Guy Stanton Ford
President of the Association, 1937
A paper read at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, held in Philadelphia, on December 30, 1937. Published in American Historical Review 43, no. 2 (Feb., 1938), pp. 253-269.
Some Suggestions to American Historians
The nominating committee who three years ago put your present president’s name on the slowly turning wheel of official preferment failed to read the historical horoscope or to check the date 1937 against its implications and obligations for the one who gave your annual address that year. This year, the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the drafting of the Constitution of the United States, brings to this platform one who is not a specialist in American history and much less a student of the narrower and neglected field of American constitutional history.
The program committee has properly taken cognizance of your president’s limitations and of the significance of the occasion. In the conferences and papers of the last few days the Constitution has been put through its paces and over many hurdles. I am glad to assure you that it still survives and that the Federal judiciary will not have to join the ranks of the unemployed. After the recent past the Constitution may be slightly apprehensive as it still faces a series of congressionally inspired state celebrations, ending with Rhode Island’s gracious public confession that it is and has been part of the Union for a century and a half. Speaking sympathetically for the Constitution, I may say that it hopes nevertheless that at the end of another one hundred and fifty years it will still be able to speak its mother tongue, the language of ordered government translated into the idiom of an ever-changing and dynamic American society.
Despite the entire adequacy of the program, it is the inescapable obligation of the only speaker whose remarks, irrespective of their merit, are sure to be published to take some notice before a national historical society of the occasion that brings us together at the end of this memorial year in a city rich in historical associations beyond even the framing of the Constitution.
Certainly the drafting of the Constitution is a cardinal event in the relatively brief history of the nation. As an experiment in a governmental structure built around what might easily have become a rigid framework, it is unique and long lived. Like Talleyrand, who, when asked what he had done during the French Revolution, replied, “I lived through it”, the Constitution may proclaim with pride that it has lived through the revolutionary changes in the social and economic conditions of the one hundred and fifty years that have transformed thirteen Atlantic seaboard colonies into a nation of vast extent, varied and conflicting interests, and world-wide influence upon the present and future of mankind. This persistence amid the failure of scores of imitations in other lands is the outstanding feature to one who approaches the American constitutional experiment from the standpoint of studies in the modern history of other lands. The complete measure of the importance the American Constitution has obtained is so bound up with the development, expansion, and power of our own nation that it is untimely to say that in world history it will persist longer or be of more influence as a basis for organized society than the much older constitution of England or the theoretic bases supplied by the French Declaration of the Rights of Man or by the Communist Manifesto, to mention only documents in the field of social polity.
Many students of the determining factors in modern civilization would ask us to consider the pervading, even dominating, influence of the contributions made by science and invention. In their opinion these dwarf all instruments of government in their effects upon modern society. As all things are relative when viewed from the historical point of view, students of American history would have to listen to the case that could be made for the influence of science and technology and would agree in the end, I suspect, that it was strong if not convincing. Certainly no one can review in a realistic way our history in the constitutional period and conclude that the past history or future fate of the Constitution has been or will be determined apart from the influence of the industrial revolution whose beginnings are coincident with the formation of constitutional government. To the revolution in the world’s economic life and social pattern since 1787 must be added the potent effect upon our thinking produced by the development of the sciences that gave it birth and sustained its furious growth. The result of science has been not only to condition the physical man but to furnish his mind with new thoughts, give him a method by which to think them, and shape the folkways to which laws and institutions must ultimately conform.
In what I have just said or suggested about the influences that have played upon our own and world history since the making of the Constitution my thought has not strayed far from this city. Ill fed and emaciated indeed must be the historical imagination of him who can walk Philadelphia streets, enter the halls of its historic buildings, or pace its monuments without reconstructing a nation’s past and seeking to distill from what has been, the essence of what is yet to be. It is a broad and nobly peopled way that winds from the Philadelphia of William Penn’s day to this brief memorial moment. They who throng it are not alone the authors of the Federal Constitution. With them walk the arbiters of peace and war in national crises, the advocates of liberty and the founders of ordered government, the pioneers of science, education, and national economy, and the fearless advocates of toleration and emancipation. It is a noble company, seldom paralleled in the life of any city. Even those colonial and early national leaders who came from New England and Virginia are associated indelibly with Philadelphia and the nation. John Adams and Washington and Madison are first remembered not as belonging to Massachusetts and Virginia but as the nation’s representatives in Philadelphia. When we look at this procession we see in Benjamin Franklin not alone the statesman and epitome of the eighteenth century but the scientist whose contributions are early harbingers of the science and inventions that are remaking the nation and testing the Constitution he helped to found or formulate.
If the historian takes notice of science as a factor he must reckon with, it is too often of physical science alone. He overlooks the vast fields of biology, paleontology, and comparative anatomy which have revolutionized man’s attitude toward himself and his place in time, measured by the aeons that are moments in geologic time. In this revolution there is one outstanding American figure who walks with Franklin, the physicist. It is Joseph Leidy, the last great naturalist, whose basic contribution ranged from parasitology to paleontology, from the protozoa to man. He opened the door to a past on this continent so infinite in its perspective that in the chronology of the gods it reduces all we say in commemoration of a century and a half to a line entry. I commend to historians that among thoughtful moments devoted at this session to this city’s shrines they do not forget the statue of Joseph Leidy in Logan Square.
One other lone and unique figure I would point out to you in the marching column of those associated with this city who represent ideas and forces in the making of the nation under the Constitution. Your imagination may have to stand on tiptoe to see it, for it is that of a little woman in quiet Quaker garb. If emancipation not of blacks alone but of women has national and world significance—and who would deny it—then Lucretia Mott, by the divine right of her unconquerable spirit and her luminous intellect, walks side by side with Penn and Franklin and Jefferson and Madison down the broad street not of Philadelphia but of mankind—the way toward toleration and liberty and reasoned civic judgment.
I have not made this excursion into the past of Philadelphia just as a reminder to the Philadelphia of the present of the varied men and issues of high adventure with which the city’s name was once associated. I have rather had it in mind that the judgments of the day on the one historical event now in the foreground of a series should be relative. If they are, they will more nearly be what history will write dispassionately when it goes behind documents and isolated events and measures the making of a constitution in relation to many things and does it in the temper and by the time schedule that we apply to the Achaean league or the code of Hammurabi.
Perhaps that necessary coolness in appraisal we already have as a heritage from the past history of anniversaries of the Constitution. Apparently the American people as a whole and throughout the constitutional period have taken, except in times of economic-political and regional strife, a somewhat unemotional and detached view of their Constitution. They have never celebrated September 17 as a national holy day in the way in which they have early and continuously observed the natal day of the Declaration of Independence. The historian searches the files of early newspapers in vain for any indication of observance of the date of the adoption of the Constitution. Five days after the ratification by New Hampshire, the ninth state, completing the number necessary to put the Constitution in force, a celebration was held in Portsmouth, and New York City celebrated on July 23, 1788, the ratification by ten states, the tenth being Virginia. Thereafter any demonstration on the key date is wanting. Year after year the seventeenth of September went unnoticed.
If the first anniversary was not noticed, the same is equally true of others. The laying of the cornerstone of the Capitol on the eighteenth of September, 1792, seemed a double ignoring of the anniversary of the preceding day. Washington chose to date his Farewell Address in 1796 not on the seventeenth day of September but the nineteenth. At the quarter century, national interest was focused on the War of 1812, and one hears only the rumbling of Federalist New England about state rights. And so it goes. On the fiftieth anniversary the nation was in the throes of the panic of 1837. The guns of Antietam were all the country heard on the seventy-fifth anniversary, although the year before the city of Philadelphia had chosen September 17, 1861, as a proper day for a patriotic rally in support of the Union and the government at Washington. From the seventy-fifth to the hundredth anniversary, if September 17 was observed, it was to dedicate soldiers’ cemeteries and monuments, and the Battle of Antietam was the reason, not the completion of the Constitution.
When the centennial of the Constitution came, this Association was two years old and struggling to make its way. The presidential address of that year’s meeting in Boston was on the manuscript sources of American history. The program itself did not get nearer the Constitution than the peace negotiations of 1782–83. The attending membership, forty-nine registered, were less conscious of the centennial birthday of a national constitution than they were of the beginning of social functions as a new feature at their meetings. The highlights were a visit to Plymouth in the rain and to Wellesley College where, the secretary records, “Historical specialists sat quietly upon benches along the pleasant shores and contemplated with calm eyes the political economist struggling at the oar upon the tossing waves of Lake Waban.”
The centennial of the Constitution, unlike that of the Declaration of Independence, would have passed unnoticed even in Philadelphia if it had not been for the energy of an able member of the Philadelphia bar, Hampton L. Carson. Almost singlehanded he made the city observe September 17, 1887, and published a two-volume account of the preparations and observances. The theme of the leading addresses was apparently the great services of the Supreme Court, which in recent decisions had strengthened the Federal government as against the states. Old attitudes derived from the Civil War were not yet dead, and new issues evident in the efforts of Western states to control emerging national corporate activities were not understood in Philadelphia fifty years ago as they are understood fifty years later.
It will be interesting to see what the record of the current much more prolonged and widespread observance of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary will be. Into it will enter not alone the orations for the occasion, the clamorous literature of all the super-patriots who are now saving the Constitution anew, the melancholy pessimisms of those who look beyond our borders and proclaim the twilight of democracy and constitutional government, but the deliberations of thoughtful scholars such as have appeared within the last week here on the programs of two great associations concerned with the study of American history and American political institutions. It might well be th theme of the presidential address fifty years from now to evaluate the literature of this anniversary in an effort to restate the forces and the faith with which the nation of our day faced the latter half of its second century.
So far then, as the records to date show, the Constitution has had the privilege sought by most of us past forty—that of having our birthdays ignored. Apparently once the government under the Constitution was set on its feet and clothed with the flesh of men in action, we have as a people concentrated upon the goings in and comings out of governments and taken for granted the framework that held them erect. We all have a dim X-ray plate of it in our minds, but the buttons and stays and keyrings added by the rise of political parties and their folkways, the decisions of courts, and the acts of presidents and congresses show up even more plainly than the bones of the Constitution and confuse us. A study of the unwritten and generally accepted amendments to the Constitution would add to our understanding of ourselves and our attitude toward what we call government under a written constitution. We elect presidents by procedures unknown to the Constitution. Congressmen could be no more certain to live in their districts if it were prescribed in the Constitution. The number of those who are hunting for the clause and section that confers powers on the Supreme Court assumed and accepted since Marshall’s day and fixes the membership at nine is only exceeded by those who don’t look for fear they may not find it. Both groups fill the paying membership of organizations to save the Constitution.
If I seem to have drawn a picture of national indifference to the Constitution throughout the last century and a half, let me be the first to say that such a picture has a false perspective due to emphasis upon celebrations and to prevalent and natural misconceptions of its text. As I have already indicated, the nation has become Constitution-conscious at every major crisis in our national life. Then when the issue was resolved by amendment, court decision, or civil war, it has accepted the survival or expansion as a convincing proof of the wisdom of the founding fathers and the perfection of their work. The turmoil caused by the process of growth and change has left unchanged the popular idea that the Constitution is a static document and that because it is static it is perfect and not a matter for discussion except by legalists.
So far as this universal American faith relates to the survival and the promise of survival of government ordered by the Constitution of 1787, it is the historical guild that has to date furnished a sound historical basis. It has been the task and the scholarly achievement of many in this Association to trace the history of the survival into the twentieth century of a document framed at the close of the eighteenth. Some have pointed out with clarity that the Constitution has survived even when the abolition of suffrage qualifications based on property or race or sex created an electoral democracy unknown, unforeseen, and undesired a century and a half ago. Others have carried forward the story of the nation’s territorial expansion from the Appalachians to the Pacific Coast and beyond it to include diverse peoples in distant colonies. The Constitution has been applied and revered in this empire undreamed of by its makers. Larger perhaps than any other historical group is the number who have followed the history of the Constitution through sectional conflicts and civil war and have seen it emerge still the law of a united land. Fewer perhaps are those who have noted what strengths and what weaknesses have been revealed by the development of party organization under a document made by party leaders who foresaw much but not the national development and intensification of the party procedures that had raised them to colonial leadership and to a membership in a Federal constituent assembly. Only a few scholars, and those but a handful since the war between the states, have written the history of the Constitution itself in terms of its interpretations by courts in critical cases. No one, for it is a matter for the future, not of the past, has viewed it in relation to the procedures it established for the conduct of the foreign relations of an isolated and internationally minor state now endowed with enormous power and resources in the midst of a world which it touches at every point of its daily life.
Whatever the story of crisis or strain that your historical work has told, it has left with your readers, the American people, a feeling that the Constitution has survived its major tests and that tracing in the present the forming of new lines of conflict is no major concern of an American historian as teacher or writer. If I dissent from the view that our evolving civilization and its emerging problems are not a proper concern of historians, I do it tonight not so much in the name of history as in behalf of the Constitution and less for the eighteenth century document that faces new strains in the twentieth than in behalf of the experiment in government embodied in it. This experiment has been outlined in many other written documents that either embodied little or openly avoided much that the American constituent assembly thought essential. Those which imitated it most closely have not survived in other climates, and others which formulated like ideals without similar reservations or distributions of power and functions have served equally well in states imbued with the ideal of democratic self-government. Blind reverence for any document or its authors may end by being the greatest disservice we can inflict on the spirit that should keep it a living thing.
If I express any concern about historical factors in the present scene to whose origin and development historians might address themselves, I do it hesitantly. I do not forget, although I may seem to disregard, all my seminar training in American and German universities. My three predecessors must be conciliated. One said every man was his own historian, another said history was an ethical choice, and the third warned against carrying the present as baggage on excursions into the past. Now I am in a wholly conciliatory mood this evening, and I agree with all three of them. I intend to be my own kind of historian. I shall undoubtedly make choices which I hope are ethical. I shall not etch the features of the present on the tables of the past. I want only with groping hands to trace the features of the present-day America and catch the direction of its gaze and the expression of its countenance.
It is a grave and troubled face that America turns to the future. Youth has gone from it and with it some of the confidence and assurance of youth. There are the evidences of maturity, if not of age. This change has taken place within the generation of many here. Like the maiden who kept the attributes of eternal youth as long as she dwelt in the vale of Shangri La, we find that the America which started at our side to cross the distant mountains has now the features of age, much like the peoples of the Old World who have not been sheltered from the storms of internal revolution and international conflict. What we have known and written of European peoples we dimly apprehend may be some part of what we shall have to learn and write on the next page of our own history. This view is not a function of our own gray hairs. The evidence is undeniable to him who approaches the last fifty years of American history with eyes that range over wider perspectives than American history alone or who views it from angles furnished by newer auxiliary sciences than the traditional ones of palaeography and diplomatics.
The signs of change, the approach of new and different tests for American institutions has been so evident and is so much a concern of every thoughtful citizen that I do not need to labor the thesis. The men who walked out of Carpenters Hall on September 17, 1787, with a feeling that they had written the final chapter in a political revolution were unaware that science and invention were writing the first chapters in an even mightier revolution of world-wide extent. The hand with which Benjamin Franklin signed a constitution which should fashion the future of a predominantly agricultural and provincial people was one of the hands that turned that people from agriculture to industrialism through applied power, from provincialism to instant communication with the world by the forces he brought from the clouds. The men who had carefully drawn a document of balanced powers and assigned functions launched it, they knew, on troubled waters. But they were quite unconscious of the rising power of new economic interests and tensions stemming from the sciences and inventions that had their birth in those same years. The French revolutionaries sending Lavoisier, the father of chemistry, to the scaffold because he was one of the farmers-general and because their new world had no need of scientists were equally unconscious that they had acted too late and for the wrong reason. They could not foresee that the industrial applications of chemistry were to set up new freedoms and new bondages unlisted in the Declararion of the Rights of Man.
Chance has willed it that while writing this address I have had to turn aside to labors so congenial to the historian, the preparation for publication of some documents that relate to an unknown incident just one hundred and fifty years ago. Those documents cover a controversy in 1787 between the greatest English industrialist of his day, Matthew Boulton, and a Prussian director of mines in the Ruhr. The young Prussian official, Baron Stein, was in charge of the Westphalian mines and manufactures in the enlightened despotism of Frederick the Great. This young bureaucrat had heard of the great advances in industry and mining made in England and of the perfection of fire machines to make possible deep pit mining. German coal and iron and the resources of the state would profit by all he could learn or filch of the products of the Soho foundry of Boulton and Watt. He lived to learn in mortification that even in 1787 England was guarding her industrial pre-eminence by private watchfulness and public laws. Germany had to wait for other days and the development of her own science to challenge England in a rivalry here foreshadowed in 1787 and ultimately developing between all Western nations on a world-wide scale as the dominant characteristic of our age. The end—or is it the beginning?—swept the American nation, founded in 1787, into the full tide of controversies from which its makers had thought to set it free.
This minor incident in industrial rivalry between faraway nations in 1787 is an unsought symbol of the forces and conflicts that have developed with giant strides side by side with the Constitution formed in the same year for a nonindustrial group of thirteen states. Their citizens, liberated from monarchy and old-world control, have multiplied many-fold and conquered a continental domain. But the black banner of smoke that streamed in 1787 from Soho floats in the sky of every nation, and the factory whistle marshals and dismisses the mujiks of Russia and the citizens of Boston and Philadelphia more imperatively than any sovereign’s command. The labors of Washington and Madison in Philadelphia have yet to be tested by the fires lighted in the foundries of Boulton and Watt in Soho, in the laboratories of Priestley and Lavoisier, and brought from the sky by Benjamin Franklin.
My concern tonight, as you perceive, is with the historian’s approach to the writing of the American history of the next half century and to such reviews as are necessary of the background of the last century and a half. I have made it an incidental task each year in recent years to scan from thirty to fifty of the most widely read volumes in American history, and as a historian I am not happy about their breadth or competence or popularity. They are too often unbalanced, and therefore unhistorical, semi-sensational journalistic exploitations of the worst features of incidents and individuals that could nowhere have had such exaggerated development as in a land where eighteenth century individualism and protracted pioneering attitudes have been projected through a century and a half into a twentieth century industrialism which interlocks the interests and welfare of all classes and all nations. The sole merit of such works is that their writers and their readers are aware in a dim and distorted fashion that there are in American life and history unchronicled forces and problems that cannot be exorcised by teachers’ oaths or new alien and sedition laws or mass or class panaceas or lip service to the Constitution.
I am content if those who have listened thus far sum it all up as a gloss on Sir Gilbert Murray’s dictum that “a society without history cannot understand what it is doing”. If I seem more than objectively interested in the chronological parallelism and historical interrelations of two movements for which 1787 may be used as a symbol, it may be in part because of another event in Philadelphia in 1787. The legacy of the dying Congress of the Confederation was the ordinance for the government of the Northwest Territory. Into that area thus organized and ultimately extended have flowed, sometimes in parallel streams and sometimes in successive waves, all the forces and races and issues that have come to fill the foreground of the American scene in 1937. Here, if anywhere in the seamless web of history, one can trace the strands that form the present and will appear in the future pattern of America. They are plainly visible in every state of the old Northwest of 1787. They are vivid and unmistakable in the new Northwest. Within the state I know best I seem to dwell on the boundaries of advancing industrialized America and retreating agricultural individualism. The great river visible to me each day runs even now in its short course from its source to my own threshold the gamut of American history from virgin forest and Indian settlements, past farms and factories worked by every major immigrant stock, past mills and educational institutions founded by pioneers from New England and the East, past a city whose streets have been reddened by industrial warfare. That river and that Northwest area outlined in 1787 have held the nation together in every major crisis under the Constitution. I sometimes wonder whether it is not now a visible symbol of the boundary between an old America in the newest area and a new America in the oldest area, whether the river of union is to become a river of division.
And yet it is all strangely confused, for that same river, a few miles ow where I see it, flows over a dam built in the decade of rugged individualism by contributions from every citizen in the nation but furnishing power to a factory directed by the outstanding exponent of Adam Smith’s “obvious and simple system of natural liberty” by the limitation of government in relation to business and industry. But fancy yields to one unchanging conviction that we shall proceed more intelligently and more confidently as a people to the resolution of the old with the new in America if history gives us the longer perspective and the detached appraisal necessary to the understanding of what we are and what we are doing.
How shall the historian of America achieve that detachment, that necessary aloofness, that elevation which will give him the larger perspective and a sound discrimination between the passing and the permanent? To finish the quotation from Gilbert Murray, How may he embody that scholarship without which history cannot understand itself? In an earlier paragraph I approached and then retired from the question. Let me suggest two answers that will perhaps be anticipated by those who recall that I once was chiefly interested in European history and that I have been since its foundation one of your representatives on the Social Science Research Council.
It was said long ago that the study of history gives you a feeling akin to that of having taken a journey in a far country. You come back to see the familiar with new eyes and to measure the old with a sense of proportion unknown before you were detached from it. If the stairs are not so steep nor the rooms so large in the revisited home of your childhood, the home itself takes on new and larger meanings. The realities are not after all the physical things you left behind but the memories and ideals you have carried with you. To the American historian, then, I would say, Go away from home that you may know what home really is. Do it by travel or study or both. If by study, then how far away? Not too far but far enough to convince you that history is the record of change even before the age of science and discovery. I should not want to be understood as recommending intensification in ancient history as a preparation for American history under the Constitution, because I have an uneasy feeling that you might always be dissolving Achaean leagues and reproducing the fall of Rome.
If history has any lessons to teach, the supreme one is that of ceaseless change within human society and in mankind’s relation to his physical environment. As a nation our generation doesn’t need Spengler or his like to teach us this. The World War and its aftermath, the publicity given the buried and forgotten civilization of Tutankamen, and the chastening years since October, 1929, have been more than sufficient evidence of the insecurity of past and present security. I am interested in a fearless historical assessment of the factors and forces that have made us as a nation something we were not in 1787.
Fortunately the American historian dealing with the constitutional period does not need to go back to ancient times, suggestive as such studies of vanished societies may be. He has an opportunity to see how other peoples in the same century and a half have adapted themselves to the changes made inevitable by scientific, industrial, and economic forces that have played with even greater intensity upon them than on us since the eighteenth century. Fortunately also for the American historian the adjustment in most of the Western European nations since 1787 has been so much more rapid than ours that it gives him a perspective of thirty to fifty years of realized history from which to view movements and forces that have come into our national consciousness only in the last decade. For these reasons some familiarity with modern Europe in the period since 1787 gives the American historian a vantage point from which to distinguish the significant and the ephemeral as they show themselves in the American scene.
Nobody, I hope, thinks that I make this suggestion with the idea that what has happened in Western Europe under the impact of the industrial revolution will repeat itself unchanged upon American soil. If that were the answer, then the things that have happened in Europe should also be past history with us. No, America is different. It is still much nearer the eighteenth century in its outlook and social philosophy than any of the countries in which the doctrines of laissez-faire and natural rights were formulated. This is not a reproach. It is simply an observation, which I think could be copiously documented, and it is made in this instance by one who lived the earlier part of his life in the eighteenth century. That interesting experience was made possible by being born in the Middle West, where the new colonists and virgin soil prevailed and where reading surreptitiously extracts from Voltaire and Bob Ingersoll provided the only available intellectual asbestos against the hell fires of an annual winter Wesleyan revival; by studying Paley’s Natural Theology and Butler’s Analogy and Adam Smith and then escaping to learn the rudiments of scholarship by the first use of sources to write two undergraduate papers for Frederick Jackson Turner on Sectionalism in the Constitutional Convention and on Jefferson’s Economic Opinions. Is it strange, then, that an American thus grounded and later diverted into modern European history by a passing interest in German social legislation of the early 1880’s should commend to American historians the study of.Europe since 1787? Does not such an intellectual lineage document an American’s appreciation of the likenesses and differences between the two continents? Is it not a basis for understanding those European observers who fear we may be hastened unprepared and impotent into long delayed political and social readjustments with the resultant conflicts that create dangers for our inherited ideal of constitutional government by laws, not men?
Any alertness to possible parallels between American and European history in the constitutional period must be tempered, as I have just suggested, by an equal awareness of the differences between the European and the American social and political milieu. I venture to recall some obvious differences.
The European revolutionary thought of the eighteenth century rediscovered the individual outside the inherited medieval privileged class strata. It discovered him in a new class, it is true, but in seeking to make a place for the bourgeois it formulated a philosophy of individualism that challenged the existing political and social structure, which itself had a philosophy exemplified for centuries in church and state and etched deep by historic social prestige symbols. It is all too easy to illustrate in church or state how callous and indifferent the ancien régime was in its insistence on its privileges, but it never lost entirely its consciousness of noblesse oblige, it never wholly accepted the idea that wealth gives and justifies power over other men, and its social prestige remained long after the so-called realities of power had passed to the masters of capital and industry. At every point the old social order, though chastened, was there to challenge the new and to bid for the support of the new underprivileged victims of industrialism and of a peasantry loyal through centuries to land and the church.
The very violence of the opening of the European struggle against class privilege too long insisted on was a lesson in the value of caution and compromise. The succeeding century—from 1814 to 1914—never let the class conflict reach that pitch again. The privileged classes walked “reluctantly backward into the future lest a worse thing should befall them”—but they walked. Their class coherence enabled them to oppose an alternate philosophy of social action to the ruthless exploitation by industrialism, individual and corporate, in the name of the new freedom. If you choose to interpret this last century in Europe as a series of class conflicts, it must be obvious that in the democratic countries the conflicts were of political philosophies and platforms pledged alike to the common welfare but differing enough in method so that the electorate might intelligently divide and yet their representatives ultimately unite on some acceptable steps, long or short, toward a common goal.
In Europe individualism and laissez-faire seem extraneous and of the surface even in the eighteenth century, whereas in America then and since they have been indigenous and planted so deeply in a frontier people that they are rooted in emotion. What was a revolution in Europe both in thought and in the balance of power between classes was to contemporary colonial America but a simple statement of self-evident truths about individual freedom and a government that served best by governing least. More than a century of pioneer history in a land of seemingly inexhaustible resources consecrated the political philosophy with which we began as a nation. It was and is a noble heritage. It shed a kindly light upon the deeds of the frontiersman, the merchant adventurer, the thousands of little entrepreneurs setting up factories and mills and banks. It lent an equal aura to those who by ways that seemed good to them crushed their competitors or gained control of national resources or stationed themselves at the crossroads of commerce to toke undue toll from farmer, laborer, and the consuming but complacent public. Such swollen exemplars of individualism sapped the substance out of a national ideal. Like the privileged classes in the ancien régime who hastened revolution by defying and weakening the power of the monarchy, they have often corrupted and brought into contempt the government and the legal system which was made to protect them and mediate their just rights. They have been unconscious of a changing mood in the nation, apparent since 1870 and increased sharply since the turn of the century. Now, since the World War, their fear and their lack of a social philosophy defensible in the forum of public opinion leave them little but a vituperative vocabulary and a blind and dangerous insistence that any change or social adjustment is revolution. They would imperil all loyalty to government and the Constitution by using them as defenses for their individual or group acquisitiveness. They give little evidence of realizing that, at the close of a century and a half under the same Constitution and under the dynamics of an industrial civilization ruled by science and machinery, we are passing, as President Hoover pointed out, “from a period of extremely individualistic action into a period of associational activities”.
The sentence just quoted from the former President is the essence of what I have to suggest as the task of the historian of America in the present and in the immediate future, namely, that of tracing this evolution from the extreme individualism typical of our national thought and polity since the eighteenth century to the growing social awareness that it must yield in large areas to common action for the general welfare. I might add that for the historian the best introduction to this task is the two volumes on Social Trends prepared by the commission appointed by President Hoover.
Whatever the first step may be in any attempt by American history to reassess the forces that in a century and a half have brought us face to face with the problems of older civilizations, the result, if successful, will come only because history reclaims its proper place as the most trustworthy guide to the study and interpretation of human conduct. It was once such an epitome, such a synthesis of all that men knew of mankind and of human conduct. The complexities of modern civilization, the multiplicity of the factors introduced by the dynamics of science and invention, the new light shed upon man’s nature by anthropology and psychology, the varied activities of men in groups in a technological age have produced new disciplines and techniques. They were needed, and they have achieved significant results in their study of particular angles of human conduct or of the social and physical factors conditioning it. The historian can and must avail himself of their results in treating the history of any modern nation.
Awareness of what is being done in the other social sciences is a special obligation of him who would write the history of American democracy under a constitution conceived and adopted by an essentially aggressive pioneering people on the eve of an age of science and technology that has carried us farther from them than they were from the Greeks and Romans. How this change has come about is written more plainly and logically in a land where supposedly inexhaustible natural resources set no bounds to individual initiative and exploitation. It is a story that cannot be told in terms of political history. That idea fortunately was abandoned a generation ago. But we have not yet learned in writing American history—local, state, and national—how to co-operate with the newer social sciences and utilize fully the results of their studies. Human conduct, whether individual or group, is so complex and varied that history, when it attempts to describe it, cannot afford to overlook any of its manifestations, whether recorded in statistics, economics, political science, sociology, ethnology, anthropology, or psychology.
If I began this address by localizing here in Philadelphia the beginnings one hundred and fifty years ago of American government under the Constitution and the Ordinance of 1787 and of the age of science and invention which has played upon them and upon societies since 1787, if I drew upon my own experience and studies almost immodestly, it was to the one purpose of raising for historians of America the problems that are in the mind of every thinking American. Is it not timely to ask what history can contribute to his better understanding of the historical factors that will condition the survival of the experiment begun so anxiously in this city? If the task seems a difficult one, there is nevertheless encouragement for those who undertake it. The history of Western Europe furnishes sorne parallels in the same period under the same transforming forces, and it differs widely enough to leave the history of America with the challenge of uniqueness. In his task the American historian has the data and matured techniques of his fellow students of the American scene in the disciplines known as social sciences and in turn can more than repay his debt by a cool, time-conditioned, genetic synthesis that gives their own work. its true significance.
In conclusion let me recall that the opening references to past constitutional celebrations and to the untrammeled discussions of the last week give indication that the historian in America still has preserved to him the liberty of discussion which is as vital to the preservation of democracy as it is to the promotion of scholarship. It would indeed be a tragedy if under the guise of commemorating a great experiment in self-government, dependent on enlightenment by scholarship, forces or factions inimical to both should seek to throttle the one under the pretext of preserving the other. Historical scholarship without freedom to speak the truth about our national history would become here, as it has in many lands, a mute testimonial of the decay of all scholarship and all liberty. The freedom granted the historian to write or rewrite American history under the Constitution and under the coincident influences of science and technology will be a test not of the people’s knowledge of the text of a document but of their understanding of the liberties it guarantees. It will be their answer to the question raised on Pennsylvania soil seventy-five years ago, “whether a nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure”.
Guy Stanton Ford (May 9, 1873–December 29, 1962) received is PhD from Columbia in 1903 and taught at Yale (1901–06), University of Illinois (1906–13), and the University of Minnesota (1913–41). He was the author of Stein and the Era of Reform in Prussia, 1807–15 (1922). After his presidency, he went on to serve as executive secretary of the American Historical Association and editor of the American Historical Review from 1941–53.