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

XV. Later Historians

§ 5. The Collection of Historical Documents

The origin of the great collections of historical documents in the United States goes back to similar enterprises in Europe. In France the series known as the Acta Sanctorum had been projected in the seventeenth century, but the movement had its fruition after the end of the Napoleonic wars, when several national series were authorized at public expense. Among them the most conspicuous were the Rolls Series in Great Britain, projected in 1823, and the Monumenta Germanica in Germany, launched in 1823, and the Documents Inedits in France, begun in 1835. The desire to do something similar for the United States led Peter Force to attempt his American Archives, which was authorized by an act of Congress passed 2 March, 1833. It was published at a large profit to the compilers and smacked so much of jobbery that great dissatisfaction was created in Congress and among the executive officers. The result was that it was discontinued by Secretary of State Marcy in 1855 when only nine volumes had been published. Force’s materials were badly arranged and his editorial notes were nearly nil, but his ideal was good. Had it been carried out with a fairer regard for economy it might have escaped the rock on which it foundered. As it was, it served to call attention to a field in which much needed to be done, and it is probable that the collections of documents undertaken about that time in the states owed their inception in a considerable measure to his widely heralded scheme.

Of these efforts the most noticeable was Brodhead’s transcripts, already mentioned in this chapter. In 1849 the legislature of New York ordered that they should be published at the expense of the state. They appeared in due time in ten quarto volumes, with an index in an eleventh volume, and with the title New York Colonial Documents. With some supplementary volumes they form a clear and sufficient and permanent foundation for New York colonial history.

In Pennsylvania a similar movement occurred at nearly the same time. It began in 1837 when the legislature, acting on the suggestion of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, authorized the publication of the series eventually known as The Colonial Records of Pennsylvania. Failure of funds in the panic days that followed caused the suspension of the series when only three volumes had been published, but it was resumed in 1851 on an enlarged basis. The Colonial Records were continued through sixteen volumes, and another series, The Pennsylvania Archives, was authorized. The former contains the minutes of the provincial council, and the latter is devoted to other documents of historical importance on the colonial period. These works were edited with much care by Samuel Hazard, son of that Ebenezer Hazard who as a friend and mentor of Jeremy Belknap had made himself one of the first collectors and publishers of historical documents in this country. Many other states have followed the examples of New York and Pennsylvania. North Carolina, however, deserves special mention. Through the efforts of her Secretary of State, William L. Saunders, ten large volumes of her Colonial Records, followed by sixteen volumes of State Records, were published by the State between the years 1886 and 1905. They deal with great completeness with the history of North Carolina from the earliest days to the adoption of the Constitution of the United States, and they place the state in the lead among Southern states in this essential phase of historical development.