The Perils of Historical Narrative
I HOPE to show how the elements and concomitants of historical narrative are imperiled by perversion and accident; how their accuracy is often little more than a question of belief; how they are emasculated by what is called the dignity of history; how they are debilitated by the so-called philosophy of history ; how they are modified by unavoidable change in men and manners, and subject to revision through the development and readjustment of material in the hands of succeeding writers.
There is no quality of the historian upon which so great stress is laid, nor one so little understood, as what is called his accuracy; and it seems difficult for the layman to consider it other than a positive thing. Historical accuracy is, in fact, the most fleeting of vanities. Hard, dry, distinguishable facts there doubtless are. An annalist may deal with them and seldom err. But the difference between an annalist and a historian is, that the mere facts of the first as used by the latter become correlated events, which illumine each other, and get their angles of reflection from many causes external to the naked facts. These causes are the conditions of the time, which gave rise to the facts; the views of the period in which they are studied; and the idiosyncrasies of the person studying them. Hence no historical statement can be final. Views change, and leave credulity and perversion always to be eradicated from the historian’s page. Individuals are cast in varying moulds. Until Nature has reached the limit of her ethnical and personal diversities, there can be no stay to the rewriting of history upon the basis of the same data; and the problem is kept otherwise alive by the constant discovery of new material. So we may well ask if an annalist is accurate ; but to put the same question respecting a historian means a great deal more; and, beyond a certain range, it is never easily answered, and rarely with satisfaction. It is this uncertainty that keeps historical study perennial. It is very easy to say that history is false. Napoleon called history nothing but established fiction. Frederick the Great spoke of it as “ lies mixed with some truths.” The well-known story of Raleigh in the Tower is rehearsed to point the denunciatory moral, and then we are told that this story itself has no authority, and is another of the lies. The novelist and playwright claim, or the claim is made for them, that their plots and characters are more historic than the historian’s. Fielding said that only his names and dates were false, while in the histories these alone were true. Such are the commonplaces which lead many people to talk much of the superiority of Shakespeare’s English history to that of the chroniclers and historians. It is superior in its way; and, with this acknowledgment, there is no proposition to discuss. We want Shakespeare, and Bacon, and Hume, and Hallam, and Macaulay, and Green, and Lecky, and we want them all. It is of no more account that their recitals do not agree in details than it is that the horses of a sweepstakes are of different colors.
We are often deceived by the disguises of truth. It is a legal fiction that the king, or the state, is always present in court. Truth stands at the bar of history in much the same way. She is hidden from us in the raiments of the historian. A famous lawyer once said that there is an idiom in truth beyond the imitation of falsehood. Therefore, whatever its obscurities, whatever the special pleas of a partisan, whatever the blur of the personal equation, truth may still be there, to be seen at times by sharp eyes in a learned head. Accuracy in a historian is a question of comparison, largely. It depends greatly upon the reader’s views. Accuracy in the sense that a problem in mathematics is accurate is, in much that a historian is bound to write, wholly out of the question. You cannot deal with appearances and motives, as a historian must, and demonstrate a truth beyond dispute.
A distinguished author, who sometimes writes history, once said to me, respecting a proposition which he had made, that, if it were not true, it ought to be. It was better than truth to him, and no doubt was to his readers. What is a fact in the face of the higher law of truth ? Bulwer puts it thus : “ Facts, if too nakedly told, may be very different from truths in the impression they convey.” A writer of history, who was trying to tell a story of the making of a new social system in a philosophical spirit, by interlarding his narrative with bits of generalizations, asked me how he could improve his book. I told him by so arranging his narrative that its philosophy would go without saying, or would, in other words, be carried by his narrative. He went for comfort to a brother philosopher, who told him to stick to his philosophy and leave out his facts. There are men who hate facts.
When a novelist submitted to me a piece of history which he had been writing, and I pointed out its errors of statement, he scorned what he called “ the stern brutality of facts.” No one who has dealt largely with historical research but quite understands this disparagement of much that passes for judicial and learned statements ; for no one knows so well as such a student that to make a statement of the circumstances of an event involves estimates of probabilities, of character, and of purpose that are not wholly to be clinched by unimpeachable evidence.
I fear that the unquestioned accuracy of history is like the vital principle of life : we seek for it, but never find it. In history, as in all else, we agree to disagree, and accuracy has more faces than Janus. It is in the nature of things that it should be so. Freeman tells us that “absolute certainty is unattainable by the very best historical evidence; ” and he adds, as respects two witnesses, that exact agreement in every minute detail is held to be a little surprising. So it is that accuracy in any correlated historical statement is often nothing more than probability as it lies in one mind.
The successful historian employs the same faculties which make for the merchant his fortune. It is penetration of character, discernment of qualities, judicial sifting of evidence, judgment of probabilities, that enable the historian to give the seeming of fact; and, after all, it is but a seeming. The late Dr. Deane succeeded in making uncertain the Pocahontas story of the rescue of John Smith ; but there is still left a chance of its accuracy, so that the romance will never die, and each generation will renew the discussion. It is pretty much this condition that governs all historical research, where the character of the actor or of the narrator has any play. We see it in what Niebuhr has done for Rome and Grote for Greece. Thus the historian may follow the annalist in his dates and other certainties, and at the same time be conscious that omniscience, infallibility, and the infinite are quite beyond his ken. He knows how scant his divination is as to the probable truths. He knows the difficulty of giving a just value to circumstances. He cannot tell how far, purposely or accidentally, the statements of his witnesses are misleading. Who, for instance, can be quite sure of the maps of the age of American discovery, when we know Spain always concealed her knowledge, and would sometimes resort to falsification in her hydrographical offices, in order to deceive her rivals ? Nor was Portugal free from similar practices. Indeed, there is nothing more harrowing to the historical investigator than deceits of record. What was intended to befog a rival comes to us with all the circumstance of truth, and may befog us ; and all the more readily if it has been transmitted amid the confusion of prejudice and principle in the mind of the person transmitting it. The wiles of diplomacy are proverbial. One would never suspect, from the letters of Melbourne to Lord Ashburton, that the British government held the evidence to sustain the American side in the northeastern boundary controversy. A general writes a letter on purpose to have it intercepted, and it falls into the hands of an unsuspecting historian.
The historian must encounter among his authorities the alarmist, the faintheart, and the braggart. We must not wholly believe the fugitives from Braddock’s field nor the miserable wanderers from a rapine, like those who escaped from the slaughter of the Wyoming Valley. The particulars of the Norse sagas become to errant minds mere milk for babes. The mendacities of Thevet and Hennepin confound the early geography of a continent. The spurious prophecies of Montcalm, the Philadelphia speech of Sam Adams, the letters that the enemies of Washington tried to make live with the authority of his misused name, are but instances of the political chicanery that would misguide public opinion. But how much that is false is still accepted ! How much history must be rewritten upon the demonstration of such falsity ! Stubbs tells us that the proved discovery of the forgery of Ingulf’s History of Croyland Abbey was a fact that necessitated the revision of every standard book on early English history. Our most distinguished historian was obliged to rewrite his La Salle when Margry divulged documents which he had kept out of sight.
The record may be falsified by national or local pride. Time was when the Scots claimed the blood of the Pharaohs, when the Britons made themselves the heirs of Æneas, when the genealogy of the Spanish kings was carried back to Noah. Every hero of the Middle Ages traced up to Hector. In our day, a weak mind has discerned the blood of Odin meandering through the veins of Washington. We have within a score of years seen state pride seek to make history anew by aggrandizing the transient sojourn of Popham’s followers on the Maine coast into the parent effort of New England settlement.
It is the romance of history which attracts the half educated and secures the publisher. An active man of affairs and vigorous writer, who has made some successful ventures in the fields of history, believes that we should elaborate the episodes of progress, and let the gaps and level spaces alone. Another writer, more eminent in fiction than in history, holds that no book has a reason for being which is not popularly readable. Such as these establish canons of history more for the present than for all time. It is the converse of Voltaire’s proposition that history is playing tricks with the dead, and is rather beguiling the living. The fact is, however we play tricks with the dead or beguile the living, the historical narrative can have no finality. It appeals anew, in each generation, to fresh individuals, or must be told under changed conditions of society. This is a reason for its perennial character quite apart from any necessity of retracting, arising from new discoveries of material. “ Truth indeed is single,” says Prescott, “ but opinions are infinitely various.” We must not forget how important a share of any historical narrative is the opinion of the narrator; and, moreover, according to Freeman, we should not forget that " the history of opinion about facts is really no small part of the history of those facts.” Farther is it true that though the historian has to do with facts, or what he supposes to be facts, he has quite as much to do with what his actors supposed were facts, but were not. Columbus, on the coast of Cuba, making his crew swear they were on the coast of Asia, and Balboa discovering what he called the South Sea, dominated the historical geography of their time.
History, so far as it embodies the study of the characters of men, deals necessarily with their motives, which are the foundations of character. How uncertain the scrutiny of personal motives is needs hardly to be said. The historian’s divining-rod to find the wellspring of motive is his own predisposition, which is the unfailing cause of a diversity of views. John Adams saw a hater of New England in the royal governor of the Stamp Act times. Today we discover in the diary of Thomas Hutchinson the most filial of natives. The speech which Webster puts into the mouth of John Adams, another imagined by Botta, and an actual record, if we had one, would be far from alike. Mitford sees aristocracy in Greece, and Thirlwall democracy ; and one wonders what the fact was. Was it qualities which they had inherited from a line of ancestry that made these respective writers so at variance ? There is nothing more perplexing than the delicate relations in history of cause and effect, whether in the events or in the recorders of them. There seems sometimes to be nothing to check dependent progress, if we travel back over the annals of the world. Shall we say the American Revolution traces back to the Writs of Assistance, as most begin it; to the changes of European policy which followed the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, as Bancroft divines; to the revulsion of the Andros revolution ; or even to that taking of the emblems of a national life in their hands, when Winthrop and his fellows brought hither the charter of the Massachusetts Company ? So mysteriously generation is linked with generation, and century grows out of century. Who would have thought that when the Plantagenet, Henry VII. of England, gave a patent to the Venetian, John Cabot, and his three sons, to discover western lands, he would have determined the fact of the fee in the roadway of the New York Bowery, in a suit of abutters against an elevated street railway, as really happened the other day ? Or when Champlain, a Frenchman, wintered on an island in the American wilds, in 1604, he would have determined by the traces of his occupancy a question of bounds between Great Britain and the revolted colonies, two centuries later? Bosworth field and the Bowery. Catholic France and rebellious Protestants, thus contrast and connect, and their concomitant results are good instances of the mutability and dependence of history. Events in the age of their happening are one thing; events placed in the world s memory, affecting the world’s opinions and experiences, are quite another thing. This interlacing of the ages makes the new telling of old stories a part of the intellectual development of the race, and this retelling is necessarily subject to the writer’s personality, and to the influence upon him of his day and generation. So the Tytlers and the Rollinses pass with damson plums and syllabubs into the limbo of forgotten things.
Distance in leagues, as well as in years, makes similar distinctions. This is shown territorially and chronologically in the rules of evidence. We do not find the flavor of the common law in the historians of France. Two centuries change the rules of the witnessst and in our own communities. We cannot forget this when we deal with witnesses of a former age. A sense of right may have been different then from what it is now. The pine-tree shilling of Massachusetts Bay and the iron coin of Lycurgus convey morals as different as can well be imagined. Webster delivering his eulogy on Adams and Jefferson in Faneuil Hall, in an academic gown, and an Irish Catholic descanting at Plymouth on the message of the Mayflower to civilization, have fallen within the survey of a long life. We might believe that when Voltaire said that what is not natural is not true, he could have known of just such paradoxes; but let us think a moment, and we shall decide that what is natural is really based on the artificial notions at the time prevailing. We find it sometimes difficult to believe this. It materially makes the past to us a thing of which the past had no conception. It needs a little effort to take in the fact, says Freeman, that we ought not to forget that Thucydides himself was not to his contemporaries all that he is to us.
The child takes his first history lesson from a fable of Æsop, or he is told how the naughty cat killed the canary. He is shown a moral in the fable, and made to see total depravity in the feline act. As we grow older, the story-telling of the histories is smothered with generalities and garnished with psychology, till we are in doubt whether we are hearing a story or reading the secrets of nature as some one else understands them. We emancipate ourselves at last, and find the freshness of life in the story that travels steadily to the end, in which its philosophy goes without saying, and the narrative needs no condiment to improve its flavor. Such are the stages in the development of the historical instinct. It needs training and large familiarity to convert a maundering method into directness, force, and significance. The colt paces, the finished roadster has learned to trot. To tell the story with Herodotus is what we have come to, after all experimenting.
It is often claimed, on the contrary, that it is the power of generalization and classification which makes a great historian; but this power alone is apt to come dangerously near to cant and platitude. To dole out homilies is not spaciousness of mind. General propositions are by no means circumspection of thought. Macaulay, in his description of a perfect law-giver, strikes close to the perfect historian : “a just temper between the mere man of theory, who can see nothing but general principles, and the mere man of business, who can see nothing but particular circumstances.” It is such a one who makes a story, in the telling, carry the meaning which belongs to it, in all its breadth, equipoise, and significance. Gibbon did not spend much time in accounting for the influence of events. His recital showed the connection ; an epithet gave the keynote. This, too, is not the least of Macaulay’s charms. Neander, on the other hand, stands opaque before his story ; and it is this dominating tendency of the Germans which makes a well-composed history so rare a thing in their literature.
I remember a trick of boyhood. A certain fish, when his abdomen is rubbed, swells with the confined air, so that when he is thrown back into his element he flounders desperately in efforts to dive. When I think of the philosophical historian gamboling in constraint upon the surface of his narrative, and neverlost to sight, I bring to mind this sportive freak of the boy. It is in both cases a wronging of nature. Lingard says that few writers have done more to pervert the truth of history than philosophical historians. It is not that causes and effects do not exist; but the elements of the problem do not remain constant. The times are different, the conditions of life are altered, the peoples are not the same. We are apt to say that human nature is much the same everywhere ; but we are little prone to recognize how great an influence on human nature the surroundings of it exercise. We have only to look at the customs, laws, and superstitions of peoples of different regions and different ages to mark this diversity. It is enough to allow that the study of history has ripening effects upon the mind. We may get habits of practical wisdom, but Burke says that we fail to get political precepts to apply to practical issues with the immutability of law. To reach what may perhaps be called comparative history, which Disraeli traces back to Machiavel, is as far as we can go in the construction of a philosophical scheme. Robertson, who had brought his history of America down to the outbreak of the American Revolution, and had forecast the drift of his narrative beyond, was rudely balked by the events which followed. “ It is lucky,” he acknowledged, " that my American history was not finished before the event. How many plausible theories that I should have been entitled to form are contradicted by what has happened!” One remembers how Freeman, twenty-five years ago, talked of the disruption of the United States as an accomplished fact. The logic of events is a dangerous formula. That there is an agency, or principle, or method in historical progress that justifies historical forecast, as in the laws of storms, can, in the nature of things, be true in no broad sense. Our problems deal with the ductility quite as much as with the docility of the human mind, singly or collectively. There is a flexibility in the relations of cause and effect that is quite beyond gauging. The political prophecies that come true we remember ; more that fail we forget.
The historian may be sagaciously profound without being what is called a philosopher. There is all the difference between the two that exists between a field of grain which undulates with the breeze and the same field beaten down by a storm. I do not want, says Milton, speaking of a historian, frequent interspersions of sentiment or a prolix dissertation on transactions which interrupt the series of events.
It is always easy to find instances of what is called, in the lives of men and of nations, the compelling force of natural law, the divine guidance or the devil’s machinations. God in history, for instance, appears to be a noble phrase, but the ways of Providence are no less inscrutable to the historian than laws of the natural world that are not understood. What seems providential in history is but the reflex of the mind that contemplates it, and depends upon the training and sympathies of that mind ; and as the training is diverse, the view is also diverse. It may have seemed providential to the American Congress that an incompetent like Howe went to Philadelphia instead of going up the Hudson to join Burgoyne, but it could not have looked very providential to his Majesty George III. The old chroniclers of the Spanish Indies saw God’s work in the atrocities put upon the natives of tropical America at which the Christian shudders to-day. The untold miseries consequent upon what the world has miscalled religion, in wars, inquisitions, oppressions, inhumanities, appall us ; and we are almost forced to ask ourselves at times if the benefits of religion in private life can compensate for its public practice through the ages. It need hardly be said that religion is something quite apart from men’s definition of it ; but it must also be said that when one age sees God in history, the insight is based upon the opinions of a fleeting and changeful period, while the inconstancy of motive, purpose, will, and circumstances is the only thing that is changeless. The theories of Comte, Buckle, and Spencer are interesting ; but the life of the world goes on willfully, nevertheless. The South should create lassitude, but the sluggard is in the North. The North should have the warrior; but he appears in the South. Sluggard and warrior, misplaced according to theory, appear in the nick of time for some effect, and the current of history runs up hill, when it should run down. We may strike an average from the wildest helter-skelterism, and this average may be reasonably steady if long enough followed ; but an average is not a law, — it is the proof of the absence of law. Moral philosophy may draw its examples from history; but history is no scheme of moral philosophy. Events are provokingly willful. “ It is better as I have told it,” said Voltaire, when his facts were disproved. The inevitable does not happen. Take a battle. Its course ought to be thus and so. The position of the troops, the superiority of arms, the talents of the commanders, the rights of the cause, all indicate the inevitable ; but the other thing happens. The fate of political parties turns on a slander or a rainy election day. Rome ought to fall, and the geese save her. Columbus stretches his course to the Florida coast, and a flight of birds turns him to the West Indies, and saves the Atlantic seaboard for another race. But for a hazy day Champlain might have gone into Boston harbor, and the Jesuits instead of the apostle Eliot might have struggled with the Massachusetts Indians. But for the breakers off Nauset the Mayflower might have landed the Plymouth Pilgrims to grow peaches on the Jersey coast.
There is no question likely to present itself to the mind of the young student of history more officiously than this, Is there a science of history ? — and no question which one who has long worked as a historical student would so willingly shuffle out of sight. There are, to be sure, in historical studies some of the semblances of the frailties of science. We have occasionally to take a working hypothesis and hold it as long as we can, and historical opinions are often as unstable as the experimental sciences. Thirty years ago, Buckle endeavored to convince the world that history had mainly to deal with man’s subjection to natural laws. Ritter had already recognized a certain potency in man’s surroundings, but he acknowledged, nevertheless, that a man’s will is a certain and often a compelling factor in his destiny. The laws which govern the progress of mankind, if we must believe Buckle, are as constant as those which send the satellites about the planet; but the potency of human volition is not so easily set aside.
Daniel Webster, in an address before the New York Historical Society in 1852, endeavored to make clear the steadfastness of historical experience as springing from the essential characteristics of human nature everywhere and in all ages; but he proceeded to qualify the statement, until it lost most of its force so far as it exemplified historical teaching. “ It may teach us,” he said, " general principles of human nature; but it does not instruct us greatly in the various possible developments ; ” and inasmuch as possible developments are the salient points of historical progress, the exceptions confront us more vividly than the law. Buckle holds that national movements are determined solely by their antecedents ; but if antecedents have such an accumulating force that they become potent by overpowering masses of men, we should have none of those revolutions like that of the English colonies in America, where a vigilant and determined minority threw a continent into a civil war. Even Buckle, as has frequently been pointed out, after he had amassed his data and formulated his theory, discarded them, when he came to show that individuals really controlled in large part the history of Spain and Scotland.
The treatment of the historical narrative by a mere littérateur is almost as bad as that by a mere philosopher. He makes perspectives which do not exist. He forgets things which he cannot readily and gracefully weave into his web. He writes politely oftentimes when he should write judicially. He hesitates to unhorse the traditional hero. Irving held it unwise to destroy the world’s exemplars, however the truth might demand it, and he exemplified his practice in his life of Columbus. Such a writer holds candor to be obtrusive, and sees no difference between a host’s drawing-room and the court of history. Gervinus has said that the historian must have the courage of the moth, and’ burn his wings to approach the light.
Writers of a timid sort hold that to be a detective is to lower the dignity of history. Their art eschews what the camera sees, and trusts to the polite eye. Nature hides her ungainliness to the slow eye. It is the business of an artist to second Nature; it is the work of the historian to expose Nature. The ivy beautifies the tower, but we have to strip the vine to repair the edifice.
Scientific research is developing, in these latter days, a body of correlated material in which the historical student finds much to study. It is doing far more. It is raising a body of intermediary elucidators, who prepare it for the popular sense. The fact that the historian’s search is symbolized by the camera disposes of that old-time notion of the dignity of history. The camera catches everything, however trivial, and shows its relation to the picture. Robertson was perhaps the last of the great English historians to discard the help of the antiquary and of personal memoirs. Voltaire set the fashion of emphasizing the life of the people. In him the court and the army first lost their prominence. He at last viewed the course of history from the plane of his own century. Carlyle fell into line, and the Germans, in their Cultur-Geschichte, have carried the same process to the fullest development. Macaulay, having ridiculed the exclusiveness of the oldest school in an essay on Sir William Temple, exemplified other views in his own history. Buckle is as timorous here as he is bold in his main drift. He would reject personal anecdotes as belonging to biography, and not to history. The faithful student, however, knows what history suffers by any such deprivation. It rests on a personal anecdote that Columbus, to prosecute his voyage, deceived his own crew ; but it is nevertheless as essential to the historical narrative as the assistance which he forced from the monarchs of Spain. It may rest on personal anecdote that Columbus deceived himself when he forced his followers to subscribe to a belief in their being on the coast of Asia; but we need such anecdotes to show that the effrontery of his character was quite another thing from the courage and trustfulness of being in the right.
Nothing is more certain in the world’s history than that the far-reaching cause may not rest in a great undertaking, but is found in the trivial happenings of humble people. It is of the rivalry of two small Greek tribes that we read in Thucydides. Anglo-American historical literature begins, for New England, in the best sense, with the history of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford, — a record of the trials and discomforts and faith of a very small body of unknown, expatriated English yeomen ; but generations of a great people have given that record largeness; and we shall search far to find a similarly noble account of the beginnings of any other people.
In conclusion, I may confess that I have made of history a thing of shreds and patches. I have only to say that the life of the world is a thing of shreds and patches, and it is only when we consider the well-rounded life of an individual that we find permeating the record a reasonable constancy of purpose.
This is the province of biography, and we must not confound biography with history. Their conduct and their lessons are different and independent. The man is a part of his age, but he requires a different gauge. The age is influenced by the man, but it is fickle where he is constant, halting where he is marching, and active where he is contemplative. Neither the man nor the age can fall behind the years, but, like cannon-balls linked by a rod, the onward course of the twain is marked by different revolutions, and no one can tell which will strike the target first.