History and the Lower Criticism


‘WHERE there is much smoke there must be some fire’ is a saying which has contributed, perhaps, as much to the world’s store of error and the social unhappiness of individuals as any other of those proverbial sayings which form the stock in trade for thought of the man who does not think. That there has of late been a very considerable amount of smoke raised above the discussion of the integrity of our school texts in American history has been obvious to the most casual reader of the daily press.

To those who have been following the results of historical scholarship for the past quarter of a century, and whose sense of perspective and of balanced judgment has not been wholly warped by the heats of the recent world-conflict, the charges made by those who fear that our Americanism may suffer a discount in the hands of bought historians and the international bankers may offer a subject for humorous rather than for serious treatment. It is a busy world, however, and it is not the fortune of even a small percentage of our citizens to have the leisure or the inclination to follow the work of historical specialists, or to examine for themselves the untroubled sources of historical narrative. For them, therefore, it may be well to try to blow away some of the smoke that has been raised and to look for what may be underneath, or, to discard the misleading metaphor, to try to ascertain whether, because there has been a great deal of talk, there is any sense in it.

As I write this article there is a discussion going on in the City Hall in New York as to whether the longsuffering taxpayers of that community shall pay a thousand dollars or so for the printing of a forty-thousand-word report by their Commissioner of Accounts, — one David Hirshfield, — on the dangerously unpatriotic nature of certain texts used in the schools there. The subject had already been investigated, some months ago, by a committee of the Board of Education which made its own recommendations to publishers and banned certain histories — a subject which might be considered by itself. This action, however, aroused little public interest; whereas many news columns have been devoted to the wider sweep of Mr. Hirshfield’s vision, which has discovered nothing less than a concerted plot (according to newspaper analyses of the yet unpublished report) among the ‘international master minds’ to regain the lost American colonies for England and to form a new Anglo-American union based upon British supremacy.

He is said to find that the ‘ banking octopus’ and the ‘super-money-power,’ the Cecil Rhodes Scholars Alumni Association, the Carnegie Council, the Carnegie Libraries, the Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the Carnegie Pension Fund for American Professors, the Sulgrave Institute, the Pilgrim Society, the Church Peace Union, the Sons of St. George, the English-Speaking Union, the Magna Charta Association, the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches, the National Security League, and American judges and American historians are all, among other foundations and individuals, engaged in the task of so influencing public opinion and sentiment as to bring America once more into the British Empire. For this purpose, according to the New York Times, Mr. Hirshfield claims that they are using the ‘ newspapers, magazines, moving pictures, books, churches, banks, and many other institutions’ for the purpose of bringing about a state of things in which they would subordinate themselves to an alien power and system — a truly stupendous if somewhat incomprehensible undertaking.

One of the chief characters in Mr. Hirshfield’s drama of national shame and fantastic crime is the traitor historian, who deliberately suppresses or distorts the truth in order to sell his country to the imperialists overseas. Let us examine briefly the case in which Mayor Hylan, the Commissioner of Accounts, and Mr. Miller of ‘the Hearst newspapers’ are the plaintiffs and the leading historical scholars of America are the defendants, for it is from the latter that for the most part the school-text writers have derived their facts and ideas. We choose this case and these plaintiffs not because of their importance, but because they have enjoyed greater publicity than others.


One noteworthy feature of many of the recent attacks upon the historians has been that the sore point in the minds of those who make them is apparently the treatment accorded by the ‘newer school’ to Anglo-American relations. For example, in the first section of a law passed this year by the legislature of Wisconsin in regard to the history texts to be excluded from the public schools, we find it set forth that ‘no history or other textbook shall be adopted for use or be used in any district school, vocational school, or high school, which falsifies the facts regarding the War of Independence, or the War of 1812, or which defames our nation’s founders or misrepresents the ideals and causes for which they struggled and sacrificed, or which contains propaganda favorable to any foreign government.’ Note that nothing is said about the truth of the texts in general nor is any care shown for the truth in particular of the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish War, or any of the great movements or characters other than those related to England. Here we have the real animus of these guardians of our patriotism, naïvely but clearly exhibited in statute form.

It is true that they point occasionally to what they state to be ungenerous references in histories to France or other countries, or to unpatriotic accounts of the Mexican or Spanish wars; but these criticisms from them are so slight and so scattered as to bring out all the more forcibly the constant and bitter dwelling by them upon the fact that the recent historians are no longer influenced by hatred of England or by ancestor-worship, but that they endeavor, on the one hand, to mete out justice to both branches of the English-speaking peoples as far as possible, and, on the other, to see our ancestors as they were and not as demigods.

This is a movement that has slowly been gathering force for many years. Its sources and development are an open book to anyone who is familiar with the growth of American scholarship. It is a movement wholly natural, and yet one in which we can take satisfaction. If we go back to the contemporary literature of the period of agitation and discussion from 1763 to 1776, immediately preceding the Declaration of Independence, we find ourselves in the thick of a pamphlet literature of marked ability but strong feeling, and naturally of special pleading on both sides. When men’s passions are aroused and their interests deeply affected, they speak and write to convince, not to weigh soberly or to judge fairly.

Then came the years of the Revolutionary War, years of intense struggle, of bitter suffering, and of white-hot passion. Propaganda was no discovery of the last great war. It is a natural weapon of the writer or orator, and the years of the Revolution had their full crop of propagandist writings. Next followed the period of uncertainty and of slow welding of the new states into a nation. To that period belongs the first American history on the grand scale, Bancroft’s History of the United States, of which the first volume was published in 1834. The early volumes in particular were a pæan in praise of democracy. As has been said, they ‘voted for Jackson.’ Written to a great extent from original sources, they were, nevertheless, uncritical, and the men and events of the colonial period were wrapped in a haze of golden mist from which they were long in emerging. Some voices, more coldly critical, were indeed raised to suggest that the history of the United States was not that of the Kingdom of Heaven, and that our worthy ancestors may have been of like mind and flesh with ourselves. In 1849 Richard Hildreth wrote the first words of the advertisement of his sixvolume history which was to paint the picture in more sober colors. ‘Of centennial sermons and Fourth-of-July orations, whether professedly such or in the guise of history, there are more than enough,’ he began. ‘It is due to our fathers and ourselves, it is due to truth and philosophy, to present for once, on the historic stage, the founders of our American nation unbedaubed with patriotic rouge, wrapped up in no finespun cloaks of excuses and apology, without stilts, buskins, tinsel, or bedizenment, in their own proper persons, often rude, hard, narrow, superstitious, and mistaken, but always earnest, downright, manly, and sincere.’

It was toward the close of the last century, however, that history tended to become more critical, to adopt the methods of science in its examination of facts, to develop the impartiality of the scientific spirit, and to undertake the examination of new spheres of human interest and achievement. From the events of the political forum and the field of battle it turned to survey the hitherto little-considered fields of social and economic life. Historians delved into archives and every possible repository for new documents; they did so with the desire of the scientist to discover facts, not to illustrate a theory; and they interpreted these facts from new angles. Americans went abroad and examined the vast accumulations of materials among the manuscript collections in the Public Record Office and elsewhere in England, as well as in the leading archives on the Continent. From all this emerged new facts, new points of view, and a new interpretation.

In 1883 began the publication of the Johns Hopkins ‘Studies in Historical and Political Science,’ continued ever since. Eight years later commenced the somewhat similar series issued at Columbia University. By the turn of the century men trained in the new methods, illuminated by the new spirit, and familiar with the new material were advancing to middle manhood. In 1905 was published the first great synthesis of our historical knowledge as related to America, in a form to reach the general reader, to whom the special and technical studies which had preceded it had necessarily been almost unknown. In The American Nation: A History, — edited by Professor Albert Bushnell Hart of Harvard, — Professor Andrews of Yale, Professor Greene of Illinois, Professor Van Tyne of Michigan, and others, gave to the public in readable form the latest views of scholars as to our colonial period, as to our relations with England, and as to the American Revolution.

In addition to this — for the time — definitive summary of our knowledge in popular form, there had also accumulated a mass of special studies in print, as well as many new printed collections of sources, such as the earlier volume of the Calendar of State Papers, Colonial, for England, and a multitude of American colonial records and documents of many sorts. By 1905 the popular writer and the writer of schooltexts thus not only had an invaluable guide to the general outline of the nation’s story in the twenty-seven volumes of the American Nation series, but he had also at his elbow in any firstclass reference library a vast collection of studies and sources utterly beyond the reach of similar writers of a generation earlier. It is little wonder then if they began to see American history in an entirely new perspective.

Meanwhile the world had been mov - ing outside as well as within the scholar’s closet. The rapid development of science and the pride which the scientist took in his impartiality and openmindedness had naturally affected the historian. History is not, in my opinion, a science in the narrow American meaning of that word; but the use of scientific method and the growth of the scientific spirit led the American historian to judge his material with an impartiality which had been alien to a great extent to the spirit of American history until well toward the close of the nineteenth century. Moreover, the mere lapse of time, the century of Anglo-American peace which was fulfilled by 1912, enabled him to survey the past without prejudice or bias. No one to-day can write the story of the Great War in an absolutely impartial spirit. In 1866 no one could have done so for our Civil War. In 1812 no one could do it for the war of that year with England, or for the Revolution. But is the historian of the year 2018 to write the story of the Great War solely in terms of the propagandist literature of the year 1918? God forbid! The historians of the period from 1890 to 1910, then, were in a particularly favorable position to recast the story of our colonial period. They had a vast mass of new facts; they were under the influence of a new spirit; and the lapse of time had removed old subconscious prejudices and prepared the way for a judicial survey.

The public is necessarily somewhat behind the march of historical or scientific studies. The historical field is now so vast that only a large group of workers can handle the material relating to even one period. Their studies are usually embodied first in articles or books unattractive to the general reader and indeed usually unknown to him. Before it is worth while for anyone to undertake the rewriting of a period in the light of such fresh studies, a considerable number of them must be written, which takes time. It was the work of the whole period from 1885 to 1905 that made the American Nation series possible. The appearance of that work was in itself a stimulus to renewed activity along the lines laid down; and since then we have had more and important special studies, notably such as Professor Schlesinger’s Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution, as well as more popular summaries of new views and facts. The growing tendency to publish records, such as those of the colonies, towns, courts, and churches, without deletions, is a most encouraging advance. The older editors, particularly in New England, had no hesitation in leaving out recorded but unpleasant facts, — without any indication that they had done so, — through a mistaken filial piety. The new methods, if they occasionally reveal the fathers as sinful, at least reveal them as human beings and not impossible saints.

It is evident from this scant summary of the development of American historical writing down to 1905 that for some decades before such a catastrophe as the Great War was dreamed of there had been a steadily broadening movement in historical research, which had as a sequence a recasting of much of our early history. From that time onward the movement simply continued in its already well-established and appointed course. With the opening of the war in its first phase, from 1914 to 1917, and with its continuance in its second after we entered it, there was, as everyone knows, a vast deal of propaganda put forth by writers of every nationality and with every motive. For the most part it is not difficult for the reader to detect it in all its crudity. Occasionally it was better done and far more subtle. Aside from conscious propaganda, it was also natural that men’s sympathies should be deeply stirred and that their views should be unintentionally and unconsciously affected. In the historical writing of the past nine years, since the war began, there may be found statements in which I personally think that the authors have leaned too far to the English side in their discussion of the colonial case. That, however, might be true at any time of writing on debatable questions. In considering the writings of our leading historical scholars who have dealt with the colonial period in works published before, during, and after the war, I fail to find any evidence that they have been biased by that event to put forth statements which indicate any radical change in attitude from that to which the historical movement I have noted had long been leading them, and to which, indeed, they had already attained.


Let us now consider very briefly, in the light of what we have been saying, one of the school texts to which Mr. Hirshfield devotes special attention in his report—Dr. Muzzey’s American History. The first quotation to which he objects, as given in the New York Times, is as follows: —

This great event [the American Revolution! has too often been represented as the unanimous uprising of a downtrodden people to repel the deliberate unprovoked attack of a tyrant upon their liberties; but when thousands of people in the colonies could agree with a noted lawyer of Massachusetts that the Revolution was a ‘causeless, wanton, wicked rebellion,’ and thousands of people in England could applaud Pitt’s denunciation of the war against America as ‘barbarous, unjust and diabolical,’ it is evident that, at the time at least, there were two opinions as to colonial rights and British oppression.

Again he quotes disapprovingly: —

When we review, after a century and a half, the chain of events which changed the loyal British-Americans of 1763 into rebels in arms against their king in 1775, we see that the cause of the Revolution was a difference of opinion as to the nature of the British Empire.

That there were at the time two very distinct opinions, not only in England, but in America, as to the war is a fact that is beyond dispute. A patriot and participant, John Adams, said that, if it had not been for New England on the one side and Virginia on the other, both Pennsylvania and New York would have sided with England. From the Congress at Philadelphia he wrote that ‘every important step was opposed and carried by bare majorities.’ In all the colonies there were many Loyalists, and the best estimates place those wishing for independence at one third of the colonial population, those wishing to remain within the Empire at one third, and the remainder as caring only to choose the winning side. Everywhere Loyalists could be found among the most conservative and able men in the colonies; and of the three hundred and ten, among the several thousand who left Massachusetts, who were particularly singled out for banishment, it was said by a patriotic historian thirty years ago that the list of their names reads ‘like the beadroll of the oldest and noblest families concerned in the founding and upbuilding of New England civilization.’ One has only to read the contemporary pamphlet literature, the diaries and letters of our troubled ancestors at that period, to realize that there were two sides, both taken by honest men, as is always the case in such times of fundamental crisis in a state. The Revolution itself was made up of many strands, for, as I have tried to point out elsewhere, revolutions are not made in a year, and least of all in communities mostly composed, as were the colonies, of an agricultural property-owning class.

For a long time, under the new conditions in America, a new people had been developing, with new aspirations and with different political ideas from those in the old country. Their views as to the nature of imperial control differed, and although Professor Muzzey’s statement may be a little summary and too condensed, it certainly contains nothing revolutionary. The controversy as to the nature of the Empire was carried on in many of the newspapers of the day, and there are some extremely interesting articles on it in the papers of both Massachusetts and New Hampshire, in which colonists put forth views which read almost like the speeches of General Smuts of South Africa to-day.

Hirshfield also condemns Professor Muzzey for using the word ‘mob’ to describe the participants in the Stamp Act outrages. This was the word commonly used at the time, and much of the mobbing in vogue became distasteful even to radical patriots who had believed in such violent means at first. Similarly he criticizes him for using quotation marks when speaking of Hancock, Warren, Otis, and Adams as ‘patriots’ in 1774. As Massachusetts at that time had not seceded from the Empire and as the only ‘country’ to which they belonged, aside from the Province of Massachusetts, was the British Empire, the use of quotation marks is certainly justifiable to indicate an anachronism. They could be properly and emphatically dropped when speaking of the situation two years later.

The Commissioner’s criticism that Professor Muzzey devotes only ten pages to the military events of the Revolution illustrates amusingly some of the difficulties of an American historian. As we have pointed out, the interest of history has shifted during the past generation to a great extent from the military to the social and economic; but, in addition, there were organizations at work before the late war to reduce the space devoted in school histories to military topics, in the hope that the young idea might cease to shoot — at least, in that direction. Now that the tendency has been somewhat reversed, the poor historian is accused of belittling the cause of war as earlier he had been of belittling that of peace.

In all of this, and the other comments of Mr. Hirshfield, there is certainly slender basis on which to raise a pro-British plot. Indeed, if Professor Muzzey — to whom I apologize for the suggestion — were trying to turn American history into a pro-British document, he missed one opportunity that would be somewhat surprising. Although I do not wholly agree with the favorable interpretation placed upon the British Proclamation of 1763 by the two American historians who, perhaps, have devoted most study to it, nevertheless that unfortunate act of the British Parliament is not now generally recognized as having been directed against the interests of the colonists with malice prepense. Yet Professor Muzzey in discussing it says that, despite England’s assigned reasons, ‘the real reason’ for passing it ‘was to curtail the power of the colonies, to discredit their old “sea-to-sea” charters, and confine them to the narrow region along the Atlantic coast, where they could be within easier reach of British authority.’ This is a view which I do not think is now the accepted one among scholars, but which is certainly an unnecessarily anti-British one for a pro-British plotter to entertain.

One of the most difficult problems for the historian who has a limited number of pages in which to tell his story is the allotment of the number of lines to each incident or topic — the question of emphasis. I do not altogether agree with Professor Muzzey’s arrangement throughout, but no two men would agree on every point in such a matter of construction, complicated in the case of a school text by the necessity of considering the effect on an immature and, with due respect to our public schools, a comparatively empty mind. The total impression made by a book depends to a great degree upon what the reader already knows, as well as upon what the author tells him, and a good dietitian does not feed strong meat to babes. We do not, in teaching a child religion, begin with the methods and results of the higher criticism, and just what may or may not be imparted to a school-child as to the real truth of history is a matter which I leave to the educators who have to determine the objects of that study and its place in the curriculum. As I stated above, however, that matter had already been taken up and decided by the Board of Education, and Mr. Hirshfield’s report aims at higher game, the whole gigantic plot to enslave the American people. That, too, I gladly leave at this point to those who have to deal with the mentally empty and immature.

The whole episode, however, following as it does others of a similar though less grotesque sort, raises questions that are not without interest and importance to the individual and the state. In his search for truth and his attempt to express it, the historian has technical problems to overcome that are peculiarly his own. He does not deal, as does the chemist or physicist, with ‘matter’ or ‘force,’ which may be weighed or measured or tested by instruments, nor does he deal, as does the mathematician, with symbolic abstractions. He has to do with the motives and actions of an infinity of human beings, and not even with those directly but only as they are recorded in a multitude of documents and records of very varied sorts. Even in the narrower field of biography the difficulties are great. Take the case of that ‘very vulnerable patriot’ John Hancock. In attempting to appraise the character of the man, how much stress should we lay upon the fact that he practically embezzled the funds of Harvard College while acting as its treasurer, and embarrassed that institution of learning for twenty years? Just how are we to appraise the moral differences between the different classes of smuggling carried on by him and others under the peculiar conditions of the time? In a general history covering a large period most of the characters who cross the stage must be summed up in a phrase, or at most a paragraph, owing to the limitations of space. There is no room for explanations and etching in the half-lights. What standards are we to use? Are we to stress only the high achievement and pass the rest in silence? On the other hand, in the case of a man who outwardly failed, are we to consider

All instincts immature.
All purposes unsure.
That weighed not as his work, yet swelled the man’s amount?

Leaving aside for the moment the question of truth, let us consider that of justice. If we wholly ignore the seamy side of Hancock, are we fair to his contemporaries who, knowing it, were influenced by it in their opinions and mistrust? If we palliate and gloss over the intolerance of the Puritans, can we be just to those who fought against it for themselves and us their posterity? If we laud the actions and assumed virtue of all in the colonial army and patriot, party, are we fair to those who had to fight the corruption around them?

‘Such a dearth of public spirit, and want of virtue, such stock-jobbing, and fertility in all the low arts to obtain advantages of one kind and another,’ wrote Washington while engaged in the siege of Boston, ‘ I never saw before, and pray God I may never be witness to again.’ And once more, ‘Such a dirty mercenary spirit pervades the whole, that I should not be surprised at any disaster that may happen.’ If we paint such men in the colors of virtue, are we fair to the labors of the great leader? If we ignore the facts as to sexual immorality in Puritan New England, do we not, on the principle that ‘by their fruits ye shall know them,’ propagate an entirely false impression of the results of the Puritan system, and make a false standard by which to measure the progress or decline of society from that day to our own? It is said that of the dead no evil should be spoken; but if we conceal the evil that men did, do we not rob those other dead who fought against those evils of a portion of their just share of renown?

On all sides the American historian meets organizations devoted to the glorification of the past, societies formed to celebrate the deeds of ancestors, racial groups bent on magnifying the share of certain elements in the formation of our country, ‘patriotic’ groups bent on distorting the glorious story of human America into an allegory of the conflict between the powers of darkness and the powers of light. All these have performed valuable services in their way, services which I have no wish to decry; but within the temple of history, where should preside the twin figures of justice and of truth, the student too often finds that the public and such organizations have set up myth and false legend, enthroned passion and propaganda, and above the door have placed that noli me tangere which they warn the historian to violate at his peril.

The advance in historical study and in public knowledge had made great strides during the generation before the war, as we have tried to show. Since, then, however, the forces of reaction and obscurantism seem to have been let loose and to have gathered fresh strength. Nor is this true of the field of history alone. It is but a few months since the legislature of one of the older states failed by one vote only to pass an act prohibiting the teaching of evolution in any form in the institutions of learning within its borders. The more abstract sciences may, indeed, appear to be safe. Their symbolized formulæ and even their texts are to a great extent an unknown tongue to the public. History, however, for better or worse, speaks in the language of the marketplace. Partly because it uses the language of the common man, the common man constitutes himself a judge of its truth, and we have the spectacle of a municipal commissioner of accounts attacking the validity of the scholar’s work while a town chamber of commerce defends it. Is it any wonder that many a quiet scholar whose sole interest is in truth should prefer to devote himself to his documents and write only for those fellow scholars who will properly appraise his work and welcome his labors, and whose ideals of truth and justice are his own, rather than give his time to writing for a public which may repay him with aspersions on his patriotism or invidious questions as to his motives?

What then of the future? Is the writing of popular history to be an effort to discover and to disseminate among the people the true story of mankind in the past, or is it to be written as an ethical or political tract, to further the passionate conflicts of the present? Are there to be two publics in this democracy of ours, one which cares only to have its vanity flattered and its prejudices coddled, and the other, small and esoteric, which cares only for a genuine enlightenment? If democracy rejects the truth, will it slowly retire again, as in the Middle Ages, to the quiet cell of its cloistered votary? I do not believe that the test will have seriously to be made, but the influence of democracy in the long run upon intellectual life has yet to be determined, and there rests upon the more cultured elements among the public a very genuine and solemn obligation. Scattered about from coast to coast, in every city, in every town, in many villages and on many a lonely farm, rich or poor, selfeducated or broadly trained, are individuals whose ideals are those of the scholarly historian — to know truth, to do justice. It is this public that has a mediating function to perform between the scholar in his closet and the great mass of citizens whose ideals may be differently based, or as yet inchoate. It is, I believe, steadily growing in numbers and in maturity of judgment and in depth of culture. Upon it rests the responsibility for the future of our intellectual integrity. If it should yield to the forces of reaction, if it should come to prefer flattering local legend to critical analysis, if it should demand passionate propaganda in place of reasoned statement, if it should insist on feeding the flame of hot nationalism in preference to the establishment of international justice and good-will, then the outlook for the writing of history which should be both popular and truthful would indeed be dark.

Just a century ago, Bancroft, irritated at having had an article of his for the North American Review altered without consulting him, wrote to the editor: ‘If I mistake not the character of the American public, there is no need of keeping back any truth from it . The public is willing to be shocked. Ask yourself, if a thing appears good to your own mind; and doubt not that objections which may arise from the fear that this or the other will be offended will prove groundless.’ In the hundred years which have passed since Bancroft thus wrote to Sparks, the American public has, in the main, more than justified his contention and his faith. Partly in consequence of that very fact, American history as written to-day is nearer the truth than that written by Bancroft himself. The exultant rejoicings over democracy have indeed given place to a more sober spirit. Here and there legends have crumbled under critical examination. The propaganda written in times of strain in the past has been subjected to analysis and the statement of fact separated from the appeal to passion. Our forefathers have stepped from their pedestals, but in many cases to attain to a greater stature as living, struggling men than that which had been attributed to them as mere lay figures for the moral virtues. Because the historian has attempted to be just in his estimates of character, faithful in his search for truth, fair in his treatment of the issues, the patriot need fear no danger to the ideals and inspiration to be derived from an ever more painstaking scrutiny of the history of the colonies and of the nation. The historian who most loves truth is most likely to love his country.