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The Minds of
Certain Key Historians

By Henry Steele Commager, 1950

An Excerpt From
“The American Mind: An Interpretation of
American Thought and Character Since the 1880s”

This is Part One of a Four-Part Excerpt

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) was the sage of Amherst College for some 40 years.

His books are, for the most part, accessible to the reading public. He urged historians to write not only for one another but for the general reader. (Such appeals are regarded as charming and absurd today by scholars, with some notable exceptions.) “History is a story,” he says, “and if history forgets or neglects to tell a story, it will inevitably forfeit much of its appeal and much of its authority as well.” Among Commager's most accessible works is "The Story of World War II."

Commager was also a gifted teacher, devoted to his students - something that's not invariably true in academe, needless to say. And he was a public intellectual engaged in the life of his times - staying informed, writing letters, organizing, protesting.

His 1950 book “The American Mind,” while not his most accessible work, was highly influential in the '50s and ’60s and remains valuable today.

In it, he notes that the last decade of the 19th century was a watershed period for the U.S., a time of rapid and unsettling intellectual evolution, with a shift from modes of thought familiar to Franklin, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Emerson, to new ways of thinking and behaving that would predominate for years to come. Many scholarly fields were affected – economics, sociology, philosophy, political science, law, literature, theology, and history.

Before the 1890s, Commager notes, America was “predominantly agricultural; concerned with domestic problems; conforming, intellectually at least, to the political, economic, and moral principles inherited from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – an America still in the making, physically and socially; an America on the whole self-confident, self-contained, self-reliant, and conscious of its unique character and of a unique destiny.” In the late 1800s the nation experienced a quick, jarring evolution into a nation “predominantly urban and industrial; inextricably involved in world economy and politics; troubled with the problems that had long been thought peculiar to the Old World; experiencing profound changes in population, social institutions, economy, and technology; and trying to accommodate its traditional institutions and habits of thought to conditions new and in part alien.” Americans were now to be required to make their politics and morals conform to new scientific and philosophical precepts,” setting aside the “neat, orderly universe of the Enlightenment” for one ruled by the new findings of science: “Darwinian evolution, the new physics, and the new biology.” (See here for historian Page Smith on U.S. journalism of the late 19th century, here for historian Barbara W. Tuchman on American foreign policy of the era, and here for background on the pragmatist philosophers of this period.)

This excerpt begins with Commager's mention of two works by Henry Adams: his 1884 novel Esther and his history of the Jefferson and Madison Administrations published from 1889 to 1891. Commager then takes a quick look backward at the historical literature of the mid 1800s exemplifed by such great figures as George Bancroft (1800-91) and Francis Parkman (1823-1893), swings back to Henry Adams, examines Brooks Adams, and then dwells in some detail on the work of three profoundly important scholars: Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932), Vernon Louis Parrington (1871-1929), and Charles A. Beard (1874-1948). - B.F.


Henry Adams (1838-1918) was doubtless perverse when he insisted that any nine pages of his “Esther” were worth more than the nine volumes of his great “History” – especially as “Esther” was so bad a novel – but the underlying implication of his whimsy was clear enough. Even he knew that the “History of the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison” was a good history – but what was it good for? What, indeed, was any history good for, any study of politics or law? The generation that had rejoiced in the stately histories by George Bancroft (1800-91), John Lothrop Motley (1814-1877), William Prescott (1796-1859), and Francis Parkman (1823-1893) had not been troubled by this question. It had been content with the richness of the narrative, the symmetry of the pattern, the felicity of the style that was to be found in all these magisterial volumes. If it looked for more, it could find philosophy, too, unobtrusive but unequivocal: a vindication of the principles of democracy and liberty and order, a demonstration of the triumph of right over wrong....European critics who depreciated American contributions to imaginative literature acknowledged the genius of her historians (of the middle 1800s)....The Rev. Jared Sparks (1789-1866) had achieved both prosperity and the presidency of Harvard College through his historical rather than his theological contributions; Prescott and Motley were as widely read as Hawthorne and Simms; and Bancroft, once his youthful political heresies were forgiven, was widely regarded as the first citizen of the land. The calculated insolence of Henry Adams’ letter to young Cabot Lodge, advising him to follow history as a profession, could not conceal the appositeness of the advice:

The question is whether the historico-literary line is practically worth following, not whether it will amuse or improve you. Can you make it pay? Either in money, reputation, or any other solid value? If you will think for a moment of the most respectable and respected products of our own town of Boston, I think you will see at once that this profession does pay. No one has done better and won more in any business or pursuit, than has been acquired by men like Prescott, Motley, Frank Parkman, Bancroft, and so on in historical writing. (“Letters of Henry Adams, 1858-1891,” p. 228, Houghton Mifflin Co.)

It is significant that Lodge followed this advice and that only when he abandoned history for politics did he lose that respect with which Adams tempted him.

The American interest in history is not difficult to understand, but the American achievement poses a more complex problem. Every educated American read Gibbon, but none conceded the relevancy to the American experience of his melancholy conclusion that history is “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” That this interpretation was relevant enough to the Old World had been noted by Benjamin Franklin who at one time offered to provide Gibbon with material for a history of the decline and fall of the British Empire, but the New World function of history was a happier one. History, here, was the record of a nation which was, in the felicitous words of Jefferson, “advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye.” The story of that triumphant advance had to be recorded, for the edification of Europe, for the gratification of posterity. Americans knew that they were engaged in a unique experiment and were conscious of the duty to chronicle that experiment. “Wee hope to plant a nation, where none before hath stood,” wrote the author of “Newes from Virginia” in 1610, and from John Smith and Bradford to Bancroft and Palfrey the record was largely a self-conscious one. The sense of a peculiar destiny, and of responsibility for explaining it, persisted into the twentieth century where it can be read in Turner’s “Contributions of the West to American Democracy” or in James Truslow Adams’ “Epic of America,” or in Stephen Vincent Benet’s “Western Star,” with its proud boast

We’ve done what never men did before.

A people so aware that they were making history were conscious of their duty to record it. A people sure that they were beating out paths for other nations to follow were sensible of the obligation to mark those paths well. A people whose institutions were continually under scrutiny were zealous to explain and defend them. A people so proud of their achievements and so uncontaminated by modesty were eager to celebrate their triumphs. A people made up of such conglomerate elements and with so little racial or religious or even geographical unity were at pains to emphasize their common historical experience and validate their historical unity. A people whose collective memory was so short were inclined to cherish what they remembered and to romanticize it. A people living in the present were conscious of the necessity of connecting that present with the past, of furnishing for themselves a historical genealogy.

The historical achievement was no less impressive than the enthusiasm. The subject was ready at hand – whether it was the miraculous growth of America and the wonder-working Providence that had guided its destinies, or the vicissitudes of liberty in the Old World and its triumph in the New, or the contrasts of Old and New World civilization. The record was, in fact, a stirring one and did not need to be inflated by national pride or distorted by chauvinism: no mere mythology could compete with the reality. A people so conscious of their rectitude and their felicity could even afford to confess occasional indiscretions toward Indian and Negro.

Because America built upon the past and inherited the experience and learning of the western world, her historians were not embarrassed by her youthfulness or by any want of background in themselves. They had inherited the same literary traditions as Macaulay and Froude; if they contributed less than their British contemporaries to the history of the ancient world, they were perhaps more aware of the role of France, Spain, and Holland in the modern, and it was not wholly by chance that the best histories of Spain and the Netherlands should come from their hands. Cultural geography, too, played a part. After Irving and Cooper, New England monopolized the writing of history. Here was a society conscious of its traditions and of its role in creating the American tradition, and its responsibility for preserving it; here prosperity had developed a leisure class. Harvard College furnished an intellectual center, a maritime tradition broadened horizons, a relatively homogenous society gave cultural stability, and slavery did not impose an apologetic or defensive pattern on thought; here the Puritan respect for learning encouraged scholarship, and theology no longer conscripted the ablest scholars, while Puritan distrust of mere literature lingered on to make fiction suspect and to direct the talents of men of letters into history and law.

The mid-nineteenth century was the golden age of American historical literature. In the two decades from 1840 to 1860 appeared Washington Irving’s “Washington,” William Prescott’s “Mexico” and “Peru,” George Ticknor’s “Spanish Literature,” six volumes of George Bancroft’s monumental “History,” John Lothrop Motley’s “Dutch Republic” and “United Netherlands,” Henry Schoolcraft’s “Indian Tribes,” Francis Parkman’s “Pontiac,” the first volume of John Gorham Palfrey’s tribute to New England, Richard Hildreth’s “History,” James Parton’s “Jackson” and Charles Gayarre’s “Louisiana.” By the seventies, though Parkman was still in his prime, the twilight had set in, and the venerable Bancroft was busy on his author’s last revision. The historical contributions of Moses Coit Tyler (1835-1900), John Fiske (1842-1902), and Henry Adams were still to come: though trained in the literary and steeped in the moral traditions of the nineteenth century, these younger scholars were the vanguard of the scientific school rather than the rearguard of the romantic.

It would be too much to say that all these historians, from Irving to Adams, constituted a school, yet for all the differences in the subjects they chose and the interpretations they advanced, they had much in common. They selected great and ample subjects, painted a broad and crowded canvas, and – with the exception of Hildreth and Adams – preferred color to chiaroscuro. Untroubled by the question whether history was science or art, they were pre-eminently literary and enjoyed a popularity denied to their more scientific successors in the next century. They belonged with the English and French schools of history rather than with the German, with Macaulay and Froude, Michelet and Guizot, rather than with Ranke, Sybel, and Waitz. They were nationalistic without being chauvinistic; they were romantic, but their romanticism did not – as with Carlyle – take the form of reaction; they were not pedagogues but men of letters and of public affairs. With the exception of Irving, and of such minor figures as Schoolcraft, Parton, and Gayarre, they were all New Englanders. The romantic school was to pass, the literary and amateur spirit gave way to the scientific and professional, the political narrative yield(ed) to the economic analysis, but the New England dominion was to linger on into the new era.


As the golden age passed, the iron age set in. Bancroft died in 1891; there was no successor to write so confidently or to combine, as he had, the writing and the making of history. Two years later, and noble Francis Parkman had finished his half-century of conflict and no longer walked the streets of his familiar Boston. Already John Fiske had turned from philosophy to history, venturing upon that ambitious plan to fit American history into the grand design of social evolution which was never to be completed; already young Frederick Jackson Turner was challenging the Freeman formula of history as past politics by insisting upon the significance of the frontier in the development of American institutions. In 1890 Captain Mahan brought out the remarkable “Influence of Sea Power upon History” which was destined to have greater practical importance than any other historical work in our literature. The next year came the first of James Ford Rhodes’s many volumes on the history of the United States since 1850, and with its publication northern writers took that road to reunion with the South which Southerners were more reluctant to follow. And in that year, too, Henry Adams completed his masterly survey of the history of the administration of Jefferson and Madison and turned from the composition of orthodox history to the search for such historical laws as might explain the futility of orthodoxy.

The laws which were formulated were, to be sure, irrelevant to American history, for it could not be expected that a nation so energetic would entertain seriously the doctrine of the dissipation and ultimate exhaustion of energy. Nor did the events of the next half-century require a more favorable verdict on the validity of Adams’ conclusions. But with Henry Adams, as with his brother Brooks (1848-1927), the conclusions were less significant than the argument. For however whimsical the application of the second law of thermodynamics, or however mistaken the notion that the New World was to share the apparent exhaustion of the Old, neither the data nor the reasoning could be brushed aside.

The nineteenth-century historians, from Irving to Parkman, had celebrated the individual and honored moral virtues; the Adams of the great “History” (1889-91) and the authoritative “Gallatin” (1879) had not failed to praise famous men or to pay tribute to honor, faith, and courage. But now he was finished with all this; now he substituted impersonal force for individual achievement, and his philosophy had no place for morality. The historians’ business, he submitted, was “to follow the track of energy.” For, satisfied that “the sequence of men led to nothing and that the sequence of their society could lead no further, while the mere sequence of time was artificial and the sequence of thought was chaos, he turned at last to the sequence of force.”

With “The Rule of Phase Applied to History,” that sequence was neatly worked out. There was first the era of instinct, a long epoch in which men were controlled by purely automatic drives. The era of instinct was succeeded, after thousands of years, by the era of religion – and it was religious force that Adams was to celebrate in the most moving of his books, “Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres.” As the power of religion waned, man’s fate came to be controlled increasingly by mechanical forces, and the mechanical period was succeeded, in turn, by the electrical, whose symbol was the dynamo. With the twentieth century – more specifically with the discovery of radium – came the impact of “supersensual forces”:

Power leaped from every atom, and enough of it to supply the stellar universe showed itself running to waste at every pore of matter. Man could no longer hold it off. Forces grasped his wrist and flung him about as though he had hold of a live wire or a runaway automobile.

“Man could no longer hold it off” – that was the point. Men were, after all, but creatures of force, and the conflicts that agitated peoples were no longer between men but between the motors that drive men. Nor were men competent to control the forces which they had unleashed. “It is my belief,” Adams confessed in 1902, “that science is to wreck us, and that we are like monkeys monkeying with a loaded shell...It is mathematically certain to me that another thirty years of energy-development at the rate of the last century must reach an impasse.” The prophecy missed Hiroshima by thirteen years, but where the sequence of time was artificial the miscalculation was pardonable.

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