, king of the Jews, lacked somewhat of both the might and the tunefulness ascribed to him by the Old Testament; away goes all our respect for the Middle Age, to whose thinkers David was an inspired model in all the larger and finer things of life. Our contempt for the centuries is cumulative and reaches its climax in the eighteenth, when Gibbon, the paragon, historiographically, of his time, described with affecting details the “fall” of the Roman Empire in the West, though every school-boy of our blessed age has learned from one of our brilliant associates that it never “fell” at all.2

No long reflection is needed to detect the dangers that flow from exaggerating the importance of new truth in history. If we impute it for unrighteousness to an age or a people that they lacked the knowledge of the past that has become our possession, the age or people in question is affected with a taint that operates to obscure its own history. We enlightened observers scorn to busy ourselves with the doings of those who supposed that Moses and Romulus and Numa were actually what they were long represented to be, and who believed that trial by jury was guaranteed by Magna Carta. We subconsciously feel that so ignorant a people could have had little in its own affairs to warrant the attention of respectable scholarship. Logically this is of course a shocking non-sequitur, but its existence and its influence at the present day are unmistakable, and it probably has some share in the rather enthusiastic movement of the younger generation of historical students, especially here in America, away from the field of medieval history. I have in mind three men under forty, each of whom made his doctorate by a noteworthy study of the Middle Age. To-day all three are professors, and in their serious work one of them goes, with much reluctance, as far back as the peace of Westphalia; another centres his effort in the first half of the nineteenth century; and the third declares roundly that he has no real interest in anything that happened prior to 1870.

The corrective for whatever evils may be involved in the tendencies referred to lies ready to our hand. We must recognize frankly that whatever a given age or people believes to be true is true for that age and that people. The actual facts as to Adam and Moses and trial by jury and Romulus had no causal relation to the affairs of Europe in the sixteenth century. Erroneous ideas on those topics had very close causal relations to those affairs. For the history of the sixteenth century, therefore, it is the error and not the fact that is important. The business of the historian who studies that century is to ascertain the scope and content of the ideas that constituted the culture of that period. Whether these ideas were true or were false, according to the standards of any other period, has nothing to do with the matter. That they were the ideas which underlay the activities of the men of this time, is all that concerns the work of the historian.

These axioms of the study of history are familiar and undisputed. Living up to them, however, is another matter. Especially in view of the cyclonic sweep of criticism and discovery during the nineteenth century, it has become desperately difficult to maintain an attitude of decent respect for the historical beliefs of less favored ages. Our pride in the attainments of our own day distorts all our judgments of the past. In vain the master-mind of a distant generation rears with matchless ingenuity a system of institutions based on the teachings of Moses or of Numa. We follow out languidly the story of his system, no matter how precisely it fitted the demands of the time. At only one point will our interest revive, where the master-mind, by some chance, hit upon a notion that has acceptance and vogue in our own day. Here we centre our attention and appreciation, and in our history of the affair make the central feature, not the ingenious adaptation of the system to contemporaneous needs and environment, but the accidental fact that there was in the situation something that anticipated the thought or achievement of the wonderful twentieth century.

The crying need in the study of history to-day is humility. The realities of the past will never be scientifically apprehended so long as the student of history stands contemplating in a stupor of admiration the reversals of ancient beliefs effected in our own age. Contempt for those who lacked our light is the worst of equipments for understanding their deeds. With all their misconceptions about Adam and Romulus and trial by jury, the people of earlier centuries often thought and acted very much as do we, their regenerate posterity. Keen historical vision will detect in them at times qualities closely akin to what used to be called human nature.3 That they acted in many cases under the impulse of ignorance and error, should make their history more rather than less interesting. At least they lived—they acted—they “did things”.

Lowes Dickinson, with his usual acuteness, penetrated to the heart of the matter when he wrote:

To take the philosophy or the religion of the past and put it into your laboratory and test it for truth, and throw it away if it doesn’t answer the test, is to misconceive the whole value and meaning of it. The real question is, what extraordinary, fascinating, tragic or comic life went to produce this precious specimen? What new revelation does it give of the possibilities of the world? That’s how you look at it, if you have the sense of life.4

The study of history is justified by some as furnishing examples for present instruction, by others as merely enlightening us about present conditions by tracing them in their becoming. On either basis the student is under obligation to repress in all humility his scorn for the error that he finds in the beliefs of those with whom he is dealing. For his business is to present past occurrences in their causal sequence. Not this, that, or the other event by itself, but this as the cause of that, and the other as the effect of that. But unless he is ready to adopt in the extreme form the economic and sundryological interpretations and discard the human influence entirely, he must find in the beliefs of men a most powerful factor in the chain of causation. Nor does it matter at all whether a belief is true or false. Montesquieu remarks in his Esprit des Lois: “In a free nation it is very often a matter of indifference whether individuals reason right or reason wrong; it is enough that they reason: for from that springs liberty.” Much the same is the case in respect to the beliefs of a people about history, whether of their own past or of the past of others: the beliefs are important whether true or false; for out of them is formed the subject-matter of history.

Thus we come again to the sum of the whole matter. It is impossible to exaggerate the significance in many respects of the transformations effected in historical knowledge during the nineteenth century. Least possible of all is it to overestimate the change in the general attitude toward history that has resulted from these transformations. Yet in one respect there is need of the utmost caution in handling the new situation. It behooves the historian to be modest in his rejoicings over the discoveries that have reversed so many long-cherished beliefs. He must keep in mind that the reversal cannot be made retroactive, so as to affect the thoughts and deeds of the generations who knew not the reality. He must remember, in short, that for very, very much history there is more importance in the ancient error than in the new-found truth.

William A. Dunning (1857–1922) received his PhD from Columbia in 1885 and continued to teach there. His most enduring work was in the field of European intellectual history, particularly the three volume History of Political Theories, Ancient and Medieval (1902). However, he is also noted for writings and the students he directed in the history the Reconstruction in the United States. In works like Reconstruction, Political and Economic, 18651877 he helped to ratify the unification of North and South on principles of white supremacy.


1. Huntington, “Changes of Climate and History”, American Historical Review, XVIII. 213–232 (1913).

2. Robinson, The New History, p. 191 et seq. Gibbon finds evidence of the fall of the Western Empire in the transfer of certain “ornamenta palatii” by Odovacar from Rome to Constantinople, understanding the term to mean the imperial insignia. Robinson shows that the term might just as reasonably have designated any furniture of the palace, and therefore that what Gibbon took for a “fall” may have been merely an obscure transaction in bric-a-brac.

3. This interesting entity has of course been banished from our ken by the very latest and most completely Bergsonized conception of history, and I refer to it with the due apology.

4. A Modern Symposium, pp. 121–22.