The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.XV. Later Historians
§ 9. John William Draper
John William Draper (1811–82) had won an assured position as a scientist before he turned to history. Like Professor Baird he was a member of the faculty of New York University. At the middle of the century the idea that history is an exact science, an idea that grew out of the teachings of Auguste Comte, had been widely advocated by scientific men. Two men, Buckle in London and Draper in New York, working independently of each other, undertook to give the idea its application. Buckle published the first volume of his History of Civilization in England in 1857, and the second in 1861; further efforts ceased with this death in 1862. Draper published his book, The History of the Intellectual Development of Europe, in 1862. We are assured that it was practically complete before the first volume of Buckle appeared and that it remained in the author’s hands in manuscript during the interval.
In our day the world has not a great interest in history as an exact science; but in 1862 the work of Comte, Buckle, Darwin, and Spencer had prepared it for another attitude. Draper reaped the harvest thus made ready, and his book quickly passed through several editions, in the United States and Europe. Its thesis was that history results from the action on human activity of climate, soil, natural resources, and other physical surroundings. Having stated it in principle, he took up the history of nation after nation, showing to his own satisfaction that his theory operated successfully in each. He had little history to begin with and his statements, taken from uncritical secondary works, were full of errors. The same failing appears even more plainly in his History of the American Civil War (3 vols., 1867). His popularity was largely promoted by his clear and vivid style and by the frankness with which he repudiated what Comte called theological and metaphysical states of knowledge, demanding that all truth should be studied scientifically. Since most of his criticisms were aimed at the Roman church he did not arouse the ire of the Protestants. His History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), his last work, found place in the same series in which appeared Bagehot’s Physics and Politics, Spencer’s Sociology, and Tyndall’s Forms of Water. It was one of the most widely demanded of the group.