Published Date

January 28, 1932

From Historical Scholarship in America: Needs and Opportunities (1932)


Oldest of the humanistic sciences, and the one that has had the fullest and most various development, history has always and inevitably rested on investigation. That it stands in constant and vital need of varied researches is no new thought. The first meaning of the word history was the search for knowledge, and the delectable writer who first gave it the form we best know spent many preliminary years of travel in the incessant asking of questions and acquiring of information. Neither is it a new thought that, for the most intelligent achievement on a large scale, there is much use for organized and corporate planning of historical researches. All historians since the seventeenth century who have occupied themselves with periods prior to that time have had occasion to be grateful to the well-planned researches and editions which monastic discipline and corporate enthusiasm enabled the Maurist Benedictines and other scholarly organizations of that age of erudition to execute.

The historical writing of the nineteenth century was, however, in the main, and because of its character, based on individual researches. Certainly this was the case in the United States, where the best of our historical writers did each for himself all the spade-work necessary to the elaboration of his particular theme, with an expenditure of time and money and labor which they might partly have been spared by a better public provision of guides and textual sources. Such provision was, it is true, not wholly absent. The federal government, in the period between 1816 and 1850, had under the influence of heightened national feeling published original historical material (“source-material” in the Teutonized academic dialect of later times) in an amount distinctly creditable to a young republic with revenues so limited. Several states had done the like. More than a score of state historical societies came into existence before the date last named, and as many more in the next thirty years, and their publications made large additions to the materials available to the writer on American history. Even the colleges had by 1880 begun to believe that their students should receive real instruction in history.

Yet one who remembers well the status of history in America in that year can testify that the word research, now so constant in the educational vocabulary and so lightly applied to the humblest varieties of fact-finding, was then never heard on any campus. There were at that time eleven professors of history in the United States; only four of them ever wrote and published history. Professors of history taught their classes; they were a quite distinct set from the writers of history, who were for the most part well-to-do cultivated amateurs—a class of historical workers which, we must regretfully admit, has not in the ensuing fifty years increased in anything like the same proportion as the wealth and population of the country.

But presently there came a change. Young American scholars trained in the historical methods of the German seminar came back to teach in American universities and colleges. Others imbibed under the inspiring teaching of Henry Adams at Harvard, or under C. K. Adams at Michigan, the sense of the necessity of studying history from the original sources, or the conviction that some amount of occupation with research was the best means of keeping the teacher’s mind alive and vivifying his instruction. The Johns Hopkins University, dedicated primarily to research and the training of young men for research-an entirely novel dedication in that day-began instruction in 1876; and some new ingredient in the Zeitgeist, or in the academic atmosphere, brought it about that other universities speedily caught the enthusiasm for graduate instruction, for the professional training of college and university teachers, and thereby for that introduction to the processes of investigation without which the teacher is ill qualified for independent thinking.

It is not fanciful to regard the year 1884 as something of an era in the remarkable development which history has undergone in the United States during the past fifty years. In that year was published the first volume of Justin Winsor’s Narrative and Critical History of America. Readers of the present day, who have been accustomed to use those volumes as a matter of course, and along with them a multitude of other bibliographical guides, since published, can form no just notion of the difference between working at American history in the days before the appearance of Winsor’s volumes and working at it with the aid of the critical chapters in which he had amassed so prodigious and so complete an exposition of what had thus far been published in their field.

Still more epoch-marking was the foundation, in September of the same year, of the American Historical Association. The importance of that event has lain in several particulars. First, in order of time, it brought into mutual acquaintance a group of men who, though occupied with the same field of study, seldom had personal knowledge of each other. The subsequent incorporation of the society by act of Congress and its affiliation to the Smithsonian Institution gave it a governmental status which has been of much value to its work. Its peripatetical habit of holding its annual meetings in various cities, over a wide geographical range, has brought to historical students in different regions the point of view of those who are occupied with the history of Europe or with the larger aspects of the history of our own country, and has helped to emancipate the former class from parochial views or from preoccupation with the history of their single states or regions. As numbers have increased, from the original 41 to the present membership of more than 3700, and resources have increased with them, the existence of this organization has made possible a multitude of good works for the advancement of “American history and history in America” (the charter’s phrase). In 1895, by creating its first standing committee, the Historical Manuscripts Commission, it began a long series of volumes of original material previously unpublished. Its Public Archives Commission has published inventories of the archives of nearly all the states, and has exerted a strong influence toward better treatment and preservation of archival material. Its bibliographical committees have valiantly aided research, especially of late by the preparation of its Guide to Historical Literature. It has made large investigations of the teaching of history, in this and other. countries, and has seriously influenced it. It has sustained the American Historical Review, and taken a fruitful part in the work of the International Committee of Historical Sciences.

But perhaps there was no more important result of the formation of that society in 1884 than the creation in the United States of an historical profession, as a body conscious of corporate unity, power and responsibilities. Of the dozen or fifteen professors of history teaching in 1884, there were hardly two that knew more than one or two of the others. The college professor’s loyalties were to his college, and many a college had little more relation to the general world of scholarship than if it had been a Buddhist monastery. Now nearly all professors have a twofold loyalty, to the college in which they teach and to the profession to which they consciously belong. It is, of course, not in history alone that this beneficent expansion of mind has taken place. The organization of the American Historical Association in 1884 was but one of a dozen or more instances in which, between 1869 and 1894, the votaries of this or that academic subject, scientific or humanistic, drew together by the formation of national societies. It was an important general movement, the value of which to the intellectual life of America has perhaps not yet been duly estimated.

It has been natural to dwell at disproportionate length upon the history of this one historical society, partly because it is national, partly because it is the one which is responsible for the preparation of this book; but it would be much less than just to ignore the contributions to the advancement of historical research made by other societies, not only state societies, of the type already mentioned, but societies devoted to the history of a particular religious body, or science, or department of culture, or societies of teachers of history in an individual region. Of special institutions or departments for historical research unconnected with teaching, we have had little experience, but it seems not improper to mention, as distinctive, the effort made by one such department to pave the way toward a completer and more systematic exploitation of the materials for American history pre, served in foreign archives and libraries.1

It is the belief of the present writer that more fruitful advances in historical investigation could be made in institutes specially endowed for the purpose, in which an historical board of strategy or individual strategist, unencumbered by teaching, could plan what seems best and get it done, than in the historical departments of American. universities, where such progress is impeded by the distractions of teaching and by all manner of mundane solicitations. But we have the universities, and have not the institutes, nor the House of Solomon that Bacon envisaged; and every millionaire knows about universities and their needs, or can easily be told about them, while the advancement of learning, pure and simple, has few friends to plead or hear its cause.

And so it is our universities that must be, for the present, the chief homes of productive scholarship in history. Their total product is very impressive in quantity and, on the whole, in quality. It is true that it is very miscellaneous. One would not wish to see research unduly regimented, but those whom “this unchartered freedom tires” will be glad if the present publication leads to a little more careful planning in the endeavor to see that work is directed toward things that are suffering to be done, and away from fields already cultivated to the point of diminishing returns. It is also true that, as things stand, historical research in the universities of the United States means, in the majority of cases, the making of doctoral dissertations. One takes more pleasure in aiding the work, and certainly in reading the product, of researches that spring from the native compulsion of the ardent unpaid mind that pursues investigations because it “can no other,” than in those that are carried on solely in response to an academic requirement. But there is no help for this. The student will not be indifferent to the ineluctable logic of: no dissertation no degree, no degree no “job.” The professor cannot release him from the obligation, though it seems as if he might sometimes be persuaded that dissertations half as long would serve equally well the purposes for which dissertations were invented and are exacted. (Would that the requirements as to French and German were administered with the same rigor!) So the doctorandi publish books, while the professors publish articles.

But the object of these introductory pages is not to set forth doctrine respecting research, which is much better done in the pages that follow, but merely to sketch some aspects of the development it has undergone in the United States during one student’s recollection. It is an inspiring and encouraging record-hundreds at work where hardly more than a score were at work fifty years ago, and at work with better resources, better instruments and better, or at any rate better-furnished, minds.

J. Franklin Jameson

Next section: Findings of the Committee



  1. The activities and accomplishments of the Department of Historical Research of the Carnegie Institution, referred to here, are recorded in the Institution’s Year Books, beginning in 1903. In all too brief recapitulation the Year Book for 1930-31, 142, says: “Source materials have been unearthed in the United States and Europe; they have been sorted, digested, their whereabouts and content made known by guides and calendars; and a great number of documents of outstanding importance have been printed, annotated and explained in the critical light of modern scholarship.”-A. M. S. []