History of the United States From the Compromise of 1850 to the McKinley-Bryan Campaign of 1896/the McKinley and Roosevelt Administrations, 1897-1909

by James Ford Rhodes. New edition in eight volumes. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1920.
by James Ford Rhodes. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1922. 8vo. xii+ 418 pp. $4.00.
‘MY design,’ wrote Mr. Rhodes in beginning his history some thirty-five years ago, ‘is to write the history of the United States from the introduction of the compromise measures of 1850 down to the final restoration of home rule in the South twenty-seven years later.’ Fortunately that decision was not final. Once the great work had gained the impetus which accomplishment provides, it was continued not only to 1885, which was one of the projected stoppingpoints, but to 1896, and now, by another volume, to 1909. In the very nature of things, it cannot be much more extended without venturing, in a certain sense, not only into the realm of politics, which it long since invaded, but almost into that of prophecy. For it now deals, as it has long dealt, with men still active in public affairs, and with issues still undetermined. Like Thucydides, Mr. Rhodes has written the history of the United States for nearly all of the period covered by his life.
It is a remarkable achievement. Its character — and even that of its author — is extraordinarily like that he gives of his Greek prototype. ‘Thucydides spent a large part of a life of about threescore years and ten in gathering materials and writing his history. . . . He was a man of business and had a home in Thrace as well as in Athens. . . . Born in 471 B. C., he relates the events which happened between 435 and 411, when he was between the ages of thirty-six and sixty. . . . Natural ability being presupposed, the qualities necessary for a historian are diligence, accuracy, love of truth, impartiality, the thorough digestion of his materials by careful selection and long meditating, and the compression of his narrative into the smallest compass consistent with the life of his story. . . . All these qualities . . . were possessed by Thucydides.’
The analogy is neither unfair nor fanciful, nor exaggerated. The dean of American historians has, indeed, performed a task for his country and his generation not incomparable to that of his Greek predecessor. He has written a history ‘not as a prize composition but as a permanent gift to posterity.’ And no future historian of the United States but must take large account of what is not only a serious, well-balanced, authoritative chronicle of the past three-quarters of a century, but, in a sense, some such contemporary narrative and source as Thucydides himself produced. And more; for, as Mr. Rhodes says of Tacitus, we may say of him: ‘We rise from reading his history with reverence. We know that we have been in the society of a gentleman who had a high standard of morality and honor. We feel that our guide was a serious student, a solid thinker, and a man of the world; that he expressed his opinions and delivered his judgment with a remarkable freedom from prejudice.’
It may be well — or Wellsian — for Mr. H. G. Wells to sneer at the time and attention given to the past, though that sneer may now be somewhat modified in the light of his own Herculean researches, which enabled him to write a history of the world in three years. But there is one reflection which, above all others, impresses one upon rising from the reading of a work like that of Mr. Rhodes. It is the great public service of such an historian. It is impossible for one to understand, even dimly, the age in which he lives, the direction in which his country has moved, and is moving, without some such lamp to guide his feet. It is easy to say that any given work lacks certain qualities which one scholar or another would prefer to have emphasized; for one man to glean after Gibbon, another to correct Macaulay; for monographists to bring each his little store of facts, for philosophers to expound their views, for critics to point out deficiencies. Yet such work as that of the great historians is not to be judged by such standards, but as a whole, which is greater than the sum of the parts.
There were histories of the United States before that of Mr. Rhodes. There will be many more of the same period of which he treats. Yet if one desires a true measure of his work, it is only necessary to observe how profoundly he has influenced, often quite unconsciously, his successors; how deeply his marshaling of facts and of conclusions has made itself a part of the fabric of our knowledge and our judgment. And in no way more than this, that it is so distinctively American — it is, as he has said himself of another historian, so ‘racy of the soil.’ For the life he has described he has also lived; the men of whom he writes are so often men he has known, the conditions he has seen at first hand, his experiences are those of his history. And there are few better correctives of the opinions and prejudices and passions of the moment than the serious reading of a work like this, which Cromwell would have agreed was that, desirable possession, ‘a good body of history.’
WILBUR C. ABBOTT.