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The Writing Of History

May 2024
9min read

An English Authority Compares British and American Viewpoints

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.

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.

There remains a very important institutional difference between the position of history (and so the writing of history) in England and America. Fewer boys and girls, many fewer, go to high school in England than in America, though that is less true than it was. Fewer, very many fewer, go to college in England than in America and that is not really changing. And both in school and college there is more concentration on one field of study, so that although the “history specialists” in an English school or the history honors candidates in an English university will concentrate on history much more than in American schools and colleges, the other students may, for all practical purposes, do no history at all.

This means, in turn, that fewer textbooks are produced, there is a much smaller market, and such as are produced are designed for this semi-specialist market. That in turn means that the general English public, whose appetite for history is real and growing, is more commonly served by amateurs than is the case in America. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Think of the historical writings of that gifted amateur, Sir Winston Churchill! But it affects the supply of historical writing because it affects the effective demand.

How does it affect the quality? In general there are fewer neglected areas of American history, local or national, than one can sometimes find in English historiography. The necessities of the Ph.D. (so often, and so often rightly, deplored) insure that few subjects will be left unturned—to mix a metaphor. True, the result often recalls the Oxford parody on Nebuchadnezzar:

Sighed as he chewed the unaccustomed food, It may be wholesome but it is not good.

But even the grittiest thesis which does throw light on some hitherto neglected area, era or person, is valuable.

Although, as I have insisted, American history is the staple of American historiography, there is certainly more scholarly writing, at an advanced level, in America on “foreign” themes than in England. Partly this is due to the simple fact that there are many more trained historians. Partly it is due to the fact that American universities attract more specialists from other countries than the handful of English universities can afford to do. Partly it is due to the presence in the American population of all European ethnic groups which may, and often do, produce students of the ancestral land. But again, it is not only a question of numbers or origins. “Foreign” history in England is both more and less foreign than in America.

The character of the English polity, the growth of the British Empire, force the English historian to pay some attention to the outside world. He cannot understand the origins of Parliament without understanding feudalism in general and French feudalism in particular. Joan of Arc in one way and Napoleon in another are more “part” of English history than any foreigner is of American. English armies have burned Pékin and Washington, taken Manila and Havana, failed to take New Orleans and Buenos Aires, exported institutions, cotton goods, settlers to all regions of the globe. So, in one sense, an English historian cannot be parochial; in another, he is tempted to be very parochial indeed. He has to know more of the outside world than an American historian did until very recently. He may know it from an oddly English angle. (Thus a very distinguished scholar indeed, in a life of Napoleon, gave more space to the Battle of the Nile, at which Bonaparte was not present, than to the Battle of MontThabor where he was.) And perhaps as the Empire dwindles, as the sense of power diminishes, this parochialism will dwindle too. But the English will still queue up to see a Roman temple, and the Americans will still see history instrumentally, as something being made under your eyes, as a tool and not as mere around for reflections on the vanity of human wishes.

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