Published Date

September 9, 1884

From First Meeting of the American Historical Association (1884)

Pursuant to the “Call,” which had been widely published in the ways above described, a convention of historical specialists, students, and professors assembled at Saratoga under the auspices of the Social Science Association, the Secretary of which, Mr. F. B. Sanborn, publicly announced the historical programme. Previous to the first regular assembly in Putnam Hall, a private gathering of the friends of the Historical Association was held in one of the small parlors of the United States Hotel, to discuss the question of organization, i. e., whether the new Society should be an independent body, or a section of the Social Science Association. There were present at this discussion about twenty-five persons, including President Andrew D. White, of Cornell University, and President Francis A. Walker, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Professors Justin Winsor and E. Emerton, with Instructors Channing, Scott, and Francke, from Harvard College; Professors M. C. Tyler, T. F. Crane, from Cornell University; Professor Charles Kendall Adams, from the University of Michigan; Dr. H. B. Adams, of Johns Hopkins University; Professor Allen C. Thomas, of Haverford College; Hon. John Eaton, United States Commissioner of Education; Charles Deane, LL.D., Vice-President of the Massachusetts Historical Society; Dr. Charles W. Parsons and William B. Weeden, Esq., of the Rhode Island Historical Society; Mendes Cohen, Esq., Secretary of the Maryland Historical Society; Clarence Winthrop Bowen, Ph.D., of The Independent, and several other college graduates and men of affairs.

The meeting was called to order by Professor Moses Coit Tyler, who nominated Mr. Justin Winsor to act as Chairman, which nomination was carried viva voce. Professor Charles Kendall Adams then nominated Dr. Herbert B. Adams to act as Secretary pro tempore; this was also carried. The Chairman then made a few remarks, of which the following is a brief summary:

We have come, gentlemen, to organize a new society, and fill a new field. Existing historical societies are local, by States and divisions of States, and give themselves to the history of our own country. The only one not plainly by its title local, the American Antiquarian Society, is nevertheless very largely confined in its researches to New England subjects, though it sometimes stretches its ken to Central America and the Northwest. But our proposed name, though American by title, is not intended to confine our observations to this continent. We are to be simply American students devoting ourselves to historical subjects, without limitation in time or place. So no one can regard us as a rival of any other historical association in this country.

We are drawn together because we believe there is a new spirit of research abroad,—a spirit which emulates the laboratory work of the naturalists, using that word in its broadest sense. This spirit requires for its sustenance mutual recognition and suggestion among its devotees. We can deduce encouragement and experience stimulation by this sort of personal contact. Scholars and students can no longer afford to live isolated. They must come together to derive that zest which arises from personal acquaintance, to submit idiosyncrasies to the contact of their fellows, and they come from the convocation healthier and more circumspect.

The future of this new work is in the young men of the historical instinct,—largely in the rising instructors of our colleges; and I am glad to see that they have not failed us in the present movement. Along with me from Harvard came hither such; and I perceive other colleges have sent the same sort of representatives. Those of us who are older are quickened by their presence.

The Chairman thereupon requested a statement of the object of the special meeting. Professor M. C. Tyler said the main question related to the dependent or independent status of the Historical Association, and thereupon introduced the following resolution in order to test the will of the convention:

Resolved, That it is advisable to form an American Historical Association upon an independent basis.

William A. Mowry, editor of the School Journal, first supported this motion on general grounds, and was followed by William B. Weeden, of Providence, who said that the proposed Association must interest three classes of men, viz.: those writing, those teaching, and those studying history. The Society ought to be in fullest co-peration with the Social Science Association, whose interests bordered upon those of the Historical Association; but the latter ought not to be an integral part of the Social Science organization. Professor Charles Kendall Adams said there had been some correspondence and discussion touching the formation of an American Historical Association; that the call for the first meeting under the auspices of the Social Science Association was merely a prudential measure; and that the present representation seemed to justify independence rather than alliance. Professor Allen C. Thomas, of Haverford College, spoke of the prominence of historical studies in this country, and of the growing strength of this department in American colleges, urging these considerations in favor of establishing at once an independent and vigorous organization. Mr. Charles Deane, of the Massachusetts Historical Society, said it was a question of expediency rather than of principle whether the Association should constitute itself upon an independent footing. If the new body was to be formed from the Social Science Association, or if it was the natural outgrowth of the same, it might properly remain a subsidiary section; but if it contained new blood and was under no special obligations to the Social Science Association, it might quite as well declare independence at the outset. The Chairman assured the convention that there were no entangling alliances, and that the circular had been sent to very many persons outside the Social Science Association.

Hon. John Eaton, President of the American Social Science Association, took the floor in opposition to the resolution. He said the tendency of scholarship in this country was toward excessive specialization. He thought students should seek larger relations than their own field of work afforded. The Social Science organization enabled scholars who are working in different fields, eg., in jurisprudence, political economy, social economy, and education, to compare results and to profit by one another’s labors. There was perfect independence for the individual sections in the Social Science organization. The President exercised no control whatever over the secretaries of departments. The various sections were equal allies for the propaganda of social science; and through the publication of the collective proceedings by the Association, a wider public was reached than was naturally open to any individual section. There could be perfect independence within the Social Science Association. An Historical Section could meet where and when it pleased. There was a certain prestige attached to large and well-organized associations; scientific bodies ought not to be organized for too narrow specialties. There ought to be general co-peration in allied subjects. The American Association for the Advancement of Science had practically ignored historical questions and the social questions growing out of history. It had dealt rather with things prehistoric and with American archaeology. A new section had indeed lately been instituted in the interest of political economy, but it opened with only two hearers. The British Association, on the contrary, has always laid great stress upon the historical side of scientific work, and there are indications that in this country history, instead of being at the end of the sciences, is going to be at the head.

Clarence Winthrop Bowen, Ph.D., said that he asked a professor of history in New York City whether he meant to attend the Historical Association at Saratoga. The professor said “No,” for he had understood that it was to be merely a section of the Social Science Association; he preferred an independent organization. Mr. Bowen thought that this opinion represented the prevailing idea among students and friends of history throughout the country. There was certainly room for a national historical association. He favored a representation wider than that afforded by the colleges, and would be glad to see vice-presidents, or directors, of the Association chosen from each State, and to hear annual reports of the progress of historical work in different sections of this country. Professor Emerton of Harvard College, in answer to the argument of General Eaton, said that no one realized more keenly than himself the narrowing effects of excessive specialization; but he thought that history was different from such specialties as prison reform, charities, etc., for history was itself a very broad subject, capable of as many subdivisions as social science. President White of Cornell University agreed with General Eaton as to the advantage of specialists in historical and social science meeting in a place like Saratoga, which is so generally attractive; but he thought the membership of the American Historical Association would soon be as large as that of the body under whose auspices we were now assembled. A happy compromise could be attained if the Historical Association, organized upon an independent footing, should be called together for its next annual meeting at Saratoga shortly before or immediately after the session of the Social Science Association, so that members of the two bodies might attend each other’s meetings, and thus the various sections of historical, sociological, and economic work profit by scientific intercourse.

President Francis A. Walker, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the main advantage of connection with a large and well-organized body of inquirers, like that represented by the Social Science Association, lay in the continuity of work secured by the entire body, for individual sections and individual members often flagged in their activity. The experience of the Social Science Association had shown that the main current of interest was now in this section, now in that; but, however variable the individual sections, the Association as a whole went steadily forward, the strong aiding the weak. But for this co-peration of various departments there would have been, perhaps, some break in the continuity of each. A section is carried on by the energy of a few men, and when these fail, all fails. It is much safer for a new association, which has not tried its strength, to start in connection with an older and stronger body; but if the strength of the American Historical Association is already well assured in point of numbers and in moneyed contributions, immediate independence might prove a safe policy. The acting Secretary then said that the letters received by different members of the provisional committee had strongly favored a national society upon an independent basis. There had never been any question in the minds of the provisional committee as to the ultimate policy of the association; it was a policy of independence as soon as prudence justified it. Public opinion, the character and strength of the present representation, the number and quality of the papers contributed this year, indicated that the time for independence had already come. It was important, however, to strengthen the American Historical Association by future meetings in an attractive environment like Saratoga, and by co-peration with all branches of social science, which is naturally allied with history and politics.

The question was then called, and the resolution as proposed, that it was advisable to form an American Historical Association upon an independent basis, passed in the affirmative, and was made unanimous.

It was then moved by Professor C. K. Adams that the Chair appoint a Committee of Five to report at the first public session, in Putnam Hall, at 4 p.m., on a constitution for the American Historical Association. This motion passed by a unanimous vote. The Chair appointed Professor C. K. Adams, Clarence W. Bowen, Esq., Professor E. Emerton, William B. Weeden, Esq., and Professor M. C. Tyler. The Secretary was afterward added to this Committee on the Constitution, upon motion of Mr. Weeden.

It was moved by Professor M. C. Tyler that the acting Chairman and the Secretary pro tempore continue in their respective offices at the afternoon meeting, or until permanent organization could be perfected. The motion was carried. Professor Emerton moved that the acting Secretary prepare a programme of the papers contributed this year to the proceedings of the American Historical Association, and announce the same at the first public session in Putnam Hall. This motion was also carried. The meeting then adjourned to meet for a public session at 4 p.m.

Next section: First Public Session