Published Date

September 18, 1884



From The Nation, New York, September 18, 1884.

The American Historical Association, which was called to its first annual meeting at Saratoga on September 9th, under the auspices of the Social Science Association, has shown its American character by declaring independence and adopting a constitution. The object of the new Association is the promotion of historical studies in this country, not in a narrow or provincial sense, but in a liberal spirit which shall foster not merely American history, but history in America. There are already many historical societies throughout the land, but they are devoted to interests more or less sectional or local. There are State historical societies, County, and even Town societies, that for many years have been doing historical work of great value, although they are necessarily restricted in most cases to the historical ground represented by the society’s name. There is clearly room for an historical society which shall be neither local nor sectional, but truly national. We understand that this enlarged idea of an American historical association, representing all parts of the country and history in general, is the outgrowth of the catholic spirit represented by some of our American colleges and universities, where students from various sections learn national and liberal ideas and catch glimpses of the world through the science of history. The American Historical Association is not, however, to be restricted to academic circles; it will open its ranks to historical specialists and active workers everywhere, whether in this country or in Europe, in State or local historical societies, or in any isolated individual field. In the words of the constitution, which is remarkable for its brevity, “Any person approved by the Executive Council may become a member by paying $3.00” which is the annual fee. The payment of $25.00, under the above condition of executive approval, secures life-membership and exemption from the annual dues. This form of discounting the future, and of settling with the treasurer of an active and growing association with promise of long life, would be good economy for young American specialists in history.

There were enrolled at the organization in Saratoga 41 active members, one of them for life. No honorary members in this country are to be elected, and none in Europe have as yet been chosen; but the Executive Council has selected 120 well-known American students of history, living in different parts of the country, to whom invitations to accept active membership will shortly be extended by the Secretary. This number of select members will be increased during the coming year by the Council, which has full power to pass final or suspensive judgment upon nominations that may be communicated to this body through the Secretary. The Council consists of the regular officers of the Association, viz.: the President, Andrew D. White, President of Cornell University ; two Vice-Presidents, Professors Justin Winsor, of Harvard College, and Charles Kendall Adams, of the University of Michigan ; Secretary, Dr. Herbert B. Adams (whose address is Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore); Treasurer, Clarence Winthrop Bowen, (whose address is The Independent, New York City); and four associates in Council, Mr. Charles Deane of Cambridge, Mr. William B. Weeden of Providence, Professors E. Emerton, of Harvard College, and Moses Coit Tyler, of Cornell University. In this Executive Council, which has entire charge of the general interests of the Association, the academic element appears to dominate, but men of affairs are also represented, and the name of Charles Deane is of itself sufficient to command the confidence of State historical societies throughout the country.

It may not be known to many of our readers, for it certainly was known to but few members of the American Historical Association at the time of its organization, that there was once in this country an “American Historical Society,” having its seat in Washington, D. C., and occasional meetings in the House of Representatives at the Capitol. The Society was founded in the year 1836. Its first President was John Quincy Adams, and its most active member was probably Peter Force, to whom this country owes a great debt of gratitude for the publication of many rare tracts relating to our early colonial history, and for his laborious work in collecting the “American Archives.” A large portion of the first volume of the Transactions of the American Historical Society, which was exhibited at Saratoga by Doctor Parsons, delegate from the Rhode Island Historical Society, consists of reprints by Peter Force of such ancient memoirs and historical tracts as appear in his own well-known collections, so that we may properly associate the work of the first American Historical Society, with the most valuable line of historical publication ever undertaken in this country—for the individual work of Peter Force, in connection with this Society of Washington residents and politicians, who met in the House of Representatives, developed into a national undertaking. Although publication of the “American Archives” by the general government was long ago suspended, it is important to remember that many volumes of state papers collected by Peter Force yet remain for publication, and that possibly some influence can be exerted upon Congress by the new Association toward the resumption of a good work left unfinished. The old Society, while national in name, was really a local organization of residents in Washington City, with a few honorary members in the individual States and in various European countries. The new Society is to be a national association of active workers from many local centres of academic learning and corporate influence. Although without a local habitation, it will doubtless soon have a good name in the land which gave it birth, and it will probably enjoy a longer life and greater usefulness than did its Washington predecessor, a Society whose lifework was confined to a few annual addresses by distinguished politicians and to reprints of papers not its own.

An active, creative spirit is the one thing needful in the American Historical Association which is now to be. Other societies, together with the State and National governments, will continue to attend to the publication of archives; but this new Association is designed for original work. A pamphlet will soon be issued by the Secretary containing a report of the proceedings at Saratoga, September 9th, 10th, the constitution of the Association, abstracts of all the papers read, and President White’s public address on “Synthetic Studies in History,” which advocates the synthesis of special work into general forms—an idea quite in harmony with that of the American Historical Association, which is but a general union of the best elements of all our special societies and our local schools of history. Other publications will follow, probably in the form of separate monographs, which may be ultimately combined into serial volumes. For this purpose the annual fees of a large Society, with few current expenses, will no doubt accomplish much, but the endowment of research in special lines, and the establishment of a publication fund, are imperatively needed.