- Historic Sites
The Writing Of History
An English Authority Compares British and American Viewpoints
December 1954 | Volume 6, Issue 1
As I write this, crowds of sidewalk superintendents are peering down at the foundations of a great new office building to be erected on a bombed site in the heart of the City of London. What has drawn the crowds is the discovery, in the excavations, of a Second Century temple to Mithras, the God of Light so widely worshiped in the Roman army; the discovery not only of a “Mithraeum” but of the fragments of a fine statue. It is safe to say that few Londoners had heard of Mithras a week or two ago, and that what draws them is not any very scientific spirit. But their sudden wave of curiosity, the sudden, possibly a little artificial, indignation at the impending bulldozing of the site, reflect very well the English attitude to history: that is, a deep, reverential sense of unity with a remote past. This was Londinium; this is London.It seems to me that this differs, and necessarily differs, from the American attitude. It is not that there is no reverence in America for history or for historical relics. From Folsom points or dinosaur prints down to dubious Nineteenth Century antiques, the American is willing to look at the past, to display curiosity; but the past with which he really feels connected is so short that history is either purely antiquarian or genealogical, or is in spirit modern: how did we get this way in 1954? The reasons for this difference are not far to seek. An American may go out and inspect the mounds of southern Illinois, but he does not feel the sense of remote kinship with them that an Englishman feels with the unknown builders of the Mithraeum or with the even more remote and unknown builders of Stonehenge. There just isn’t enough “ancient history” to go round. What is a more American attitude is that of the man from the West, encountered by George Templeton Strong, who was impressed if not awe-struck by Trinity Church, since where he came from no work of man’s hands was older than himself.
This difference affects the attitude of the average Englishman and the average American. It would be rash to assert that common American ideas of American history are notably more accurate than are common English ideas, but I shall be rash and make the assertion. The common English attitude is that of the peasant who said of the abbey in the near-by market town: “Oliver Cromwell built he up; William the Conquerer knocked he down.” There was a sense of the past, of vaguely impressive names, but there was inexact knowledge. The Englishman feels little need to know immediate and exact things about his country’s history. It is all around him, and if some of it is forever hidden “in the dark backward and abysm of time” it is none the less worthy of reverence for all that.
The confusion between Oliver Cromwell and William the Conqueror is also notable from another point of view. English history writing is probably freer from rancor than that of any other great nation. Bitter historical controversies may rage in academic circles but, for the mass of the public, English history is a series of “good things.” Perhaps Henry VIII was a little too harsh with the ladies and perhaps Charles II was not harsh enough. Nelson and Lady Hamilton? Well, it’s a long time ago and no doubt there is much to be said on both sides.
This attitude is, of course, impossible In a country which was founded by a revolution and whose greatest emotional crisis has been a civil war. George III (and his supporters) cannot have been right as well as George Washington (and his supporters). Lincoln and Jefferson Davis had more differences between them than mere points of constitutional law. A Southerner may rejoice in the preservation of the Union today, but he cannot be expected to feel for Appomattox as a “good thing.” In this, of course, the United States is like France or Germany, or like Scotland or Ireland. The majority of Irishmen do not rejoice in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 which “gave us our freedom, religion and laws.” It didn’t give them to the majority of the Irish. And when I was at school in Scotland, during the first war, we were regularly taught, every year it seems to me, that Edward I was a mendacious, treacherous gangster who, to cover tip his rapacity, invented preposterous claims of feudal superiority over Scotland which were not only refuted at Bannockburn, but have been refuted in writing by Scottish historians in every generation ever since.
It is, therefore, with English history writing that I concern myself: with how the English sec their own history, first of all, and then the history of other nations who have been in contact with the English. For the English, anything a generation in the past is “history,” connected with a chain of events whose beginning is unknown but which has resulted in those much admired (in England) phenomena, the English Constitution and the English character.
It is not only the comparative shortness of written record in the United States that makes American history writing often more combative, it is the fact that “the United States” is an identifiable corporation with a known and very full written record, and one over which not merely a great deal of ink but a great deal of blood has been spilled.