8. The end of general history in the United States

Whereas by the early 1880s the last generation of German historians with a heart for synthesis was dying out, there was still ample support for general history across the Atlantic, where in 1884 the American Historical Association (AHA) was established. In the association’s very first presidential address in 1884, Cornell historian Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918) made a strong plea for synthesis. He stated: “While acknowledging the great value of special investigations and contributions to historical knowledge in individual nations, it is not too much to say that the highest effort and the noblest result toward which these special historical investigations lead is the philosophical synthesis of all special results in a large, truth-loving, justice-loving spirit.”[1] White also declared that such a “philosophical synthesis of human affairs” could be studied with “equal chance of success by men in all parts of the world where human thought is not under some curb”. From these kinds of intellectual endeavours, White believed, emerged the fields of general world history and the history of civilization. White spoke of ‘civilization’ in the singular rather than the plural form, thus referring to a shared human state of being.

In the following decades, the AHA presidents occasionally spoke out in favour of generalization and synthesis. In 1895, George F. Hoar (1826-1904) stated that the historian could not just be a discoverer of facts by means of gathering minute source materials, but must be “a genius of a far higher order”.[2] According to Hoar, the great historian was capable of seeing the great forces that determined the current of human affairs, had the imagination of the poet, and the profound judgement and insight of the philosopher. “Philosophy” was a key-term in numerous addresses that took on the matter of synthesis in historical study. “No historical work can be without philosophy”, spoke Goldwin Smith (1823-1910) in 1904.[3] According to Smith, a British historian who had come to the United States in 1868, the main feature of philosophy of history was to trace the general progress of humanity. The concept of “philosophy”, in Smith’s talks as well as in other AHA presidential addresses, was used to refer to any reflections added to empirical investigation. The venture of philosophy was perceived to begin where empirical observation ended, providing a general principle that integrated individual empirical findings. A plea for philosophy of history thus was a plea for historical synthesis and generalization in historical study.

Throughout the years, American historians pondered over the dilemma what could be the integrative principle of history. In 1904, Smith posed the question whether “the race” (meaning the human species) was a creation of directing providence or a production of blind nature, and in 1906, Simeon Baldwin (1840-1927) made the case that religion formed the key principle of the story of mankind.[4] Such desires for a unifying philosophy of history were inspired by advances in the natural sciences. The publication of Darwin’s Origins of Species in 1859 did not go unnoticed in the American historical community.[5] Biology had found its grand theory, and historians asked themselves if history was found wanting as it still was without such a unifying principle. Also the expansion of great physical theories in the early twentieth century appeared to have left its mark on the self-image of the historian. In 1914, Andrew McLaughlin (1861-1947) praised the natural scientist for having no fear for philosophy or metaphysics.[6] The natural scientists, said McLaughlin, were “reaching after the causative, the unifying, the universal, and the eternal”. The historian looked very pale in comparison: “history is afraid, industrial, materialistic, satisfied with product, keeping accounts, priding itself on its full storehouses”. Historical investigation had produced a large load of historical facts, but McLaughlin regarded these to be of little significance without a grand synthesis that encompassed them.

McLaughlin’s verdict of the relatively poor state of historical scholarship demonstrated that American historiography in general had not moved into the direction of large-scale synthesis. Despite the occasional pleas for general history, as by Hoar and Smith, the main trend of academic history in the United States from the 1880s up to the onset of the First World War was following the line of the Prussian school. The first historical seminars at American colleges had been introduced by graduates from German universities in the late 1860s and early 1870s.[7] Critical source study became the new way to go, and the AHA presidents frequently emphasized the newness and outstanding features of the historical scholarship in which they were engaged. In 1888, William Poole (1821-1894) lectured: “The leading purpose of the historical student of our time is to ascertain what is the truth, and, having found it, to express it clearly, concisely, and fearlessly. Following his inquiries back to original sources, he is often amazed that so much of what has passed current as history and been copied from one writer to another, is erroneous.”[8] General history and historical synthesis were still mentioned as fair academic endeavours, but emphasis often was placed on small-scale investigation as the essential foundation for generalization. “It may be, indeed, that to some one favored mind will be committed the final great synthesis”, said Alfred Mahan (1840-1914) in 1902. And he continued: “but he would be powerless save for the patient labors of the innumerable army which, stone by stone and section by section, have wrought to perfection the several parts.”[9]

The clearest break from Andrew Dickson White’s argument in favour of synthesis from 1884, came in the AHA presidential address of 1908. In that year, Georg Burton Adams (1851-1925) referred to White’s lecture, but did not rally behind his plea for generalization.[10] Adams considered philosophy of history, from which came synthesis, to be a source of inspiration for the historian, but not an intrinsic part of the historical science. Science, Adams claimed, could have no other foundation than the fact. To seek synthesis and general laws meant to wander off into the realm of speculation, a domain where the scholar could not be of value to science. Adams’s stand against generalization was motivated by what he considered to be an attack on the academic monopoly of the historical scholarship to study the past. Adams identified the disciplines of political science, geography, the economic interpretation of history, sociology, and social psychology as recent intruders in the historian’s domain. All of these disciplines refuted the method of minute examination to dig up historical facts, but sought to establish general historical laws instead. Adams did not dismiss such an approach entirely, but stressed that the discovery of the fact – a task in which the historian still stood out – needed to come first. Adams concluded his lecture in the spirit of ‘American Rankeanism’:[11] “The field of the historian is, and must long remain, the discovery and recording of what actually happened.”

In the 1908 lecture of Adams resound the objections of the Prussian school to Lamprecht. History should remain absolutely autonomous from other academic disciplines. Interferences from other fields should be countered by retreating in the craft in which the historian stands out: meticulous investigation of primary sources in order to establish facts. At the time when German historians had long constructed a wall around their discipline, American historians still occasionally looked at other sciences as an example and potential inspiration for their own field. However, about a decade after the end of the Methodenstreit in Germany, sentiments similar to that of the Prussian school when it came to interdisciplinary analysis seemed to have reached the United States.

It was the 1908 Adams lecture, rather than the presidential addresses favouring synthesis, that represented actual historical scholarship and education in the United States from around the turn of the century. In 1895, the American Historical Review (AHR) was established as the official journal of the AHA, an act in which George Burton Adams fulfilled a key-role.[12] From the date of its foundation up to 1914, when the First World War broke out in Europe,[13] the vast majority of articles that were published in this journal concerned studies to particular small-scale subjects from American and European history.[14] The few articles that dealt with regions outside the West were about Western colonies or Western political influence in Latin America and Asia, thus solely perceiving the non-West from the eyes of Western historical actors. Other frequent types of publications covered the present dealings of the AHA, the historical craft in Europe, or were the texts of presidential addresses spoken at the annual AHA meeting.[15] Next to the articles, every issue of the AHR in said period contained one or several primary sources that were relevant for American or European history, demonstrating the dominance of the “Prussian” doctrine in American historical scholarship, entailing that the study of the past solely was an affair of primary source study.

The broad rejection of generalization among American historians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century also appeared from the AHA’s influence on American secondary education. From the early 1820s, there had been taught a General History course in American high schools.[16] Originally, this course comprised of a mixture of biblical stories and classical mythology, flowing over into European history added with some minor entries on non-Western peoples and regions. The course was based on Western experiences, but was universal in claim. It kept these two features when throughout the nineteenth century the secular notions of race and progress replaced most religious aspects.

In 1896, the AHA appointed the Committee of Seven. This committee, with Andrew McLaughlin as its chairman, had the goal to examine the subject of history in secondary schools and to decide the college entrance requirements in history.[17] When it published its report in 1898, one of the sections was titled “why no short course in General History is recommended”. The committee concluded that the course could only be taught according to either one of two methods. If the first method was followed, high school students were overloaded with dry facts, without learning their historical significance or being trained in the skill how to make interferences from them. The second method confronted pupils with large and general ideas that lay beyond their grasp. As the students had no knowledge of the massive bulk of data on which those general ideas were based, they were taught to accept broad generalizations of which they could not trace the origins. The AHA had far-reaching influence on secondary education.[18] In the first fifteen years of the twentieth century, a large majority of high schools replaced the General History course with the four-block curriculum that was recommended by the Committee of Seven. This curriculum consisted of Ancient History, European History, English History, and American History. Thereby high school history came to reflect the main fields of interests of academic historians in the United States.

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[1] Andrew Dickson White, ‘On Studies in General History and the History of Civilization’, A paper read before the American Historical Association at its first public meeting, Saratoga, New York, September 9, 1884. Published in Papers of the American Historical Association, vol. I (1886), 49–72.

[2] George F. Hoar, ‘Popular Discontent with Representative Government’, Presidential address published in the Annual Report of the American Historical Association, 1895, 21–53.

[3] Goldwin Smith, ‘The Treatment of History’, Presidential address to the American Historical Association meeting in Chicago, December 28, 1904. Published in the American Historical Review 10, no. 3 (April 1905): 511–20.

[4] Simeon E. Baldwin, ‘Religion Still the Key to History’, Annual address of the president of the American Historical Association, delivered December 26, 1906. Published in the American Historical Review 12, no. 2 (January 1907): 219–43.

[5] Up to the First World War, Darwin was discussed or mentioned in the AHA presidential addresses of 1884, 1889, 1894, 1899, 1906, 1909, 1911, and 1912.

[6] Andrew C. McLaughlin, ‘American History and American Democracy’, Annual address of the president of the American Historical Association, delivered at Chicago, December 29, 1914. Published in the American Historical Review 20, no. 2 (January 1915): 255–76.

[7] Charles Kendall Adams, ‘Recent Historical Work in the Colleges and Universities of Europe and America’, Annual address of the president of the American Historical Association, delivered at the annual meeting in Washington, D.C., December 28, 1889. From the Papers of the American Historical Association, vol. IV, no. 1 (1890), 39-65. See also: Burrow, A History of Histories, 464.

[8] William F. Poole, ‘The Early Northwest’. Presidential Address delivered to the AHA annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Published in Papers of the American Historical Association, vol. III, no. 2 (1888), 33–56.

[9] Alfred Thayer Mahan, ‘Subordination in Historical Treatment’. Presidential address delivered before the American Historical Association meeting in Philadelphia, December 26, 1902. Published in Annual Report of the American Historical Association, 1902, 49–63.

[10] George Burton Adams, ‘History and the Philosophy of History’, Annual address of the president of the American Historical Association, delivered at Richmond, December 29, 1908. Published in the American Historical Review 14, no. 2 (January 1909): 221–36.

[11] That is: Ranke as he was understood in the United States; as the champion of historical research that is confined to small-scale source study to establish true facts.

[12] See the biographical information at: http://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/presidential-addresses/george-burton-adams.

[13] Although the United States only joined the war in 1917, the European war already defined the AHA presidential address of 1915, in which British-born H. Morse Stephens (1857-1919) blamed nationalist historians for the “dying civilization of Europe” and concluded with what he hoped would be the credo of the next generation of historians: “above the nations is humanity”. It is likely that Stephens read this quote at an inscription on the campus of Cornell University, where he had been teaching from 1894 to 1902. In the 1915 address he ascribed it to Goethe, although in fact it is contributed to Goldwin Smith, who also had been a professor at Cornell and was Stephen’s predecessor in the position of AHA president. See: ‘Nationality and History’. Annual address of the president of the American Historical Association, delivered at Washington, December 28, 1915. From the American Historical Review, vol. 21, no. 2, 225–36.

[14] The American Historical Review – online archive.

[15] Articles in the American Historical Review from the period 1895-1914 that did not fall into one of the mentioned categories were: Earle Wilbur Dow, ‘Features of the New History: Apropos of Lamprecht’s “Deutsche Geschichte”’ (1898), Frederick Wells Williams, ‘The Chinese Immigrant in Further Asia’ (1900), Fred Morrow Fling, ‘Historical Synthesis’ (1903), Alfred H. Lloyd, ‘History and Materialism’ (1905), David J. Hill, ‘The Ethical Function of the Historian’ (1908), Ellsworth Huntington, ‘Changes of Climate and History’ (1913), J. T. Shotwell, ‘The Interpretation of History’ (1913). But these were the sole exceptions among a total of 388 articles published in the American Historical Review in the period 1895-1914.

[16] Gilbert Allardyce, ‘Toward World History: American Historians and the Coming of the World History Course’, Journal of World History vol. 1, no. 1 (1990): 23-76, at 45.

[17] ‘The Study of History in Schools’. A Report to the American Historical Association by the Committee of Seven, 1898. Available at: http://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/archives/the-study-of-history-in-schools .

[18] Allardyce, ‘Toward World History’, 47-48.