Famous American historians of the 19th century



William Ellery Channing was a great name in the early days of liberal religious thought. The Brook Farm experiment grew out of the transcendental movement. It lasted from 1840 until 1847. Among its members were George William Curtis, Charles Anderson Dana, John Sullivan Dwight, Margaret Fuller, and George Ripley.

A new view of history was developed, as an outgrowth of the transcendental philosophy inaugurated by the German Kant, and carried out more fully by his successors. History was no longer regarded as a gathering of isolated arbitrary facts, but as the study of the progress of mankind. National history could not be properly considered apart from its relation to the general movement. Each nation was an actor in a great world's drama. Its contribution was best understood when properly presented in its true connection. The first group of historians is headed by George Bancroft (1800-1891). The progress of his famous work was interrupted by periods of service to the country. After a term as collector of the port of Boston, he was called by President Polk to his cabinet, as secretary of the navy, in 1845. He then founded the Naval Academy at Annapolis. He also, in anticipation of the Mexican War, issued orders which helped to secure possession of California. In 1846 he was sent as minister to England. Returning three years later, he fixed his residence in New York, and devoted his time to the history, but occasionally ventured in other fields. During the Civil War he was a firm friend of the Union; and after its close, he was sent by President Johnson as minister to Germany, where he remained until 1874. His later residence was at Washington, though his summers were spent at Newport, where his rose-garden was celebrated.

His great history was the result of conscientious research, careful consideration of authorities, and enthusiasm for the subject. Its style is brilliant, though in the early volumes sometimes discursive and declamatory. Probably the best part of his work is the last, written after the Civil War and the discussion of questions of reconstruction had shed new light on the fundamental principles of the Union and the Constitution. Though the author had not historical genius of the highest order, he was eminently fitted for his task by a liberal education, by his capability and disposition to take pains, and by his judicial insight, which was only occasionally distorted by partisan bias. Perhaps improperly called the "History of the United States," the work in its utmost extent tells only the story of the foundation of the nation, but it does point out the sources of its greatness, and sets forth the virtues of democratic government in a vehement, oratorical way, which rather provokes than disarms criticism. Yet the whole work, showing at first the exuberant enthusiasm of youth, and finally and cautious wisdom of age, is a grand epic of democracy.

Richard Hildreth's "History of the United States" is dry in style, judicial in tone, never aiming at brilliance or entertainment.

William Hickling Prescott (1796-1859) was not a profoundly philosophical historian, yet he became the most brilliant and famous of our historical writers. This was owing no less to his selection of romantic themes in which the American people felt an interest, as belonging to the New World, than to his artistic arrangement of the events, and to his captivating style.

The first installment of Prescott's life-work appeared in 1837, having cost him more than ten years' assiduous labor. It was the "History of Ferdinand and Isabella," printed at his own expense. The romantic nature of the subject, enhanced by the author's dignified yet charming style, gave it a popularity which it has retained to the present day. It was soon translated into several European languages, and caused the author to be ranked as the foremost of American historians. In 1843 appeared the "Conquest of Mexico," which had an unparalleled reception, both from the general public and from the highest authorities. It won special praise from Wilhelm von Humboldt, who had visited that country. Four years later the "Conquest of Peru" was published.

John Lothrop Motley was a man of high scholarship and varied attainments, but was late in concentrating his labor on the historical work which was to give him fame, the "Rise of the Dutch Republic." He also wrote the "History of the United Netherlands," and was minister to Austria and England.

Another historian, who, like Prescott, labored under the affliction of partial blindness, and yet achieved memorable results, was Francis Parkman. Descended from the earliest settlers of Massachusetts, he was born in Boston in 1823, and was educated at Harvard College. He studied law, but he had already determined to devote his life to an adequate presentation of the great conflict between the French and English for the possession of North America. In order to understand the background of the subject fully, he resolved to examine the manners and customs of Indians as yet unaffected by contact with the whites. For this purpose, in 1846, he explored the wilderness towards the Rocky Mountains, and lived for several weeks among the Dakota Indians in that region, then just becoming known. Although previously strong and fond of exercise, the privations which he endured rendered him an invalid for life. The immediate results of his observations and experiences were given in his picturesque series of historical writings, of which "Montcalm and Wolfe" is the splendid climax. This list of writers may include the name of Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose "Uncle Tom's Cabin" had so great a reception among the opponents of slavery.

The growing commercial and political importance of New York, its increase of wealth, and the enterprise of its publishers, both of books and periodicals, tended to make it a literary centre before the close of the first half-century. George William Curtis is better known by his "Easy Chair" essays in Harper's Weekly than by his books, graceful though they are. Bayard Taylor wrote much, travelled widely, and translated Faust in the original metres. He was appointed minister to Germany in 1878, and died there soon after.





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