Friday, July 26, 2013

The South an Obstacle to Scientific History

Scientific historians of the new American Historical Association in the mid-1880s and beyond, the American South was one of the greatest obstacles in the way of changing the way Americans view history.  There were holdouts in the antebellum North as well as Washington Irving, for example, lived in the days when historians were self-taught and uncontaminated by the scientific method, yet still managed somehow to make significant contributions to knowledge and pen useful histories.

Bernhard Thuersam, Chairman

North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial Commission

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The South an Obstacle to Scientific History

"On September 9 [1884], in the early afternoon, a small group of college presidents and professors of history met in . . . the United States Hotel to organize the new association [and] Dr. Herbert Baxter Adams of the Johns Hopkins University, moving spirit behind the organization, [was] to act as secretary.  Adams was already making plans to gain federal backing . . . and he hoped its headquarters would be the capital and its charter would come from Congress.

But in spite of Adam's insistence on "a national association," the new organization was far from national in its membership. The West was represented by Charles Kendall Adams of Michigan, and the South by the men from Johns Hopkins, native New Englanders.  From the time of the founding of the Association in 1913 . . . Southerners made up a small percentage of the membership [only 6 percent of a total of 2,843].  Yet, Southern history and evidence of a concern for history in the South filled a relatively large number of pages in the Annual Reports and the American Historical Review.

In his position as organizer, prime mover and secretary . . . Adams set the policy . . . to promote the interests of history, but history as defined by a small group of academically trained historians.  Most of the members were not so trained, and some resented the control by the college men, as did the novelist–historian Edward Eggleston.

The task [of the Association] was not a simple one, because the college men were promoting an approach to history at variance with the main current of American historiography.  Most historians in the United States had recorded the past of their town or county, State or region, because it was their locality and they were interested in it and in seeing that its accomplishments did not go unnoticed.

[The new scientific historians] implied, and stated, that they had no interest in the past of a town, State or region for its own sake. They were only interested in that aspect of a locality's past that might throw light upon the general development of an institution, such as town government, the plantation system, or slavery.

It was no coincidence that the American Historical Association [AHA] was established under the wing of the Social Science Association. To the new historians history was a social science and, they insisted, the very foundation of all social science.  The mission, then, of the Association was to replace the traditional approach to history with the new scientific approach.

[Adam's saw the importance of gaining recognition for the Association and stated that] ". . . I have never begun to            realize until this year the importance of corporate influences, of associations of men and money."  But Adams continued relentlessly, aiming always for the time when trained historians would cover the country – when their standards would be the only standards for history and the [AHA] would be not only a truly national, but a truly professional organization.

But [the greatest] obstacle to the new history was the fact that the South already had a well-established historical tradition . . . [and] a rich historical literature.  The South not only lived in history, it lived on history. History served the Southern States as God served New England.  Every aristocratic Southerner knew his family tree . . . Most people of the South knew that American history started with the settlement of Virginia, not with the landing of the Pilgrims . . .

There was no dearth of history or of historical interest in the Southern States, but it was not the kind that the new            scholars could accept. This history emphasized the uniqueness of place and people, and its truth was sought not in musty-smelling manuscripts and dead documents, but in living tradition and vivid intuition.

The first meeting was dominated by men of the Northeast. In 1889 . . . at the sixth meeting . . . Southern history for the first time was recognized as a separate field of study for the new science.  The first session on Southern history convened Tuesday morning, December 31 [and the first of five papers was an] essay on Bacon's Rebellion.  It was not on Southern history.

The great mission of the new Southern scholars [of the AHA] was to cut loose from traditional history and examine the Southern past impartially, to discover its true role in national development.  None of the new scholars wrote as a native of a Southern State, but "from the point of view of an American who is at the same time a Southerner, proud enough of his own section to admit its faults, and yet to proclaim its essential greatness."

All professional practitioners denounced quackery in history through the medium of their Association, just as the doctors were doing through the American Medical Association.  The work of Southern [scientific] historians, [even though it undermined the traditional Northern interpretation of American history], was accepted because it was done with the new technique and the approach of the new history."

(The American Historical Association, David D. Van Tassel, Journal of Southern History, Volume XXIII, No. 4, November 1957, pp. 465-473, 481-482)