Published Date

September 9, 1884

From First Meeting of the American Historical Association (1884)

Saratoga, September 9, 1884.

At four o’clock, Mr. Winsor, acting as Chairman, called to order the first public session of the proposed American Historical Association, meeting under the auspices of the Social Science Association, in Putnam Hall. The acting Secretary reported the results of the preliminary meeting, and announced the programme of exercises. Professor Charles Kendall Adams, Chairman of the Committee on the Constitution, being called upon to report, said that the committee had not yet finished its work, and moved that it be allowed to continue the same, and that when the present meeting adjourned it should adjourn to meet in business session the next day, September 10th, at 9 a.m., in one of the small parlors at the United States Hotel. This motion prevailed. The Chairman, Mr. Winsor, introduced Hon. Andrew D. White, President of Cornell University, who delivered an address “On Studies in General History and the History of Civilization,” which is printed in full as No. 2 of the First Series of publications by the Association. The following is a brief abstract of the address:

Mr. White began by stating the fact that, as a rule, each country in history has special studies which its scholars can conduct better than those of any other country can, but that there is a great field in the general history of civilization open upon equal terms to the historical scholars of all countries. This field of general, philosophical, synthetical study he claimed was superior to special analytical study, and that both should go together. Proofs of this were adduced of a theoretical and practical sort, the latter being an exhibit of the work in both fields in various nations, and showing that the two go together, and that there is no great growth of one without a corresponding growth of the other. He assigned the first place at present to Germany, both for special and general work. He then took up the matter of general methods and tests imposed by the necessities of general history upon special history, showing that each field furnished tests for the other. As to purposes and methods, while giving great weight to the opinions of Herbert Spencer upon the study of history as laid down in his work on education, Mr. White insisted upon the necessity of careful limitations to those statements as regards facts worthy of study, giving examples of facts apparently useless but really of the very greatest importance, and among these various illustrations from ancient and modern history, especially from the recent history of the United States. With reference to this point also, while attributing great value to what Mr. Spencer calls descriptive sociology, he showed that many of the most vital facts are of a kind very difficult to be tabulated, and not likely to be inserted in tables of descriptive sociology such as those already published under the sanction of Mr. Spencer’s name. He next took the special limitations of historical study in America, giving a remark of an American statesman that all history must be rewritten from an American point of view, which, while qualifying in some respects, he asserted, contained the germ of a truth. The next point was in regard to the necessity of general historical studies for giving breadth of view in American political life. He asserted that in the early days of the Republic such leaders as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and others were especially strengthened by such studies; that this was also the case in the transition period with such men as Calhoun, John Quincy Adams, Everett, and Webster; and in the recent period, with William H. Seward and Charles Sumner. He attributed the want of broad historical views among American statesmen at present to certain material necessities which have arisen since the Civil War, but showed that other interests were now arising absolutely requiring the study of American institutions and policies in the light of history.

As to instruction in history, he dwelt upon the fact that but few of the American universities give as yet any adequate historical instruction, but that there is a healthful tendency toward a better state of things. This tendency, he asserted, was in accordance with the development of historical thought in this age. In the last century, leading thinkers were philosophers; in this age, they are historians. Stress was laid upon Draper’s idea that the greatest problem of humanity must be solved, not by metaphysical study of the individual man, but by historical study of men in general in their historical connections. In speaking of the development of the proposed American Historical Association, he expressed the hope that universities and colleges would form strong centres for its influence, and that at meetings, while special studies in American history should receive close attention, general studies upon the history of mankind and the history of civilization should have a section especially devoted to them. Such studies cannot be without a healthful influence upon the educational interests of the country on the one hand, and upon the better growth of statesmanship on the other.

After President White’s address, Professor C. K. Adams read an extended abstract of a thesis, prepared under his direction, by George W. Knight, when a candidate for the degree of Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. The subject was “Federal Land-Grants for Education in the Northwest Territory.” The paper will appear in full as the third regular publication of the American Historical Association. The following is a brief résumé of its contents:

The origin and nature of the Federal endowment of education is well known to students of American history, but few have investigated how the States have utilized the grants. It was to the old Northwest Territory that Congress made the first grant for a seminary of learning. This territory contains at the same time the poorest and the best institutions in the Union. It would be an error to suppose that when, in July, 1787, the feeble Congress of the Confederation gave to the Ohio Company “two townships of good land for the support of a literary institution,” they expected any great results from the gift, or anticipated that they were setting a precedent to be followed as often thereafter as a new State should be admitted to the Union. When once the lands had passed from the possession of Congress, the future weal or woe of the embryonic colleges depended entirely on the State. The only restriction was that the endowment should not be spent. The writer then reviewed the legislation of different States in regard to these endowments, showing how unwise legislation and poor management has crippled the institutions in many States. A brief study of the subject has indicated five causes for the failure to realize the full possibilities of these land-grants. An undue haste in organizing colleges has compelled a corresponding haste in disposing of the lands. The absence of restrictions on the Legislature has permitted it to place any price it chose upon the lands, and has generally resulted in extremely low prices. The Legislatures have been tempted to force sales in order to serve other purposes than those for which the grants were made. A carelessness in providing means of investing the funds has caused losses. The general lack of interest on the part of the people has enabled interested persons to obtain legislation to suit their special desires. The younger States of the West have been wise enough to enact constitutional safeguards against all of these evils. Other evils will undoubtedly arise, but it can hardly happen that the experience of the Northwest Territory will be repeated by the younger members of the Union.

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