Page images
PDF
EPUB

is not unreasonable to suppose that the man himself, even though he be ticketed "genial," as Lamb has to carry the label of "gentle," will remain a gracious fig

ure in American letters long after his entire writings have been reduced to The Autocrat, The Last Leaf, and The Chambered Nautilus.

RECENT STUDIES IN AMERICAN HISTORY.

THOSE Who follow the historical writing of our own day must be impressed with the fact that the tendency is not so much to deal with neglected topics as to rewrite the old subject from a new point of view, to interpret the past with reference to the conditions characteristic of the present. To the interest in politics which dominated the historical thought of the eighteenth and a considerable part of the nineteenth century is succeeding an interest in the study of economic life and of the development of social institutions. Not only is it becoming plain that such a reconstruction is essential to a right understanding of political history, but it is also seen that past politics and history are far from being identical. This sociological interpretation of history has especial significance for the United States, where we have too long spoken of political institutions as though they were the foundation of our prosperity and the determining factors in our career. We are now coming to recognize the vital forces in American society whose interaction and transformation have called political institutions into life and moulded them to suit changing conditions. Our history is that of the rise and expansion of a huge democracy in an area unoccupied by civilization, and thus affording free play to the factors of physiography, race, and custom.

From this point of view, the publica1 Economic History of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century. An Inquiry into the Material Condition of the People, based upon Original

tion of a work like that of Mr. Bruce, corresponding secretary of the Virginia Historical Society, on the Economic History of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century, is of particular significance. He tells us that his original intention was to treat of the economic condition of Virginia in the period from the Revolution to the civil war (a most important and suggestive theme); but after some investigation he came to the conclusion that a study of colonial times was essential to a right understanding of the later period. Even the colonial period, however, proved too extensive, and so he determined to restrict his work to the seventeenth century, and to economic life in its narrow sense. He points out that a complete view of the Virginia people would fall into seven main divisions: economic condition, social life, religious establishment and moral influences, education, military regulations, administration of justice, and political system. Mr. Bruce desires to limit himself to the first topic, and is so respectful of these artificial divisions that he professedly avoids the consideration of how far bricks were used in the construction of churches, on the ground that this would invade the subject of the religious establishment; and he refrains from a systematic account of taxation lest he infringe the domain of the political system. It may be questioned whether this is not a little suggestive of Procrustes, but Mr. Bruce

and Contemporaneous Records. By PHILIP ALEXANDER BRUCE. In two volumes. New York: Macmillan & Co. 1896.

does, nevertheless, write of the labor system in a way that would be equally applicable to a study of social life; he finds himself forced to scatter considerable information on taxation through his book; he tells of brick court-houses in defiance of the spheres of "the administration of justice" and "the political system," of brick forts regardless of the division on "the military," and he even, in a footnote, speaks of several brick churches.

It is probable that the reason which determined Mr. Bruce to limit the scope of his inquiry lies in the great amount of original material for the study of the economic life of Virginia. More than is the case in any other colony, perhaps, Virginia's first century is taken up with preponderantly economic interests, and the mass of printed sources examined by Mr. Bruce is in itself an excuse for limiting his field; but in addition to this material he has made use of extensive manuscript collections not previously worked by systematic historians. Among these are the records of the Virginia land of fice, the records of many counties, and various important family manuscripts and General Court documents in the possession of the Virginia Historical Society. His pages bear witness to the faithfulness with which he has gone through these sources, and to the fact also that he has not entirely succeeded in assimilating the material and in giving it organic structure. One can gather from the volumes provision for a survey of the development of the economic society of the Virginia tide-water, and can recognize the vast importance of the material for the economic interpretation of the political and social evolution of this leader of the Southern colonies. Mr. Bruce himself gives evidence of ability to correlate what he has gathered; but, valuable though his comments are, they do not fall into a systematic statement of the growth of Virginia as a unity. The plan of the book is partly responsible for

this difficulty. Mr. Bruce first presents an interesting outline of the reasons for the colonization of Virginia, and then gives a view of the physical characteristics of aboriginal Virginia and of the economic life of the Indians. The agricultural life of the colony is next taken up, in successive periods. This embraces an account of the early efforts for gold and the discovery of the south sea, and of the attempts of the company to make the colony profitable by production of raw material; then follows the history of the rise and progress of tobacco culture, and of its final triumph over the efforts to compel diversification of industry by legislation. The mode of acquisition of title to land, and the methods by which the intent of the laws was evaded, make interesting reading. In successive chapters the forced labor of the indented servants and of the slaves is considered. The domestic economy and degrees of wealth of the planters, as revealed in inventories, give us some insight into social conditions. It is surprising to find that the real and personal estate of Beverley, one of the richest of the planters, was equal in value to nearly $250,000 in money reckoned at its present purchasing power, and that the estate of William Byrd was probably still more valuable. Mr. Bruce concludes that in this period the landed estates of the greater planters averaged at least five thousand acres each.

The chapters on the foreign and domestic manufactures show how legislation and natural forces brought about a most intimate dependence of the planter upon the English manufacturer. The planter furnished a commodity that could be delivered directly to the English market, while the New Englander had to secure the means for interchange with England by indirect commerce. One of the side-lights which this survey gives us is the fact that a considerable part of the exchange between the planters and England was effected through stores owned by great planters who acted

as middlemen. Chapters on money and the town, with a brief résumé, complete the work.

It is interesting to compare the economic beginnings of the South with those of New England in the same period, as presented in the valuable work of Mr. Weeden.1 Where the latter describes the formation of communities and the communal management of lands, Mr. Bruce writes of the rise of isolated plantations, the individual acquisition of lands (by the system of head rights and by extensive evasions of the law), and the development of an economic aristocracy. The history of the development of town economy is a very vital part of Mr. Weeden's theme; but Mr. Bruce has to write of it from the point of view of the antiquarian, describing futile attempts to legislate the Virginians into a mode of living hostile to the genius of the people. One of the important theses of Mr. Bruce is that the method of tobacco-raising, by successively clearing new lands as the old fields became exhausted, produced the great plantations and called out the demand for forced labor. The plantation economy was not the result of negro slavery; this was only an incident to it, although it is likely that slavery preserved this economy, and with the destruction of slavery it received its deathblow. Read side by side, the works of Mr. Bruce and Mr. Weeden will do more to make clear the later history of the United States than will many large histories. It would be of advantage, if space permitted, to glean from the author's volumes material to interpret the political history of Virginia in the seventeenth century, such as the struggle between the large and the small planters, resulting in Bacon's rebellion, and the conflict between the tide-water and the

1 The Economic and Social History of New England, 1620-1789. With an Appendix of Prices. In two volumes. By WILLIAM B. WEEDEN. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1890.

back country, beginning to shape itself thus early, and becoming one of the vital features of Virginia history down to our own time. There is much material, too, for a study of the way in which the American environment effected transformations of the English colonists, and steadily worked toward the production of the American individuality, even in this colony so like the mother country. Mr. Bruce has initiated a most fruitful study, and in spite of the over-abundance of economic detail, and some tendency to write of the progress of commodities instead of the growth of the economic society, the work shows considerable power, abounds in interesting information, and compels us to await further studies in this field with impatience.

A new edition of Schouler's History of the United States 2 is an indication that the merits of the series are appreciated by the general public, whose needs it is well fitted to serve; but a more attractive paper and print might have been expected of the publishers, and the author's revisions are not as thorough as is desirable. Much of the rhetorical foliage still blooms in defiance of the critic, and many slips in the first edition remain to mar the work. Errors like the statement that Webster joined Clay and Calhoun in leading the national bank measure in 1816 are awkwardly corrected, while such mistakes as the assignment of Herschel V. Johnson, candidate for the vice-presidency in 1860, to the State of Alabama, and the reference to Russia's negotiations over the northeast coast in Monroe's presidency, are allowed to remain. Perhaps the only important additions are those in the second volume, dealing with a period in which the masterly work of Henry Adams on the ad

2 History of the United States under the Constitution. By JAMES SCHOULER. A New and Revised Edition, with New Historical Maps added. In five volumes. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. 1895.

ministrations of Jefferson and Madison has been so fruitful. Mr. Schouler acknowledges his indebtedness to Mr. Adams, but regrets that the latter writes in a disparaging strain. Whatever may be thought of this criticism, the history of Mr. Adams, abounding in acute political insight and in power of historical judgment, is a touchstone by which one can test the merit of these volumes of Mr. Schouler. They constitute a safe and useful pioneer survey of our national history up to the civil war, and are the best single work for the purposes of the general reader; but the treatment never rises into greatness. Mr. Schouler has made real contributions in lifting Jefferson and Monroe into better recognition, and in giving considerable attention to the economic and social life of the American people at various periods. But here, again, the essentially commonplace character of the work is apparent. These chatty interludes are based largely on the reports of foreign travelers, and they reflect the surface of American life rather than illuminate its depths. The economic and social forces demand also more vital correlation with political development than Mr. Schouler has been able to give them.

In the fourth volume of his History of the People of the United States,' Professor McMaster brings his narrative down to 1820, and deals with the War of 1812 and the economic reconstruction and social changes that followed it. The improvement shown in his later volumes is marked. There is a grasp and organization of materials not to be found in the earlier volumes, and a general gain in historical workmanship. Possibly this improvement is partly because he seems to be assimilating his history more to the conventional standards which he reject ed in the beginning. As a story of the life of the people in this period it has

1 A History of the People of the United States. By JOHN BACH MCMASTER. Volume IV. New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1895.

some defects.

We miss, for instance, an account of the decline of the power of the Congregational church in New England; of the literary development of the time; of the Indian trade in the old Northwest; of the manners and customs of the older States; of the development of the new settlements of Georgia and the Gulf region; of the local conditions which led to the admission of the new frontier States, and the characteristics of their constitutions. There is a neglect, too, of such topics as the extension of the suffrage, the internal organization of Congress, the growth of the nominating convention in the States. These subjects are closely related to the life of the people, and are important phases of this period of American history. Possibly Professor McMaster is reserving them for later consideration. Occasional misleading statements occur, such as the assertion that the South approved the tariff of 1816, and that the warmest support of the measure came from that section. The author here confuses advocacy by a few prominent Southern statesmen with the support of the section, two quite different things, as the historian of the people ought to have perceived. But after all deductions are made, the work must be recognized as an important contribution to the reorganization of American history, serviceable to the general reader and to the scholar. The accounts of the development of transportation and the spread of population are not only substantial contributions, but are picturesque and full of interest. The treatment of the tariff and the financial aspects is also valuable and interesting. In the survey of the moral aspects of the decade, Mr. McMaster makes it easier to understand the agitation aroused by the Missouri question. In a way, this anti-slavery feeling was part of a wider

movement.

The reception by the South of the news of Lincoln's election in 1860, and the surrender of New Orleans in the

spring of 1862, mark the limits of the time covered by Mr. Rhodes in the third volume of his History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850.1 The volume contains also an account of American traits in the decade preceding the war; "to fill out the picture," he tells us, "is the object of this chapter." The applause which Mr. Rhodes has received for the judicial tone of his history seems to be warranted. Lying so near to the present, with the wounds of civil war only just healed, the field is strewn with pitfalls for every author whose eyes are dimmed by prejudice. Any criticism of the literary form of Mr. Rhodes's work must take these facts into consideration. He is more or less obliged to give the process by which he reaches every conclusion, and to limit his statements. If, therefore, the reader of this volume often seems to be listening to an investigator who is explaining how he comes to certain historical views, rather than to an authoritative minister of Clio, let him be thankful. As an historian of the varying moods of political sentiment in this critical time, Mr. Rhodes does his best work. He has gathered the most extensive apparatus of materials yet used by writers on the period; they represent all sections, and he uses them with critical discrimination. Without harshness, he succeeds in giving the reader clear impressions of the men who were found wanting in the time of trial. Buchanan's weakness and Seward's surprising suggestions for avoiding the war find clear statement. Mr. Rhodes's inclination to free himself from Northern prejudice appears in the frank discussion of the darker side of Grant's career before the war, and in the admiration expressed for the character of Lee, into whose private life he does not go at length. He is not attracted by the constitutional question of the right of secession; it is rather the subject of the influences that were

1 History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850. By JAMES FORD RHODES.

effective in shaping the event that interests him.

The most serious limitation of the work, considered as a history of the United States, is the almost exclusive attention which is paid to the slavery struggle. It may be granted that this was the dominant interest in the years from 1850 to 1860. But as time goes on, and we look back upon this era from a different perspective, it will be seen that there were other forces at work, forces less recognized at the time, but quite as effective in shaping the destiny of the United States as were the slavery discussions.

This was a decade of American expansion in settlement and in material growth, a period of transformation of the social organism by immigration and industrial change, of the reorganization of sectional relations by railroad-building, by the revolution of commercial connections, and by interstate migration. These and similar topics demand as serious study as does the slavery struggle. The forces of nationalism and material growth which marked the time were powerful factors in giving form to the slavery struggle itself. Mr. Rhodes turns away from this economic survey, with the observation that "the story of our material advancement is apt to be more tedious than a twice-told tale." If the historian simply loads his readers with figures to show the immensity of the growth of American industry and population, this may be true; but it is equally true that only the historian who has the insight and the power rightly to analyze and interpret the economic and social evolution of American society in this era will correctly write its history. It will be found, also, that so far from filling out a picture, he will have drawn the lines that determine the picture itself. Mr. Rhodes's chapter on American life is on the model of similar chapters in Mr. Schouler's work. It is very interesting, Volume III. 1860-1862. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1895.

« PreviousContinue »