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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

On the Study of History

By Richard Salter Storrs (1821–1900)

[The Broader Range and Outlook of the Modern College Training.—Address before the Alpha Delta Phi of Amherst, 28 June, 1887.]

IT seems to me plain, that the intuitive moral reason to which the most conspicuous action must give its account, and by which its character is interpreted and adjudged, which puts a candid estimate upon motives, and sets whatever historic achievement presents itself for review in fair connection with special environments of time or of place, must here find as fruitful activity, as systematic and quickening a nurture, as in any department of human research; and that the historical imagination—which of course does not rank with the creative imagination of the poet, but which is surely akin to that, and perhaps not less capable of giving incitement and beautiful pleasure in common experience—that this has such impulse and sustenance in the study of the past as cannot be furnished anywhere else. So it is that many of the aspiring and superior minds which have wrought in letters have taken this study for their own, and have by their successes in it made the world of readers their grateful debtors. The “personal equation” has continually appeared among them, in their judgment of motives, of movements, and of men; but in order to form any judgment at all, which the discerning would respect, they have had to cultivate moral insight, as well as a discursive and commanding intelligence. Records of the centuries, buried in the crypts of archives and libraries, have had to yield up to the survey of their genius living forms; vanished times have had to be reconstructed by their thought, in their outward phenomena, and their constitutive moral and social forces; the manifold sensibilities, desires, passions, which belong to our nature, have had to be recognized, and their operation in public affairs to be patiently exhibited, while the impressions of peoples on each other have filled to the edge the crowded canvas.

No teachers, therefore, have done more than these to educate broadly the ethical and the mental faculty in those whom they addressed, and before whom they unrolled the immense panorama of action, passion, collision, catastrophe, in the story of nations, with the energies exerted at critical points by particular persons, the deeper and more controlling power belonging to tendencies. It is strictly true, what Macaulay said: “He [who reads history] learns to distinguish what is local from what is universal; what is transitory from what is eternal; to discriminate between exceptions and rules; to trace the operation of disturbing causes; to separate the general principles, which are always true and everywhere applicable, from the accidental circumstances with which in every community they are blended, and with which, in an isolated community, they are confounded by the most philosophical mind. Hence it is that in generalization the writers of modern times have far surpassed those of antiquity. The historians of our own country,” he adds, “are unequalled in depth and precision of reason; and even in the works of our mere compilers we often meet with speculations beyond the reach of Thucydides or Tacitus.” This is the testimony of one who delighted to tear the vigor and flower of his life from the Bar and the Senate, from official distinction and the rarest social opportunities, that he might survey with ampler scope, while investigating with microscopic minuteness, the records of the past; reading a week to fashion a sentence; finding reward for laborious journeys in the more precise outline of a character, or the more exact picture of a scene, in even the more lively turn of a phrase or the more lucid completeness of a paragraph. If one needs to see, in near example, the fitness of historical studies to quicken and maintain high mental enthusiasm, and to discipline and enrich as well as to enlist rare and various mental powers, he may certainly find the immediate demonstration in the instance of Lord Macaulay.

A college like this, too, and an audience like the present, can never fail gratefully to recognize the large and beautiful moral impulse delivered upon spirits prepared to receive it through their contact in history with great, serene and masterful personalities, as these present themselves in the crowded passages which study explores, daring or suffering in the conflicts of their time. In common life we can, at best, but rarely meet such. The saintly and superior souls are not mustered in regiments. Multitudinous companies of elect spirits do not yet surround us on earth. It seems, sometimes, as if the enormous secular advances of which our times are so full and so proud were lowering the height and dimming the lustre of the moral ideal, as represented in the actual of life. Sending messages by lightning, travelling at forty miles to the hour, crossing in a week the ocean which the Mayflower perilously breasted, in our sumptuous vessels, framed of iron, luxurious in appointment, propelled from within, and gay with color as so many swimming summer-gardens—these applauded achievements do not tend of necessity to the upbuilding of nobler courage, to the development of a luminous moral wisdom, to the culture of even philosophical refinement, or the nurture of the temper of devout aspiration. On the other hand, do we not sometimes feel that virtue among us is coming to be too much a matter of manners; that the intense subjective processes from which august character is derived are in a measure being superseded by the mechanical contrivances and the physical successes with which our noisy years resound; and that the grand and lovely spirits, which are present still, and in which, whensoever we touch them, we find strange charm and inspiration, are fewer and lonelier than they were? Surely we do not meet them often, and cannot command their presence at our need.

But in history they abound, and are always at our service. Marcus Aurelius, saddest of men, yet imperturbable in a falling empire, and amid the mad whirl of an unexplained universe; Bernard, with the flaming intensity of his spirit, commander of kings and counsellor of pontiffs while the friend and protector of the lowliest of the poor, crushing before him the insolent noble, and facing the fierce fury of the mob on behalf of the Jew; Melanchthon, with his beautiful enthusiasm for letters, writing Greek more easily than German, modest, peace-loving, yet firm in conviction, devoted to the Master in almost passionate love, the very St. John of the stormy Reformation; William of Orange, fronting with majestic endurance the apparently irresistible power which swept the Netherlands with flame and blade, and recovering for freedom the land which his ancestors might literally be said to have plucked from the sea—these will come to us when we want them; and with them all, orators, statesmen, theologians, artists, leaders of crusades like Godfrey of Bouillon, who would not wear a crown where his Master had borne the cross, rulers of kingdoms like St. Louis, poets, philanthropists, heroes, martyrs, the women with the men, of whom the world of their time was not worthy, by whom the world is made worthier to-day. We may wait years, or we may journey thousands of miles, to meet in the present the special spirit whose office it is, and whose charming prerogative, to kindle and ennoble ours. It is but to step to the library shelf to come face to face with such in the past, if we know where to find them; nay, it is but to let the thought go backward, over what has become distinct to our minds, and the silent company is around us; the communion of rejoicing and consecrated souls, the illustrious fellowship, in the presence of whom our meanness is rebuked, our cowardice is shamed, and we become the freer children of God and of the Truth.

Not only the romance of the world is in history, but influences so high in source and in force as to be even sacred descend through it. Benedictive, sacramental, is its touch upon responsive souls. We become comparatively careless of circumstances; aware of kinship, in whatever heroic element may be in us, with the choice, transcendent spirits; regardless of the criticism, or the snarling scoffs, which here may surround us, if only conscious of a deeper and more complete correspondence with those whose elate and unsubduable temper remains among the treasures of mankind. I think that to our times, especially, the careful and large study of history is among the most essential sources of moral inspiration. The cultivation of it, in ever larger and richer measure, is one of the finest and noblest exercises proposed to young minds. Any college which introduces to the society of the spirits which have made centuries illustrious takes splendor and majesty from the office.

The importance of individual life and effort is also magnified by it, instead of being diminished or disguised, as men sometimes fancy; since one is continually reminded afresh of the power which belongs to those spiritual forces which all may assist in animating and moulding civilizations. Of course an imperfect study of history, however rapid and rudimental, shows how often the individual decision and the restraining or inspiring action of great personalities have furnished the pivots on which multitudinous consequences have turned; how, even after long intervals of time, the effects of such have made themselves evident, in changed conditions and tendencies of peoples; and so it reminds us, with incessant iteration, of the vital interlocking of every energetic personal life with the series of lives which are unconsciously dependent upon it, of the reach of its influence upon the great complex of historical progress, and of the service which each capable or eminent spirit may render to the cause of universal culture and peace. But those to whom our thoughts are thus turned have been for the most part signal men in their time, remarkable in power, distinguished in opportunity, intuitively discerning the needs of the age, and with peculiar competence to meet them. With such we by no means may mate ourselves; and, so far, the lesson which history teaches may easily seem to be one of discouragement rather than of impulse, inclining us to rely upon occasional great men as the true pioneers and champions of progress, and to feel that for ourselves we have no place and no responsibility in the assistance of large and permanent public advancement.