AHA Presidential Addresses
By Crane Brinton
President of the Association, 1963
This address was presented at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in the Sheraton Hotel, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, December 29, 1963. Printed in the American Historical Review, Volume. 69, Issue 2. (Jan., 1964), pp. 309-326.
Books by Crane Brinton
There is an anecdote about two Harvard professors of literature of a past generation, John Livingston Lowes and Irving Babbitt. The two were said to have debated at length before some gathering or other, Babbitt insisting on disciplined classic decorum, Lowes defending wild romantic indecorum. Hoping for the last word, Lowes finally said, “Well, Mr. Babbitt, you will at least admit that 'in my father’s house are many mansions:’” “Yes,” came the instant reply, “but they’re not all on the same level.” Now this simple tale seems to me to bring out a profound truth about us all, one of course by no means new or unfamiliar, which our generation knows best as ambivalence. Catullus put his feeling for Lesbia with true Latin verbal economy: odi et amo. This very human desire to have one’s cake and eat it, to be illogically logical, is an uncomfortable fact, and it has often been stated uncomfortably, as in George Orwell’s well-known “Commandment” from Animal Farm:
All Animals Are Equal
But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others
I am sure that you all are now aware, no doubt uncomfortably so, that this beginning means that once more a presidential address is going to be, not a competent professional job of historical writing, but another sermon, another attempt to persuade many of you that you ought to do what you really don’t want to do. But if your Presidents so often preach on these occasions, the fault is yours, or at any rate, that of long tradition in the Association, for you always choose old men as Presidents. Surely it is generally true that the disposition—the compulsion—to preach, indeed to pontificate, grows with age, and in no mere arithmetical progression. It would be nice, but rather more than revolutionary, if you could elect a historian in his thirties, in the first flush of adventurous discovery in historical research.
But let me get on with my sermon. Clio’s house is indeed a spacious one, with many different dwelling places, planned and furnished in many different styles. Some are more dignified and comfortable than others, and this is surely as it should be. I propose, of course, to urge that certain rather neglected parts deserve more attention and even that we add some new structures which must of necessity—cultural necessity, artistic necessity—be so modern, so functional, that they will contrast with the fine ripe architectural styles of the rest of the building. Before I do this, however, let me insist that there is indeed a single house, Clio’s house, and not another’s. To drop the metaphor, though I may have to pick it up again, we historians, in spite of our variety, in spite of our heresies, do share a common thing.
For the historian is bound to display what the ecologist calls species-specific behavior. I should like to illustrate this fact modestly from my own musings on the parochial Harvard anecdote with which I began. First of all, I wondered whether this Lowes-Babbitt debate really did take place; that is, by sheer conditioning I wanted to go to the sources. Babbitt was dead, but Lowes was still alive and in good health when I first heard the story. Lowes assured me when I brought it up during an after-dinner conversation that the tale was wholly apocryphal, a typical invention of some graduate student he thought, and, he added, “I was never fool enough to try to debate with Babbitt.”
But there is more. That word “mansion,” which the authors of the King James version found in the Vulgate as mansio, and in New Testament Greek in a close cognate, means in twentieth-century American usage that pretentious Victorian forty-room house the town’s richest man built at the corner of Main and Elm Streets back in the era of General Grant; the word nowadays has for us intellectuals ironic overtones it did not have in the seventeenth century. At this point I lapsed into fantasy. Jesus or the Evangelist, or both, must have had in the back of their minds, indeed almost certainly used for what we read as “mansion” an Aramaic word charged with Semitic racial memories of nomadic life and the desert, literally “a halting place,” even “a camping place.” But I have come far from Main and Elm, perhaps too far.
More important, the use Lowes was supposed to have made of this very famous and theologically most important text was surely far from what the Evangelist meant. I feel certain that you will agree that Lowes’s appeal for aesthetic pluralism, for the kind of free experimentation consonant with the climate of opinion of the century of Mill and Darwin, was not consonant with the climate of opinion in the early Christian church. In short, all of us as historians have in common at least two things: a disposition to go to the sources and a constant, sometimes nagging, awareness of change as a fact of life, an awareness that can drive us, in a basically sound fear of committing an anachronism, into neglecting not-change, or permanence. Yet what endures is surely at least as “real” as what changes.
There are, however, and there must be, many mansions in Clio’s house. Since this little sermon of mine is by no means a fire and brimstone one, since in fact I am trying so hard to be conciliatory that I may seem to some of you to be taking my cue from Dale Carnegie rather than from more orthodox preachers, let me emphasize that the older mansions are indeed roomier, better furnished, and ought to be well cared for. I think right now they are. Committees of this Association from time to time investigate the state of historical writing in this country, and conclude that we historians do not write as well as we should, that what we do write is not read by the general public, that in the academic market place written history in the great tradition is shockingly undervalued. They are fine committees, and they do good work, but their complaints seem to me to need a little countervailing. For it is unsound historically to expect in any field of human endeavor that the striking figures of the past—even of the quite recent past—will be equaled by the average, the run of the mill, of the present. And we historians, even if we are social or once new historians properly descended from James Harvey Robinson, tend to remember the striking figures of the past and forget the rest. Moreover, nostalgia is always with us—My guess is that in the year 2000 our successors will lament the passing of many-volumed history de longue haleine, such as Lawrence Gipson once wrote; the total absence of skilled writers like Samuel Morison and Garrett Mattingly who could make the past live; the dearth of thoughtful and original historians with “ideas”—blessed word—like Becker, Beard, Turner, Webb; perhaps even the lack of provocative—I really mean provoking—historians like those current Elizabethan Britishers whom I need not name.
No, those central mansions, the classic narrative history with its emphasis on politics, the well-built monograph, that still useful antechamber, the Ph.D. thesis, all the varieties of history basically constructed as a chronological sequence, seem to me to need no defense. What I should like to urge upon you here is more attention to the last three of the six varieties of history that the editor, Louis Gottschalk, lists in his contribution to a recent report on historical generalization by a committee of the Social Science Research Council. These he calls comparative history, nomothetic history, and philosophy of history. Let me note in passing that not even this committee, composed wholly of historians who are by no means hidebound conservatives professionally, could bring itself to much enthusiasm for the philosophy of history. Its report is, however, favorable to liaisons—an unfortunate word that sprang to my typewriter no doubt from Freudian depths within my psyche—favorable to closer relations with the social sciences and willing to admit to the canon both comparative and nomothetic history.
I shall not here comment further on this report, beyond urging all of you, above all those of you to whom the mention of the social sciences is as a red rag to the bull, to read it and meditate on it with that fine calm objectivity which is the boast of our profession. Nor shall I, in the rest of this address, which I am tempted to steal from my distinguished colleague and predecessor in this office W. L. Langer and call “Some Further Assignments,” work directly with Gottschalk’s suggestive analytical terms. They are useful, but as Gottschalk himself insists, no more than “labeling generalizations,” not concrete descriptions of actual individual instances. In fact I suspect that all of us have displayed in our work some modicum, if only a trace, of each of his six types, not excluding the philosophy of history.
I should like to use, however, a very simple and unphilosophical polarity, for which I shall first have recourse to two pedantic ten-dollar words, the idiographic and the nomothetic. They are indeed reasonably exact. The pole of the idiographic in historical writing is certainly uninhabited: Sorokin in his earlier career as lecturer in English is said to have described it as the “unique-icist” position. Obviously the absolutely unique could not be described in any language whatever, except perhaps in one wholly made up of proper nouns. But a disposition to hold, for example, that Napoleon was so different from Hitler, that any lumping them together as “aggressors” or “perturbers” is fundamentally a perversion of “what really happened,” or that to compare the great French Revolution with the great Russian Revolution is essentially to compare the incomparable—this is a disposition common among us, and one that is in no danger of disappearing completely.
Yet in this real world even the most “unique-icist” narrative does, must to possess any meaning for the reader, have at least a touch of the common, the universal, of law in the sense of a uniformity. In literature, the allegory and the parable, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, for instance, as narrative forms clearly flaunt this basically nomothetic purpose. But would anyone seriously maintain that Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War is not also in a sense a history of all wars between organized states? The poles are barren and icy, and in between there is always a blending tolerable to us poor ambivalent creatures. All three of the great mid-nineteenth-century American historians, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman, are obviously far out on the narrative side of an equator between the poles of narration and analysis; yet all make quite explicit statements of general truths that they just as obviously think hold good for situations other than the ones they are immediately describing. Parkman’s belief that the struggle between France and Britain in North America is evidence that Anglo-Saxon freedom under the law, together with a little salutary neglect, prevailed over French absolutism and nagging, inefficient paternalism is one that he surely thought applied in the nineteenth century and indeed would apply in the twentieth. That we cannot quite accept this belief as a uniformity of political science is beside the point. The list of historians who have, perhaps usually implicitly rather than explicitly:, made such at bottom nomothetic generalizations is long indeed, from Thucydides through Machiavelli, right down to those colleagues of ours of a recent generation I mentioned earlier. Indeed, what is usually called Turner’s frontier hypothesis or theory belongs, or should belong, as much to sociology as to history.
In spite of this last statement, I do not intend to use this occasion to urge that we historians ought to turn into social scientists. At most of our meetings serious attention is given to the relation between history and the social sciences. Some of us, on the whole, as is to be expected, rather the younger ones, are friendly toward the social sciences, and have themselves learned something about one or more of them; others, on the whole the older ones, can feel rather strongly that we historians ought to separate ourselves sharply from these raw new disciplines, pseudo science and not even pseudo art. Judging from the repercussions of the remark made last year by a sociologist at a meeting to discuss history and social studies in elementary and secondary schools—he is alleged, as most of you remember, to have begun his contribution by saying “we must begin by slaughtering that sacred cow, history”—these hostile feelings are reciprocated. We have here one of those interesting group conflicts among intellectuals over the peck order among their disciplines, which we historians ought to be able to summon the detachment and interest to study in their historical backgrounds, for of course they are not unprecedented. Recall Swift’s outraged superiority to the scientists—or were they philosophers?—of Laputa.
For what I really want to urge now is, not that we try to become social scientists ourselves, but first, that we interest ourselves in the kind of problems they have formulated and give these problems the historical dimensions they usually very badly need to be understood effectively; and second, since I have used that word “effectively,” that we try to broaden our audience to include that large part of the educated public interested in these problems of human relations. Once more, of course, we already do both these things. Only for economics and political science, however, do we fulfill the first need quite thoroughly. As for the second, though many of us fulfill it admirably, most of us, I think, are held back from attempting what the French call oeuvres de vulgarisation primarily by a certain scholarly ethos in itself admirable. Parenthetically, since I seem to have got in the rut of tossing off further assignments in all directions, let me say that what I have called a scholarly ethos is one of those shared sentiments which the now almost forgotten Pareto called residues and which, like the whole set of relations between intellectual groups and other groups in a given society, are crying for attention from those who have been trained as historians.
Right now, just to be outrageous, I suggest that we—some of us—take on the task suggested by those horrid words, essayist and publicist. I will not go quite so far in indecency as to use the even more horrid words journalist and columnist. There is in my opinion nowadays a special set of reasons why historians in particular should take on some of this task, which is quite obviously a socially necessary task in any society, and in particular in an advanced open society. It is a task always done, whether those who do it are called prophets, priests, philosophers, philosophes, journalists, psychoanalysts, or even scientists. In this mid-twentieth century, however, a special set of problems demands—and gets, witness Toynbee, or better, the remarkably successful combination of Toynbee, Somervell, and Time magazine—treatment in what has to be called historical perspective. To make this clear will demand a brief and unscholarly excursion into the kind of history I am here urging be done carefully, thoroughly, with all our professional resources.
An indeterminate but certainly very great number of human beings, to judge from the record of the past, have a need to feel that they understand the structure and purpose of the universe and their place and prospects in it. That need was, and most certainly still is, for many in Western society satisfied for the last two millennia by a remarkable set of explanations, counselings, and consolations, the Christian religion. There have in that long time span been many attacks from within and without on Christianity, and in particular on its basic dualism of the City of God and the City of Earth, the divine and the human, the supernatural and the natural. Of course for most Christians this dualism has been very satisfactorily, both for the intellect and for the sentiments, reconciled with, indeed converted into, a monism by a means not wholly unlike those necessary ambivalences with which I began this address, and which I do not wish to appear to scorn. But certainly to the painfully logical, as to the Moslems, the doctrine of the Trinity is a way of having your monotheistic cake and eating a polytheistic one.
The basic structure of Christian belief survived, however, not without heresies and schisms, until, roughly, the late seventeenth century when there arose in our society what seems to me clearly to be a new religion, certainly related to, descended from, and by many reconciled with, Christianity. I call this religion simply Enlightenment, with a capital E. The more radical among its faithful, and especially the sect known as Marxists or dialectical materialists, claim that they have no religion, and some of us take them at their word. Let me note here only that Enlightenment does have a theory of the structure of the universe, or a cosmology, which is certainly a thorough-going monism—all is Nature, and Nature is all—but also that its ethics are at least as vigorously dualistic as the Christian, but with the good as the natural, and the bad as the unnatural. The Marxists even have that most necessary figure, Satan, in the form of the capitalist; less rigorous Enlightened ones have made the unfortunate attempt to do without a Satan. I must not get too wrapped up in this subject, which some of you I know regard as my King Charles’s head. Sufficient to note finally that the Enlightened share a teleological view of man’s place in the universe summarized in words like progress and evolution and that again the Marxists with their thoroughly eschatological concept of the classless society come closest to a quite definite surrogate for the Christian heaven—but a heaven to be on this earth, and in a relatively near future. For the less radical Enlightened there may well be no such Marxist utopia in sight, but the Enlightened faith is surely always optimistic about the possibilities of an increasingly happier life for all men on this earth.
In sum, there are in the West a great number, all told in the millions, and especially numerous among the educated and privileged classes, who cannot, even in its most recent and most subtle theological forms, in the work of a Tillich, for example, accept the basic Christian transcendental world view, cannot accept as real in any sense the Christian City of God, but do expect, long for, sometimes firmly believe in, a City of Earth transformed—usually by the grace of science and reason—into a City of God built of, for, and by human beings, Homo sapiens, a primate mammal of the Pleistocene, perhaps even earlier.
Now the great founders of this Enlightenment were subtle minds, and recent work in the history of ideas has quite rightly emphasized that they were not shallow rationalists, that they did not believe in the natural goodness and/or rationality of man, and that they did not expect heaven on earth shortly. Certainly Voltaire, one of the great if not the greatest of the culture heroes (or, my King Charles’s head again, prophets) of Enlightenment, did not expect it at all. And yet there is always Condorcet, whom even Peter Gay would have trouble turning into a political realist, and who did indeed believe his blissful tenth epoch was just around the corner. Moreover, those who, like Helvetius, Fourier, in a sense even Bentham, did not wholly believe in the natural goodness and/or rationality of the many, and did believe the many to be creatures of passion, prejudice, and habit, in short, irrational, nonetheless held that skilled cultural engineers like themselves could devise ways to bring heaven to earth quite soon. I will be content, however, with this restrained proposition: as the ideas of these thinkers of the Enlightenment seeped down into the heads and hearts of the many, they did create a state of mind, a set of expectations that I shall summarize, badly I fear, as folk rationalism and folk optimism.
In the last two centuries or so, however, a current of opinion, a philosophy, even perhaps as a natural science and therefore of course trustworthy, a psychology, has come to the conclusion that Homo sapiens is not only not a fully rational creature, but shows no signs of becoming. one in the foreseeable future. The old, the inevitable, the tragic dualism crops up in a new form, or at least in new words. The human mind, it is held, can indeed work rationally, logically, can produce the kind of empirically verifiable propositions we call loosely scientific laws or uniformities. This scientific knowledge can with the cooperation of engineers, businessmen, government agents, and others be used to alter, often to transform our material environment in ways far beyond the dreams of even a Condorcet or an Edward Bellamy. Under certain conditions, by means of this scientific knowledge, supplemented with that subtly different American variation on the French savoir-faire, “know-how,” some human beings can alter the behavior of other human beings. Perhaps this kind of knowledge can be used by one human being to alter his own behavior, but here it seems to me that rational conviction cannot do the work of emotional conversion. As yet, at least, reason cannot in our unconscious do the work of grace.
In short, in this view, the human mind, even the mind of the scientist, the cultural tagineer, the New, Fair, or Square Dealer, is in a by no means fully understood, but certainly limiting and conditioning, relation with an x—indeed a y, z, and n—built into us all. I suppose “will” is a good word—for this x, or these n, though there are many others, from “sentiment” and “emotion” to “instinct,” “id,” and “species—specific behavior.” Indeed the very rational David Hume himself put the matter as pithily as anyone has: reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions.
All this is by no means new. Some of this realism—or pessimism, or just nonoptimism—about human nature and the possibilities of its perfectibility under any environment is found in all folklore, all mythology. Traces of it survive among the folk even in the United States, and rather more than traces in the part of Vermont I know best where, if we were not talking of Americans we might talk of peasant pessimism. But the general tone of American world views—excuse this awkward translation from the German, but I have never found a good equivalent term—is strongly optimistic and rationalistic. Most of you must have noted, as I have, among American students the almost universal appeal to the economic motive in the form of cui bono as an explanation of all history, and especially as an explanation of the causes of all wars, and even more especially, as an explanation of the break between North and South in 1861. Some of this is due no doubt to youthful cynicism, which goes along with youthful optimism and high ideals (remember, ambivalence of ambivalence, all is ambivalence). But it seems to me that much of it is a result of American eighteenth-century heritage of rationalism: granted a few fundamental Euclidean axioms such as that we all try to buy in the cheapest and sell in the dearest market, much of economics really is a sound, rational body of knowledge, perhaps, alas, the sole scientific one we have about human relations. Hence, in part, I am convinced, our rather touching American reliance on it as a master clue to all human behavior.
Note please that I am here trying very hard to reason about the unreasonable. This is, however, no real paradox, but merely a rather vulgar example of verbal inadequacies. Such an inadequacy too is the assertion, a true one, that it takes an intellectual to be an anti‑intellectual. Let us smile slightly at such pseudo paradoxes, and get on. What I wish to bring out of these high and difficult matters is this: however important the non-rational x in us may be, many, perhaps most, human beings want to feel that they understand rationally the universe and their place in it. Christianity, for all its tortured history of heresies and schisms, supplied and supplies working answers to such questions. So too did and does Enlightenment. But Christianity can find ultimate sanction in a divine source in one sense above, beyond, outside mere history. Enlightenment—and this I have been leading up to no doubt much too wordily—has to explain the cosmic process and man’s place in it from within that very process, that is, from and by history. The late V. Gordon Childe, an Enlightened Australian anthropologist and prehistorian, summed it up in a book title: Man Makes Himself. Marx‑Engels and such contemporary American exponents of “cultural evolution” as Leslie White have taken volumes to explain how man has done this, and how he is getting on with the job. There is today a certain tendency, especially among the literary, to conclude that the job has been badly botched of late.
Poor Clio has thus found herself, no longer just a muse, but a whole pantheon, if not a sexless monistic deity. History is all you need to know—history and of course science and other practical matters. It is indeed a shame that Clio has had thrust upon her this burden, one she cannot possibly bear. And, though some of us are indeed faithful of the religion of the Enlightenment, and though some of us, I think for instance of Harry Elmer Barnes, have helped put this load on our modest muse, we historians have for the most part had little to do directly with making history serve as a cosmology, a teleology, an eschatology. I do not think, however, that we can be acquitted—many of us would not want to be so acquitted—of the charge that we have uncritically accepted the folk optimism and folk rationalism of the last few centuries. Morris Cohen, after all only a philosopher, as one could tell from the title of the book from which I quote, The Meaning of Human History, perhaps puts it too strongly when he writes, “Liberal historians have sinned in believing in steady, inevitable progress and minimizing the powers of darkness.” Here too we deal with a fine subject for further comparative historical investigation, the problem of the cultural generation. The younger generation of historians, it seems to me, have begun to believe in sin, and in avoiding it.
Still, for the most part we professional historians have gone about our idiographic business in monographs, articles, even textbooks, with no more than limited excursions into comparative or nomothetic historical writing, and with none at all into the philosophy of history. Or rather, when one of us, like Toynbee, himself a good historian by background and training, goes into the philosophy of history, we drum him—and “drum” is the word for those reviews we gave him—out of our ranks, and when in later life Beard forsakes the innocent American Vulgar‑Marxismus of his economic interpretation of the Constitution, and takes up with the Hegelian Croce, we frown.
Let me insist that I do not mean to urge we imitate Toynbee, let alone Croce‑Hegel. But I do suggest that we ought to recognize that written history has by the very course of history-as‑events taken on a new importance, in a sense an altogether new role in Western cultural life. At a minimum, we should seek, as to be fair many of us are now doing, to understand how written history came to have that role, and just how, even though we ourselves did little to help it, indeed merely accepted and reflected it almost unconsciously, written history has played that role; or put another way, that as intellectual historians we pay more attention, especially for the last two centuries, to what the Germans call Wissenssoziologie. At a maximum I suggest we try, very tentatively, very professionally, our hands at something close to philosophical history; or put another way, that we try to show the educated public how far history—respectable history, the kind we do—can answer, and how far it cannot answer, that impossible and unavoidable question: Whither Mankind? We should bring to both these tasks the very great virtues—may I call them the virtues of the scientific attitude?—we have in the past brought to the perhaps simpler tasks of narrative political, institutional, and economic history.
But let me try to be more concrete, and indicate a few broad lines of possible further assignments. All of them have in common, not a requirement that we abandon our prized objectivity, but a requirement that we accept the limitations on, the qualifications of, such objectivity imposed by that view of the workings of the human mind I have touched upon briefly just now. We can at least try to live with, record, and in a sense understand the inevitable nonsolutions of such pressing problems as are indicated by the contradictions of neutralism and commitment, progress and retrogression, faith and skepticism, absolutism and relativism. This last pair suggests another academic anecdote, this time from Stanford, about a candidate for the Ph.D., one of whose profoundly pluralistic, relativistic, William Jamesian examiners after badgering the candidate a good deal remarked, “Mr. Smith, you are an absolutist aren’t you?” “Well, sir,” replied the candidate, “I suppose I am ... relatively.” And, though it is now fashionable in some quarters to attack historical relativism, it is still true that every man is his own historian [c.f. Carl Lotus Becker’s 1931 presidential address, “Everyman His Own Historian”]; it is also true, as Becker himself well knew, that not every man is a good historian. Were I to put the matter this way, every man is his own digester, but not every man has a good digestion, I’m sure you’d all accept it. We historians can get along very well with this kind of relativism; in fact, we can’t get far along without it.
We ought also, I think, to ease up a bit on our reluctance, usually in fact our refusal, to follow what diagnoses we may make with any kind of prognosis. Let me repeat that we ought not to imitate Toynbee in his role of prophet, though there is no reason why we should not from time to time make fairly long‑term guesses as to how far and in what directions the human stuff, the human group, are likely to change, or if you prefer, be changed. What I do suggest is that we be willing to accept the role of counselor, that we pronounce ourselves on specific concrete problems within our sphere of competence, as some of our bolder members are already doing. For in its simple form, the dictum that we cannot learn from history is surely nonsense in any partially rational world. If we cannot learn from history, many of us moderns, and certainly the Enlightened, aren’t going to learn at all. Of course, this last possibility may not be altogether ruled out. But let me in the rest of this address try to get down to cases.
First, a minor instance from last summer’s newspapers. A summer camp in the Ramapos, Leftish, experimental, high‑mindedly directed, decided to open a branch in North Carolina. Even in that vale of humility and liberalism, the inhabitants, indignant at tales of the horrid practices of these members of the American Comsomol, rose up, burned the gymnasium, and drove the campers out. Now as a problem worth giving the depth of comparative history to, this one of the extent to which and the conditions under which a given community will permit social experimentation is a most interesting one, and one on which the historian, and not just the historian of modern times, can find a good deal of material. It is also a problem in which a reasonable knowledge of history, even of American history alone, might have helped in decision making. Note that although there were rumors that the camp was racially integrated, this was apparently not so, and the chief motive for the move to North Carolina seems, to have been the convenience and the agreeableness of the campsite, and just possibly, for I do not altogether rule out the economic among the variables, its inexpensiveness. I assume then that the director did not primarily seek southern converts to his outrageous views. Surely if he had been able to appreciate what happened to John Humphrey Noyes in Putney, Vermont, to the Mormons at various points in New York State and westward, to various nudist camps in our own time, he would never have left the Ramapos.
On this problem of community toleration of social experimentation history can teach us a perhaps useful patience and a surely useful humility. In front of a pleasant, white clapboarded house in the pleasant village of Canterbury, Connecticut, there is a pleasant signboard informing the tourist that here in 1833 Prudence Crandall opened a school for Negro girls. The passing tourist, especially if he is a Yankee, is sure to glow with pride as he reads; he is likely to feel a bit more holier than thou. There is, however, plenty of room on that signboard for what to any historian, in contrast with a public relations man, is an essential further sentence: “The violent actions of her fellow‑townsmen, backed by an act of the Connecticut General Assembly, forced Miss Crandall to close her school in the following year.”
Second, there is the problem of just what the occupation of lands uninhabited or inhabited only sparsely by technologically inferior peoples does to the culture of the new occupiers. I take it most of us would now agree that the work of Turner is so largely based on the experience of the settlement of the Old Northwest Territory as to be in effect a single case history (how Turner would have hated to hear it called that!). Yet surely with the addition of other case histories, in New France, in New Spain, in Siberia, in South Africa, and elsewhere it should be possible to arrive at some generalizations that might make it easier for us to deal with many contemporary problems in this age of decolonization.
Here we confront what I admit is a major difficulty. Years ago I suggested to one of Turner’s most distinguished pupils that his ideas would make a good interpretive lead for a broad human geographic study of the kind I just suggested. “Nonsense,” he said, “it’s impossible—no one could master adequately more than one such field.” I must not here let myself go off too far on a tangent. I think the scholar, as contrasted with the natural scientist, tries too hard to garner every fact possibly relevant to his research, refuses to generalize on less than what he fondly hopes is a complete collection of all possibly relevant facts. (Fond hope indeed: colleagues reviewing his book, even if he takes thirty years to write it, will remind him of the readily available materials he failed to take into account.) Still, the difficulty is a real one, and I do not wish to minimize it. I do not think that collaborative historical writing is quite the answer. To the outsider at least it looks as though collaborative research in the natural sciences works better, but that may be an illusion. At any rate, it should be possible for some of us with the suitable temperament to do a better job than is usually done of synthesizing from the great number of competent monographic studies in existence.
My third instance is right down my own alley. I should like to discuss briefly, and with special emphasis on learning from comparative history, a specific phase of the sociology of revolution, that is, intervention in a country undergoing revolution by émigrés from that country, supported by the government of another country that finds the revolution distasteful, even dangerous, to itself. Perhaps modern history would give an adequate number of cases. They would not be identical, and it would be quite impossible to do anything ambitious in the way of quantification which our policy maker could feed into a computer and get an answer: the intervention will fail; or, the intervention will succeed. But let me go out on what I think is no limb, but a sturdy trunk: if the policy makers who planned the operation that ended so disastrously in the Bay of Pigs had tried to put together materials from the British supported descent of French émigrés on the Quiberon Peninsula in 1795, from various European interventions in the early nineteenth century, mostly Metternich inspired, from the Russian intervention in Hungary in 1849—and indeed that in 1956—and from the various interventions in Russia from 1918 on, I think they would have had to conclude that the proposed expedition was a very risky one indeed. They might even have been willing to formulate roughly and in purely common‑sense terms some such proposition as this: if a revolution seems to have the support of at least important elements of the population, if it appeals to nationalistic as well as class loyalties, if it is led by determined men, the odds are that the only way to suppress it quickly and surely is for a stronger outside power to go in with adequate military forces and occupy the country. Your policy makers may still want to gamble even against impossible odds; they may not even wish to gamble at all. I have just said, however, that history cannot answer our deepest questions, which are moral questions.
I have time only to mention a fourth problem, a very broad one with all sorts of ramifications, and one very much talked and written about nowadays. It is a problem, or set of problems, hard to put succinctly, but phrases such as “anti‑intellectualism,” “alienation of the intellectuals,” the “intellectual classes,” and the like will identify its scope well enough. First of all, some solid careful work on definition is needed, for the term “anti-intellectual” in particular has been so bandied about in all sorts of media as to be of almost no use even in a sermon. Perhaps, however, we may come to agree to differentiate its use to describe a philosophical position on the role of thinking, or of all kinds of symbolic expression, in human life from its use to describe a sociological phenomenon, the attitudes and behavior of—forgive my indecent and un‑American concreteness here—factory workers, craftsmen, businessmen, dirt farmers, white‑collar workers, domestics, and housewives, from the attitudes and behavior of writers, actors, artists, and people like us here tonight. The sociological kind of anti‑intellectualism is more manageable for most of us, and right now I think more important to study. Richard Hofstadter has recently tried his hand at it, but in my opinion he is not quite clear whether he is using anti‑intellectualism in what I call its philosophical sense or in its sociological sense, and, I may add, he seems a bit too surprised and indignant at what he finds. Moreover, though anti-intellectualism in this country makes a perfectly good case history, it needs to be supplemented by case studies of the attitudes and behavior of other groups toward the intellectual classes in other countries, certainly in other major Western countries, and not by any means confined to modern times. I think some American writers and even historians, were they to study the role of intellectuals like themselves in other times and places, might possibly feel a little less martyred than they now do. This would be a good thing for us all, for martyrs are surely bad for a stable society, however essential they are for a revolutionary one. I need hardly insist that the United States appears to be, in spite of journalists and broadcasters, a stable society.
This last is close to the forbidden ground of the philosophy of history. Yet I must confess that I find the Nietzschean and Spenglerian contrast of the warrior type and the priest type interesting and worth sober pursuit. Obviously this is an oversimple dualism for even a quite simple society, let alone for ours. Yet ruling classes, elites (dread word!), would appear to have both elements, to use medieval terms, those who follow the vita activa and those who follow the vita contemplativa, and the way these elements are blended or separated must be most important for any society. But I must make some effort to conclude these remarks.
I have sought in this address to bring out two major themes, first, that since written history has to deal with everything it can find about the behavior of that complicated creature Homo sapiens, there must be an almost infinite variety of historical writing, which we ought to try hard not to order in any kind of peck order, or at least in no harsh and intolerant peck order. I trust this position is not merely sloppy eclecticism, but rather good democratic sense. Second, I have urged that, without ordering them into higher and lower, legitimate and illegitimate kinds of history, we ought to cultivate a bit more than we do the comparative, the nomothetic, and even the philosophical.
How well I have managed the orchestration of these themes I do not know. But I do need a coda, and here it is. We historians in the United States in mid‑twentieth century are members of a great and successful democratic society that believes in progress and the possibilities of rational solution for most of the difficulties confronting us. These difficulties are so grave that many of us—recall that I have just used the now cant phrase, “alienation of the intellectuals”—seem to have come to the conclusion that “something went wrong” recently in history‑as‑events. I confess that I am still enough in what David Potter in the report on historical generalizations I have previously mentioned calls the “long shadow” of the founders of professional academic history in this country to feel that this “something went wrong” attitude toward a whole civilization is not one a historian should assume, and I trust I have not here tonight assumed it. Yet at the very least, I think, we ought to be explicit in pointing out that some things have always gone wrong, that some problems facing us are, in terms of a lifetime or more, literally insoluble, that no one, not even the Supreme Court, not even a great corps of psychoanalysts freely available, as heaven knows psychoanalysts are not now, inexpensively to every citizen, can ensure that the pursuit of happiness shall be for all the achievement of happiness.
I have so far kept autobiography—always a temptation to the aging—out of this address, but I must bring in a touch of it. Though I tell myself I really have no cosmological views, no need to understand the universe, can take the possibly solvable and even the unsolvable problems as they come, I certainly have my lapses, in one of which I read the late Sir Charles Galton Darwin’s The Next Million Years. Darwin’s own view of “whither mankind” is simple: Homo sapiens in his first hundred thousand years or so has shown all he can do; he cannot do better. To do better will take an altogether new species, which will need a million years to evolve. Meanwhile, history will simply be more of the same, war on war, peace on peace, century on century.
This is indeed a bleak view, and one I should not wholly espouse. But I find it more convincing than any utopia, or any antiutopia. I do not think it is a view that is likely to be widely adopted. Clio—I am now restoring her to her old position of muse of history—can offer a kind of consolation, that the bad as well as the good of everyday life is never wholly new and therefore, perhaps, never wholly unbearable. Not even the horrendous prospects of an end of the world which some feel that nuclear physicists, and the rest of us, have made possible are wholly unique. St. John the Evangelist surely had at least as firm a conception of a possible end of the world as has Linus Pauling. I admit that the Evangelist did not fight as hard against such an apocalypse as does the chemist, possibly because, though both have hells, only one has a heaven. To the historian the two situations are indeed very different, but remember that similarity and difference, permanence and change, are not polar opposites, but blending and complementary elements of the structure of our minds, conscious and unconscious, and conceivably, of the universe. Fear, as well as hope, springs eternal in the human breast.
I do not for a moment think that we should repudiate—for we can’t repudiate them—the rationalist and optimistic traditions in which we, as Americans, are more particularly brought up. I urge no cult of unreason, but merely the recognition of the stubborn existence of something other than reason, call it unreason if you must, in us all. At this point I may note that in a sense I have been discovering America, battering away at wide‑open doors. C. Vann Woodward has only recently written in the New York Times for July 28, 1963, that “historians have grown increasingly impatient with an simple and deterministic interpretations, economic determinism included.... With help from psychology and sociology they look for complexity rather than simplicity in human motivation. They pursue myth and symbol and the irrational with an interest once reserved for rational economic motives.” I think it possible that our colleague, himself well up front, has mistaken the scouts and the avant‑garde generally for the main body of the troops; which body seems to me still a bit further behind than he infers, still fearful of the irrational, indeed still fearful of psychology as a trap for the unwary. Institutions are so much simpler, or appear to be so, than the men who run them, or if not simpler, at least more concrete, more free from horrid ambivalences.
I should like to take Professor Woodward’s point here and indeed the tenor of his whole article, which has the title “Our Past Isn’t What It Used to Be,” for a final summing up. He, or a Times editor, means by this title that historians of our American past nowadays interpret much of that past differently from the way their immediate predecessors interpreted it. With this relativistic and Beckerlike conclusion I most certainly agree. But it seems to me that we are still applying our new insights to the old problems, still asking the old questions. We still want to know why the American Civil War broke out when and as it did. We still shy off the big—fearfully big, I admit—question the sociologist has the courage to ask though often not the historical perspective to answer satisfactorily: when and under what conditions does conflict, instead of being repressed or resolved or transcended, break out into open violence in advanced civilized societies? We still want to trace as a succession, or as a not‑succession, the line of Populism‑Progressivism‑McCarthyism instead of attempting a careful sociological and psychological study in a good sample of societies past and present of the actual role or roles of, and popular attitudes toward, intellectuals in open democratic societies.
And, I fear—forgive this really outrageous suggestion that we have anything at all in common with writers of fiction—we still very much want to find a happy ending or at least a prospect of such. We still resist, not merely the pessimistic view of man born to trouble, but the tragic view of man forever torn between whatever symbols he may use for good and evil. But great is the truth and it shall prevail? Surely this as historians we must believe. But though from St. Socrates on, men have equated the true and the good, they have not commonly meant by “true” the uniformities discerned by what we know best as the scientific mind. We can hardly afford in this world of ours to hold that “great is the good, and it shall prevail,” whether we call the good the pursuit of happiness, or the categorical imperative, or the greatest utility for the greatest number, or, for that matter in our psychoanalytical age, satisfactory personal adjustment. But I am betraying once more my conditioning as a historian, and in the unfashionable form of trying to revive the past. You see, I am really asking that we become Stoics, a little less consecrated than the old Roman Stoics, less resigned, more earthy, but still Stoics. This is, of course, impossible, for not even intellectual history repeats itself. Or does it, perhaps?
Crane Brinton, was McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History at Harvard University at the time of his presidency. He was also the author of The Jacobins: An Essay in the New History (1930), English Political Thought in the 19th-century (2nd edition, 1949), Ideas and Men: the Story of Western Thought (1950), The Shaping of the Modern Mind (1953), and A History of Western Morals (1959).[back to top]
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