The Dignity and Importance of History (Daniel Webster speech)

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The Dignity and Importance of History  (1852) 
by Daniel Webster
A speech by Webster before the Historical Society of New York, February 23, 1852.

The object of your association, gentlemen, like that of others of similar character, is highly important. Historical societies are auxiliary to historical compositions. They collect the materials from which the great narrative of events is, in due time, to be framed. The transactions of public bodies, local histories, memoirs of all kinds, statistics, laws ordinances, public debates and discussions, works of periodical literature, and the public journals, whether of political events, or commerce, literature, or the arts, all find their places in the collections of historical societies. But these collections are not history; they are only elements of history. History is a higher name, and imports literary productions of the first order.

It is presumptuous of me, whose labors and studies have been so long devoted to other objects, to speak in the presence of those whom I see before me, of the dignity and importance of history, in its just sense; and yet I find pleasure in breaking in upon the course of daily pursuits, and indluging for a time in reflections upon topics of literature, and in remembrance of the great examples of historical art.

Well written history must always be the result of genius and taste, as well as of research and study. It stands next topic poetry, among the productions of the human mind. If it requires less of invention than that, it is not behind it in dignity and importance. The province of the epic is the poetical narrative of real or supposed events, and the representation of real, or at least natural, characters; and history, in its noblest examples, is an account of occurrences in which great events are commemorated, and distinguished men appear as agents and actors. Epic poetry and the drama are but narratives, the former partly and the latter wholly, in the form of a dialogue, but their characters and personages are usually, in part at least, the creations of the imagination.

Severe history sometimes assumes the dialogue, or dramatic form, and, without departing from truth, is embellished by supposed colloquies or speeches, as in the productions of that great master, Titus Livius, or that greater master still, Thucydides.

The drawing of characters, consistent with general truth and fidelity, is no violation of historical accuracy; it is only an illustration or an ornament.

When Livy ascribes an appropriate speech to one of his historical personages, it is only as if he had protrayed the same character in language professedly his own. Lord Clarendon's presentation, in his own words, of the character of Lord Falkland, one of the highest and most successful efforts of personal description, is hardly different from what it would have been, if he had put into the mouth of Lord Falkland a speech exhibiting the same qualities of the mind and the heart, the same opinions, and the same attachments. Homer describes the actions of personages which, if not real, are so imagined as to be conformable to characteristics of men in the heroic ages. If his relation be not historically true, it is such, nevertheless, as making due allowance for poetical embellishment, mught have been true. And in Milton's great epic, which is almost entirely made up of narratives and speeches, there is nothing repugnant to the general conception which we form of the characters of those whose sentiments and conduct he portrays.

But history, while it illustrates and adorns, confines itself to facts, and to the relation of actual events. It is not far from the truth to say, that well written and classic history is the epic of real life. It places the actions of men in an attractive and interesting light. Rejecting what is improper and superfluous, it fills its picture with real, just, and well drawn images.

The dignity of history consists in reciting events with truth and accuracy, and in presenting human agents and their actions in an interesting and instructive form. The first element in history, therefore, is truthfulness; and this truthfulness must be displayed in a concrete form. Classical history is not a memoir. It is not a crude collection of acts, occurences, and dates. It adopts nothing that is not true; but it does not embrace all minor truths and all minor transactions. It is a composition, a production, which has unity of design, like a work of statuary or of painting, and keeps constantly in view one great end or result. Its parts, therefore, are to be properly adjusted and well proportioned. The historian is an artist, as true to fact as other artists are to nature, and, though he may sometimes embellish, he never misrepresents; he may occasionally, perhaps, color too highly, but the truth is still visible through the lights and shades. This unity of design seems essential to all great productions. With all the variety of the Iliad, Homer had the wrath of Achilles, and its consequences, always before him; when he sang of the exploits of other heroes, they were silently subordinated to those of the son of Thetis. Still more remarkable is the unity in variety of the Odyssey, the character of which is much more complicated; but all the parts are artfully adapted to each other, and they have a common centre of interest and action, the great end being the restoration of Ulysses to his native Ithaca. Virgil, in the Aeneid, sang of nothing but the man, and his deeds, who brought the Trojan gods to Italy, and laid the foundation of the walls of imperial Rome; and Milton of nothing, but

   "Man's first disobedience, and the fruit
   Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
   Brought death into the world and all our woes."

And the best historical productions of ancient and modern times have been written with equal fidelity to one leading thought or purpose.

It has been said by Lord Bolingbroke, that "History is Philosophy teaching by example;" and, before Bolingbroke, Shakespeare has said:

   "There is a history in all men's lives,
   Figuring the nature of the times deceasd;
   The which observ'd, a man may prophesy,
   With a near aim, of the main chance of things
   As yet not come to life, which in their seeds,
   And weak beginnings, lie entreasured.
   Such things become the hatch and brood of time;
   And, by the necessary form of this,
   King Richard might create a perfect guess,
   That great Northumberland, then false to him,
   Would, of that seed, grow to a greater.
   Are these things, then, necessities?
   Then let us meet them like necessities."

And a wiser man than either Bolingbroke or Shakespeare, has declared:

   The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

These sayings are all just, and they proceed upon the idea that the essential characteristics of human nature are the same everywhere, and in all ages.

This, doubtless, is true; and so far as history presents the general qualities and propensities of human nature, it does teach by example. Bolingbroke adds, with remarkable power of expression, that "the school of example is the world: and the masters of this school are history and experience..."

But history is not only philosophy, teaching by example; its true purpose is, also, to illustrate the general progress of society in knowledge and the arts, and the changes of manners and pursuits of men.

There is an imperfection, both in ancient and modern histories, and those of the best masters, in this respect. While they recite public transactions, they omit, to a great degree, what belongs to the civil, social, and domestic progress of men and nations. There is not, so far as I know, a good civil history of Rome, nor is there an account of the manners and habits of social and domestic life, such as may inform us of the progress of her citizens, from the foundation of the city to the time of Livy and Sallust, in individual exhibitons of character.

We know, indeed, something of the private pursuits and private vices of the Roman people at the commencement of the Empire, but we obtain our knowledge of these chiefly from the severe and indignant rebukes of Aallust, and the inimitable satires of Juvenal. Wars, foreign and domestic, the achievements of arms, and national alliances fill up the recorded greatness of the Roman Empire...

It is in our day only that the history and progress of the civil and social institutions and manners of England have become the subjects of particular attention.

Sharon Turner, Lingard, and, more than all, Mr. Hallam, have laid this age, and all following ages, under the heaviest obligations by their labors in this field of literary composition; nor would I separate from em the writings of a most learned and eloquent person, whose work on English history is now in progress, nor the author of the "Pictorial History of England." But there is still wanting a full, throughough, and domestic, social account of our English ancestors, that is, a history which shall trace the progress of social life in the intercourse of man with man; the advance of arts, the various changes in the habits and occupations of individuals; and those improvements in domestic life which have attended the condition and meliorated the circumstances of men in the lapse of ages. We still have not the means of learning, to any great extent, how our English ancestors, at their homes, and in their houses, were fed, and lodged, and clothed, and what were their daily employments. We want a history of firesides; we want to know when kings and queens exchanged beds of straw for beds of down, and ceased to breakfast on beef and beer. We wish to see more, and to know more, of the changes which took place, down to the humblest cottage. Mr. Henry's book, so far as it goes, is not without its utility, but it stops too soon, and, even in regard to the period which it embraces, it is not sufficiently full and satisfactory in its particulars.

The feudal ages were military and agricultural, but the splendour of arms, in the history of the times, monopolized the genius of writers; and perhaps materials are now abundant for forming a knowledge of the essential industry of the country. He would be a public benefactor who should instruct us in the modes of cultivation and tillage prevailing in England, from the Conquest down, and in the advancement of manufacturers, from their inception in the time of Henry IV., to the period of their considerable development, two centuries afterwards.

There are two sources of information on these subjects, which have never yet been fully explored, and which, nevertheless, are overflowing fountains of knowledge. I mean the statutes and the proceedings of the courts of law. At an early period of life, I recurred, with some degree of attention, to both these sources of information; not so much for professional purposes, as for the elucidation of the progress of society. I acquainted myself with the object and purposes and substance of every published statue in British legislation. These showed me what the legislature of the country was concerned in, from age to age, and from year to year. And I learned from the reports of controversies, in the courts of law, what were the pursuits and occupations of individuals, and what the objects which most earnestly engaged attention. I hardly know anything which more repays research, than studies of this kind. We learn from them what pursuits occupied men during the feudal ages. We see the efforts of society to throw off the chains of this feudal dominion. We see too, in a most interesting manner, the ingenious devices resorted to, to break the thraldom of personal slavery. We see the beginning of manufacturing interests, and at length bursts upon us the full splendor of the commercial age...

The art of historical composition owes its origin to the institutions of political freedom...

It was not until the legislation of Solon had laid the foundations of free political institutions, and these institutions had unfolded a free and powerful and active political life in the Athenian Republic; until the discussion of public affairs in the Senate and the popular Assembly had created deliberative eloquence, and the open administration of justice in the courts, and under the laws established by Solon, had applied to the transactions between the citizens all the resources of refined logic, and drawn into the spehere of civil rights and obligations the power of high forensic oratory: it is not until these results of the legislative wisdome of Solon had been attained, that the art of history rose and flourished in Greece. With the decline of Grecian liberty began the decvline of art of historical composition. Histories were written under the Grecian Kings of Egypt; and a long line of writers flourished under the Byzantine Emperors; but the high art of historical composition, as perfected in the master-works of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon, had perished in the death of political freedom...

Other foundation is not to be laid for authentic history than well authenticated facts; but on this foundation, structures may be raised of different characteristics, historical, biographical, and philosophical. One writer may confine himself to exact and minute narration; another, true to the general story, may embellish that story with more or less of external ornament, or of eloquence in description; a third, with a deeper philosophical spirit, may look into the causes of events and transactions, trace them with more profound research to their sources in the elements of human nature, or consider and solve, with more or less success, the more important question, how far the character of individuals has produced public events, or how far on the other hand public events have produced and formed tha character of individuals.

Therefore one history of the same period, in human affairs, no more renders the history of the same period useless, or unadvisable, than e structure of one temple forbids the erection of another, or one statue of Apollo, Hercules, or Pericles should suppress all other attempts to produce statues of the same persons...

Gentlemen, I must bring these deultory remarks to a close. I terminate them where perhaps I ought to have begun, - namely, with a few words on the present state and condition of our country, and the prospects which are before her.

Unborn ages and visions of glory crowd upon my soul, the realization of which, however, is in the hands and good pleasure of Almighty God, but, under His divine blessing, it will be dependent on the character and the virtues of ourselves and our posterity.

If classical history has been found to be, is now, and shall continue toe, the concomitant of free institutions and of popular eloquence, what a field is opening to us for another Herodotus, another Thucydides, and another Livy! And let me say, gentlemen, that if we and our posterity shall be true to the Christian religion, if we and they shall live always in the fear of God, and shall respect His commandments, if we and they shall maintain just moral sentiments and such conscientious convictions of duty as shall control the heart and life, we may have the highest hopes of the future fortunes of our country; and if we maintain those institutions of government and that political union, exceeding all praise as much asit exceeds all former examples of political associations, we may be sure of one thing, that while our country furnishes material for a thousand masters of the historic art, it will afford no topic for a Gibbon. It will have no decline and fall. It will go on prospering and to prosper. But if we and our posterity reject religious institutions and authority, violate the rules of eternal justice, trifile with the injunctions of morality, and recklessly destroy the political constitution which holds us together, no man can tell how sudden a catastrophe may overwhelm us that shall bury all our glory in profound obscurity. Should that catastrophe happen, let it have no history! Let the horrible narrative never be written! Let its fate be like that of the lost books of Livy, which no human eye shall ever read, or the missing Pleiad, of which no man can ever know more than that it is lost, and lost forever!

This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.