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SOME ASPECTS OF THE INFLUENCE OF SOCIAL
PROBLEMS AND IDEAS UPON THE STUDY

AND WRITING OF HISTORY

CARL BECKER
University of Kansas

History is so susceptible to every kind of influence that it is more difficult to define even than sociology. I shall not attempt to define it, further than to say that it is concerned with the life of man in the past. But the life of man in the past is an immense subject, and even with our limited sources of information it is quite impossible to fix the attention upon everything that man has done in the past. The historian has therefore to select, to devote himself to what interests him in the past, to emphasize those aspects of the past which he deems important. Undoubtedly one historian will differ from another in this respect. But in spite of individual differences, the historians of any age are likely to find those aspects of the past interesting or important which are in some way connected with the intellectual or social conditions of the age in which they live; so that the historical work that is most characteristic of any time may be regarded as embodying an interpretation of the past in terms of present social interests.

This manner of defining the function of history finds some support in the current trend of scientific thought. The latest fashion among psychologists and philosophers seems to be to regard the individual intelligence, not as an instrument suited to furnish an absolute test of objective truth, but rather as a tool pragmatically useful in enabling the individual to find his way about in a disordered objective world. In like manner, one may conveniently regard the general intellectual activity of any period, the common ideas and beliefs, the prepossessions and points of view-as having had its origin in practical interests, and as deriving its validity from the service it renders in solving the problems * From Proceedings of the American Sociological Society.

that grow out of community life. Historical thinking is part of this intellectual activity, and like philosophy and science, literature or theology, it is a social instrument, helpful in getting the world's work more effectively done.

And if we turn to the history of history, we find always a pretty close connection between the characteristic historical work of any period and the fundamental prepossessions of the time in which it falls. In the Middle Ages, the study of the past reflected the religious and ecclesiastical interests of that age. Protestant and Catholic historians of the sixteenth century found interesting and important those aspects of the past which threw light on the theological and political quarrels of the Reformation. In the eighteenth century, Monarchy and Church found a certain justification in the Acta Sanctorum and the great documentary collections of the benedictines; while the practical value of charters inspired the work of Mabillon, who founded the science of diplomatics. But in the latter part of the century, when social needs ran counter to established authority, the reformers turned again to the past and found there arguments suited to revolution.

It is characteristic of every age to think that "we are the people”; and in our own day historians, with justifiable pride in their achievements, have sometimes supposed that a method of studying history has at last been discovered which owes nothing to time or place; a scientific method, which enables us to study the past definitively, if only it is applied in a thoroughgoing manner. But this attitude is less common today than it was fifteen or twenty years ago; and perhaps it is possible even now to indicate, in a general way, how the study and writing of history during the last half-century has been determined by the pressure of social problems and ideals.

I The period from 1815 to about 1850 was one of immense activity in the study and writing of history; and the inspiration and determining influence of much of this work was the French Revolution and the problems it left unsettled. To the generation after 1815, it seemed, indeed, that all questions were unsettled; and as the disillusioned found refuge from the present in an ideal Middle Age,

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or in the world of dreams, so philosophers and statesmen and politicians and historians, who were often politicians if not statesmen, turned to the past to rediscover the principles of ordered social life.

Of the questions which the Revolution left unsettled, perhaps the most pressing was political in its nature. In France and Germany, if not also in England, the Revolution destroyed all concensus of opinion as to the fundamental principles of government and public law. For two generations party divisions turned on this issue; and we might expect to find, as we do in fact find, that historians and statesmen, when they turned to the past, were primarily interested in its political and legal aspects: they wanted the past to tell them what law really was after all, and what kind of government would prove most stable. It was therefore an age of political historians, and each political party-Absolutist, Doctrinaire-Liberal, Historic-Rights, Whig, Republican, Radicalfound support in history for its practical program.

But undoubtedly the strong trend of the period, in practical politics and in educated opinion, at least until about 1840, was toward moderation and compromise. The golden mean was found an excellent substitute for theories pressed to their logical conclusion. Few could deny, after 1815, that institutions are bound to change; and although Joseph De Maistre thought that the Revolution was an evidence of God's wrath which could be appeased only by a return to the Old Régime, even Louis XVIII, who had learned something, however little he had forgotten, knew that this was impossible. On the other hand, few were ready to maintain that the Revolution had ushered in that golden age which the philosophers dreamed of. To find the middle way between reaction and change, to reconcile liberty and authority—to "nationalize royalty and to royalize France,” as Decazes formulated the problem-was therefore a principal motive.

And historians, for the most part, reflect this practical motive; even French historians, balancing the evils of the Revolution against its benefits; hitting upon this or that aspect of the Revolution as the Revolution, and regarding all else as a betrayal of it. The favorite method, among French historians, of reconciling liberty

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and authority was embodied in the theory of the Frankish conquest, put into classical form by Augustin Thierry, and to be found in nearly every history written in France before 1830; a theory which appealed to the anti-Teutonic sentiment of the time, and yet justified both the Revolution and the Restoration; for the Revolution did well, according to this theory, in abolishing class distinctions which the meddling Germans had established in the fifth century, but it did ill in substituting for the historic monarchy borrowed republican institutions so unsuited to the kindly nature of Jacques Bonhomme.

In Germany, an even more effective "remedy for the eighteenth century and the malady of vain speculation" was discovered. To bind past and present in indissoluble union by grafting new institutions on old custom was the program of the moderate party; and German jurists and historians furnished a complete justification for this policy in the doctrine of historical continuity. Having no faith in the revolutionary doctrine of natural law and abstract rights, they searched for evidence of such law and rights precisely where it could by no means be found, that is to say, in history; and in history they found, providentially, no natural rights, but only historic rights; right, indeed, they identified with fact, and conceived of true progress in terms of race experience; an experience registered in that predestined succession of events which could never be either greatly accelerated or permanently retarded by conscious effort. This idea, applied to law by Savigny, and to politics by Ranke and his disciples, was the strongest bulwark of that generation against the opposite dangers of revolution and reaction. Jurist and historian, employing critical methods of research which could not be questioned, and basing their conclusions upon the most exhaustive investigation, united in announcing that the French Revolution was a necessary mistake-an event which had done a certain amount of good undoubtedly, but which, by virtue of having departed from approved German precedents, had done it in a very bad manner.

This conception of history found support in the prevailing idealism, which furnished just those basic principles that were necessary to a complete philosophy. For although history was

regarded as a necessary and gradual process, it was not, in the main, regarded as a natural process; not conceived as the result of forces inherent in society, but rather as the expression of God's will, or of the beneficent primal force, clearly manifested in some particular form in the Church, according to De Maistre; in the State, according to the loyal supporters of the Prussian monarchy; in great men, according to Carlyle; in certain transcendent ideas, according to Ranke and Michelet. It was, therefore, quite legitimate to deal with history as St. Augustine and Bossuet had dealt with it, that is to say, representatively; to select, out of all the past, particular activities, such as political activities, or the acts of heroes, as summing up the whole of history's meaning; or, rather, as revealing that meaning progressively; for history was to be understood, also, as the realization of the "one increasing purpose," leading up to certain desired ends—to the Reform bill or the July Monarchy, to the mystical Liberty of Michelet or the Fraternity of Louis Blanc, to the blessings of American federal democracy, to the fostering care of the Hohenzollerns. The quintessence of the historical thinking of the age is in Hegel's Philosophy of History, in which the whole life of humanity is seen to be but the projection in time of the Absolute Idea, the Weltgeist, "whose works are always good and whose latest work is best.”

II

Of the influences which contributed, during the third quarter of the century, to enlarged conception of the content of history, the work of the earlier sociologists was one. Toward the middle of the century, von Mohl and von Stein in Germany, Comte in France, and Spencer in England were defining “society" as something distinct from the state, and fundamental to it. The idea was at least as old as Harrington, but the discoveries of natural science gave it a new significance. Spencer, applying the biological analogy, conceived of society as an organism, in its origin and development conditioned by forces that were inherent, and capable of a purely natural explanation; of which the corollary was that great men, ideas, institutions—the state being one, and perhaps not the most important—were only the particular mani

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