Presidential address delivered at the Hilton Hotel at Rockefeller Center, New York City, December 29, 1966. Published in the American Historical Review 72, no. 2 (January 1967): 411-424.

History in a Self-Governing Culture

Forty-six years ago tonight the American Historical Association held a session such as this in the city of Washington. Upon that occasion the late Edward Channing delivered the address. As a young man he had been present at the first meeting of the Association in 1884, and, presumably, he had heard the speech delivered by Andrew D. White, the first President. As a graduate student attending my first meeting of this organization I listened to Channing in 1920. (This represents a cycle of sorts.)

When President White spoke, the world, in sharp contrast to the present, seems to have been relatively quiet. England was engrossed in the Victorian Age, secure in the midst of great possessions. The unification of Germany and Italy had been accomplished. The French Republic had achieved stability. Russia had recovered somewhat from the recent shock of the assassination of an autocratic tsar, and along the Danube an Ausgleich had produced a conglomerate Dual Monarchy. At home Reconstruction had been officially accomplished, and the Grant scandals were a thing of the past. To some the only cloud on the horizon was the possibility of the election of Grover Cleveland and the return of the Democrats to power. White reflected to some extent this comparative calm when he urged his associates to contrive a philosophical synthesis of human affairs in a large, truth-loving, justice-loving spirit. He reminded his hearers in terms familiar today that, unless historians engaged in the study of general history and the research would be barren and often worthless.

When Channing spoke to his post-World War I audience, much had happened since the days of President White. The United States had become a recognized world power, the home of hitherto almost undreamed of wealth and progress. The nation had gone to war to make the world safe for democracy, and wreaths of victory bedecked the Allied standards. Channing himself was just completing his fifth volume dealing with the history of the United States from 1815 to 1848 and was deep in thought about volumes and years to come. He was particularly conscious that his native Massachusetts was beginning the commemoration of the third century of its experience, for the Mayflower had arrived just three hundred years before. Never a man of contagious optimism, Channing seemed somewhat dubious that night. He outlined the great progress that the nation had made in the last hundred years, but concluded with the question:

In all this, in the evolution of the greatest industrial society that the world has ever seen, have we gained or have we lost? Are men and women to-day happier and better off, politically, spiritually, mentally, morally, and physically, than our ancestors were in the days of James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Andrew Jackson?1

I cannot recall that there was much evidence that the American Historical Association shared in these doubts and regrets; certainly Channing did not arouse any observable overt response save the hope that he might live to finish his great work. Tonight we meet not in the nation’s capital, but in its great metropolis, as we again confront the task of recording, analyzing, and interpreting an age, this time nearly half a century removed from that just alluded to.

As these words are written in 1966, the task of recording, analyzing, and, interpreting this different age has become a much more demanding one. When Channing spoke in 1920 we were approaching the end, had we but known it, of the Progressive Age. This age had dedicated itself to the dogma that man by taking thought could perform miracles. Disease and misgovernment seemed to be on the way to being vanquished. A great war had been brought to a triumphant conclusion, a war not only to make the world safe for democracy but to end war itself. A great League of Nations had been created to maintain all these vaunted ends. The lion and the lamb were to lie down together, and peace was to reign for a thousand years. But even in December 1920 it was evident that the lion and the lamb were not too compatible. Whether the somewhat florid Warren Harding could carry the banner of the broken Woodrow Wilson could be, and was, doubted. Perhaps Channing himself reflected something of the malaise that was increasingly apparent. He had only finished his fifth volume, and for him, too, time was running out.

At the time of Channing’s address the historical interest that had long prevailed in the profession was in the process of change. The long-time preoccupation with political and constitutional history was challenged by scholars holding a concept of social history represented by the editors and authors of the “History of American Life Series,” and this was being reflected in a growing number of courses and dissertations in the graduate schools. Those at work in political history were aware of a novel interest displayed by some of their fellows plowing new furrows. Several varieties of specialization in fields such as economic, social, and intellectual history grew increasingly attractive, and the process of fragmentation moved on apace. The capacity to generalize suffered, and the aphorism that graduate students were learning more and more about less and less was oft repeated. Certainly political history bad lost some of its general interest.

This fragmentation demonstrated a weakness and a need which, unless they were met, were bound to impair the capacity of American historians to synthesize and thus to interpret. As a political historian I was conscious both of the decline of activity in this field and of the growing lack of comprehension to which the fragmentation was contributing. Could not some unifying tendency be developed, some counterinfluence in the way of interpretation and generalization be discovered and encouraged?

But fragmentation was not the only, nor was it perhaps the major, influence on a changing historiography. It was at this time that an interest in biography was attracting historians. Popularly this often included a taste for debunking, but professionally it caused scholars to become more interested in the psychiatric approach and in a more analytical study of the human beings whom they examined and portrayed. A greater realism marked the writing of the day.

A third influence grew apace. The so-called behavioral disciplines were burgeoning among the social sciences, and this Association was included in the Social Science Research Council in the early days of its development. Social anthropology, social psychology, and sociology were developing interests and concepts that the historians slowly began to appreciate. This appreciation, undoubtedly hindered by semantic complications caused by the efforts of these scholars to invent a new terminology, led to what some historians might consider outlandish neologisms. Interest was developed in group dynamics, in the behavior of small groups, in mass psychology, in competition and cooperation, and in other forms of human behavior with which the historian must on occasion be concerned.

The use of scientific analogies likewise continued. Certain patterns of thought developed by the natural scientists had attracted or repelled social scientists and humanists since the days of Isaac Newton and John Locke. Within the memories of many of us, historians had been looking for law, for dynamic interpretation. Edward P. Cheyney developed a concept of law in history. Henry Adams professed to see in the physicists’ second law of thermodynamics the doom of man’s intellect. Others pondered over concepts of relativity, uncertainty, and the immaterial nature of matter. Historians in some instances were no longer so confident that they could discover just how eigentlich things might have gewesen.

During this period of fragmentation, however, the tradition of synthesis was by no means forgotten. There was a deliberate interest in continuing it and, incidentally, in arresting the chaotic influence of specialization and fragmentation upon the historian’s capacity to generalize. Various efforts were made in the early years of the twentieth century to restore the desire and the power to scan wider horizons. One of these was the use of a civilization concept such as employed in different ways by Arnold Toynbee, Charles and Mary Beard, and later by William McNeill. Another very significant instrument for this purpose was the culture concept borrowed not from scholars in belles-lettres, but adopted in broader terms from social anthropologists. As I have found this cultural concept one of the most useful aids available to historians in developing the synthesis, which is one of their main responsibilities, I propose to dwell upon some of its implications for members of this Association.

The term “culture” used in this sense is all-inclusive, embracing as it does all the behavior patterns employed by any given society. It also supplies the concept of a unity greater than even the sum of its definable parts. Into such a synthesis can be fitted any specialized, any personal, or any national experience. Each of us can relate his interest to any such concept of image, national character, or Gestalt that appeals to the individual’s sense of the all-embracing. Viewing any specific problems in the light of such over-all interpretation supplies whatever each of us may do with a maximum of significance and interpretive meaning.

There are various types of cultural definitions, but one in particular can be especially useful: namely, I believe, the design most indicative of the nature and the identity of any society. This is its plan of operation, the force or influence that organizes it and keeps within it a semblance of recognizable structure and order. In highly complicated societies this plan takes the form of government, the customs of rule, of the exercise of authority, of the structure of power. A culture therefore may be known as a democracy, an empire, a totalitarian state. Any such designation is not merely derived from constitutional institutions, but it embraces attitudes, ideas of community identification, and social as well as political relationships. The distinguishing characteristic of the society known as the United States of America is the fact that it is a democratic culture dedicated to a self-government in which all are technically involved and in which this interest is demonstrably central to the self-identification of the people. It can be used as the hallmark of the culture.

This use is appropriate likewise because a basic, if not the basic, historical problem in this culture is how a society expanding so quickly in so large an area became and has remained self-governing. The study of this problem has involved me and many others in working out the process of the evolution and the operation of this culture and has also concentrated much interest on a particular phase of it, namely the stresses and strains that eventually led to the destructive social war of 1861-1865, which nearly destroyed it.

This culture concept, which has dominated and determined the history of the United States, is broader and older than the boundaries of the United States would imply. It has involved consideration of the European origin of folkways and institutions. The proper definition of this broader field of analysis is the Anglo-American culture, including much that evolved in the British Isles and was transported to America. There it was transplanted and eventually matured in a new society. The employment of this very broad culture concept is extremely useful not only in overcoming the disadvantages of fragmentation but in quickening the capacity for synthesis. Likewise, it has sharpened our understanding of historical process by giving greater opportunity for more sophisticated conceptualization of certain of our historical responsibilities.

Setting significant chronological limits to the study of the evolution of the Anglo-American cultural patterns shows how old many of these patterns actually are. Customs of local self-government and representative lawgiving and lawmaking processes involving the beginning of election procedures go back into the “good customs of the realm” of England, some of which originated among the British tribes and antedate history. Folkways deriving from the various invasions of Britain and from phases of the religious transformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries stimulated popular interest in participation in government and produced the beginnings of something like political parties. In other words, the basic patterns of community organization and self-consciousness, together with an operating power structure of self-government, were created and developed in England.

During the period of the folk migration across the Atlantic Ocean that resulted in the establishment of the American colonies, these cultural patterns were transported across the sea. Consequently, much of the time there was little invention involved: the migrants took what they knew, imported it when they could, and used it with a minimum of adjustment. This process of adaptation therefore emphasized the sense of age that characterized the customs of even those in a new world.

The American phase of the Anglo-American cultural evolution was separated by both time and space from the parent culture in a fashion difficult to understand in this age of television and jet propulsion. This distance and the difficulty of communication meant that the same qualities of intrepidity and enterprise that brought colonists across the sea would stimulate their long-accustomed habits of self-government to the point where they would employ another cultural pattern long in use. Not only had the British developed a habit of community self-rule and a search for consensus, but there was also a pattern of violent change in government. Regicide and revolution in some form had occurred in England about once a century from the days of the Norman Conquest, and in the seventeenth century two full-fledged revolutions, the Puritan and the Glorious Revolution, had occurred, the latter with an interesting American phase that indicated a growing jealousy of American self-governing autonomy and promised that perhaps a light weight would be assigned to European authority.

The possibly inevitable rupture came at the end of the eighteenth century when, in the interesting years of the Age of Reason, American colonial leaders, impatient at certain limits imposed on their cherished autonomy, found themselves involved in violence just about a century after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Their experience with the responsibilities and confusions of complete autonomy subsequent to 1783 led the erstwhile colonies to seek a new surrogate in place of the crown and Empire. They constructed a curiously wrought instrument that they invented probably at the only time and place where such a feat, up to this point, could have been contrived. They created a federal system in which the power structure was divided and modified by a series of checks and balances described in an unprecedented document, the Constitution of the United States. Despite their care, however, its authors did not foresee the problems involved in the choice and conduct of those exercising power, particularly executive power.

The new federal republic was to have its capacity for order and definition of identity complicated by its ecology. Its area was so great, its population so scattered, and its wealth and variety so fabulous that the question began to concern the thoughtful few: could such a people so situated practice the art of self-government? Was the surrogate that was substituted for the crown adequate?

The size of the republic and the variety of the ecological characteristics soon demonstrated that the so-called political federalism described in the Constitution was much more intricate than a mere political federalism. The American society was a cultural federalism, not so much a federation of political units fused into a republic as a federation of varying groups identified by attitudes, customs, and community associations and combined in a society. This variety of elements produced differences of views that in turn could be used as points of dispute and debate in the periodic elections required to determine the exercise of power decreed by the constitutions, federal and state.

As the decades of the nineteenth century wore on, it became apparent that this product of the Age of Reason was not too successful in dealing with all the confusions of this rapidly growing state, and the question began to arise as to whether the confusion was not reaching a point at which it would no longer be possible for even the capacity of this self-governing society to control it and to maintain orderly self-government. Had conditions tending to disorder reached a degree at which it was no longer possible for men to control them? In 1861-1865 the outbreak of the social war seemed to indicate that such was the case–just about one century after the last appreciable outbreak of violence, the American Revolution.

At the moment we happen to know much about this last episode because we have just passed through a four-year period of centennial commemoration in which many of the historical guild actively participated. And from this four-year period we have learned much about the nature of this Anglo-American culture pattern, particularly its now predominantly American phase. We have learned, or we should have learned, a great deal about the antecedents of violence and the phenomena that accompanied its outbreak. Perhaps in 1966 it may be well to make reference to some of these attendant circumstances.

In the first place it is appropriate to point out what may not appear to be a truism to all of us: that we are too prone to think backward in history and to shape conclusions by what we find in the past. To use the example of 1861-1865, when the bitter war between the Union and the Confederacy was fought, it was easy to assume that this conflict between two well-defined forces must have been inevitable and have been inexorably building up during a long range of time variously defined. But the closest kind of study of the outbreak of the conflict and the antecedent years presents evidence that the dominant situation was confusion. There was not one South but several, and in the end the South presented by no means a united front in the Confederacy. And it can hardly be said that there was any North until Sumter. In fact, so great was the confusion that there were not just two alternatives, war or peace, but several. It is convenient to characterize this situation as the operation of a third force, for wherever there seems to be a convergence of two forces there are probably one or more others at work that may at any time intervene and produce a different combination. In the past this third force had on occasion been some form of compromise, and so usual had been this intervention that many in 1860 felt sure it would operate again. The confusion was too great, however, and until the last minute a variety of alternatives might have taken over. In the end I feel that a series of accidents rather than destiny, or great forces, or any deus ex machina decided the issue. Eventually, after bitter and expensive conflict, the republic righted itself–but that was a century ago.

This description of the concept of American self-governing culture, which we have used in our search to overcome fragmentation and to re-establish synthesis, and of the observable tendency to periodic resorts to violence to change our patterns of self-government, not only indicates an interesting paradox, but also gives us food for thought as we ponder certain problems which today’s necessities call upon us to face and which we may illustrate by asking ourselves certain questions in this year of 1966.

Since that holiday season when Channing asked his questions, nearly a half century ago, many more things have changed than the fashions of history writing about which we have just been thinking. Many new conditions of life have appeared and have added much to the complexity of our task and thus to our responsibility. Now wars seem never to end, and where there is no war there may be racial tension, for a world-wide reorientation of peoples is in process. The energy of the atom has been released; population is exploding. Time and space seem no longer to be limiting concepts; man not only stands on the verge of outer space, but on occasions walks in its vastness. A mechanism is replacing the human brain in some forms of computation. We are told that the genetic code has been broken and that the universe has lost its parity and is lopsided. We are reminded that upon occasion when some basic irregularity, operating contrary to the accepted laws of the universe, has been discovered, such observation can be the prelude to significant new knowledge. A drift in the perihelion of the orbit of the planet Mercury was eventually accounted for when the general theory of relativity was formulated. With all these aberrations and incongruities may we not be on the eve of certain discoveries in human knowledge? At any rate this wide variety of new circumstances carries us far away from the days of White and Channing, and certainly into a period of new responsibility.

In the light of this possible new experience we are justified in asking questions, even as Channing asked them–though they will be of a different nature. The main question that we raise is this: if we are on the verge or in the midst of certain basic changes, not only within our culture but within the cultural structure of the world, what should be the centers of our scholarly interests? Further, if we grant that there are few questions more significant than whether self-government can be maintained in the world in general and in the United States in particular, we have a closely correlated series of queries.

Among today’s circumstances most vigorously suggesting questions of this character are a number connected with the power situation in our self-governing culture. The desire for power has intensified in the lives of so many people. Rivalries, conflicts, tensions are everywhere and seemingly increasing. Despite our pride in our capacity for self-government, we may at times wonder whether we are keeping up. There are signs that we have a confidence in our political capacity that may have been more adequate in other times, and that we may be depending upon a changing power and status.

For our security’s sake do we know enough about the history of this American self-governing culture of ours, of the nature and the location of the power that is operated within it? Many calls are made upon us for the use of our power from within and without our society. And there is no certainty as to our answers to these calls. Much in fact is at stake. For if we exert too little power, we may become anarchic; if we contrive too much, we could become totalitarian. In either case we would be abandoning our basic culture pattern.

Do we know enough about the evolution of our power of self-government? Can political institutions defined in the Age of Reason remain adequate in an age when reason is more in the background? Do we know enough about and do we understand the process of power choice and power change as revealed in our history? Do we understand our changing techniques of choice and decision making, of our attitudes toward the responsibilities of self-government, of the dynamics of our political emotions? Do we have adequate information about the types of people who seek political power and how they achieve it? Do we realize sufficiently the dangers involved in operating self-government in times of increasing change? Do we understand the changes and the rhythms in the exercise of the powers of self-government? Are we aware of the implications of the rhythm of our power distribution, caused by our custom of inducing an artificial crisis every four years by putting the executive and legislative power up for possible change?

Do we realize that every so often confusion can increase to the point where it threatens men’s understanding of and capacity to handle it, as in 1861-1865? What within the historian’s range of recognition of events and behavior trends can he identify and interpret for society’s benefit, because of his capacity to think in time? Our experience in 1861-1865 was that in those times there were so many signs pointing in so many directions that the observers and the analysts of that day were quite beyond their depth. Do we not have a greater capacity for observation and analysis today, and are we using it?

In times such as these when there are signs of shifts in the power structure that could prove drastic, is it not essential to know the nature of the relationship between prevailing custom and the power structure? It does little good to any society to think that it is behaving as though it were independent and self-governing and then to wake up to find it is not.

Finally and most important, as political change is generally determined by cultural change, have we command of sufficient skill in directing human mechanisms to make certain that we calculate and operate an efficient adjustment of political to social change so that self-government can proceed with safety?

When Channing asked his questions in 1920 they were phrased in terms of achieving and maintaining human welfare and happiness. The questions we ask today are rather expressed in terms concerned about continuing efficient self-government and ensuring its survival.

Having asked these questions, how well equipped are we to answer them? To do so, we need more than a skill at simple narrative. These complex times demand sophisticated analyses that will place new obligations upon us to develop our intellectual potential. Do we have it at our command?

We have a much more formidable foundation of fact at our disposal upon which to erect a structure of interpretation and synthesis. So many more historical facts are now available. We know about many more individuals and types of individuals. Much more information has been collected by statistical techniques. The behavioral sciences have mobilized much knowledge about human behavior. Advances in the natural sciences are again tempting the historian into the alluring realms of Geisteswissenschaft as he dreams of discovering genetic codes shaping the destiny of societies and wonders about the effects of living in a universe that has lost its parity, in an age sometimes called absurd.

Not only have we many more facts at our command, real or fancied, but there is new equipment in the realm of gadgets. We are entering the years of the computer. Now million-dollar machines are housed in computer centers and tended by programmers. It is too soon to be very dogmatic about how useful this type of automation may be, but historians are so far behind in their reporting and analysis that we must investigate to the best of our ability its potential as an instrument of historical retrieval and conceptual discovery. We are so frustrated for want of a break-through that no device should go untried.

Meanwhile, we must not forget that we can experiment with certain fresh concepts, new patterns of thought. Individual scholars should be concerned with much greater spans of time. Evolution is an extremely slow process. Its slow-moving changes involve much more of adaptation than innovation. There are much less orderly process and much more haphazard confusion in human behavior. There is a greater variety of alternative action possible in even the simplest program set by determining forces. In fact, there are much less determinism and a higher frequency of accident in the processes of change.

Historians, fortunately, not only have these data, these instruments, and these concepts, but a growing number of scholars are using them. Within the last few years there has been a veritable renaissance in the study of this principal element in the American self-governing culture, namely the power structure and its fluctuation. Numerous studies encouraged by the Social Science Research Council and its committees, supported by foundation grants, are being carried out at the Harvard Center for the Study of the History of Liberty in America, at the University of Michigan Consortium, at California, at Illinois, at Rutgers, and at the University of Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. These projects are much more comprehensive in type than the more narrowly defined political and constitutional history studies current at the beginning of the century. Much attention is paid to the manifold influences and subtle character of the determinants of this basic behavior. Research of this type is contributing much to our ability to answer the questions we are raising in 1966.

While we enjoy advantages such as these to aid us in answering the questions we are now raising, we should, nevertheless, be aware that we are not doing all that we should to prepare the next generation to use such advantage in the quest. We may advisedly give more thought to the educational policies and programs of our graduate schools, particularly at a time when so many new such schools seem to be springing into being. More than a century ago we took over the Ph.D. program from the German university system almost without thought and with little adaptation, and we have too long avoided its reconsideration. Our current Ph.D. training often falls between two stools. It might be a degree in course, such as a law school degree, or it might be an adventure in freedom, wherein, after an experience of discovery, the student presents his results for evaluation and judgment. The program that we usually follow, however, can well be a tertium quid. Herein a certain number of requirements are set, exercises prescribed, and examinations administered. Undue emphasis is placed on the learning process–learning under observation, and surveillance if you will. There is too little opportunity to fashion concepts of the history of human behavior in the form of problems that must be formulated, analyzed, and understood. In these days of increasing enrollments in graduate schools, numbers seem to enforce a formalized program that can be administered almost by tabulation without very much individual attention. To the gifted this often means a degree that provides less than it should; to a considerable number it may mean a degree more prestigious than they deserve. Graduate faculties may well ask themselves if there should not be two degrees so that in one of them there may be real opportunity to develop more elements of sophisticated analysis, such as are suggested by these questions, while the other should concentrate upon methodology and practice both in teaching and research.

Also I think graduate faculties may well expand their thinking into the realms of postdoctoral facilities in universities. There should be more opportunities available to scholars who have been teaching for a while to come back to the university for a few weeks or for a term or two to study intensively new techniques and new findings and to engage in colloquia on current problems in historiography. Here there would be new acquaintances and new ideas, new dialogues designed to disseminate the fruits of wider experience and increased maturity in a university environment.

The use of these various instruments just considered in our efforts to answer the questions we have raised should give us a sense of our increased intellectual capacity developed during the life of this Association. We are peers in the realm of the mind. We have a discipline and a series of unique functions of our own. These instruments of analysis, these forms of thought are our own, and we owe them to none but ourselves. Other scholars have neither devised them nor used them with any common degree of frequency. An interesting commentary is the observation that historians themselves do not use them as they might. They fail often to recognize their own philosophic strength or to achieve their intellectual potential. They have a tendency to depend upon their colleagues in other disciplines for instruments and patterns of thought. Yet they have their own intellectual birthright, an autonomy they should never forget.

Our too common dependence upon others we may ascribe to our folklore about history. To so many history is just a story of the good and the bad, of the great and the small. In school it is something to be learned at the expense of loss of interest in the story. In graduate years it becomes an exercise in the higher criticism of sources, a carefully organized narrative based upon tested facts. And for so many that is all that it ever is, and life may be spent in producing a series of doctoral dissertations, each more careful and perhaps more specialized in a narrow field than the last. To a certain extent this is highly commendable, for the historian who can put a good narrative in literary form based upon a comprehensive survey of the sources and an accurate recording of facts has indeed done much.

But we can and should do more, and it is unfortunate that we do not. Simple, specialized narratives of limited national experience, though they produce much of interest, do not give the historian free play for the wide use of his mind or the development of his intellectual potential. The historian often stops too soon. His life can be, and I believe should be, one of growing capacity to discover, understand, and communicate satisfying analyses of human behavior, and not, as too often happens, a temptation to abdicate his most meaningful function. The historian should furthermore use his wisdom and his imagination to advance hypotheses, to project himself beyond his tested data and conclusions based thereon, and to establish advanced positions in the world of research, even at the risk of having to admit on occasion that he may be wrong. As in so much of prime significance for human existence, ingenuity, daring, and cultivated strength are major essentials.

As we seek the answers to these questions of 1966, we as historians are dependent on no one for our philosophical instruments; as we think in time we devise our own, and by their use we can experience the past, reconstructed and relived in our own consciousness. We owe it to ourselves, therefore, to use these instruments of our own invention in an original fashion, confident that thereby we can discover truth perhaps obscure to others. If we do this to the extent of which we are capable, we may provide the knowledge indispensable for the successful continuance of our culture.

A half century ago Channing asked his troubled questions in terms of the possibility of progress; today we ask them in terms of the possibility of survival. If we are to answer these questions with any degree of success, we must recognize that we have an intellectual capacity of our own, not fully realized, which we can develop. To do so we must declare our philosophical independence and raise the standard of our own intellectual identity.

Roy F. Nichols was professor of history emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania.