Published Date

September 10, 1884

From First Meeting of the American Historical Association (1884)

After the enrolment of members, the American Historical Association, now fully organized, met for a private literary session in the large parlor of the United States Hotel, at 10 a.m., President White in the chair; thirty persons present. The Secretary announced the programme of exercises for the day, which was to conclude the first convention of the American Historical Association.

The first paper, presented in abstract, was by Dr. Edward Channing, Instructor of History in Harvard College, on “Town and County Government in the English Colonies of North America.” This was the Toppan Prize Essay at Harvard College, for the year 1883, a prize of $150, for the best paper on one of three assigned subjects in political science, being offered to graduate students who have pursued a regular course of study at Harvard University during the year preceding the award of the prize, and also to undergraduate seniors. This prize essay has been published in full in the Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, 2d Series, No. 10. (October, 1884), the essay having been read before the Historical and Political Science Association of that University, February 22, 1884. The following is a brief abstract:

Dr. Channing maintained that the founders of the English colonies of North America brought to their new homes the experience in the management of local concerns which they had inherited from their ancestors, and which they applied to local government on this side the water so far as the peculiar conditions (economic, ecclesiastic, and agrarian) of their colonial environment would permit. The institution which was the connecting link between institutions of the mother country and those of the colonies was, in his opinion, the parish as it existed at common-law in England in 1580-1640. Parish-meeting was the prototype of the Massachusetts town-meeting, while the committee of assistance developed into the select vestry, not only of Virginia but of England of the present day, and offers the only suggestion as to the origin of the selectmen of New England.

He then described the founding of one Massachusetts town, wherein at an early day the parish-meeting of old England was reproduced in all essentials. With regard to Virginia no such history could be given—owing, probably, to the lack of material,—for a careful study of the laws of that colony seems to show that something very similar to the parish-meeting was held in an early time, but that this had been superseded by a committee elected by the parishioners, which, by being empowered to fill vacancies in its own body, had become the select vestry. He closed by giving a minute comparison of the local systems of England in 1600, and of Virginia and Massachusetts in 1765, which gave strong confirmation to the idea that the Massachusetts town with its town-meeting and selectmen, and the Virginia parish with its select vestrymen, were both the children of the same parent—the English parish at common-law in 1600.

A discussion of this paper followed. Mr. Charles Deane, Judge Chamberlain, and Dr. H. B. Adams participated. Mr. Charles Deane, Vice-President of the Massachusetts Historical Society, expressed the great pleasure he had felt in listening to the paper which had just been read. As connected with the subject of the origin of New England towns he had been requested, since he came into the room, to give some account, briefly, of the treatment of this subject by the writer of the report of the Council at the April meeting of the American Antiquarian Society, Judge Aldrich, who held to the view that these institutions were quite unlike any existing models, but were original creations formed to meet the exact wants of the settlers of a new and uninhabited country, and the founders of a state. This opinion is coincident with that of the late Judge Joel Parker, expressed in a paper on “The Origin, Organization, and Influence of the Towns of New England,” read before the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1865. Judge Aldrich cited the opinions of various writers, who held different theories—notably the late Richard Frothingham, of Charlestown, in a paper read before the Antiquarian Society, Professor Stubbs, Mr. Freeman, Sir Henry Maine, and others, who thought they had discovered the original model of New England towns in certain primitive institutions of Europe. He also cited the opinions expressed by the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in his inaugural address at the opening meeting of the Association in 1880, who, in saying that New England was the birthplace of American institutions, added that here was developed the township with its local self-government, that upon the township was formed the county, that upon the counties was formed the State, and upon the State the nation. He thought this a most remarkable genesis of town, county, State, and nation, being a theory borrowed from the scientist, who would speak of towns as the primordial cells out of which the State and nation have been evolved. Judge Aldrich then proceeded to show that the right to establish New England towns was derived from the colonial government, which granted them the land and gave to them all the rights of local government which they possessed, that towns are in every instance dependent on the State government for their existence, and that they grew under the guardianship of the State and gradually developed according to their needs.

Mr. Deane said that this was a very imperfect sketch of Judge Aldrich’s paper, but he had no time or ability, being thus suddenly called upon, to give even an adequate résumé of the paper.

Judge Mellen Chamberlain, Librarian of the Boston Public Library, said he had little or nothing to add to the interesting essay to which we have just listened. Discrimination is needful in treating of the origin of our institutions. Family pride may be gratified by the assurance of the genealogist that one’s ancestors came over with the Conqueror, or that their names are recorded on the rolls of Battle Abbey; and so it is with national pride, which seeks to connect national institutions with the beginning of things. What did the first comers to these shores bring with them? So far as those who came to Massachusetts-Bay colony are concerned, we know with some exactness; for the records have preserved a list of articles to be provided for the colonists, in view of their intended emigration into a wilderness. They were such things as the projectors of the enterprise supposed would be needed by the corporation in the prosecution of its work in subduing a new country, selling lands, and planting the gospel.

Of course they needed all kinds of clothing, implements for building habitations and for working the soil; for surveying lands, and seeds for planting them. Nor were cattle and domestic animals overlooked. They made a memorandum of these wants. They needed a minister, inasmuch as the conversion of the heathen was one of the reasons specified for granting the charter. A minister is on their schedule. The sale of lands was one of the means by which the capitalists expected reimbursement for their investment, and they contracted with a surveyor for his services. They hoped to make pitch, salt, and wine, and skilled laborers in these departments of industry were to be engaged. Such were some of their needs, and these things they brought with them.

But they brought neither an English town nor a town-meeting, nor a board of selectmen; neither an established church nor parochial schools; neither representative government, and perhaps not even the common-law. Yet in time they came to have all these. But at first so little did they understand the essential nature of town governments that when they undertook to establish them they violated a fundamental principle of English law, which forbids a corporation, which they were, to create corporations, which towns were. They assumed a prerogative which belongs to the king only. So little did they anticipate the necessity of representative government that, when they established it, they clearly violated their charter and usurped powers not granted by it. All members of the company were voters, but without the power of delegating their authority to representatives. Did they bring the common-law with them? Their first law book cites the authority of Moses—not that of Lord Coke; and when the people had expressed their desire for a body of law, Governor Winthrop, in 1639, gave as one of the reasons for non-compliance, that it was thought best that a common-law should arise out of their necessities rather than be transferred from England.

It would seem, therefore, that our ancestors brought with them not English institutions, but English principles. They brought with them English cereals and English flora. Whether they planted these or not would depend upon circumstances, but when planted, whether soon or late, they grew in the soil of New England as they had grown in the soil of old England. And so they brought with them English principles which entered into and unfolded themselves in all the institutions which have grown up among us.

As has been said, they brought with them neither a town, nor a church, nor a school, but when these came to be needed they were formed on the principles which regulated the construction and growth of their English, perhaps their Saxon, equivalents or prototypes. Race qualities are never wholly lost, nor are they essentially modified; and when circumstances require action under new conditions, that action, in its principles, will conform to the customary action of the race.

Dr. H. B. Adams, of Johns Hopkins University, said that Dr. Channing’s explanation of the origin of New England towns in the common-law parish of the sixteenth century was quite in harmony with his own view concerning the “Germanic Origin of New England Towns,” originally expressed in a monograph bearing that title. Dr. Channing had strongly and justly emphasized the English parish as the immediate parent of the New England town, but Bishop Stubbs and other writers had clearly shown that the English parish was but an historical transformation of the earlier English Tun, which was again but a survival of the Germanic village community. Early Germanic institutions stand related to English and American institutions, as ancient Germany and mediaeval England stand related to modern America. It would be as difficult to account for English modes of self-government in our towns, parishes, and counties upon this side of the Atlantic, without reference to English origins, as it would be to account for our English speech, our common law, and our Christian religion upon the theory of local adaptations to American wants. Not only have New England towns their actual historic prototypes, but there is not a feature of early New England town life which had not some corresponding feature in the municipal institutions of old England. Town-meeting, selectmen, parish committees, constables, tithingmen, wardens, field-drivers, haywards, fence-viewers, hog-reeves, swineherds, cowherds, shepherds, dog-whippers, deer-reeves, corders of wood, cullers of fish, sealers of weights and measures, valuers of wheat, inspectors of brick, and inspectors of strangers, clerk of the hay-market, town clerk, town treasurer, town crier, and even the town pump,—all these institutions, and many more besides them, which may be found in the local history of New England, may also be found in the local history of Old England. And yet some writers would have us believe that New England town institutions are Yankee inventions.

What constitutes a New England town if not a complex of local and self-governing municipal institutions? Surely the colonial legislatures of Plymouth and Massachusetts did not create the idea of town- and parish-meeting, which is the very heart of our local life. Certainly Dorchester and Charlestown and Salem did not invent selectmen or the idea of a parish committee. The truth is, these institutions sprang into being as naturally as English wheat on New England soil. Local government in towns and villages was already planted here in many instances before the colonial government saw fit to recognize it. There are many old Massachusetts towns that were never formally recognized at all, and yet there they stand to this day; they need no defence in law, no reiteration of fact. Undoubtedly the Massachusetts Company, which was originally a joint-stock company, the historical outgrowth of the merchant guild of mediaeval cities, exercised paramount authority over the towns around Massachusetts Bay; but whether this mercantile corporation of Massachusetts created these towns in law or in fact is quite a different matter. No ex post facto patent can explain the genesis of local institutions in the ancient town of Plymouth, and no chartered corporation nor colonial law can explain the archaic communal institutions either of the Plymouth or of the Massachusetts towns. There are facts in New England local life which are best explained, not by colonial law, but by the common law of England.

Mr. Charles H. Levermore, a Yale graduate, now holding a Fellowship in the Historical Department of the Johns Hopkins University, read a paper on “The Founders of New Haven.” This essay was a selection from the introductory pages of a monograph upon “The Republic of New Haven.” The work, which is yet unfinished, is based upon a laborious personal examination of the New Haven Town Records from 1638 to the present day. All of these archives, subsequent to the year 1650, are still in manuscript. The results of this research will be embodied in contributions to the Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, Third Series, and also in a chapter on the “New Haven Municipality” in the forthcoming “History of New Haven,” to be issued under the editorial supervision of the Rev. E. E. Atwater. The following is an abstract of the essay read:

The roots of the Quinnipiac colony derived nourishment from widely sundered soils, from Kent, from Herefordshire, from Yorkshire, but especially from the Puritan congregation in St. Stephen’s Church, Coleman Street, London, where John Davenport ministered, and where Theophilus Eaton was a parishioner. Any survey of the continuous development of New Haven is incomplete that fails to do justice to these two men. Around their vigorous personalities the original settlement clustered, and their virile impress is not to be effaced. Mr. Davenport’s intellectual lineaments were sketched. He was a well-nurtured, well-cultured man, judicious in action, and capable of inspiring feelings of loyal attachment. An aristocrat in the true sense of the word, he felt and spoke as a king among men. His decisions, when once determined, were added by him to the stock of positive knowledge, and were upheld with a confidence and persistence that brooked no contradiction, admitted no exception. As a Calvinist, he distrusted Humanity. A comparison between the Rev. Messrs. Hooker and Davenport shows that Hooker was naturally democratic, devoted to English traditions of popular rule, a political as well as a religious Puritan. But Davenport, though of finer fibre than Hooker, was a republican because he was first a Non-conformist.

After adverting to the resemblances between Davenport and John Cotton, and to the spirit with which the former encountered the changed conditions of existence, the paper closed with a portraiture of the Moses of Mr. Davenport’s Israel, Theophilus Eaton. Naturally conservative, Mr. Eaton’s experience in mercantile life as a manager of men heightened his distrust of the turbulence and tyranny so manifest, upon the one hand and the other, in English public life. As Puritans, Eaton and Davenport had learned to despise and dread English laws and precedents, too often the instruments of oppression. But in the theocracy that they instituted, class distinctions were at once narrow and fundamental, and a ruling caste of Brahmans was created.

Mr. Eaton’s independent spirit was responsible for the abolition of jurytrials. Like the elder Winthrop; he believed in the exaltation of the Magistracy, and in the concentration of power in the hands of the few. He was cautious and dignified, a man of indomitable energy, and obstinate even to arrogance. Outside the circle of his friends he was impartially condescending. The irritated Stuyvesant complained: “He rips up all my faults as if I were a scholeboy.” But those to whom Mr. Eaton opened his soul have left their witness of his gentleness, integrity, and lovable manliness. The connection of both Eaton and Davenport with the mercantile and educational development of their community was touched upon. No mistakes in their methods can tarnish the attractiveness of their moral and intellectual strength.

President White remarked that ability seemed to be an inheritance of the Davenport family. He knew some of them who had occupied positions of honor in the community, and it was an interesting fact that their most prominent characteristics were the very ones that Mr. Levermore had ascribed to their eminent ancestor. He recognized, in particular, the firm will, the tenacity of purpose, and the tendency to uphold individual judgment as absolute truth. There might be an interesting study of the Davenport genealogy which would trace the re-appearance of these intellectual lineaments in each generation.

Professor Crane of Cornell University read a paper on “Some New Sources of Mediaeval History,” of which the following is an abstract:

The study of mediaeval history can be pursued with unusual advantages and profit by the American student, owing to the absence of national and religious prejudices, which, in Germany, France, and England, have produced distorted views and thrown discredit upon this branch of studies. This study is at present too much neglected in this country; the mediaeval period being either entirely overlooked in our schools, or a very limited portion of it being incorrectly taken as typical. The field should be a very attractive one to American scholars, both from the large amount of new material recently published, and also from the new methods applied to old material. For example, local traditions, popular songs and folk-tales may often contain historical elements. In Sicily the memory of Dionysius, of Frederick II., of the Sicilian Vespers, is still preserved by the people; and sometimes these popular versions contain details not to be found in written history. A still more curious source of mediaeval history is to be found in the habit preachers of that time had of enlivening their sermons by the introduction of stories. These were generally of little historical value, but collections were soon made of anecdotes for the use of preachers, and some of these contain invaluable materials for history.

This new method of study will react favorably upon the study of our own history, and encourage the collection of local traditions, folk-songs and tales, of which an excellent beginning has already been made in Allen’s slave-songs, Newell’s songs and games of American children, Mr. Harris’s “Uncle Remus,” etc.

Dr. Francke, of Harvard University, gave a report of the progress of the Monumenta Germanicae Historica, that great collection of German historical sources of the middle ages, which was founded in 1819 by the private munificence of the noble Baron von Stein, but is now supported by the German as well as the Austrian Government. The work is divided into the following five sections: Scriptores, Leges, Diplomata, Antiquitates, Epistolae; each section is under the care of a prominent scholar, supported by several assistants. Among the recent publications of the section of Epistolae, which is under the direction of Professor Wattenbach, of Berlin, Dr. Francke mentioned a large collection of hitherto unknown letters, of the popes Gregory IX. and Innocent IV., copied in the Vatican archives and published by Dr. Rodenberg. The Antiquitates are under the guidance of Professor Dümmler, of Halle, who recently published a very valuable collection of Latin poetry of the time of Charlemagne. The Diplomata, under Professor Sickel, of Vienna, contain now the imperial documents as far as the Saxon period; most remarkable documents have been reproduced in facsimiles. The sections of both the Leges and the Scriptores have their headquarters in Berlin, and are led by Professor Waitz, who is also the president of the whole association. Among the most remarkable publications of the Leges is Dr. Zeumer’s collection of the so-called Formulae:, by which people of the middle-ages made up for the want of a general code. Dr. Zeumer’s edition surpasses de Rozière’s well-known work in correctness of the text as well as in arrangement of the materials. The last volumes of the Scriptores contain extracts from the French and the English writers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, as far as they concern German affairs. Dr. Holder-Egger, who has done very valuable service in editing these volumes, is now preparing the first complete edition of Salimbene’s important chronicle. Besides this a collection of the polemic pamphlets of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and a critical edition of the famous Liber Pontificalis are in preparation. The latter is to be given by Professor Waitz himself, and it is believed that he will make Muratori’s edition henceforth superfluous.

The Monumenta comprehend now about forty volumes in folio and large quarto. This work is a sign of the uprising of national spirit, which has displayed itself in Germany, especially since the foundation of the new Empire.

Professor C. K. Adams said he could not refrain from expressing the gratitude he felt, and what he believed to be the gratitude of every member of the Association, at hearing this interesting account of what is being done by the distinguished historical scholars of Germany to make the records of their country accessible to students of history everywhere. All who have had occasion to use the Monumenta are aware not only of the great intrinsic importance of the documents there preserved, but also of the rare discrimination and scholarship with which they have been selected and edited. The work, as one of the very highest importance, is entitled to our grateful recognition. May we not esteem it as a happy omen that this Historical Association thus receives at its first meeting what it may fairly regard as in some sense the encouraging greeting of that distinguished association of historical scholars in Germany? It must add to the pleasure of all those present to have so interesting an account—and what is in every way remarkable, in such choice and faultless English, by one who has been only a few weeks among English-speaking people—of the great work, in the prosecution of which he has himself been associated.

Mr. Winsor gave an account of the incipiency and progress of the Narrative and Critical History of America. The success of the co-perative plan, by which specialists were brought to present in unison the various phases of the history of Boston, all subordinated to the direction of an editor, suggested the application of a similar combination to the writing of the History of the American Continent. In distinctive treatment of the theme, however, the plan of the America is quite different from the Memorial History of Boston; indeed, different from any existing history of large scope, inasmuch as the chief aim of the book is to offer a critical and bibliographical examination of all the sources of information, and an exposition of the authorities based on original material, or presenting in some distinguishable way the more common knowledge of the subject. The narrative of events is not overlooked, but is given as a condensed summary of the best existing knowledge. The graphic illustrations are to be very numerous, and nothing in the way of imaginary or idealized pictorial design is to be allowed. Conceiving that the early maps, as illustrating the waning of error and the gradual development of truth in respect to geographical ideas, are a most important source of original material, which has been largely neglected by historians, the editor provides a more thorough examination of the early Cartography than has been before made, while facsimiles and sketches of very many maps are given.

The editor has behind him a Committee of Conference, appointed by the Massachusetts Historical Society, consisting of the Hon. Robert C. Winthrop, Rev. George E. Ellis, D.D., Charles Deane, LL.D., Professor H. W. Torrey, and Francis Parkman. The writers selected represent the principal historical, antiquarian, and archaeological societies in the country, and some of those in Europe whose field covers American subjects. Eight large volumes are so far provided for, and of these the third and fourth, pertaining to the English, French, Portuguese (in part), and Swedish discoveries and settlements, are already printed, but not yet published. The second volume, covering the early Spanish history of the continent, is now going through the press, and two other volumes are in progress.

Dr. H. B. Adams, of Johns Hopkins University, exhibited a volume of historical proceedings which had been brought to Saratoga from the library of the Rhode Island Historical Society by Dr. C. W. Parsons. Dr. Adams said it might interest the members of the American Historical Association to learn 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 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. This 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 life-work 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.

Next section: Second Public Session