The Function of the Historian as a Judge of Historic Persons
By George Park Fisher, President of the American Historical Association, 1897–98
Inaugural address published in the Annual Report of the American Historical Association, 1898, 15–33.
At the outset, I wish to express my thanks to the Historical Association for the honor conferred on me by my election as its president.
On casting about for a topic on which to address you, my first impulse was to take up, in its historical relations, a question as to our national polity, which has arisen out of the recent war and its results. But on reflection it occurred to me that a respite of an hour from present controversies might not be unwelcome. Accordingly I have chosen a theme which I trust will not prove unattractive, albeit not connected with the “burning questions” of the day.
My subject is, the historian as called to pass judgment on historical persons; in other words, the historian in his character as a judge of personal characteristics and merits. It will be agreed, at least not many will demur to the statement, that personal character and action constitute one of the principal charms of historical narratives. A scholar who was honored by all who knew him for his rare attainments coupled with genuine modesty—I refer to the late Professor Gurney of Cambridge—said to me that when he was offered at Harvard the choice between the departments of history and philosophy, he chose the chair of history, for the reason, as he explained, that he preferred the intercourse with persons to a life spent among abstractions. He was an adept in metaphysical studies, and held them in high esteem. But he could not make up his mind to sacrifice that delight which the converse with persons affords to the historical student. He was not willing to part company with the men and women whom history calls back to life. It is, indeed, an aspect of history which by some is regarded with a degree of disdain. Herbert Spencer somewhere adverts to the labor spent in the inquiry whether Mary Queen of Scots was privy to the murder of Darnley, as in example of a waste of time on questions of trifling importance. That view would be just were it true that nothing in the past deserves attention except the growth of that impersonal being called “society.” To be sure, the progress of society, the rise and development of institutions, is a subject of prime interest. Biography is so far distinct from history that many details proper to the one have no place in the other. Moreover, it has become clear that individuals, however conspicuous, are, up to a limit, the product of their times. But there is a limit. It is likewise true that an initiative agency belongs to the leaders of men. It is an extreme theory that relegates them exclusively to the category of effects. Human beings are not automatons. Especially are signal epochs in history, turning points, marked by a rallying about persons. From them goes forth a creative energy, inspiring and guiding their fellows. Let sociology, the philosophy of history, be rated at its full value. In the drama of human affairs there is an endless appeal to psychological curiosity, a constant stimulus to poetic feeling. And so even such a tragedy as that in which Mary of Scotland bore a part will always enlist human sympathy, and impel to researches having for their object to solve the questions in doubt. It is a dry-as-dust theory that would drive out these inquiries from the domain of history.
It is one office of the historian to weigh in the scales of justice the merits of historic persons. It belongs to him to gauge the qualities of the men and women who act their parts on the public stage. When Schiller wrote “Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht,”1 all that the poet meant was that the hopes of the hereafter are of themselves an adequate reward for one who repels the allurements of sense, even should these hopes turn out to be illusive. But the phrase of Schiller is an apt expression of another idea. It will serve to describe the office that history performs in calling to her bar the men whose career she passes in review. Surely it is a most responsible office. For do we not owe to the dead the same measure of justice that we owe to the living? Shall not the departed, if we speak of them at all, be righteously dealt with?
One thing fitted to remind a historian of his responsibility in assuming the office of a judge is a glance at the discordance among those who discharge this function—a conflict often so marked as to partake of a humorous element. An instance or two, the first that occur to me, will illustrate this remark. Carlyle winds up his estimate of Oliver Cromwell in these words:
A great light, one of our few authentic solar luminaries, going down now amid the clouds of death. Like the setting of a great victorious summer sun its course now finished. * * * Here is a life battle nobly done. * * * Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord; blessed are the valiant that have lived in the Lord.2
Now hear how Clarendon closes his estimate of Cromwell:
In a word, as he had all the wickedness for which damnation is denounced and for which hell-fire is prepared, so he had some virtues which have caused the memory of some men in all ages to be celebrated; and he will be looked upon by posterity as a brave, bad man.3
All know how this prophecy has been verified. One more example of contradictory verdicts. Mr. Froude, at the end of his account of King Henry VIII, while not denying that he had serious faults, assures us that “far deeper blemishes would be but as scars upon the features of a sovereign who, in trying times, sustained nobly the honor of the English name, and carried the Commonwealth securely through the hardest crisis in its history.”4 The monarch whom the historian praises in this fashion is characterized by Macaulay as a “king whose character may be best described by saying that he was despotism itself personified;” and contrast Mr. Froude’s encomium with the words of Sir James Mackintosh, who, after relating the executions of More and Anne Boleyn, calmly observes:
In these two direful deeds Henry approached, perhaps, as near to the ideal standard of perfect wickedness as the infirmities of human nature will allow.5
We have nowadays two safeguards against the misjudgment of persons that give us an advantage over writers in the past. It is possible to find out a great deal more about historical personages than it was formerly. The opening of archives with treasures of information which have been hitherto locked up, the publication of letters and of documents of every sort in private hands, pour a flood of light in cases where only defective knowledge was once possible. Along with this invaluable gain, the sense of obligation to spare no labor in efforts to get at the truth is proportionately increased. At present, no author with an ability approaching that of Hume would think of being deterred, as he was, by sheer indolence from rising from his chair to consult the authorities on his shelves, if not literally within reach. But of course no amount of investigation will answer if there be wanting a spirit of fairness. In this particular we may take credit on the whole for a marked advance. Certainly the number of dispassionate students, who are in quest of truth alone, is larger now than it ever was before. Yet it is pleasant to remember that Thucydides, writing in so remote a time, is, in this respect as well as in so many others, a model. Grote maintains that he was in fault for not preventing Amphipolis from being captured by the Spartans. He argues that Thucydides was too slow in coming to its relief.6 I once asked a profound scholar, the late President Woolsey, for his opinion on this question. He answered, “I have such confidence in the absolute truthfulness of Thucydides that, were he really chargeable with fault, as Grote alleges, I believe he would have avowed it.” It is pleasant to read the more recent comment of Professor Jebb on this passage in the life of the prince of historians:
There is some presumptive evidence of carelessness; but we can hardly say more than that. The absence of Thucydides from the neighborhood of Amphipolis at the precise juncture may have had some better excuse than now appears.7
Let me now call to mind certain distinct influences of a misguiding nature, influences that may operate to deceive or pervert the judgment of the historian. The first that it occurs to me to mention is the instinct of hero worship. Fascination, whether exerted by man or woman, carries in it a power of illusion. It is liable to exaggerate merits and to hide defects and to invest the object admired with unreal charms. Great men, like grand objects in nature, excite the imagination. They thrill the spectator like the pyramids and majestic cathedrals reared by human art. “Hero” is a word that meant, or came to mean, among the Greeks, a semidivine personage. Prometheus was a discrowned god. Hercules, the typical hero of antiquity, was the son of Zeus. When Pallas sent Diomed into battle,
“ * * * upon his head
And shield she caused a constant flame to play,
Like to the autumnal star, that shines in heaven
Most brightly when now bathed in ocean’s tides.”
—Iliad, b. v.
There is a joy in unstinted admiration. It culminates in worship. For what is worship but admiration rising almost to ecstacy? We yearn for the heroic, and we are ever, even if unconsciously, in quest of it. Hence the number of idols that we Americans frame and are obliged after a little to break. The genius of Carlyle is shown even in the title of his book, Hero Worship. The fault of his ideal of heroism, it is needless to say, is its deifying of energy. It is greatness, in whatever form, that Carlyle adores. Not that he really means to approve of immorality. But with him energy and sincerity are made the two notes of the hero. The fetich worshiper, he tells us, “let him entirely believe in his fetich,” is not in so bad a way. Carlyle gathers into one category of heroes men of power in any province. His homage for literary genius leads him to convert Goethe into a hero—Goethe, who certainly was not a patriot, and used the same love sonnets for one after another of the women with whom for the time he was enamored. The hero, be he only sincere, is permitted to do what he pleases to accomplish his end. Of Mohammed’s propagating his religion by the sword we read:
I care little about the sword. I will allow a thing to struggle for itself in this world with any sword, or tongue or implement it has or can lay hold of. We will let it do, beak and claws, whatever is in it.
As if there were no other curb required for man, a being with a free and responsible nature, than for creatures armed with beak and claws, and with no motive force but instinct. In his greatest work, the masterly work on the French Revolution, it is well that, as far as he carried the subject, he lighted on no hero to glorify. As to his Frederick II, of Prussia, it may be too much to say that Carlyle had to manufacture his hero; but he had to assist what nature did, by a considerable strain of muscle. Great men not only cast a spell over their contemporaries; they continue to enchant generations that follow. They dazzle later comers who gaze back upon their career. They move these to believe what it gives them pleasure to believe. They disarm criticism. Alexander of Macedon, as a military genius, was praised by Hannibal, the only ancient commander who can be thought superior to him. That his intellect was keen no one will question. To be sure, he had Aristotle for a teacher, yet it was to his credit that he kept up an interest in Greek literature. But with what fabulous designs has he not been credited—the design, for example, to Hellenize Asia, when his aim was rather to Asiatize Europe, and to make himself a despot after the Persian fashion, with the world under his feet. It takes clear-sighted man and, if you will, an austere moralist, like Niebuhr, to characterize him as an adventurer—one who, in the Spirit of a gambler, wantonly stakes his all on military success.8 Napoleon, a far greater man than Alexander—how many writers has he captivated by the variety and energy of his intellectual powers! How have the enthusiasts ignored his unblushing mendacity, his petty tyranny within his court, his unmanly petulance, his heartless indifference to the sacrifice of human life! It is a signal merit, permit me to say, of the monumental work of our associate, Professor Sloane, that he holds the scales of justice with a steady hand. His concluding summary is marked by discrimination in every line.
But hero worship, however extravagant, is really less to be deprecated in the historian than the propensity to pull real heroes down from their pedestals. There is no greater good to a nation than to have at least one man who is justly enshrined in popular veneration—one at least whose name is in a certain way sacred. Such a name is that of Washington. Washington was not an orator; yet John Adams records in his Diary at the Continental Congress that he had been told by Mr. Lynch, a delegate from South Carolina, that Colonel Washington made the most eloquent speech at the Virginia convention that ever was made. “Says he, ‘I will raise 1,000 men, equip them at my own expense, and march myself at their head to the relief of Boston.’”9 Even Jefferson, not prone to flatter him, says that Washington was incapable of fear. High spirited, with a self-respect which no man ventured to invade, yet tempered with a just respect for all others, and with a power of self-government never surpassed; welcoming counsels, yet never yielding to dictation, and never carried off his feet by currents of opinion, he was a patriot without selfishness and without guile. Why search, when search is vain, for flaws in his character? Never was his wisdom more apparent and, I venture to add, never did his military capacity shine forth more brightly than at the present moment. Why seek for distinction by fumbling the noses of the gods?
It is the glory of England that so many historic names in her annals are held, or will be, by the English people, in universal honor. What a lesson to all coming time is the course of a man like Sir Robert Peel, of whom Wellington said, “Of all the men I ever knew, he had the greatest regard for truth.” Twice in his career he braved the wrath of a disappointed and exasperated party—first, when he brought the Catholic disabilities bill into Parliament, and again, when he set about the repeal of the Corn laws. You remember his closing words, after he had done Justice to the conscientious motives of a portion of his antagonists:
I shall leave a name execrated by every monopolist who, from less honorable motives, clamors for protection because it conduces to his own individual benefit; but it may be that I shall leave a name sometimes remembered with expressions of good will in the abodes of those whose lot it is to labor, and to earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow, when they shall recruit their exhausted strength with abundant and untaxed food, the sweeter because it is no longer, leavened with a sense of injustice.
There is another influence that is not an unmixed advantage to an historical writer—a quality that, for the want of a better phrase, I will call the passion of eloquence. Rhetorical fervor, as we all know, is liable to mislead the subject of it as well as others in contact with it. No effort is required to drive a mettlesome steed furiously. When rhetoric is not artificial, but a gift of nature—in other words, when one is rhetorical to the core, with a copious vocabulary at his command, with felicity in its use, and a spontaneous ardor to match, it is not easy to keep within bounds. There is more than one sort of inability to bridle the tongue. There is a kind of declamatory thinking. One or the numerous writers who have dwelt on the traits of Mr. Gladstone has hit the mark, I believe, in attributing to him, as an ingrained quality, the passion of the orator. Eminent as his talents were and versatile his acquirements, there lay in this rare gift a snare. D’israeli’s sarcasm, that he was inebriated by his own exuberant verbosity—an ungracious remark for a political rival to make—is clever as a caricature. Historical writers may be carried away by their own fluency. It is a pity for a painter to have on his palette only two colors, white and black. How Macaulay delights to pelt the men whom he sets in his pillory! How, for example, he inveighs against Cranmer!10 One feels that he would twit St. Peter with the timidity that he showed in the judgment hall of Caiaphas. In truth, Cranmer was not a saint, but neither was he a hypocrite or a savage. In a few lines, Ranke furnishes the key to his character—the source of his weakness and of his capacity for service along with it. With many excellent traits, he was one of those natures, not bad in themselves, that need a backing and lack the power to breast a masterful will. But after a retreat there was left in him always the mind to rally, and thus to save the cause to which in his inmost heart he was committed.11 Where the rhetorical turn of mind prevails, other tendencies, of course, may help to foster the spirit of exaggeration—a spirit that is apt to show in unbridled invective. There may be an almost savage intolerance of types of character not conformed to the author’s favorite type. I will refer for an illustration to the wholesale disparagement of Cicero now somewhat common, especially among the idolaters of Julius Cæsar. Even Mommsen has set an example that writers of less distinction have not been slow to follow: “He was valiant,” writes Mommsen, “in opposition to sham attacks.” “By nature he had the talent of a journalist in the worst sense of the term.” He is declared to be despicable as a statesman, and as an author to be nothing but a dexterous stylist—with much more in the same vein.12 If I might venture to express my own feeling, I should say of this passage of Mommsen himself, that it illustrates the manner of “a journalist in the worst sense of the term.” A far more fair and dispassionate view of Cicero is to be found in the pages of Ihne.13 The foibles of Cicero are apparent enough, for he has laid bare in his correspondence, as none, of his contemporaries have done respecting themselves, his inmost thoughts and feelings. He has himself depicted his varying moods with the accuracy of a sun picture. It is from Cicero himself that we learn that he kept silence at sessions of the senate, lest, when it adjourned, Cæsar should dun him for borrowed money. Yet, when all is said that can be said, we always feel, as Niebuhr expresses it, that Cicero’s failings are the faults of a friend. He was a more modern man in the type of his culture than any other of the ancients. If he vacillated in the contests between Cæsar and Pompey, it was for the reason given in his own letter to Atticus: “It is the consideration of my duty that distracts me, and has from the beginning.” He clung to the republic, yet feared that the success of its champion would be followed by a repetition of the cruelties of Sulla. Richard Baxter said in defense of himself, that when he remembered who it was that said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he was willing to be called a trimmer. Cicero was bent on peace as long as the least hope remained that peace could be preserved. As for the inordinate hunger for fame, now and then there was one, like the great Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, who was not possessed with it. But the passion for glory, and especially for posthumous fame—a passion checked in the Middle Ages by the influence of Christianity—ran to excess in the great men of antiquity.
Room, even in a brief catalogue of misleading influences, must be given to a special temptation—the delight in paradox. In traveling over ground already trodden by numerous predecessors, the desire springs up to say something novel, an ambition to exhibit an original view. Some fresh theory must be invented. This will explain often attempts to silver over characters doomed, and justly so, to infamy. Sensationalism is not a temptation of preachers alone. It invades our department as well as other provinces. We see the maxim verified that there is no one without a friend. A number of ingenious attempts have been made to vindicate the character of Judas Iscariot. De Quincy is one of those who have tried to show that the motive of Judas in the betrayal of his Master was to compel Him to a public and triumphant declaration of His Messiahship. These intrepid apologists are somewhat embarrassed by the circumstance of the thirty pieces of silver, and by the statement in one of the documentary sources: “This he said, not because he cared for the poor, but because he had the bag and bare what was put therein.” The English Reformation had long been pretty familiar ground. Its leaders were pretty well understood. Unless a revolutionary hypothesis could be started it was not so easy to captivate readers. I am loath to say that a deliberate motive of this sort actuated that master of the literary art, Mr. Froude. It is, however, hard to account for the manner in which he has dealt with evidence, and hardly less for the inconsistencies in his narrative. Why are Thomas More and Cromwell praised to the foot of the scaffold and then put under the ban? Why are the English Protestant exiles, who went over to the continent in Mary’s time, disparaged for obeying the injunction, “If ye are persecuted in one city flee into another,” when Mr. Froude’s hero, John Knox, likewise fled the country? As regards Henry VIII, new evidence only corroborates the proofs already known.14 There is no ground for asserting that he had any scruples about the validity of his marriage to Catharine before he was enamored of Anne Boleyn. His statement that scruples were awakened in his mind by the French ambassador was a falsehood. There is decisive proof that he had previously corrupted Anne’s sister; that he proposed to Anne if she would yield to his seductions to renounce all other mistresses; that he had a mind, if the Pope would consent to bigamy, to marry her and say nothing about his previous marriage; that eleven weeks after his secret marriage to Anne he directed the archbishop of his own creation to decide the divorce question “without fear or favor;” that on the day when he heard of Catharine’s death he crowned his brutality by putting on a gala dress, and that he sent Anne to the executioner with a like heartlessness.
Where there is no ambition to shine as a discoverer, the historian may be under the influence of narrow or otherwise faulty ideals of personal worth. The hostile critics of Gibbon did not succeed very well in fishing for definite errors of statement in the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters, in which the great historian treated of early Christianity. In some particulars he was incorrect, but his main fault lies in the way of putting things. That type of freethinking prevalent in his day—eighteenth century views of Christianity—leavened his habit of thought. The faults and foibles of Christian teachers, confessors, and martyrs are set in the foreground in a way to allow no true perspective and to shut out a just appreciation of their moral worth. It is worthy of note that, in describing the martyrdom of Cyprian, Gibbon dwells upon the decorum of the Roman officials by whom he was beheaded, as if to throw a shade over the ghastly scene of the murder of an aged bishop of brilliant powers and spotless character. It is a relief to the reader when, once in a while, a character so elevated as that of Athanasius calls out from Gibbon cordial tributes of admiration.
It is quite possible for a writer to be diligent in investigation, with a strong understanding, and free from any wrong intention, and yet merely by his temperament be disqualified from comprehending an order of mind diverse from his own. Owing to a lack of imaginative sympathy, not a few are incapable of appreciating a nature in which enthusiasm is a living force. No one doubts that Southey was an accomplished literary man and withal a poet; yet when he undertook to portray the character and career of John Wesley he partially failed. Coleridge’s annotations to Southey’s biography of the Methodist founder supply the element of spiritual insight. The American edition of that work contains the additional notes by a Methodist divine on both Southey and Coleridge. The spectacle of this triangular contest is somewhat dramatic. Milman is a name always to be mentioned with respect. The History of Latin Christianity is the work of an author truly learned, with broad literary sympathies, and free from sectarian partiality. But when Milman applies himself to describe a personage like Hildebrand, and especially to describe that saintly monarch Louis IX of France, we are struck with the limitations of the author. Piety that surpasses the limit of Anglican moderation, devotion that is coupled with what to the men of to-day seem extravagances—for instance in the direction of austerities—awakens in the author a certain involuntary disrespect that, without design, colors the entire portraiture. Let one compare Neander’s account of the two famous men just mentioned with Milman’s, and one will instantly feel the difference between all insight that discerns the essentials of a truly lofty nature and a perception that stays more on the surface. There is something almost humorous in the thought of a writer like Hallam, to whom anything but an exact statement is repugnant, passing judgment upon a man like Martin Luther, of a frolicksome humor, and with emotions that poured themselves out in extravagances of speech.
The historical student is perpetually called upon to discount the influence of personal or party prejudice. The unpracticed scholar may be tempted to accept with little or no scrutiny the statements of contemporary writers merely because they were contemporary. Here, it is felt, we have the testimony of one who was present and saw the persons with his own eyes. It is forgotten that these witnesses, not unlikely, are the very ones to be warped by likes and dislikes. One of the most fascinating of all historical books of this class is the Memoirs of St. Simon. What pictures of court and camp in the days of Louis XIV! What life-like portraits of men and women—vivid portrayals of their looks and conduct! Yet few writers are more swayed by personal sympathy or antipathy. Ranke’s dissection of St. Simon is an invaluable aid to the student, like his critiques of Clarendon, Burnet, Davila, and others of almost equal fame.
The better tone of history is in nothing more apparent than in the waning influence of party prejudice. The custom of branding heretics in politics and religion, or those deemed to be such, with epithets appropriate to thieves and robbers, is passing away. The good old maxim “Audi alteram partem” is coming to be more observed. There is not only a more exhaustive search for the requisite materials of judgment, but with it greater impartiality. In seasons of party conflict it is curious how a misrepresentation will spread. Some of us remember that forty years ago everywhere in the North the opinion of Chief Justice Taney in the Dred Scott Case was denounced. He was quoted in countless newspapers and speeches as having declared from the bench that “negroes have no rights which the white man is bound to respect.” What he did say was something quite different, namely, that for a century before the framing of the Constitution negroes “had been regarded as so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” Whether the Chief Justice was perfectly correct in this statement or not, he nowhere expresses an approval of the sentiment, which he said was formerly entertained. He might, perhaps, have done well to refer to declarations in a different tone at least, like the passage on the iniquity of the slave trade which Jefferson inserted in the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. But how manifestly unjust to impute to him a sentiment to which he gave no express or implied sanction! Whoever has had occasion to study the religious contests of the past is not seldom obliged to revise traditional verdicts respecting the leaders. As students are aware, there is abundant room for criticism of most of the Protestant as well as Roman Catholic biographers of Luther. How many Protestants of average knowledge know anything of the bigamy of the Landgrave of Hesse, to which the Wittenberg reformers lent their sanction? No man has been more detested by Puritans and people of Puritan descent than Archbishop Laud. No doubt he was a martinet in matters of worship, with a hard and inflexible temper, which made him cast into prison and drive out of the Kingdom good men whose departures from ritual prescriptions were treated as heinous crimes. Yet, while in one sphere narrow and consequently cruel, he was in reference to theology, compared with his adversaries, abroad churchman. In that day of conflict between Calvinist and Arminian, he would make room for both. Repugnant as are the conceit and tyranny of James I, as they were displayed at the Hampton Court conference, when he pitted the prelates against the Puritan divines, we must do him the justice to remember that he denied the request of those divines to insert in the Anglican creed, as new tests of orthodoxy, the Lambeth articles, with their more rigid formulas of predestination. On the one side, intolerance as to the ritual; on the other, intolerance as to doctrine. Neither party, according to our idea of freedom, was contending for liberty except for itself.
When partisan acrimony is reenforced by personal ill will, we have but a sorry equipment for impartial judgment. It was not without a shock that some, whose youthful enthusiasm for Macaulay was not quenched, read, in one of his letters in Travelyan’s Life,15 the bitter reference to his Tory antagonist, Croker, that “impudent, leering Croker,” as he styles him, and the words that follow this expression: “See whether I do not dust that varlet’s jacket for him in the next number of the Blue and Yellow”—that is, the Edinburgh Review for September, 1831. Macaulay’s review of Croker’s edition of Boswell is in keeping with additional words contained in the letter referred to: “I detest him more than cold boiled veal.” Lockhart’s critique of the Edinburgh article, in the Noctes Ambrosianæ of Blackwood, proves its lack of candor and how far it fell short of accuracy. Whoever would fully understand the spirit of exaggeration that characterized Macaulay should read Spedding’s two volumes, entitled “Evenings with a Reviewer.” There it is demonstrated that the famous article on Bacon is but the expansion of Pope’s line,
The wisest, brightest, meanest of mankind—
where the last epithet of the poet is a monstrous hyperbole. The marvelous memory of Macaulay, and his extraordinary power, from mere recollection, of conjuring up in his mind pictures of the past, with the circumstances and dates fitted into their places, no doubt explains the occurrence of errors, and partly accounts for his persistency in them when they had been pointed out. But it hardly avails to excuse his failure to acknowledge such a mistake as the confounding of William Penn, the Quaker, with George Penn, the pardon broker.
There is one question in connection with my subject which demands particular attention. What shall be the criterion of moral judgment respecting characters in the past? What is the right touchstone? Some go so far as to say that no verdicts at all are to be rendered, and only the data for them are to be furnished. A writer not void of moral earnestness can hardly fasten such a padlock on his lips. Dean Stanley, speaking of his old master, Dr. Arnold, of Rugby, remarked to me that he had seen Arnold, when recurring to some iniquitous act far back in Roman times, “livid with rage.” Men of less vigor of conscience will experience emotions of this kind in some degree, and are not bound to stifle the utterance of them. But what shall be the standard? Shall it be the ethical perceptions of an advanced age? Shall it be the rules of conduct that make up the code of good men to-day? So Lord Acton, in his learned and instructive inaugural lecture on the Study of History, strenuously contends:
“The weight of opinion is against me when I exhort you,” so he writes, “never to debase the moral currency or to lower the standard of rectitude, but to try others by the final maxim that governs our own lives, and to suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong. The plea in extenuation of guilt and mitigation of punishment is perpetual. At every step we are met by arguments which go to excuse, to palliate, to confound right and wrong, and reduce the just man to the level of the reprobate.”16
So says Lord Acton. On the contrary, others are positive that a method of judgment so severe is unrighteous. They contend that men of the past must be judged from the point of view of their contemporaries, and according to the measure of light possessed in their own time. There is some confusion among the disputants on this matter. Both parties are right, and neither excludes the other. On the one hand, the ethical law is not to be forgotten. The ideal standard is not to be let down. The conduct of men of every age may profitably be brought into comparison with it. No plea for the wicked is to be tolerated that amounts to all apology for wickedness. On the other hand, however, the question of subjective guilt, or the degree of personal ill desert, is another point. Practical ethics, like the art of house building, is progressive. Some things are always and everywhere known to be wrong, and are abhorrent to all men. Yet moral discernment of the right in the concrete advances as the day advances from dawn to noon-tide. Morality continually branches out, to human vision, in new directions. Penalties of civil law in the most civilized states, inflicted within the limits of the present century, are now felt to be barbarous. It does not follow that we are more deserving of praise than our predecessors. Not long ago practices that the law and moral sense now forbid were not perceived to be cruel; for example, in the methods of prison discipline. There is a new feeling even respecting cruelty to animals. In a chapter of the Memorabilia, Xenophon gives us an account of a call made by Socrates with some of his disciples on an Athenian courtesan, Theodota.17 The philosopher converses pleasantly with her, and gives her shrewd advice as to how to attract men and to ply her occupation skillfully. Suppose a teacher of moral philosophy in one of our universities—for Socrates was a teacher of ethics—were to copy his example as thus related, and related, be it observed, without the least censure, by one of his disciples. Shall we then denounce Socrates, one of the noblest men of all time, and a martyr, if there ever was one? I have heard a theologian speak harshly of him on the ground of this record in the Memorabilia. But the good man forgot that on the roll of heroes and saints, in that splendid passage of Holy Writ, the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, there stands the name of Rahab, the harlot. He forgot that Revelation itself was gradual, and that the laws given to men of old time, much more their practices, are pronounced in the Gospel imperfect.
According to the international law of antiquity, the lives of captives taken in war were forfeited. They might be reduced to slavery or slain, at the option of the captor. Ethical feeling had risen to no higher level. It is manifestly unreasonable to consider Julius Cæsar as guilty for the slaughter of prisoners of war as a modern commander, in the light of Christianity, would be for the same act. Napoleon Bonaparte ordered a multitude of Turkish prisoners at Jaffa—whose lives, moreover, had been promised them—to be marched to the beach and shot. Of the opinion of apologists who excuse this foul deed, Professor Sloane properly remarks:
Those who hold that in any war, whether just or unjust, the practice of barbarity is excusable if it lead to speedy victory, will agree with that opinion.18
The deed of Napoleon was execrable, because he was not in the dark as to the code of Christian morality, but with ruthless cruelty trampled it under foot. Bismarck sent broadcast over Europe a telegram which he had recast from an official message sent to him, by omitting parts vital to the impression that it conveyed. The impression of the garbled telegram was that a personal insult had been offered to the Emperor William by Benedetti, the French minister, and had been so regarded by the Emperor—which was false; and the impression, which was likewise false, that for this reason negotiations as to the Hohenzollern question between the two Governments had been broken off by the Emperor. Bismarck, as reported by Busch, said of this proceeding, “The thing really succeeded. The French were fearfully angry at the condensed telegram, and a couple of days later they declared war against us.”19 He predicted on the spot, as he says in his autobiography, that it “would have the effect of a red rag upon the Gallic bull.”20 He fairly chuckles over this cunning device that heated the temper of two nations to the boiling point. It is a mild judgment to call it a Machiavelian trick. A Frenchman might be pardoned for calling it an instance of shameless mendacity.
With the lapse of time, as events and persons recede further into the past, we find that history looks at men in their broad lines of difference. It drops out of sight minor circumstances. It is the ruling purpose when it stands out that absorbs attention and determines the popular estimate of personal worth. Subordinate details, even grave errors of opinion and conduct, vanish when one is viewed from the distance. In a crisis, did this man cast his lot on the right side? And was he unselfish and brave? If he did that and was this, serious faults are condoned. The most noted leader in the antislavery conflict in this country was Mr. Garrison. He was vehement in his advocacy of disunion. He denounced the Constitution of the United States as a “covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” His habit of speech appears in the following sentence, which I casually met in looking over an old number of The Liberator: “The man who throws up his cap and cries ‘The Union forever’ is morally in a condition to be sent to a madhouse and have a strait-jacket put upon him.”21 Yet Garrison now stands high in popular esteem. A scholar and author as distinguished as Goldwin Smith writes a eulogistic memoir of him. It is simply because he is thought to stand the test that I have stated. He is considered to have been on the right side and to have been a fearless and unselfish champion of a righteous cause. All else is overlooked. In Boston, where a mob led him along the streets with a rope about his waist, you may see his statue in everduring brass. The great statesman, Daniel Webster, was a contemporary of Garrison. He saw some things that Garrison did not see—one thing in particular. It was not simply that his heart was full of the precious memories of the American Union. Webster saw that with the American Union was identified the cause of civilization on this continent. He felt that to break it up would be the signal for anarchy, probably for civil war and a social wreck. “Liberty and Union, one and inseparable,” were words that embodied his deepest conviction. Hence he dealt with the slavery question in a spirit that seemed cowardly and timeserving to one who underrated the value of the Union, and in his horoscope caught no glimpse of civil war, with its unspeakable horrors and possible ruin. Posterity will not doubt that the defender of the Constitution and the Union, whatever his faults may have been, deserves the statue placed in his honor in front of the statehouse in Boston. History will adjudge him to have been a sincere patriot, as well as a farseeing statesman.
Bear with me while I briefly revert to our New England history. The character of the Puritan founders of New England is a question warmly contested. Dr. Palfrey, a man of great liberality, without sympathy with Puritan theology, who gave practical proof of his love of freedom, is considered by many to have written in a too apologetic vein. Certainly care is now taken by many to steer clear of any such imputation. This may be said that no man is competent to judge fairly the Puritan founders of Massachusetts and Connecticut unless, in the first place, he recognizes the distinction between a settlement or colony in its infancy and a full-fledged commonwealth. A colony stands midway between the family and the state. Nor is he then qualified to judge unless he bears in mind that uniformity in religious professions and practices in a political community had been one of the ruling ideas of men from the first Christianizing of the Teutonic tribes and nations, to say nothing of the feeling and precedents deeply rooted in a remoter past. Besides the inherited theory as to the function of the state, the record of religious factions begotten of the Reformation, or occasioned by it, intensified in the fathers of New England the dread of anarchy and social demoralization. Roger Williams was one of the few who, along with many erratic notions, caught sight of the modern idea of the state as limited in its functions, and of the civil authority as holding no divine commission to repress religious error. Give him whatever credit is due to him for taking a step in advance of almost all his contemporaries. But surely John Winthrop was as good a man as Roger Williams! Certainly for no man did Williams himself cherish a deeper reverence and esteem. And, as the founder of a State, when all things are considered, Winthrop does not stand on a lower level than Williams. In such an office there is required a combination of qualities. Jefferson somewhere likens the character of the New Englanders to that of the Jews. Whatever grains of truth there are or were in this comparison, it is not altogether a reproach. Even if Jacob, in the spirit of his dealings with Esau, was not attractive, yet it has been truly said of Jacob that he was a better man to found a commonwealth than Esau. And there have been many Israelites superior to Jacob, in being without guile.
A single reflection shall bring these remarks to a close. I want to say that I have been impressed anew with the dignity of the vocation of the historian and the historical teacher, as connected with the particular function to which we have attended. Surely it is a high office to fulfill—that of rescuing from unmerited reproach the men of the past whose names have been clouded by defamation, and who can utter no word in their own defense. It is a high office, not less, to strip from the unworthy the laurels which they have no right to wear. I had just written these last sentences when there fell under my eye words of the same purport from the pen of Tacitus. In. the midst of his account of the crimes of Tiberius he pauses to say: “I hold it to be the chief function of history not to leave virtuous deeds unrecorded, and to make the reprobation of posterity a terror to evil words and acts.”22 The recollection of this great writer, of his dignity and power, emboldens me to say that to historical scholars the world must look for the awards of a righteous judgment. The nearer they come to realizing the ideal of their calling, the more will they be owned as the highest court of appeals that the limitations of our human life render possible.
13. Cicero, when threatened by Clodius, remained at his post when ways of escape were offered to him. Says Ihne: “How many a one of the valorous men who now sit in judgment on Cicero and berate him as a coward, a shuffler, would, in the same situation, have crept into a corner where he might think himself safe.” (Römische Geschichte, B. VI, s. 344.) Of the sorrow of Cicero in exile, Ihne writes: “The pains of this wounded heart, torn with grief, would fill a noble-hearted man, not with scorn and derision, but only with sympathy; for he who suffered thus was himself a noble-hearted, kindly man, one of the few of his people possessed of human feeling, removed from all hardness, cruelty, and avarice.” * * * “But we know that only one’s own experience is the touchstone for these virtues [superhuman strength of spirit and resolution], and that many a Stoic of the Study at the first lightning stroke of misfortune breaks down.” Ibid., s. 369. [back to text]
14. See Gairdner, “New lights on the divorce of Henry VIII” (in English Historical Review, Vol. XI, p. 673; Vol. XII, p. 1). See also the Review of Froude’s Supplementary Volume (in English Historical Review, Vol. II, p. 360). [back to text]
20. Bismarck, the Man and the Statesman, Vol. II, p. 101. The two telegrams are given in full by Delbrück in the Preussische Jahrbücher for October, 1895. The comments of Delbrück are clear and discriminating. They are of special service to the reader of V. Sybel’s account in his Begründing d. deutschen Reichs, Vol. VII. [back to text]
Robert Townsend 7/6/00
Text proofing and correction: Liz Townsend 8/1/00; 11/20/11
Text encoding and annotation: Robert Townsend 1/19/01
Version © 2001, American Historical AssociationLast Updated: November 21, 2011 11:48 AM