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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

History and Historians

By Charles Theodore Christian Follen (1796–1840)

[Born in Romröd, Hesse Darmstadt, 1796. Perished in the burning of the steamboat Lexington, Long Island Sound, 1840. From The Works of Charles Follen. 1841.]

PERHAPS the most abundant source of history is the love of country, the desire of those, who look beyond their own narrow sphere, to make known to other nations, and to preserve to coming generations, the lives and deeds of their countrymen. This truly patriotic aspiration, which has incited the most distinguished historians of all ages, cannot mislead the writer, so far as patriotism is a philanthropic principle. Patriotism is a virtue, it is philanthropy, when it is an enlargement of our interest in ourselves and our principles to a whole nation. But as soon as it becomes a spirit of hostility and pride toward other nations, it is no longer a moral or philanthropic principle, since it is not an enlargement, but a restriction, of the noblest powers and best affections, which should take in the whole family of man. The writer, whose aim it is to exalt his whole nation to the disparagement of others, by hiding the faults of the former, and enhancing those of the latter; who misleads the minds of his countrymen, and particularly of the young, through principles of national pride and intolerance; such a writer, who does not deserve the name of an historian, commits as grievous a breach of international law, as any that is recognized as such by the law itself. His offence is equalled or surpassed only by that of him, who is base enough to disfigure what is really great and good in the history of his own country, to please and serve its enemies abroad and at home. The design of preserving to coming generations the deeds of their ancestors, is a patriotic aim, which sometimes leads the narrator to magnify them, so that they may serve as models for imitation. The historian, who relates the deeds of his own contemporaries to preserve their memory, is less exposed to this temptation, than he who undertakes to make known to the present generation the remarkable events in the history of their ancestors. This desire of magnifying the deeds of their forefathers, so common among ancient and modern historians, and frequently excused as an excess of exalted filial piety, is a serious error in regard to history, as well as morality and education. As soon as the historian of a nation ceases to think that posterity will be benefited by the knowledge of the faults, as well as the merits, of their ancestors, or rather, as soon as he has any other object in view than to represent them as they actually were, whether deserving of censure or imitation, he forfeits his right to describe them.

The last remarks, in regard to a national historian, lead us to a more general observation, concerning the apparent predisposition, in some historians, to exalt antiquity above modern times, and in others, to retaliate this partiality by reversing it, instead of doing justice to both. We here see, in the department of history, the same difference, which, in that of education, appears in the partiality of some, for what is called classical learning; and of others, for what they technically designate useful knowledge. The partial admirers of antiquity are apt to overlook or slight what is classical in the productions of modern times, while their opponents restrict their conceptions of what is practical and useful, so much as to exclude the study of antiquity; as if the enlargement of the mind, which grows out of this study, was not as real as any economical advantage.