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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Richard Hildreth (1807–1865)

ONE who begins to study Hildreth’s ‘History of the United States’ is alternately divided by feelings of impatience and admiration. The latter will predominate in the end, provided the student is not too impetuous. The reason care must be taken in assimilating Hildreth is that at times he becomes so intolerably dry that his reader is liable to desert him forever, before once discovering the excellences which have given him an assured place among American historians. Though Bancroft’s History is more stimulating and more interesting to the general reader, Hildreth’s has the advantage of covering a much longer period, all of which he treats exhaustively and with perfect accuracy in the presentation of facts. Moreover, he shows such voluminous and discriminating research, and in general so unbiased a judgment, that his achievement grows more valuable in its results as the years go by.

The period which Hildreth covers so completely begins with the discovery of America, and ends with the close of President Monroe’s first administration. The first three volumes bring us to the adoption of the Constitution. In his preface to these, he states that his object is “to set forth the personages of our Colonial and Revolutionary history such as they really were in their own day and generation, their faults as well as their virtues.” He carries out this purpose, narrating events truthfully and candidly, and without trying to bend them to any theory. He treats of old colonial days in a somber sort of way, quite disheartening to the lover of picturesque anecdote and legend, and he appears to have imbibed to the full the prim and severe Puritan spirit of which he wrote. Life was a serious thing with the colonists of Massachusetts Bay, and Hildreth was guilty of no attempt to brighten their annals or to turn any part of their records into a history of merry-making. And thus, in those first three volumes, one looks utterly in vain for the picturesque or the amusing.

The last three volumes (written several years later), which deal almost entirely with the growth of the Constitution and the political forces at work, are more vivid and at the same time much more valuable to the student. The facts are absolutely accurate (unless where new records have come to light since), and have been gathered with much care from the original public documents and State papers. He is on the whole wonderfully free from prejudice; his tone is one of calm and clear conviction, and produces the same attitude in the reader. His characterization of individuals is the best example: few things of the kind have been better done. His criticism of men and motives is sometimes most scathing, yet his manner is so quiet and restrained that a full assent is instinctively given to his opinions, without the critical hesitation which a more vehement style would call forth. Nothing, for instance, could be further from the verdict which posterity has passed on John Quincy Adams, than Hildreth’s portrayal of him as a crafty and self-seeking political soldier of fortune; but Hildreth’s judicial manner and tone of severe impartiality still produce much effect.

Hildreth was a writer of some repute before his History appeared. Born at Deerfield, Massachusetts, in 1807, and educated at Harvard, he did a good deal of newspaper and editorial work in his younger days, and wrote papers on a variety of subjects. His work on ‘Banks, Banking, and Paper Currency,’ published in 1837, is said to have had considerable influence in fostering the growth of the free-banking system; and his other papers also attracted a gratifying attention. He was also the author of a tale called ‘The Slave; or, Memoir of Archy Moore,’ later re-named ‘The White Slave; or, Memoirs of a Fugitive,’—which has the distinction of being the first American antislavery novel published. His literary career, however, may be said to have closed with the appearance of his History. Appointed consul at Trieste, Italy, in 1861, he at once entered zealously upon his duties. His health failed, however, and he removed to Florence, where in 1865 he died.

Richard Hildreth’s name will be remembered chiefly from his ‘History of the United States,’ and the solid and judicial qualities of that work will make it endure for many years to come. He will never be popular with the general reader, however. His narrative is too prosy, not vivid enough for a moment to enwrap the attention of the casual reader; and his occasional attempts at picturesqueness or descriptions of pageantry are very painful. The historian never arouses us with his enthusiasm, nor makes people and events live anew for us by the power of his inspiration. Nor is his writing in the least philosophical. Other historians make us see clearly the great sweeps and curves of the nation in its onward march, and they point out how its various trendings have led hither and thither. But Hildreth leaves us to trace out for ourselves the great highway, while he stops to explore some undiscovered and overgrown by-path, bestowing upon it the same painstaking research that he gives to conspicuous and important events.

Yet in spite of all these negatives, Hildreth will always—and rightly—command attention and admiration. His work is full of purpose, and has in it the energy of a forceful and zealous student. It is direct, untrammeled, and courageous. If it grows dull for the casual reader, it is a delight to the close student. The primitive historical instinct in its most finished state filled him; for in spite of its surface faults, his narration, in straightforwardness, accuracy, and firmness, is an admirable work of high and solid merit.