Position

AHA President, 1929

Institution

New School for Social Research

From the American Historical Review 41:3 (April 1936)

James Harvey Robinson (June 29, 1863–February 16, 1936) died on February 16 at the age of 72. His boyhood influences in Illinois were those of the more generous elements of the New England tradition. At Harvard University, from which he graduated in 1887, gaining an A.M. in 1888, he turned definitely to history, influenced largely by the late Professor Ephraim Emerton. Taking his doctorate at Freiburg in 1890, he chose as the subject of his dissertation the German Bundesrath, and his penetrating analysis of that institution was unique in its field. Returning in 1891, he joined the History Department of the University of Pennsylvania, first as lecturer, then as assistant professor, and with Professor Cheyney, Professor Munro, and others began that series of “Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History” which was in its day a notable instrument of reform in historical method. His chief work was as professor of history at Columbia University from 1895 to 1919. After two more years, at the New School for Social Research, he retired in 1921, to devote himself to research and authorship.

During his early years at Columbia, Professor Robinson’s chief courses were those which dealt with the French Revolution and the Protestant Reformation, or, as he termed it, the Protestant Revolt. It is characteristic of his critical method that in both cases he concentrated attention upon the antecedent conditions of these historical movements rather than upon the dramatic details of the crises. The intellectual trends of the eighteenth century were not dealt with in the light of a subsequent revolution, but each source was analyzed in its own time and setting. Similarly, the study of the Protestant Revolt led to that of the medieval Church, considered in and for itself. The little group of students who in those days constituted Professor Robinson’s seminar received an unrivaled training in historical method. They were also given glimpses of that brilliant gift of interpretation and of enlivening the past by juxtaposition with the present, without loss of the historical perspectives, which was Robinson’s great gift in exposition.

Later years developed the teacher more and more. He shared the conviction of more than one of the great masters of European historiography that the way to correct the perspectives of the past was to correct them in those early years of student life when history is first taught; and his textbooks of European history were, more than any others, instrumental in remaking the teaching of that history in American schools and colleges. Upon these volumes he labored with scholarly devotion. But to the lasting regret of all those who studied with him or have been influenced by him, it was left for his former students to bring out in their works the outlines of intellectual history which formed the background of his most famous course in Columbia.

Yet the critical attitude toward the data of history which developed throughout these years was shown in those works which made an appeal to the wider reading public, his Mind in the Making, his Humanizing of Knowledge, and his Ordeal of Civilization. Within the historical guild, however, his influence was greatest as the master of the New History, that concept of the reconstructed centuries which has now become almost a commonplace in historical thinking but in which he was a pioneer. Much has been written now about this challenge to accepted ideas; but in recent years the accent has been wrongly placed. It was neither the urge of negative criticism nor the satisfaction of building a new synthesis which led to such notable studies as those on the fall of Rome or the medieval character of much that had passed for a renaissance. His work in this regard was in line with that of the originators of the scientific study of history in the early years of the nineteenth century, when the myths of Rome and antique history were dispelled by textual and higher criticism. Professor Robinson never claimed this high parentage for his New History and would certainly have questioned what he would have regarded as an overdrawn parallel. But the method was the same in the work of Niebuhr and Ranke; and thirty years ago, when he made his first full statement of its implications in a public lecture at Columbia, it stirred historians throughout the whole country. In this address he drew together for the first time the generalized results of his critical analysis of source material, pointing out how very slight are the traces which have been left us from the past, and how delusive are the tendencies toward imaginative reconstruction. Already he was putting that emphasis upon the unconscious, or the subconscious, element in our thinking which he was to develop in later years into a test of the character of thinking itself. But for more than a decade longer he held his criticism down to the processes of history.

It is not too much to say that had he narrowed his interests down to the traditional limits of history, his achievements would have been more easily appraised by his contemporaries, although they would have been less of an inspiration to a whole generation of history students. But just as he refused to accept the sources of history at second hand, he refused secondhand thinking about the nature of society, or even of man himself. More and more he saw the task of the historian as one that. covered all those varied fields of activity which have contributed, obscurely as well as openly, to the structure of our civilization. And so, as those students who studied with him in the early days can testify to the significance of his scientific method, those who followed after drew from him the inspiration of a great conception of human evolution. But as for himself, as the years passed he grew to be a detached observer of what he whimsically insisted upon regarding as the human comedy.—J. T. Shotwell

 

Bibliography

The German Bundesrath. A study in comparative constitutional law. By James Harvey Robinson. Philadelphia, 1891.

Constitution of the kingdom of Prussia. Translated and supplied with an introduction and notes by James Harvey Robinson. Philadelphia: American academy of political and social science, 1894.

An introduction to the history of western Europe, by James Harvey Robinson. Boston: Ginn & co., 1902.

The development of modern Europe; an introduction to the study of current history, by James Harvey Robinson and Charles A. Beard. 2 vols. Boston: Ginn & Company, 1907-08.

The new history; essays illustrating the modern historical outlook, by James Harvey Robinson. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1912; Reprint, New York: Free Press, 1965.

The middle period of European history, from the break-up of the Roman empire to the opening of the eighteenth century, by James Harvey Robinson. Boston: Ginn, 1915.

History of Europe, ancient and medieval: Earliest man, the Orient, Greece and Rome, by James Henry Breasted. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1920.

The mind in the making: the relation of intelligence to social reform, by James Harvey Robinson. New York: Harper & brothers, 1921.

The humanizing of knowledge, by James Harvey Robinson. New York: G. H. Doran, 1923; Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1971.

The ordeal of civilization; a sketch of the development and world-wide diffusion of our present-day institutions and ideas, by James Harvey Robinson. New York; London, Harper & brothers, 1926.

Essays in intellectual history, dedicated to James Harvey Robinson by his former seminar students. New York London, Harper & brothers, 1929; Reprint, New York, AMS Press, 1973.

History of Europe, our own times; the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the opening of the twentieth century, the world war and recent events, by James Harvey Robinson and Charles A. Beard. Rev. ed. Boston: Ginn and company, 1932.

Our world today and yesterday; a history of modern civilization, by James Harvey Robinson and Emma Peters Smith, with the collaboration of James Henry Breasted. Boston: Ginn and company, 1932.