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Should The Historian Make Moral Judgments?
By no means, said W. H. Prescott. Absolutely, said Lord Acton. The question remains hard—and intriguing
February 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 2
The Reverend Theodore Parker—known in his day as “the Great American Preacher”—was both a scholar and a moral philosopher. As a scholar he was prepared to be indulgent toward Mr. Prescott’s histories, for, superficial as they were, they had their points. But as a moralist he had no patience with Prescott’s apologies, evasions, and extenuations. In two long essays in the Massachusetts Quarterly Review —which he edited—Mr. Parker raked Mr. Prescott fore and aft for what he regarded as moral cowardice. At every point in his narrative the historian of the conquest of Mexico and of Peru had excused, palliated, and condoned until, in the end, one was forced to conclude that his moral sensibilities were as calloused as his judgment was warped. Who was Mr. Prescott that he should suspend judgment over the hideous cruelties and iniquities of the conquistadors? Mr. Prescott shows little horror at these [Spanish] cruelties, little sense of their injustice; nay, he seems to seek to mitigate the natural indignation which a man feels at such tyranny of the strong over the weak. We confess our astonishment that an historian who thinks the desire of converting the heathen was the paramount motive in the breast of Cortés, has no more censure to bestow on such wanton cruelties, so frequently perpetrated as they were.
It is one thing to explain, but another thing to condone the crimes of the past. “Crime is one thing,” thundered Parker, but the theory which excuses, defends, justifies crime is quite a different thing, is itself not to be justified, defended or excused. We are sorry to add the name of Mr. Prescott to the long list of writers who have a theory which attempts to justify the crime against mankind, the tyranny of might over right. We are sorry to say of this work … that it is not written in the philosophy of this age, and, still worse, not in the Christianity, the wide humanity, which is of mankind.
What all this meant was that Mr. Prescott had failed to fulfill the high duty of the historian. The Reverend Mr. Parker made clear the nature of that duty. In telling what has been, the historian is also to tell what ought to be, for he is to pass judgment on events, and try counsels by their causes first and their consequences not less. When all these things are told, history ceases to be a mere panorama of events having no unity but time and place; it becomes philosophy teaching by experience, and has a profound meaning and awakens a deep interest, while it tells the lessons of the past for the warning of the present and edification of the future.
Parker’s final verdict followed unequivocally: “Thus, lacking philosophy, and having more of the spirit of chivalry than of humanity, it is impossible that [Mr. Prescott] should write in the interest of mankind, or judge men and their deeds by … the immutable law of the universe.”
Now let us look across the sea. It is forty years later, but Queen Victoria is still upon the throne and literature is still regarded as a moral enterprise. In 1887 the Reverend Mandell Creighton, Canon of Worcester Cathedral and Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge University, published the third and fourth volumes of his magisterial History of the Popes . He promptly sent the volumes off to his old friend and distinguished fellow historian, Lord Acton. Acton was a Catholic, perhaps the most famous Catholic historian in all Europe. A scholar of prodigious learning, he took the whole of history into his embrace, including, needless to say, the history of the medieval church; his specialty was the history of liberty. Lord Acton had immense respect for Creighton’s scholarship, but less for his judgment. What disturbed him was that Professor Creighton had recorded the melancholy history of the papacy during the late Middle Ages without disapproval or censure. “The Popes of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries,” wrote the great Acton, “instituted a system of Persecution … It is the most conspicuous fact in the history of the medieval papacy.” Creighton had not made the fact of persecution central to his tale, nor had he sufficiently condemned the intolerance and cruelty of such popes as Innocent IV, Innocent VI, and Sixtus IV, who bore so heavy a burden of guilt.