Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 28. Alfred Thayer Mahan

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XV. Later Historians

§ 28. Alfred Thayer Mahan

Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840–1914) graduated at the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1859, served the usual course at sea, and was ordered to duty at the Naval War College shortly after it was established in 1885. A course of lectures prepared for that service was the basis of a book, The Influence of Sea Power in History, 1660–1783 (1890), which established his reputation as an historian. Following the same idea he published Influence of Sea Power on the French Revolution (1892), Life of Farragut (1892), The Life of Nelson, the Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain (2 vols., 1897), Sea Power in its Relation to the War of 1812 (1905), and From Sail to Steam (1907), the last a book relating to his own career. In his later years he wrote, also, many articles for the magazines, and out of them were formed several volumes of essays.

Rear-Admiral Mahan is the best example we have had in the United States of a man who wrote history successfully for propaganda. He wished to show that a nation that would play a large rôle in the world must have a great navy. He won immediate fame in Great Britain, where his books served to strengthen the naval policy of the government. They were also greatly appreciated in Germany, and it is said that they opened the eyes of the German government to the need of a great navy. In his own country he was highly esteemed as an historian, but he never had the satisfaction of seeing the government adopt a great naval policy.

While Mahan was a scholarly historian, he cannot be pronounced a man of research. With a thesis to prove it was not necessary to go to the sources to prove it. His early books were written entirely from secondary materials; but he used sources in his later work, particularly in the book on the War of 1812, of which he said: “It is by far the most thorough work I have done.” Something of his mental character may be seen in the following statement in reference to a book which most students find uninteresting: “Though not a lawyer, nor a student of constitutions, I found Stubbs’s Constitutional History of England fascinating. I have not analyzed my pleasure, but I believe it to have been due to arrangement of data by a man exceptionally gifted for vivid presentation, who had so lived with his subject that it had realized itself to him as a living whole, which he successfully conveyed to his readers.”