The American Historians

by William A. Quayle

The average American traveler is better acquainted with foreign lands than with his own country. Nor is he unique in this regard. I have known persons who lived a lifetime within a dozen squares of Westminster Abbey, and were never inside of that historic cathedral, as I have known persons to live forty years not fifty miles distant from Niagara, and never to have heard the organ speech of that great cataract. This is a common flaw in intellect. We tend to underestimate the near, and exaggerate the remote. Another application of the same frailty is noticeable in literature. Homegrown literature is, with not a few, depreciated. According to their logic, good things can not come out of Nazareth, and imported products are the only viands worth a Sybarite palate. In mediaeval days the form assumed was different, while the principle remained the same. Then the question of value turned upon whether a work was written in the learned language; namely, in Latin. If written in the vernacular, the work was immediately set down as vulgar. One of Martin Luther's valuable services was that, when the reverse was prevalent, he honored the vernacular of his country, and insisted that it be taught in the schools, a thing accounted an educational heresy in his time; and in his translation of the Bible into German, he created German literature.

Americans are a race of readers, and are the Rome to which all literature turns face and feet. Besides many books not great, all great books are translated into English. Everybody's book comes to America. We are a cosmopolitan population in a literary way. If you were to look at the book-counters of each succeeding month, you would see how all the writing world has been writing for us. From such conditions of supply, our taste becomes cultivated. We feel ourselves connoisseurs. If we give a more ready reading to a foreign than to a domestic book, the reason is not of necessity that the home book is deficient in interest or literary finish, but may be attributed simply to an undesigned and perhaps unperceived predisposition toward the imported and the remote.

I confess to a love for what is American. I love its Government; its prevalent and genuine democracy; its chance for the common man and woman to rise into success and fame and valuable service; its inheritance, unblemished by primogeniture or entail; its universality of education to a degree of intelligence; its history and tendency; and I love its literature, though, as appears to me, our historians have done the highest grade of work of any of our litterateurs—in saying which there is no disparagement of other literary workers, but simply a stated belief in the pre-eminent value of the historian in American letters. What I mean is this: During the fifty years last passed there were poets and novelists in England who, with all deference to our own writers, were equal or superior to the poets and novelists of America. America had no poets who stood the peer of Browning and Tennyson; and among novelists, our Hawthorne could not be said to surpass a Thackeray, Dickens, or Eliot. But say, proudly, beyond the sea were no historians the masters of Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman. This article wishes to point out the quality and range of American historians, with an expressed hope of causing research in this ample and fertile field.

Though first on the soil of the Western Hemisphere, the Spaniard has made no acknowledged and valuable contribution to American history. Nor, indeed, has any nation of this hemisphere, save our own. The French and Spanish Jesuit submitted religious monographs touching the early days of occupancy of New France and Mexico; but these will readily be seen to be rather chronicles than histories. And the historian, native to the United States, is he in whose hands have been the historical studies of our Western World. La Salle, Hennepin, Marquette, and Las Casas have written faulty but valuable memoirs; but they do not reach the dignity and value of histories, being what one might name crude ore rather than refined gold.

Another thing worthy a glad emphasis is, that America is her own historian. The New World has begotten the writers of its own story. How fully this is true will not be appreciated until a detailed and instantaneous survey is taken. Look down on this plain of history as one does on Tuscany from an Alp. Thus, and thus only, can we value our possession. In this estimate, mention is made of the greater historians, not because others are not worthy of notice, but because the scope of this essay does not allow, inasmuch as reference is here had to the specific gravity of the historian and the epoch of our history he has exploited.

Washington Irving, essayist, biographer, humorist, was, before all, a historian in temper, and was drawn as by some subtle and unseen attraction to study that nation to which America owed its discovery. Irving is an evident American. He loved the land through whose palisades the stately Hudson flowed. What touched America touched Irving, and who had loved or helped America had won Irving's heart as a trophy. And such evident patriotism is commendable in citizen and writer. We love not Caesar less, but Rome the more, when we believe in America before all nations of history. I love the patriot above the cosmopolitan, because in him is an honest look, a homeliness that touches the heart like the sight of a pasture-field, with its broken bars, where our childhood ran with happy feet. Carlyle was against things because they were English; so was Matthew Arnold. These men were self-expatriated in spirit. I like not the attitude. Give us men who love native land beyond all other lands, and who, removed therefrom, turn homesick eyes toward its invisible boundaries. Irving, admirable in many ways, was in no way more to be admired than in his predilection for his country as a theme for his historian's muse. To him pay tribute, because he is historian of the discovery of our brave Western Hemisphere. Irving has told the story of that great admiral of the ocean, Christopher Columbus. This memoir may not be exact. Irving may have idealized this pathfinder of the ocean; though if he has, he has observed the proprieties, literary and imaginative, as many successors have not. Some writers are seemingly bent on making every great soul commonplace, thinking that if they fail to belittle a distinguished benefactor of the race, if they have not played the Vandal with a swagger and conceit like Jack Falstaff, they have ignominiously failed; when the plain truth is, that if they succeeded in taking the glamour for those heroes of whom they write, they have hurt mankind so far, and have impoverished imagination and endeavor by their invidious task. We need not suppose Christopher Columbus and Washington saints, seeing there is no inclination to canonize them; but we need not hold their follies up to wake the guffaw of a crowd. Such laughter is dearly bought. One thing I hold so true no reasoning can damage it; namely, that a man like Columbus had nobler moods on which he voyaged as his caravel through the blue seas. Columbus was no swineherd, but a dreamer, whose dreams enlarged the world by half, and gave a new civilization room and triumph. He was of his age, and his morality was not unimpeachable; but in him were still great moralities and humanities. He had mountain-tops in his spirits, and on these peaks he stood. What puerile work it is to attempt robbing Columbus of his discoverer's glory by attempting to show how vikings discovered this continent! Such historians might fight a less bloody battle still by showing that the aborigines discovered this continent before the Norsemen did! What boots such folly? What gold of benefit comes of such quests? Certain we are that when Columbus set sail for a New World, no one believed the earth was round as he did, and no one knew the Norsemen had piloted across seas and found land; and Europe was ignorant of any shore westward, and Columbus, in his ignorance, risked all and vanquished all.

"Dragging up drowned honor by the locks,"

as says our Shakespeare. Columbus is America's benefactor. He showed the Puritans a New World, toward whose shores to sail, and behind whose harbor-bar to cast anchor. Nothing can invalidate these claims. Honor him who honors us in giving us a rendezvous for liberty and civilization. This mood of history Washington Irving caught, and because he did, I honor him. He was sagacious. He did not traduce a hero, but enthroned him. In short, Irving behaved toward Christopher Columbus as a historian and a gentleman, and set Americans a pattern in history-writing in that they should be the historiographers of their own world. This Nestor's lessons were heard and heeded. If you care to read Irving's various historical writings, the logic of these writings will appear. America was his home and love. He thought to write the story of how a brave man gave a world this huge room it knew not of. Loyalty made him historian. His researches gave him familiarity with Spanish archives. The movement of the era touched him; for Irving was susceptible to the finer moods of literature, as any who reads the "Sketch-book" knows; and once having set foot on Spanish historical terra firma, he began a journey as a traveler might. America led Irving to Columbus, Columbus led him to Spain, Spain led him to Mohammedism, and Mohammedism led him to Mohammed. How natural his literary travels! Consider the consecutiveness of his historical attempts: "Life of Columbus," "Spanish Voyages," "Conquest of Grenada," "Conquest of Spain," "Moorish Chronicles," and "Life of Mohammed." The influence of this historical research, too, you shall find in reading his romances: "Wolfert's Roost," "Legends of the Conquest of Spain," "Bracebridge Hall," and "Alhambra."

Patriotism taught Irving's Clio to find her voice. Nor must we forget, in any estimate of Irving's service, his biography of Washington. This is his tribute to the battle-days of his beloved America.

In strict affinity with Irving in the time of his history is Prescott. This man is a distinguished historian. To history he devoted his life, and to such effect that he is to be ranked among the masters of history among the ages. America attracted him as it had attracted Irving. The era of the discovery enticed him as the voyage had enticed Columbus. "Ferdinand and Isabella" are the dominant voices on his stage. Irving made them subordinate, and made Columbus the chief player, which mode Prescott reverses. The union of Castile and Aragon, and the subsequent wars against the Moriscoes, which virtually put the knife in their heart and concluded that triumph which had been begun by Charles Martel at Tours, is an attractive portion of history. In Prescott, as in Motley, is a wealth of research which fairly bewilders. Nothing is extemporaneous. Archives are ransacked. Moldy correspondence is made to tell its belated story. Certainly Prescott is abundant in information. I do not recall, save in Gibbon's, a series of histories where so much new knowledge is retailed as in Prescott. In seeming looseness of phrase, I have used the term "new knowledge," but these words are happily descriptive of "Conquest of Mexico" and "Conquest of Peru," because the fields were practically untrodden to the ordinary reader. Everything is new, like a college to the freshman. We see a New World in more senses than one. The freshness of the facts is exhilarating. We march with Cortes; we conquer with Pizarro; we inspect Montezuma's palace; we become interested in the industrial system of the Incas, a system which should have given Henry George and Edward Bellamy a delight without alloy; we perceive the incredible valor and perseverance and endurance of Cortes; we front "new faces, other minds;" we discover the Amazon through perils and hardships so multitudinous and so severe as to tempt us to think these narrations a myth; we see rapacity insatiable as death, a bloody idol-worship pitiless and terrible; we read Prescott's history with growing avidity and increasing information; read Prescott, and become wiser concerning the aborigines of the Americas and the possibilities of human fortitude and prowess. A study of the Spanish era of discovery and conquest naturally led to a study of Charles V, grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella, and Prescott has accordingly brought up to date "Robertson's Life of Charles V," appending a biography of Charles V subsequent to his abdication; and as a certificate of indefatigable industry in historical research is an incomplete but exhaustive memoir, entitled, "The Life of Philip II." This work is written with such fairness of spirit and such wealth of information and investigation, such vivid presentation of a reign which had more of the movement of the universal dominion than any since the Roman days, and thus written so as to make us rebellious in spirit in finding the work incomplete. Death came too soon to give our indefatigable author time to complete his voluminous history. Read Prescott as a matter of American pride, and because he has dealt more capably with the era with which he treats than any other historian.

The United States has supplied her own historians, not needing to go abroad for either history or historian. George Bancroft, with a private library larger by almost half than the ten thousand-volume library Edward Gibbon used in writing "The Decline and Fall of the Roman empire;" George Bancroft, whose literary life was dedicated to one task, and that the writing the life of his country prior to the Constitution; George Bancroft, publicist as well as student of history, and who in such relation represented his Government with distinction at the courts of Germany and England,—George Bancroft has written a history of the United States which will no more become archaic than Macaulay or Grote. While one may now and then hear from the lips of the so-called "younger school of American historians" a criticism of George Bancroft, their carping is ungracious and gratuitous. Theirs has not been the art to equal him, nor will be. A literary life devoted to the mastery of one era of a nation's history is a worthy sight, good for the eyes, and arguing sanity of method and profundity of investigation. Whoever has read Bancroft can testify to his readableness, to his comprehensive knowledge, to his philosophical grasp, to his ability to make dead deeds vividly visible, and to his gift of interesting the reader in events and their philosophy. He has written a great history of the United States before the Constitution, so that no author has felt called on or equipped to reduplicate his task in the same detail and manner.

Where George Bancroft left off, Schouler has begun. More dramatic than Bancroft, and in consequence more compelling in interest, the history marches at a double-quick, like a charging regiment. His pictures of John Quincy Adams, Calhoun, Clay, Webster, Sumner, Douglas, Lincoln, and a host beside, vitalize those men. We live with that giant brood. I have found Schouler invigoratingly helpful. He affords knowledge and inspiration; a man is behind his pages; we feel him and acknowledge him.

One change has come over the spirit of history to which all must bear joyful witness, and that is the passing of the king and the advent of the people. The world has grown more democratic than it knows. The people engage attention now. We do not know so much of Queen Victoria; but of the conquering, splendid race whose hereditary sovereign she is, we know much, very much. The case used to be wholly otherwise, the sovereign monopolizing attention; but that day is passed. So let it be. This change is one needed, and waited for long, and longed for eagerly. John Richard Green saw the demonetization of kings and a remonetization of the people, and so wrote a revolutionary history, calling it "A History of the English People," in which he subordinated the intrigues of courts and the selfish wars of potentates to the quiet growth of national spirit and the characteristics of domestic life, and the development and solidification of social instincts into social customs, and the framing of a literature, the reformation of religion, and the direction of the thought of the many. These constituted, as he believed, and as we believe, the genuine biography of a people; and McMaster has done for the United States what Green has done for England. His "History of the People of the United States" is so packed with knowledge; so accurate in laying hold of those things which we did not know, but wanted to know; so free in giving us the inside life of our country, as to make us wonder what we did before our historian of the people came to lend us knowledge. My conviction is, that a careful reading of McMaster will suffice to cure most of our dyspeptic feelings about national discontent in our time, and dispel the fabulous notion of an older time in America, when everybody was happy and everybody was contented. No such day ever existed. The kingdom of contentment is within us, like the kingdom of God. McMaster tells us the unvarnished tale of inflation and political and financial asininity in the former days, so that when he is done we are less liable to that frailty of the ignorant soul; namely, the moaning, "The former days were better than these."

Thus far, those authors have been named who have chronicled the discovery of America, the conquering of the Southern Hemisphere or the Eastern territory of that era known as the United States. This was done to keep a natural movement and logical progress. At this point, however, must be mentioned those voluminous histories of the States and Territories of the Pacific Coast, written by H. H. Bancroft. They are treasure-houses of material for the future historian. Hubert Bancroft has become the historian of the Spanish dominion in the United States, and deserves favorable thought for his wealth of research into archives which might have been lost, or at least less ample with the advance of time. Topography, geography, archaeology. State papers,—all have contributed their quota to him, and he has, after the generous manner of the scholar, contributed to us.

Francis Parkman is a distinguished master in the art of history. His theme is the "American Indian" and the "French Occupancy of America," and he has told a thrilling story. He knows the Indian as no one of our historians has known him, and has told of his noble traits, and his ruthless forays, and his sanguine cruelty. His utter lack of thrift; his feast-and-famine life; his stealth, stolidity, duplicity, and ferocity,—all are rehearsed. To read his record of the Indian is to have much of the glamour thrown around him by James Fenimore Cooper stripped from him incontinently and forever. The Indian was self-exterminative. He was the assassin of his race, and civilization was impossible so long as the American Indian was dominant; so that those who shed tears over the white man's conquest of the Indian may not well have weighed their cause. The Indian was not the quiet, inoffensive innocent presented in Cuba at its discovery. There were Indians and Indians. Some of them were friendly, peaceful, and kindly; but that this was the character of the American Indian as a whole is totally incorrect. Parkman shows that the Indian was, throughout North America, in his native strength furious in his ferocity, relentless as death, cruel beyond imagination, and occupied a territory he neither cultivated nor attempted to. The Indians were military vagabonds, whose continued control had left America an unpeopled wilderness to this day. Huntsmen and warriors they were; citizens and cultivators and civilizers they were not, and never would have been. Parkman tells the truth as history found them, and those truths are well worth our reading, because in their perusal we pass from sentimentality to reason, and see how this America of our day, rich, cultivated, civilized, and possessed of the largest amount of personal liberty ever vouchsafed to a citizen, is a noble exchange for the thoughtlessness, improvidence, and barbarity which were original holders of this realm. Speaking for myself, no author ever helped me to knowledge of the character of the aborigines of North America as Francis Parkman has done. I see that wild past, and feel it. And he has written the thrilling story of the French attempt to build an empire; and the attempt was courageous to the verge of wonder. There was in the Frenchman a careless ease and courage and sprightliness of temper, which lifted him above danger, as a boat is lifted on a billow's shoulders. Those perils were his drink; with a laugh and a jest he met his appointment with death as he would have met tryst with a woman. In "The Romance of American Geography," I have described the genius of the French voyager, for which I have an unbounded admiration, and in which I take an intemperate delight. He is the discoverer at his best, but the colonizer at his worst. The Jesuits had a brave chapter in the French occupancy. Their labors and sufferings and voyagings, their fealty to what they thought to be the cause of God, makes us proud of them, as if they were our own fellow-citizens. The settlement of Montreal and Quebec and contiguous territory, the religious fervor that mixed with the military spirit as waters of two streams mingle in a mountain-meadow,—read Parkman, and discover the dramatic instincts of these episodes which can be rehearsed no more upon our continent. Their day is past; but it was a great and stirring day. Gilbert Parker's "The Seats of the Mighty" is a chapter, torn from Parkman's "French Regime in Canada." All his facts and the romance are accurate, and are taken from Parkman's narrative, which misses nothing, but tells all. Parker's "Pierre and his People," and "An Adventure of the North" are tales of adventure, dewy with the freshness of a frontier world, and are in brief a section of the old French voyagers' days. Parkman's "Wolfe and Montcalm" is a picture, painted in smoke and blood, where heroism of Englishmen and Frenchmen mix themselves in an inextricable confusion. Pray you read Parkman, and be transported to a world where great deeds were done by men whose lives were as contradictory as an April day; but "their works do follow them" for all that, and do glorify them. Be glad for Francis Parkman, historian.

Many historians there are. John Fiske has written chapters on the discovery and colonization days; Rhodes has written on our Constitutional history; Winsor has written on our antiquities; Baird has written an exhaustive and competent history of the Huguenots, a series one will do more than well to read. Many scholars have written comparatively brief memoirs of the United States. Localities and States and single villages have had their historians; but the commanding figures whose faces fill the canvas, so to say,—of them this appreciation is written, to point youth to an Oregon of delight, where their leisure may stray with abundant profit and increasing pleasure, and, as I hope, with growing pride in American literature, so that they may make mental boast of America's sons, who have been stanch to enjoy and study the history of their own native land.

My final word is of that brilliant, irascible, and impressible American, John Lothrop Motley, historian of the Dutch Republic; and fitting it is that a native of the first great stable Republic was drawn to study the European Republic which rose at the touch of William the Silent's genius, and sank back into lethargy of kingship when the blood of the tragic and heroic inauguration was all spilt. The contact of the United Netherlands with American history and future is known to all. From the Netherlands the Puritans set sail to found what proved to be a colony and Republic. The extent to which the Netherlands exercised an influence in shaping the future of the American Commonwealth has not been determined, and can not be, though Douglas Campbell has maintained that to the Dutch, and not to the English Puritan, nor yet to the Magna Charta, does the American Republic owe its chief debt. The theme is productive and stimulative and worthy, though the facts are indeterminate. America is attached to the Dutch Republic as a bold attempt whose failure was nobler than many successes. The Puritan exodus from Holland, when Pastor John Robinson prayed, preached, and prophesied, is one of the most thrilling events recorded of the seventeenth century—a century crowded with doings that thrill the flesh like a bugle-call.

Motley's histories are "The Rise of the Dutch Republic," "The United Netherlands," and "John of Barneveld," a series which, for brilliancy of characterization of men and times and events, and interest stimulated and held, may rank, without hyperbole, with the writings of Lord Macaulay. Both are always special pleaders, as I am of opinion history ought probably to be, seeing that it is human nature, and will, in all but solitary instances, be the case whether or no; both are fascinating as a romancist; both are colorists, gorgeous as Rembrandt; both glorify and make you admire and love their heroes, whether you are so minded or not; both have made the epoch of which they wrote vivid as the landscape upon which the sunset pours its crimson dyes. Motley's hero was William the Silent, Prince of Orange; and Macaulay's hero was William III, King of England, Prince of Orange. Motley will bear being ranked as a great historian. He hates Philip II, as I suppose good folks ought who despise egotism, intolerance, vindictiveness, and horrible cruelty. He lauds William the Silent as soldier and statesman, Prince Maurice as a soldier, and John of Barneveld as statesman. Motley marches across old battle-fields like a soldier clad in steel. He gives portraits of Queen Elizabeth, of Leicester, of Granvelle, of Prince Maurice, of John of Barneveld, of Henry of Navarre, of Philip II, of Count Egmont, of Charles V, of Don John of Austria, of Hugo Grotius, and of William the Silent, which are as noble as the portraits painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. I confess myself a heavy debtor to Motley. He has taught me so much; has familiarized me with the great world-figure, William the Silent, so that I feel at home with him and his struggle, and participate with him in them. He has drawn so clearly the figures of Romanist, Arminian, and Calvinist, as to make them fairly glow upon his pages. Not as minister to St. James, under President Grant, was Motley at his best; but rifling the archives of Holland and Spain with an industry which knew no bounds, and rehearsing the dry-as-dust discoveries in histories that glow like a furnace. Here is the field in which he is all but unconquerable. Long live the American historians!