Historical Methods

VON RANKE, after turning ninety, keeps cheerfully on with his Universal History ; a score or more of learned men associate themselves in writing the history of a single American town. Which is the truer method? Which produces the better results ? The answer depends greatly on what one wants of history. If it be a view of the broad stream of tendency, then a philosophical historian like Von Ranke, who has the insight, the power of seeing the end from the beginning, the perception of ruling ideas, is the writer to surrender one’s self to. But there are other attractions in historic study. There is the possibility of wresting from some limited series of events the secret of their cause and effect ; the ever-elusive search after indubitable fact; the exercise of one’s imagination upon the material thrown up by the spade of the independent investigator ; the tracing of the foundation upon which some political community has built so broadly as quite to hide from ordinary sight the source of its power. If one cares for history in this fashion, then nothing will content him save the opportunity to get as closely as possible at the original documents and monuments of history.

There is another aspect in which history presents itself, somewhat different from either of the above. It is an interesting story, not fabricated in the brain of some clever inventor, but worked out by some invisible power through the activity of real men and women ; it is a drama of persons, set upon the stage of the world, to be resolved into order by the selective power of the imagination ; it is a succession of events, having now and then a denouement, only to go on once more in a new series. In the hands of a writer who has a clear sense of perspective, the history of a nation or of an epoch may become luminous, and as attractive as the story, the drama, or the narrative, which deal with imaginary beings.

Of the three methods of historical writing which answer to these demands of the student and writer, — the philosophical, the scientific, and the literary, — there can be little doubt that the scientific method is now at the front. It agrees most perfectly with the spirit which dominates all departments of intellectual activity. George Eliot in her Middlemarch turned restlessly from one to another of her characters, in the hope of finding one that was built upon an unyielding foundation. Caleb Garth was the only one whom she heartily admired and respected. He was wont to speak of business, as many of religion, with reverence and a profound sense of its reality and comprehensive power. His character is built from this idea and for the expression of it. He is the incarnation of that consciousness of reality in one’s self and firm fulfillment of the end of one’s being which is the cry of Middlemarch. The historian is impelled by the same spirit which drove George Eliot. He wishes to get down to hard pan. He is skeptical, not as one who doubts from choice, but from necessity must push his inquiries until he comes upon the last analysis. Hence the historical student of the day is after facts, and he is ready to put his hook into any unlikely dust heap, on the chance of laying bare a precious bit. There is patience in the sifting of historical evidence, steadfastness in the following of clues, and a high estimate of the value of accurate statement.

We have instanced George Eliot as an example of the scientific spirit, because the historical student joins with the creative novelist on one side, with the scientist on the other. It is impossible to exclude human nature from history, and the historian dealing with the concrete facts of human activity is sure, sooner or later, to part company with the physicist or biologist who is engaged upon the dissection and classification of facts belonging to inorganic matter, or to organic matter below the order of man. The archæologist, groping about in the cave after the guttural-voiced dweller with his club and his little stone chips, trying to make out how the poor devil lived, and what he thought of the world into the light of which he had scarcely crept, may use the same method as his brother-worker who is measuring the wings of a paleozoic cockroach, but he is in a vastly wider range of human sympathy, and may give points to a Shakespeare reflecting upon Caliban and Setebos.

Although, therefore, there are historical students who seem to have divested themselves of all interest in the human aspect of the events which they investigate, just as a surgeon may see in a man only a subject for his skill, and some novelists apprehend their characters only as psychological phenomena, the scientific method as applied to historical writing is pretty sure, when the scope is wide enough, to be humane as well as learned. The most important illustration of this, both in promise and performance, is in the Narrative and Critical History of America,1 of which the second in a series of eight volumes has just appeared. Mr. Winsor, the editor of the work, has already demonstrated his capacity to carry through such an undertaking by the skill and thoroughness with which he planned and perfected the Memorial History of Boston. The general scheme of the two works is the same. That is to say, it is conceded that no one writer is able to compass a great historical subject on all sides, but that the work of a number of writers, each viewing the subject from his own angle, may be so arranged and made interdependent as to form a conspectus of the whole. In the case of Boston, Mr. Winsor had an admirable opportunity for applying the coöperative method of historical writing. He could surround himself at once by a strong body of special students. More research had been expended upon the history of Boston than upon the history of any other town in the country. A well-organized and active historical society could be drawn upon for aid and advice; there was an honest local pride to be trusted for substantial encouragement. More than this, the subject was one which easily permits of disintegration. There is, it is true, even about an American city a certain organic life which is capable of development in historic writing, and Boston was for a long time a very individual and conscious organism. Nevertheless, it is easy to see what limitations there are to such a view of any modern town, and how possible it is to resolve the forces of even so vital an entity as Boston into their constituent parts. Hence there was no insuperable difficulty in getting a sectional study of the town, especially as by the plan adopted the treatment of a topic was carried forward, volume by volume, through the successive periods of colonial, provincial, and state life.

The eminent success of the experiment upon the history of Boston justifies the confidence of the editor in adapting his scheme to a continental subject. In this new work he follows the same general plan of finding the natural cleavage and assigning the separate areas to special students. Thus, while he himself takes up the subjects of Columbus, and Cortes and his companions, he gives Amerigo Vespucci to Mr. Sydney Howard Gay; the companions of Columbus to Dr. Edward Charming; Ancient Florida to Dr. John G. Shea ; Las Casas and the Relations of the Spaniards to the Indians to Rev. Dr. George E. Ellis; Early Explorations of New Mexico to Mr. Henry W. Haynes; Pizarro and the Conquest and Settlement of Peru and Chili to Mr. Clements R. Markham ; and Magellan’s Discovery to Rev. Dr. Edward Everett Hale.

It will be seen from this summary that the work is not in its scope like other histories, which, beginning with the Vikings, come down to Grover Cleveland ; it is not even a history of the United States, with so much reference to other parts of North America as shall explain the development of the Union. It is a series of monographs treating of the western continent. It is, as its title clearly says, a History of America. This is a long step from the history of one town in America, and yet a moment’s consideration will show that by making his coöperative history one of America instead of one of the United States, Mr. Winsor has simply enlarged the field of his historic method ; he has not applied that method to a different kind of subject, as he would have done if he had undertaken to prepare the history of the United States in this way. For America is even less of an organism than Boston. Whatever the far-off ages may show of one increasing purpose, it is out of the question for an historian to marshal the moving forces of the western continent Into any orderly sequence, with any controlling aim. The goal is altogether too far away for any historic survey to use it as a measuring point.

We do not believe it would be possible to write a history of the United States upon such a plan as Mr. Winsor has adopted in these two great works, because a topical treatment would inevitably fail to convey a notion of that organic development of national life which is the last and finest disclosure of historical composition. But a cyclopædic work on America, which follows the broad lines of chronology, is not only possible, but by such a treatment alone can justice be done to the subject. The editor of this history explains that he has reserved the first volume, treating of prehistoric America, until the others have been published, that he may avail himself of the latest investigations in a part of the subject which is, as yet, only experimentally known. Meanwhile, the mode in which the volume before us is constructed gives a fair indication of that which is to obtain throughout the series.

We have said that in its general plan the work follows the lines laid down in the Memorial History of Boston, but there is a variation from the plan of that book which requires to be noticed. The title indicates this. Each topic is presented first in a straightforward narrative form, the facts as determined by a rigorous analysis being set forth in their order, and all care taken to strip the narrative of conjecture and mere generalization. This text of the narrative is based upon authorities which are cited in foot-notes; and in these notes also occur those extraneous matters which do not. necessarily add to the narrative, but throw light upon it, and give opportunity for the writer to make suggestions. As an instance of this we may note the striking reflection which the editor makes upon the futile attempt of Columbus to interest certain cities of Italy in his enterprise.

“ It cannot but be remarked,” says Mr. Winsor, “ how Italy, in Columbus, Cabot, and Vespucius, not to name others, led in opening the way to a new stage in the world’s progress, which, by making the Atlantic the highway of a commerce that had mainly nurtured Italy on the Mediterranean, conduced to start her republics on that decline which the Turk, sweeping through that inland sea, confirmed and accelerated.”

The narrative, besides, is illustrated freely by wood-cuts, which are never imaginative except as they are records of the imaginative and fanciful notions of contemporary travelers. The narrative given, and the reader put in possession of the salient points of the topic, there follows the critical section, which is occupied with a close examination of the sources of history relating to the matter in hand, a fine discrimination of the value of the various authorities, and a thorough and judicial study of the several historical problems which have arisen in the course of the narrative. In connection with this, special notice should be taken of the cartographical work which has been done by the editor. Such a wealth of material in this field has never before been brought together for the service of the student, and we are disposed to think this feature the most important in the work. By no other means can one so readily and so fully put himself in the place of the Spanish discoverers and explorers, and see the continent shaping itself in the consciousness of man.

It has very likely seemed to some who have followed us thus far that the plan of the work compels, after all, a very disjointed product, and that instead of a history one is given a dictionary of history. Undoubtedly this characteristic inheres in the nature of the work; but when one comes to a practical use of the volume under examination, one is struck by the unifying power which the editor has shown. He is always on hand with his cross-references and his connection of one part with, another, and he so pervades the entire work that he succeeds in giving it, with all its diversity of authorship, almost the appearance of being the outgrowth of a single mind. Such a result will be more difficult to attain in some of the subsequent volumes, for there will be a harder struggle between the topical and the strictly chronological method; but in this volume and the next, at least, the sporadic nature of the historic movement easily admits of the monograph treatment.

History, as told in this manner, will have a new charm for many minds, for the scientific mind is found in the public that reads as well as in the students who explore, lint there is a use to which this great work will be put, of unquestioned importance. It will serve as the index to historical material from which the writer will construct the story of history, and the sleepless vigilance with which the contributors to this work guard the sources of American life will be the price paid for accurate and trustworthy knowledge on the part of the generality of readers. It is not from such a work as this that popular ideas as to history are directly formed, but from the school-books, the magazine articles, and general histories. The writers of these will use Mr. Winsor’s book without any acknowledgment, but it will be for most of them the final authority ; and we trust, therefore, that in completing his plan the editor will not allow himself to be swayed by any temporary considerations from making the work as exact as patient scholarship will permit.

There is something so vast in this projected work, and the scale upon which it is executed is so fine, that one may be forgiven if he feels a little tired in its presence, and begins to think that the individual man is of little consequence in history. So we remind ourselves that there are other historic methods which are not likely to be left wholly behind in this scientific age. There is a view of history which finds the person a very interesting feature in the landscape, and which indeed fixes itself so exclusively upon a group as to approach biography in its form. Mr. Schuyler, in giving to his work on Colonial New York 2 a sub-title more special and limited, has hinted what his preface states frankly: that his historic method is to follow the fortunes of a colonial family through its ramifications, and thereby almost incidentally to disclose a very important source of the being of the colony within which this family found the field of its enterprise. It is doubtful if the same method could be pursued in any other field of American life, unless it were in the history of South Carolina. The foundations of New York were laid in families rather than in persons. The nature of the Dutch tenure confirmed the tendency to give integrity to the family, and the great estates perpetuated names and gave continuity to family life. Then the fact that the Dutch became occupants under English rule served to accentuate their individuality, and differences of manner were of course preserved longer by differences of speech. The head of the house might speak English, but he was in one form or other manorial lord of many who were kept apart from English citizens by their Dutch speech.

The Schuyler family was one of the most conspicuous of all that made up the loosely compacted body of citizens of the New York colony. By marriage it was brought into connection with the other leading families; and thus as one follows the fortunes of the successive representatives of the Schuyler family one becomes acquainted with names of persons who were pursuing their own independent careers. Mr. Schuyler, while he has given in their proper places formal genealogical tables, has avoided the too technical treatment of genealogists, and has rather built upon his material a good structure of historic and biographic form. It is almost like reading the stories of the patriarchs to attend to the comings and goings of these generations of Schuylers. By means of this method one looks at the life of a great colony from within ; and if one is possessed of a clear knowledge of the successive events in the history of colonial New York, one may, immersed in these agreeably written chronicles, apprehend that personal, scattered activity which was enlarging the borders of civilization in the valleys of the Hudson and the Mohawk.

Mr. Schuyler writes with a simple, unaffected purpose. His judgments of men are sagacious and apparently candid, and he is so enamored with his subject, so much at home in the slow windings of the genealogical stream, that he communicates his interest to the reader. We may almost say that he is indifferent to the reader. His leisurely style is that of a man who pleases himself with his work, and we are sure that he found it well worth while. He has produced a somewhat unique book, which widens our notion of historic method. It is antiquarianism and genealogy run in a large mould, and one gets a new sense of the possibility of a centrifugal study of history by an examination of those personal forces which lie near the heart of all human organization.

It is easy to delude one’s self with the notion that science and scientific methods are working such a revolution in intellectual life that the human race will one of these days accept a new grand division of time, and antiquity will reach down to the nineteenth century. At any rate, such is the logical deduction from the sentiments of a good many laudatores temporis prœsentis. But there is one thing that survives all the changes that come over men’s modes of thought, and that is art. How great the apparent difference between the Parthenon and Chartres Cathedral, yet how capable the human spirit is of apprehending the beauty of each ! It is so with literary art. and one finds no inconsistency in enjoying Homer and Shakespeare. There is in art an appeal which is undisturbed by the conflict of reason, or by great changes in mental processes ; and there is an art of history which leaves Herodotus secure when Rawlinson has said his last word, and keeps Clarendon alive though scientific historians have been busy over documents which he never saw. It is in vain to suppose that the new era of historic research and faithful collation of obscure authorities, the hunt for the beginning of things, the laying bare of foundations, is to put an end to that writing and reading of history which is akin to the writing and reading of poetry, the creation and enjoyment of all forms of art. Only this may fairly be asserted: that the historian who undertakes to recite the epic of a nation is put under heavier bonds to be faithful to minor details, and will be held more strictly accountable for any departure from accuracy. He will also he relieved of much waste of energy by the thoroughness with which the way is preparing before him. The indexes to history, which are increasing in number and efficiency, will make it possible for the literary historian to qualify himself for his task as he could not before, and will help to save him from those false generalizations which an insufficient familiarity with facts renders almost certain.

In our own country we have so far had no general history which can rest its hope of long life upon its artistic quality. Possibly it is not time yet to look for such a book, but it is pleasant to see promise of it in the fragmentary work3 which Colonel Higginson has put forth. We say fragmentary, not only because the book stops just as the drums are beginning to beat for the great fray which gives reality to all American history, but because the plan of the work as so far carried out does not seem to show an attempt at true perspective. While, for example the early, half-legendary history is given in a charming manner, so important a phase as the relations between the French and the English is hardly more than allusively treated. If one accepts the book, however, as a graceful series of sketches of interesting passages in United States history, one will not be disappointed in his reading. Especially does Colonel Higginson give life to his story when he comes down to a period just beyond the memory of man, and we are confident that he could write a history of the Union from 1837 to 1861 which would contain so fine an infusion of personality as would give the book a long life in literature.

That he regards this history as an historical essay rather than a full, comprehensive survey is evident from several slight indications. There is almost an entire absence of reference to authorities, and there is also a curious fashion of appeal in the text to personal authorities. “ Boat-building had there begun” (in New England, that is), he tells us, “ according to Colonel C. D. Wright, in 1624 ; ” but whether Colonel Wright mentioned this fact to him at the club, or set it down in some book, the reader is not told. Such pleasant little trivialities, also, as “ The landing of Columbus has been commemorated by the fine design of Turner, engraved in Rogers’s poems,” help to give a discursive character to the history, and to relieve the reader from too severe a habit of mind.

It is not our purpose to give a detailed examination of this book, but to welcome it as an indication that there is a view of history which is not scientific, but strictly literary. A writer of Colonel Higginson’s strong æsthetic tendencies takes up the subject of United States history. His book is sure to be eagerly read and enjoyed. It may be hacked to pieces by a critic bred in the scientific school, but it has, what the scientific history is very apt to lack, a sense of form, a grace of style, those agreeable qualities which win readers who are indifferent to the subject, but are ready to be pleased. The conception of our history as a theme capable of artistic presentation has not commonly been held, but the reason for this has been largely in the failure to grasp the true meaning of American development. We are fortunate in having the collection of material in the hands of so competent an editor as Mr. Winsor, and we are very sure that we shall yet have a historian who will hold his own place as long and as triumphantly as a poet holds his.

  1. Narrative and Critical History of America. Edited by JUSTIN WINSOR. Volume II. Spanish Explorations and Settlements in America from the Fifteenth to the Seventeenth Century. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1886.
  2. Colonial New York: Philip Schuyler and his Family. By GEORGE W. SCHUYLER. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1885.
  3. A Larger History of the United States of America to the Close of President Jackson’s Administration. By THOMAS WENTWORTH HIGGINSON. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1886 [1885.]