The Writing of History (1926)
The Historian’s Work
By Jean Jules Jusserand, former ambassador from France and President of the American Historical Association
How history should be written has been the subject of ardent discussions ever since history has been written. The complaint that the method is not what it should be is a millennial one; it was loud in Greek and Roman times and has been renewed since, sometimes with acerbity, in most of the civilized nations.
The chief reason is not that the problem is so difficult, but that, as history deals with individuals, families, and nations, it excites passions, and passions do not facilitate the solution of problems.
But for passion, the question would appear simple enough to open-minded people. To remember what is history is indeed to solve the problem.
History is not simply an art, nor simply a science; as the accompanying papers well show, it participates in the nature of both. In the hunt for facts and the ascertaining of truth, the historian must be as conscientious as the scientist. In the presentation he must be an artist, a true one, not one of those who favor vain embellishments and are not, therefore, true artists (vilia miretur vulgus), but of those who bring you as near as possible to the realities, showing them as they are, in their glory or their misery, simply putting between the reader and the facts a transparent, crystal-like glass, not a colored one.
Art is selection. Historians must select; they can not write history life-size; among thousands of facts they have to choose those especially important or especially characteristic. “An inconspicuous action,” says Plutarch, “a word, a joke, will ofttimes better reveal a character than the bloodiest fights or the most important battles and sieges.“ A heavy responsibility rests with historians; they must have prepared themselves by thought, method, study, observation, and hard work, to judge well.
And this responsibility is now all their own. They have no longer the excuse of censorship. They have not to apprehend the interference of a James I, reproving a Raleigh for his too severe judgments on Spain, or of a Napoleon rebuking even long-dead Tacitus for having been too hard on emperors. They can freely speak their minds; they are all-powerful. But this boon carries with it terrible dangers. Limitless power is begotten of tyrants. Only well- tempered souls can resist the lure: the whole course of history is an evidence thereof. Has it never happened even in our days that some newspapers acted as tyrants, all-powerful, unchecked, practically irresponsible?
The honest man, the honest historian, will check himself and be his own censor, or, in other words, will take for his censors and guiding lights Learning, Truth, Justice.
The historian’s means of communication with the public is writing, as color is for painters. An historian who uses so dull a style that he will not be read is as useless as a painter who should use invisible colors. He is, moreover, sure not to do justice to realities, thus swerving from truth, for realities are not dull. Those for whom they are so suffer from a dull mind and a dull heart. In them is the fault, not in the things.
All this has been said thousands of years ago, and would have been said then once for all if those same passions, if waywardness, if personal interest had not periodically clouded the issue, so that the same axioms have had to be periodically enunciated again.
A century and a half before Christ, Polybius was writing: “Truth is for history what eyes are for animals. Remove the eyes of animals, they become useless; remove truth from history, it is no longer of any use. Whether friends or foes be in question, we must only follow justice. . . . What must serve as a foundation for the historian’s judgment is not the men who did the deeds, but the deeds themselves. . . . The historian must not try to move his readers by tales of wonder, nor imagine what may have been said. . . . This he must leave to tragic poets and limit himself to what has been really said or done.”
Eighteen centuries ago Lucian of Samosata assigned to himself just the same task that the American Historical Association has assigned to us, the members of its committee, and he tried to point out “the way history should be written.” His chief conclusions might be adopted by our committee. The historian, according to him, must be above all truthful, impartial, fearless. “His only duty is to relate what has happened; he will be unable to say it if he is afraid of Artaxerxes, whose physician he is. . . Incorruptible, independent, a friend of truth and sincerity, he must, as the comic poet says, call a fig a fig, and a bark a bark, allowing nothing to hatred nor to love, sparing nobody out of friendship, shame, or respect, an impartial judge prejudiced against no one, granting to all their due.” A history without truth is a history without use. A poet “can tie winged horses to a chariot; he can cause chariots to fly over the waters”; an historian can not. “Praise and blame must be moderate, bestowed with circumspection, free from calumny and flattery.”
His style will be “steady and quiet, perfectly luminous. . . . The chief, the only, aim of style is to put facts in a clear light, with no concealment, no obsolete words nor words having a smack of the tavern or the public square. His terms must be, at the same time, intelligible to the vulgar and approved by the experts. . . . Brevity is always commendable, but especially when you have much to say.” A style that delights will not be blamed; on the contrary, “it has its usefulness, as beauty enhances the merit of an athlete”; but the athlete and history can at need do without it.
This tuition was often resumed in the course of ages by men who, in order to give it, did not need to remember any predecessors, but only to consider what history is. The rules for writing history, said Cicero, in a well-known passage of his De Oratore, “are obvious. Who does not perceive that its chief law is never to dare say anything false, and never dare withhold anything true? The slightest suspicion of hatred or favor must be avoided. That such should be the foundations is known to all; the materials with which the building will be raised consist of facts and words.”
The same in the modern world. Long before Ranke rendered his memorable services to history, the well-known author of the De Republica, Jean Bodin, wrote on the threshold of his Methodus ad facilem Historiarum Cognitionem: “History, that is to say a truthful narrative” (“Historia, id est vera narratio”), 1566.
Truth thus being the rule, facts being the material out of which the building will be raised by that combination of artist and scientist which the true historian, the true architect, should be—facts must be sought for, sifted, tested, so that imitation marble be not accepted instead of marble, nor painted plaster instead of stone. Hence that immense effort, till then unparalleled, due chiefly to the French Benedictines of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to do an honest mason’s work and place reliable material at the disposal of the architect, of the historian. “I attempt a new kind of antiquarian research,” wrote Mabillon at the beginning of his De Re Diplomatica, 1681. “It concerns those old documents which, by common agreement, are the historian’s chief guide, provided they be genuine.” He will show how this material should be assayed.
Montfaucon, another Benedictine, is careful always to quote his sources: “I have composed this history (Les Monumens de la Monarchie Francoise, 179) on the originals themselves, ever quoting in the margin of my Latin text the authors and chronologists whom I have used, often giving their very words, especially when they are not clear and may be interpreted in different ways.” The reader will decide. He has always gone to the earliest sources, never “adorning his narrative at the expense of truth.”
Bouquet begins in 1738 the publication of his immense Recueil des historians des Gaules et de la France. “Each volume,” he announces in his introduction, “will include a preface and critical notes and tables. Dates will be inscribed on the margin when not given in the text and will be rectified when there is need.”
“ Without a trustworthy chronology,” says Francois Clément, also a Benedictine, the author of the huge Art de vérifier les Dates, “history would be but a darksome chaos”; he will come to the help of all those who, interested in history, “study it in its sources, read charters, original deeds, and try to interpret medals and inscriptions.”
The like had never been seen. “No page in the annals of learning,” says Gooch, “is more glorious than that which records the labors of these humble but mighty scholars.” (History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (1913), p. 4.) The example was followed; historians were staggered. “The universal progress of science during the two last centuries, the art of printing, and other obvious causes have filled Europe with such a multitude of histories and with such vast collections of historical material, that the term of human life is too short for the study or even the perusal of them.” So wrote William Robertson, 1769, in the preface of a history, not of the world nor of a nation, but of a man, Emperor Charles V.
What would he say to-day? For the impetus has not slackened; far from it; research has become more and more exact, and its field, which now includes economic and social problems, art, manners, scientific and all other kinds of progress, moral improvements or retrogressions, has ceaselessly increased, all nations vying with each other, Germany playing in her turn a conspicuous part in the work, England printing or calendaring the vast treasure of her records, and America showing, especially of late years, praiseworthy zeal and efficiency.
The materials are thus within the reach of all, abundant, assayed, reliable. History is, however, less popular in America, we are told, less read, less enjoyed than in times gone by. In the flux and reflux of human tastes and dispositions, this is probably but a temporary phase; and it will be shortened if would-be historians and those who teach them remember the above-mentioned fundamental principles of the genre.
They are, as we have seen, simple enough. To the utmost that is humanly possible, history must conform to truth, and this is made comparatively easy by the new methods more and more abundantly and skilfully taught in the universities, and by the accumulated wealth of accessible documents; it must, at the same time, be as interesting as life itself, which again is comparatively easy for any one who knows how to look at life. Men and nations toil, labor, try, fail, suffer, succeed, love, hate, discover, stumble, die. It seems scarcely credible that it be possible to present a true picture of such events and not be interesting.
Students there be who have failed in this out of fear, overawed by the stately pronouncement of some that if history is interesting it can not be scientific, and if it is scientific it can not be interesting. For safety they have made a display of their science, pleased a few critics, and frightened away the public. There is, of course, no truth in such a dictum; the more scientific, the fuller of life history should be, since it would present a more direct picture of life. The proofs, the references, the discussions of most points should be put at their proper place; that is, in the notes and appendices. The cook has to peel his potatoes, but he does not peel them on the dining-room table.
The men presented to the reader have been alive in their day; they must, if our knowledge of the period allows, be presented to him as they were when alive, not mere simulacra, empty names. “I do not know a man,” said Fénelon, “by knowing only his name.” The same with nations, pictures of which reduced to wars and princely deeds have long ceased to suffice. “After having read two or three thousand descriptions of battles and the text of some hundreds of treaties, I found,” said Voltaire, “that I was scarcely better informed than before.”
In a lecture on “Picturesqueness in History” (Cornhill Magazine, March, 1897), the historian of the papacy, Bishop Creighton (who rightly notes that it is “not absolutely necessary to be dull in order to prove that you can write”), seems to imply that picturesqueness is the attribute of great men and great events, so that the writer prone to avail himself of this element of interest and success runs the risk of “passing hastily from one strongly marked personality to another, from one striking event to another.” But such a writer should not write at all, since he does not know how to see. The simplest lives may chance to be as picturesque as any. What simpler, yet what more picturesque than the life of the Vicar of Wakefield ! Many people have elbowed him without suspecting it, because they do not know how to see. But a Goldsmith sees it and makes us see it.
The situation is somewhat different in France; more heated, one might almost say more rabid, than ever before, discussions rent, some years ago, the quiet halls of Clio, and the problem of how history should be taught and written, over which our minds were ever busy (Daunou’s Cours d’ études historiques is in twenty volumes. Posthumously published, 1842. The lectures had been delivered at the Collège de France 1819 et seq), was the subject of contests as passionate as if the question had been of a social reform or a change in the constitution. The very bitterness of the dispute was a proof of the prime importance attached to the historical art. History is, in fact, abundantly read in France, no work of this sort with any merit in it fails to find readers; reviews meant, not for specialists, but for the general public, like the Revue des Deux Mondes, the Revue de Paris, the Correspondant, the Revue de France, etc., accept with alacrity articles on historical subjects. Each volume of the Histoire de la Nation Francaise published under the editorship of M. Hanotaux, and which will be in fifteen volumes, has twenty thousand purchasers secure on the day it is issued. Over twenty thousand copies have been sold of the monumental Histoire de France of Lavisse, in twenty-eight volumes, the last of which appeared in 1922.For the adoption of a proper style in historical works, clear as plate-glass, the French student is prepared by his national love of clarity and logic, by the nature and complexion of his own native language, and by the tuition he receives. This tuition is, so to say, of every instant and begins almost from childhood. The use by children of an inappropriate word is oftener than not checked at the family board; much more at college, where, moreover, the study of the classics, the themes and versions, the reading of the best authors, discipline the young minds, oblige them to ascertain the real value of an expression, to discard redundant words, to avoid the vain flourish of useless epithets and adverbs. Visiting England in 1710, G. L. Lesage, a Protestant refugee, noted with surprise that, "Rarely does the conversation turn there upon the appropriateness of a word or upon the correctness of a way of speaking.” Not so in France.
The class recently created in colleges and called “Rhétorique supérieure,” or “Première supérieure,” is rendering in this respect immense service; nothing “rhetorical,” however, in the teaching; pupils are, on the contrary, shown how to chasten their language. (The weekly programme consists of four hours of French, four of Latin, four of Greek, four of history, four of philosophy, four of English or German.)
This is being taught with rejuvenated vigor but there is nothing new in it. Such precepts, those of common sense, have been enunciated throughout the ages, especially as concerns history, by men like Cicero two thousand, and by Fénelon and by “le bon Rollin” two hundred years ago. Said Cicero: “The tone must be simple and easy, the style firm in its evenness, without the asperity of judicial discussions and with none of the shafts used in pleadings before a court.” Said Rollin: “A clever teacher will point out to his pupils the graces and beauties to be found in an historian; but he will not suffer his pupils to be dazzled by a vain fulguration of words, to prefer flowers to fruits, to be less attentive to truth itself than to its ornaments, nor to make more of an historian’s eloquence than of his exactness and his faithful rendering of facts.”
Tuition is necessary. To trust to chance, to casual reading, to inborn gifts is to run great risks. In his Writing of English Mr. P. J. Hartog, registrar of the University of London, takes for his theme the propositions that “the English boy can not write English, not being taught to write English; the French boy can write French because he is taught how to write.” Maybe, wanting a reform, he exaggerates. He is, however, corroborated by Mr. J. H. Fowler in his Teaching of English Composition.
All this applies to the American ’prentice historian, as to all others, more perhaps to him than to some others, because he does not grow up so habitually as in France, for instance, in a milieu where such traditional disciplines of the mind are practised. He may be tempted, for that very reason, to scorn them as old-fashioned theories; but he had better be careful, since they are not the vain inventions of rhetoricians or the legacy of an “effete” Old World, but the outcome of common sense. It is old-fashioned, certainly, to say that two and two make four, but no amount of deriding will cause it to make five.
He must especially be careful never to apply, as happens, big words to little occasions: for when great occasions come, what will he say? “The wordes,” said Chaucer, “mote be cosin to the dede.”
There is the overbold beginner and the over-timorous one. The first, unhampered by knowledge, launches into immature generalizations; he has vast views; ignoring pitfalls, he scorns his elders and their conscientious care, which he calls timidity. He does not suspect that he may thus cramp his own career, burdening himself with hasty propositions which he will drag rattling behind him his life long. Much better develop logically: first learn the trade, then practise it; learn how to search for truth in the maze of documents, and to use the appropriate style.
The beginner’s first attempt will usually be his dissertation or thesis for a doctor’s degree; conscientious research should be the chief merit, conclusions and generalizations should not be excluded, but must be guarded, because the author’s acquaintance with men and events, past and present, is necessarily limited. No useful generalization or synthesis is possible without much knowledge and psychology.
The access to documents has been greatly facilitated in America as elsewhere. But there are documents and documents; a penetrating spirit, a good deal of wisdom, an ever-present care, are necessary in order not to be imposed upon. There are honest documents and dishonest ones; they all say: “Listen, trust me, I was there”; but some were and some were not. All of them should be as severely cross-examined as witnesses in a court of law.
Much has been printed; not all, far from it. Lord Acton has recalled that when the Vatican archives were sent to France, they filled 3,239 cases, “and they are not the richest.” The beginner, who must try, in his dissertation, to bring some new fact to light, will have to study unprinted material; it affords him his best chance for treasure trove. If he succeeds, as he will with persistence and “flair,” he must, however, be careful to avoid the fault of some who thereupon heed only the unprinted and scorn the rest, resembling those tourists who have no cease until they have got access to some private gallery, but merely glance at the public ones, where the best pictures may happen to be.
The historian, who is not a mere collector of documents, has to express views, to summarize, to conclude. This was, in former days, his hour of delight; a romantic in romantic times, unmindful of any Lucian, he flew, like Shakespeare’s poet, “an eagle flight, bold and forth on,” thinking that his pen could rival a poet’s, and give
“to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.”
This is nowadays for the historian his hour of anguish, the moment when the timid beginner will run away; what will critics say if he dares raise his eyes from his texts? But if he has conscientiously studied his facts, his documents, gone to all the accessible sources of information, well weighed his evidence, he should have no qualms; he has done his duty. And that duty includes the admission into his work of a certain amount of possibilities and probabilities. He is exhuming the past; his task resembles that of the paleontologist who does not always find complete skeletons and must risk a hypothesis as to what the missing parts were like; to do so successfully as proved by later discoveries was the glory of Cuvier. When they publish sketches of their finds, paleontologists show by a plain line what the earth has yielded, and by a dotted one what, according to their speculations, the rest would have been like. The historian must do the same, that the reader may know what is certain and what is only probable. His verifyings will be especially severe when he has to deal with a particularly picturesque fact or man. Picturesque events or people abound in history and are as real as the most vulgar, but they have always, for obvious reasons, caught the fancy of the falsifier, who has embellished or invented many; hence the need of extra care. But to discard a fact simply because picturesque is as unscientific as to admit it without proof. Truth, it must be acknowledged, is rarely as clearly defined as a black line on a sheet of white paper drawn by a firm hand. Men would be too happy; there is a sort of haze about it. Many adopt as the proper level the upper limit of the haze, especially when an attractive, momentous, picturesque event is in question. Wiser people will choose the lower. Of the first, the reader will soon grow diffident; he will feel safe with the second and trust them.
Another delicate question is whether the historian must be so perfectly objective that no trace of his nationality should appear in his writings. Many among the best historians and critics agree that none should. He must be, said Lucian, “a stranger in his own writings, without a country, without laws, without a prince, indifferent to what this one or that one may say, only relating what has happened. He must give to his compatriots their due, not more; to his country’s enemies their due, not less. He must not imitate that writer who compares our general to Achilles and the King of the Persians to Thersites. He apparently forgets that Achilles is more illustrious by his victory over Hector than if he had killed Thersites.”
In his Lettre à l’Académie Française, to whom he recommends the devising of a treatise on the writing of history (which, however, that august body never devised), Fénelon is no less positive: “The good historian belongs to no time or country; though he loves his own he never flatters it in any respect. The French historian must remain neutral between France and England; he must as willingly praise Talbot as Du Guesclin; he renders the same justice to the military talents of the Prince of Wales (the Black Prince) as to the wisdom of Charles V.”
Speaking at the Collège de France, on the 8th of December, 1870, in the capital besieged then by the Germans, Gaston Paris said: “I stand absolutely and without reserve for this doctrine, that science has no other object than truth, and truth for itself, with no heed as to the consequences good or bad, regrettable or fortunate, which that truth may entail. He who, from a patriotic, religious, or even moral motive permits himself, in the facts he studies, in the conclusions he draws, the least dissimulation, the slightest alteration, is unworthy of a place in that great laboratory where probity is a title for admission more indispensable than cleverness.”
Describing the attitude of mind in which he wrote his Origines de la France Contemporaine, Taine declared that he had studied the events as impartially as if the question had been of the revolutions in Florence or Athens. He said also: “An historian may be permitted to act like a naturalist; I looked at my subject as if I had been looking at the metamorphosis of an insect.”
His sincerity is undoubted. Can one say that he succeeded? Can one say that it is possible to succeed to the extent which was his ideal?
The most ardent propagators of this doctrine, the Germans, when they came to the practice of it, certainly failed. Even the beautiful motto selected for the Monumenta Germaniae, though a mere collection of texts, does not forecast absolute impartiality: Sanctus amor patriae dat animum. “Read the German historians of the last half century,” wrote Fustel de Coulanges; “you will be struck by the extent to which their historical theories perfectly agree with their patriotism.”
But when due limits have been observed, one ought not to be too severe on the historian unable to veil entirely his nationality or his faith, especially if, as is the case with men like Albert Sorel or La Gorce, he confesses that such indeed is the case, which is a notice to the reader, who will therefore not be led astray. “There is,” says La Gorce, in the preface to his Histoire religieuse de la Révolution française, “the impartiality born of indifference. That one I have neither the hope nor the desire to attain, and in narrating the Christian trials of our fathers, I dare not affirm that I felt no heartbeat at their sufferings for the Church and for God. If, at the beginning of this book, I promise to be impassible, I should deceive both others and myself. . . . There is another impartiality, one that consists not in the abdication of personal thought, but in the strict observance of truth; that consists in never altering a fact, even a displeasing one, in never mutilating a text, even a troublesome one, in never knowingly misrepresenting the features of a human soul, were it that of an enemy. Such is the gift of a higher impartiality which I ask God to grant me.”
Better perhaps confessions of this sort, which are a warning, than a pledge of equanimity which may prove vain, being in two ways difficult to practise, whether the author, in his heart of hearts, unconsciously and in spite of himself, preserves a feeling for his own people or, on the contrary, afraid of yielding to an inborn disposition, goes to the other extreme, and is harder on them than they deserve. On both sides of the road there are ditches.
To what limit can a swerving from the rule of Lucian, Fénelon, Taine, and so many others be admitted?—for there is a limit. Never to the extent of an undue glorifying of the virtues or successes of one’s compatriots nor of a disparaging of others’. All the good that the foreigner, nay, the enemy, deserves must come in, and not only come in but be duly praised. In the same way the national faults and mistakes must not be passed over unnoticed, they must be mentioned and blamed. Where nationality will chiefly appear shall not be in a disproportionate praise of the deeds of one’s compatriots, but in a deeper feeling of sorrow when faults of theirs have to be recorded.
Moreover, it will perhaps be understood one day that disproportionate praise “does not pay,” and, if not for higher motives, out of sheer interest, it will be discarded. Exaggeration, which is a semi-lie, with a part that is true and a part that is not, is usually soon detected, and the reader in his vexation deducts not only all that is false but a part of what is true. The boaster thus proves the loser.
Within those limits which are the same for all, the authors of American histories have a right to show an American heart. In their writings, compatriots, foreign friends, and foreign foes must have their due, which, as in other countries, they sometimes get, sometimes not. In several of the books enjoying the widest circulation these various elements have occasionally less than their due, occasionally more. A number of works have been blamed for being beyond reason pro-English, or beyond reason anti-English. Some of them certainly cannot be taxed with exaggerating the part of France. In one of the most abundantly used in schools the name of Rochambeau does not appear, which, by the way, is the same in the large volume devoted to the United States in the Cambridge Modern History (where, even in the bibliography, the important memoirs of the marshal are omitted). In the same manual Steuben, in whom we take pride, for we sent him and paid for his journey, is extolled in the text, and Lafayette is mentioned in a note; much more space is devoted to a so-called “naval war with France” than to the French participation in the struggle for independence, and so on. In another such manual we are told that the “cheering news” received from France in 1780–1781 was that a loan had been granted to John Laurens. Of that scarcely less cheering news that France had sent an army which had safely landed on American soil, with Rochambeau at its head, not a word. Imagine manuals of the Great War with no General Pershing in them!
When such pains will have been taken by the historian to include what should be included and exclude the rest, to discover truth and discard falsehood, to reach the solid rock of facts, to master the clear style which will follow a perfect image of realities to be presented, to evolve well-weighed and long-matured conclusions, what will be the use of the work thus produced? In a fit of morosity morose minds have in our times answered: “None at all.” According to Wendell Phillips: “History is for the most part an idle amusement, the daydream of pedants and triflers.” According to Fustel de Coulanges : “L’Histoire ne sert à rien.” In which case the final result of such pains and thought and erudition and art would be similar to a man’s life as described by Macbeth:
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
But history signifies something, and the whole life of Fustel himself, entirely devoted to historical research, is a protest against his own word.
First, history, conscientious, well written, causes delight, and no honest delight should be refused to men. It answers our legitimate longing for knowing what our ancestors did, what were their troubles, their faults, their merits, their successes. The grandest play is played before us in the grandest theatre, with a number of interludes and by-plays, changes of tone, changes of scene.
Then it has something to teach. Fashionable scepticism has derided of late the worth of the “lessons of history,” but no amount of deriding can make those lessons lose their worth. They are most of them simple and general enough, but as they are nevertheless periodically forgotten, it is of use that they be periodically put again before the public, who in the end may possibly take note. This is done by historians. The past teaches us, for example, that unbearable abuses breed revolutions; that a class which no longer justifies its privileges by its services is doomed. Remembering the history of the colonies in the ancient world, Turgot said long before the event: “ When colonies become sufficient unto themselves they do what Carthage did, and what some day America will do” (November, 1750). The historical intuition of George Washington caused him to write to Gouverneur Morris, then American Minister to France, his admirable letter of October 13, 1789: “The Revolution which has been effected in France is of so wonderful a nature that the mind can hardly realize the fact. If it ends as our last accounts to the 1st of August predict, that nation will be the most powerful and happy in Europe; but I fear, though it has gone triumphantly through the first paroxysm, it is not the last it has to encounter before matters are finally settled. In a word, the Revolution is of too great a magnitude to be effected in so short a space and with the loss of so little blood.” I remember having quoted that letter on receiving the news of the Kerensky bloodless revolution in Russia.
Much of the miscalculations of the Germans in 1914 came from their having been the dupes of their own teachings, according to which the other nations had become, in the course of the last fifty years, so weak, corrupt, and immersed in material interests that they would be unable to resist a determined onslaught or to help each other. A better knowledge and understanding of realities would have spared the world the most cruel catastrophes it has ever been afflicted with.
“Every part of modern history,” said Lord Acton, “is weighty with inestimable lessons that we must learn by experience and at a great price, if we know not how to profit by the example and teaching of those who have gone before us, in a society largely resembling the one we live in.”
It would not be accurate to allege that, however, as a matter of fact, those examples have never served; in most countries, instructed by precedents, those at the head of affairs now govern with a higher hand than their predecessors of ages ago.
Another advantage, well pointed out by Daunou, is that history makes a nation aware of its continuity, which is almost as much as to say aware of its existence. In the one of his twenty volumes specially devoted to the Art of Writing History (708 pages), Daunou says: “Personality subsists only through remembrances; if an individual, ceaselessly renewed in the elements which compose him, recognizes that he continues the same, it is by preserving the memory of what he has done or felt. The same must be said of a people; its persevering identity supposes in it some knowledge of its progresses or vicissitudes, some vestiges of its annals; it would rather accept or devise fabulous ones than have none. Generations which should glide along without leaving any trace, would follow, without continuing, each other; they must transmit memories in order to form a nation or an aggregation of men which passes through different ages and whose life covers several centuries.”
No, history is not a mere frivolous amusement; it has its uses; it is worth the labors of its votaries. It requires much pains, much ingenuity and wisdom, several inborn gifts. It is an art of a very special sort which needs, in order to be adequately practised, a scientific mind. From its very nature proceed the rules historians have to observe, and which have been repeatedly declared in the course of centuries, the chief one being that for the strict maintenance of which the American Historical Association has been founded: Super omnia Veritas.
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