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THE COURSE OF AMERICAN HISTORY
[Address by Woodrow Wilson, historian, essayist, professor of jurisprudence and politics in Princeton University since 1890 (born in
Staunton, Va., December 28, 1856; ), delivered before the New
Jersey Historical Society.]
Gentlemen :—In the field of history, learning should be deemed to stand among the people and in the midst of life. Its function there is not one of pride merely: to make complaisant record of deeds honorably done and plans nobly executed in the past. It has also a function of guidance: to build high places whereon to plant the clear and flaming lights of experience, that they may shine alike upon the roads already traveled and upon the paths not yet attempted. The historian is also a sort of prophet. Our memories direct us. They give us knowledge of our character, alike in its strength and in its weakness; and it is so we get our standards for endeavor,—our warnings and our gleams of hope. It is thus we learn what manner of nation we are of, and divine what manner of people we should be.
And this is not in national records merely. Local history is the ultimate substance of national history. There could be no epics were pastorals not also true,—no patriotism, were there no homes, no neighbors, no quiet round of civic duty; and I, for my part, do not wonder that scholarly men have been found not a few who, though they might have shone upon a larger field, where all eyes would have seen them win their fame, yet chose to pore all
Copyright, 1896, by Woodrow Wilson. By special permission of the author and his publishers, Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1199
their lives long upon the blurred and scattered records of a country-side, where there was nothing but an old church or an ancient village. The history of a nation is only the history of its villages written large. I only marvel that these local historians have not seen more in the stories they have sought to tell. Surely here, in these old hamlets that antedate the cities, in these little communities that stand apart and yet give their young life to the nation, is to be found the very authentic stuff of romance for the mere looking. There is love and courtship and eager life and high devotion up and down all the lines of every genealogy. What strength, too, and bold endeavor in the cutting down of forests to make the clearings; what breath of hope and discovery in scaling for the first time the nearest mountains; what longings ended or begun upon the coming in of ships into the harbor; what pride of earth in the rivalries of the village; what thoughts of heaven in the quiet of the rural church! What forces of slow and steadfast endeavor there were in the building of a great city upon the foundations of a hamlet: and how the plot broadens and thickens and grows dramatic as communities widen into States! Here, surely, sunk deep in the very fibre of the stuff, are the colors of the great story of men,—the lively touches of reality and the striking images of life.
It must be admitted, I know, that local history can be made deadly dull in the telling. The men who reconstruct it seem usually to build with kiln-dried stuff,—as if with a purpose it should last. But that is not the fault of the subject. National history may be written almost as ill, if due pains be taken to dry it out. It is a trifle more difficult: because merely to speak of national affairs is to give hint of great forces and of movements blown upon by all the airs of the wide continent. The mere largeness of the scale lends to the narrative a certain dignity and spirit. But some men will manage to be dull though they should speak of creation. In writing of local history the thing is fatally easy. For there is some neighborhood history that lacks any large significance, which is without horizon or outlook. There are details in the history of every community which it concerns no man to know again when once they are past and decently buried in the records: and these are the very details, no doubt, which it is easiest to find upon a casual search. It is easier to make out a list of county clerks than to extract the social history of the county from the records they have kept,—though it is not so important: and it is easier to make a catalogue of anything than to say what of life and purpose the catalogue stands for. This is called collecting facts "for the sake of the facts themselves"; but if I wished to do aught for the sake of the facts themselves I think I should serve them better by giving their true biographies than by merely displaying their faces.
The right and vital sort of local history is the sort which may be written with lifted eyes,—the sort which has a horizon and an outlook upon the world. Sometimes it may happen, indeed, that the annals of a neighborhood disclose some singular adventure which had its beginning and its ending there: some unwonted bit of fortune which stands unique and lonely amidst the myriad transactions of the world of affairs, and deserves to be told singly and for its own sake. But usually the significance of local history is, that it is part of a greater whole. A spot of local history is like an inn upon a highway: it is a stage upon a far journey: it is a place the national history has passed through. There mankind has stopped and lodged by the way. Local history is thus less than national history only as the part is less than the whole. The whole could not dispense with the part, would not exist without it, could not be understood unless the part also were understood. Local history is subordinate to national only in the sense in which each leaf of a book is subordinate to the volume itself. Upon no single page will the whole theme of the book be found; but each page holds a part of the theme. Even were the history of each locality exactly like the history of every other (which it cannot be), it would deserve to be written,—if only to corroborate the history of the rest, and verify it as an authentic part of the record of the race and nation. The common elements of a nation's life are the great elements of its life, the warp and woof of the fabric. They cannot be too much or too substantially verified and explicated. It is so that history is made solid and fit for use and wear.
Our national history, of course, has its own great and spreading pattern, which can be seen in its full form and completeness only when the stuff of our national life is laid before us in broad surfaces and upon an ample scale. But the detail of the pattern, the individual threads of the great fabric, are to be found only in local history. There is all the intricate weaving, all the delicate shading, all the nice refinement of the pattern,—gold thread mixed with fustian, fine thread laid upon coarse, shade combined with shade. Assuredly it is this that gives to local history its life and importance. The idea, moreover, furnishes a nice criterion of interest. The life of some localities is, obviously, more completely and intimately a part of the national pattern than the life of other localities, which are more separate and, as it were, put upon the border of the fabric. To come at once and very candidly to examples, the local history of the Middle States,—New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania,—is much more structurally a part of the characteristic life of the nation as a whole than is the history of the New England communities or of the several States and regions of the South. I know that such a heresy will sound very rank in the ears of some: for I am speaking against accepted doctrine. But acceptance, be it never so general, does not make a doctrine true.
Our national history has been written for the most part by New England men. All honor to them! Their scholarship and their characters alike have given them an honorable enrolment amongst the great names of our literary history; and no just man would say aught to detract, were it never so little, from their well-earned fame. They have written our history, nevertheless, from but a single point of view. From where they sit, the whole of the great development looks like an Expansion of New England. Other elements but play along the sides of the great process by which the Puritan has worked out the development of nation and polity. It is he who has gone out and possessed the land: the man of destiny, the type and impersonation of a chosen people. To the Southern writer, too, the story looks much the same, if it be but followed to its culmination,—to its final storm and stress and tragedy in the great war. It is the history of the Suppression of the South. Spite of all her splendid contributions to the steadfast accomplishment of the great task of building the nation; spite of the long leadership of her statesmen in the national counsels; spite of her joint achievements in the conquest and occupation of the West, the South was at last turned upon on every hand, rebuked, proscribed, defeated. The history of the United States, we have learned, was, from the settlement at Jamestown to the surrender at Appomattox, a long-drawn contest for mastery between New England and the South,—and the end of the contest we know. All along the parallels of latitude ran the rivalry, in those heroical days of toil and adventure during which population crossed the continent, like an army advancing its encampments. Up and down the great river of the continent, too, and beyond, up the slow incline of the vast steppes that lift themselves toward the crowning towers of the Rockies,—beyond that, again, in the gold-fields and upon the green plains of California, the race for ascendency struggled on,—till at length there was a final coming face to face, and the masterful folk who had come from the loins of New England won their consummate victory.
It is a very dramatic form for the story. One almost wishes it were true. How fine a unity it would give our epic! But perhaps, after all, the real truth is more interesting. The life of the nation cannot be reduced to these so simple terms. These two great forces, of the North and of the South, unquestionably existed,—were unquestionably projected in their operation out upon the great plane of the continent, there to combine or repel, as circumstances might determine. But the people that went out from the North were not an unmixed people; they came from the great Middle States as well as from New England. Their transplantation into the West was no more a reproduction of New England or New York or Pennsylvania or New Jersey than Massachusetts was a reproduction of old England, or New Netherland a reproduction of Holland. The Southern people, too, whom they met by the western rivers and upon the open prairies, were transformed, as they themselves were, by the rough fortunes of the frontier. A mixture of peoples, a modification of mind and habit, a new round of experiment and adjustment amidst the novel life of the baked and untilled plain, and the far valleys with the virgin for