- Historic Sites
The Writing Of History
An English Authority Compares British and American Viewpoints
December 1954 | Volume 6, Issue 1
But there is more to it than that. There is the very important consideration that history is law in the United States to an extent not merely unknown but incomprehensible in England. It is commonly said, for instance, that Magna Carta is the first Statute of the Realm, but that means nothing. A litigant going into court, even a politician speaking in the House of Commons, who relied on the letter of Magna Carta , would be thought of as a fool or as a mere rhetorician. But a politician or a litigant relying on the text of the Constitution is not necessarily either, though of course he may be both. The “revision” of the traditional view of Magna Carta and the rise of Parliament by medievalists like McKechnie, Tout, Powicke, interests the professional world, but that is all. But suppose that Professor Crosskey’s Politics and the Constitution is generally accepted, suppose either Congress or the Supreme Court is converted to his doctrine: the practical consequences are of immense importance! Judicial review, if nothing else, makes “history” in the United States quite often a matter of great practical importance. And the existence of states’ rights and the peculiarly historical character of American political parties make historical doctrine of great importance.
Then in the size and character of the United States lies another reason for the practical importance of history and so for the public interest in it. England existed before Magna Carta or even before 1066. But it is only a little over a century since two of the greatest events in American history took place, the union of the United States with Texas and then with California. (I leave it to the patriotic citizens of these states to assess the relative importance of the two events.) Over a great part of the United States, American formal authority was there, so to speak, before history. History is new, therefore important.
The inhabitants of the newly settled lands had to be given a sense of history, of the history of the great national body politic and of the new states that were being built. The famous gibe at American college traditions, “This tradition goes into effect next Monday,” is less than pointless when directed at the eager pursuit of history by these new states. Traditions had to be found and put into effect next Monday. The fleeting evidences of the “Giants in the Earth” had to be preserved, the scanty relics of the days when “the Indian and the Scout” roamed had to be saved. So local history in the United States has had a dignity and importance, a political weight, that it has not got and cannot have in England where, in default of any information, fictitious rites of the semi-mythical Druids are performed round Stonehenge on Midsummer morning. That sort of thing won’t do for Fort Snelling or Fort Sumter.
Therefore local history in America is much more elaborately organized, much more lavishly subsidized, more “in the picture” than is local history in England. Indeed, it is only very recently that anything like a general system of local archives has been organized in England. There is plenty of antiquarianism in American local history of the “George Washington slept here” type. But there is more serious, scholarly, penetrating local history studied and written in America than in England, if only for the reason that no concentration of federal power, no blurring of sectional lines, can reduce either Virginia or North Dakota to being just another county.
And then for a country of immigrants, American national history is a necessity. There are plenty of people of immigrant stock in England—Scots, Welsh, Irish, French Huguenots, German Jews—but at no time have they been numerous enough to swamp the natives. English history could thus be left to teach itself, through the antiquarian character of the formal government as contrasted with the functionalism of the real government, through cathedrals and parish churches, castles and manor houses, Shakespeare and Dickens.
In the United States it is very different. You may find states (like North Dakota) most of whose inhabitants had no blood connection with the United States until the greatest crises of American history were over. You have states with great masses of immigrant populations of different stocks to be assimilated to an old established national and local tradition. Not many voters in the North End of Boston are connected by blood with the men who followed the lead of Sam Adams and the Caucus Club. I guess that about half the present population of the United States is not, biologically speaking, “the posterity” referred to in the Preamble to the Constitution. This part of the population must be made spiritually “posterity” and the chief instrument has been and must be history. So the Romans with mixtures of history and myth like the Rape of the Sabines and the less mythical Licinian Rogations. Thus was created the union of the Senatus populusque Romanus . So has been created “the more perfect union” of the Founding Fathers. So in schools, in colleges, in public monuments, history must be insinuated if not forced into the American public mind to keep it American. The English mind will remain English on so simple a diet as Alfred and the Cakes.