Popular Science Monthly/Volume 81/October 1912/History-Making Forces

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HTSTORY is a science; it belongs to the family of social sciences. History is concerned with more than the mere perfunctory cataloging of incidents, with more than a string of events held together by the colorless thread of chronology. It is no longer to be considered a record of sanguinary episodes and of individual prowess or debauchery. True history presents a picture of the struggles of conflicting races, interests, sections and classes; it tells the interesting story of the struggle of the masses upward toward equality. Historical science is a study of cause and effect. In the political and social world, structures are evolved and changes take place in response to modifications in the physical and social environment, or in the industry of the people. Political institutions, wars and royal intrigues are but the visible manifestations of underlying and powerful social, economic, geographic and racial forces. History—true history—is, consequently, a study of the social physics of the past; sociology, of the present. It is, indeed, "the record not of the doings of man, but of his progress." The memoirs of the "not-great" are the most important, but usually the neglected, part of real history. Unless the study of history aids in the solution of the important social and economic problems of to-day, it remains in the lower rank of leisure-class, cultural studies—the value of which is chiefly traditional and putative. In our progressive educational institutions history is not offered merely for the sake of storing up in the mind of the youth a knowledge of the past, for its disciplinary value only, for so-called cultural purposes, or because it is considered to be the proper or conventional kind of knowledge for a college graduate to become familiarly acquainted with.

The medieval mind had no idea of causation in the physical world; only comparatively recently did the men of modern times begin to throw off medievalism in regard to social progress. According to the early metaphysical conception of history, data and investigations were of no value, or of negative value. In a similar way, the medieval authorities considered inductive physical science to be improper and immoral. However, metaphysics and superstition in regard to the evolution of political institutions are fortunately rapidly giving way to scientific hypotheses based upon exact and detailed investigation of historical data.

The proper function of real historical study is to ascertain and explain in a measure the reason for the rise and fall of specific nations, parties and principles. Before broad and reasonable generalizations can be drawn an enormous mass of exact and uncolored historical data must be gathered and digested. This material must relate not merely to political events or to the work and ideals of certain great and more or less spectacular personages who have stood in the foreground in the generations which lie forever behind the present. This data must, if it be highly valuable, tell the true story of the life, ideals, customs, industrial and social relations of the mass of the common people. Each locality, class and individual can add its quota toward the accurate knowledge of the true history of a given nation.

In the past our historians have often been guilty of presenting a false picture of the history of a nation. Their conclusions have often been very much prejudiced and distorted. In part this unfortunate situation was the direct and inevitable result of a lack of minute and local historical data. In part, it was due to a false idea of patriotism which led the writers to over-emphasize the good qualities of certain historical personages and to accentuate the moral weakness of others; it caused the historians to find altruistic and broad-minded ideals where in reality egoistic and particularistic ambitions were uppermost. Not only were false ideals presented, but the glorification of the past inevitably made the student and reader pessimistic in regard to the present and the future. The past was seen constantly surrounded by an unreal halo. The imaginary good old days and the more or less mythical heroic heros of the past when placed in comparison with the somber, but actual, present checked the enthusiasm of many a young idealist. "With this contrast in view the present seemed hopelessly degenerate; corruption, graft and political chicanery were believed to be of recent origin, whereas in reality these evils are as old as history. It is often difficult for the student to realize that the men of former generations were not supermen, but men liable to be influenced by prejudice, partisan bias and ignoble motives. American history has suffered greatly in the past because of superficial and prejudiced interpretation of facts, and because of the lack of definite and accurate data.

The forces concerned in history-making are a multitude in comparison with those more simple and tangible forces which operate in the laboratory of the physicist or the factory of the manufacturer. Each nation and each age has its own peculiar problems, balance of social forces and rate of change. The complexity and the magnitude of the forces involved insure the existence of social inertia. The first law of social change is that social formation and deformation take place gradually. Revolutions, signifying great and abrupt changes in national economic or social life, are more apparent than real. The revolution is a mere surface manifestation. Deep-seated changes never occur in this way. Forms of government may be radically changed, but the alignment of classes, subordination, legal traditions, religious, ethical and social ideals still remain inevitably to nullify or to modify the results of the newly-made structure of government.

The French Revolution is the classic example of a political revolution. Yet the French Revolution led directly to Napoleon. Absolutism was not immediately abolished by the downfall of Louis XVI. For the stable despotism of the Bourbon ruler was substituted the unstable and constantly changing absolutism of the assembly and the directory and finally of Napoleon. The Reign of Terror was simply the use of direct and primitive methods of maintaining control over the masses and of overriding opposition. Kings, supported by hereditary prestige and crystallized legal and constitutional forms, did not need to use, except occasionally, the crude method of wholesale legal assassination in order to maintain order and subordination. But the newly organized government with its devoted band of untried dictators, unsupported by the trappings and the legal and constitutional mummery, were quickly driven by necessity to the use of the guillotine. An immediate change from absolutism to republicanism was a governmental impossibility. The French Revolution was in effect the spectacular part of a gradual process of social change which greatly modified political conditions in France. A similar conclusion may be drawn from the English revolutions of 1642 and 1688, or from the American revolution.

Nevertheless, governmental structures may retard or modify the course of social change. A written constitution is a crystallization of an outgrown balance of social forces; but it may disturb the balance of forces in the present era. It adds to the strength of one element, and places obstacles in the path of another. Environmental conditions, the mixture of races and nationalities, social customs, tradition, religious ideals and inherited ethical principles may do likewise.

The course of historical events in America furnishes a very interesting and instructive study in social physics. The alignment of social forces in American history presents certain well-marked peculiarities.

(1) The importance of the frontier element in our history is perhaps unparalleled. The history of the United States down to recent times has been warped and twisted by the presence of an ever-moving frontier line which has visibly reflected its ideals and views of government back into the legislation and the social composition of the entire country.

(2) The absence of a royal or noble class based upon hereditary privilege must not be overlooked. (3) Negro slavery produced dangerous sectional antagonism which led directly to the civil war. The presence of the negro furnishes a very different problem for the American legislator and social scientist of to-day. (4) The continued influx of a large -and diverse immigrant class has exercised and is still exercising a marked influence upon our political and social institutions. Here differences in customs and traditions produce effects similar to those which result from differences in color.

The tradition that woman should remain in the home, that her sphere is the restricted one of the household, is an almost insurmountable obstacle in the path of the woman-suffrage movement. This moss-covered, but orthodox, tradition greatly weakens the effect of the economic forces which are acting to place woman on an economic and political basis level with that occupied by the masculine sex; and thus it retards a development which is indigenous to an industrial community of the occidental type. Human beings are prone to argue on the basis of what has been rather than on the ground of what is. Men hold that good which is customary forgetting that good is always relative to present conditions. Past good is often present evil; and present vices, past virtues.

Laws shortening the working day for men and women, regulating dangerous employments, and permitting the activities of labor unions, are met by an appeal to personal liberty of a kind which is practically meaningless in modern industrial society. Traditional rights are often valueless when studied in the light of the present; but their potency comes from the fact that their appeal is to the emotions, not to the reason, or to class interest rather than to the general welfare or to race improvement. A highly protective tariff is carried down into a time when the primary motive for such regulation is lost, by means of the pressure of certain pecuniary interests built up in a measure by the tariff law itself.

Religious ideals are utilized frequently to retard social change. Religious imperatives and biblical phraseology are invoked to continue the traditional view as to marriage and divorce. The standard of the formalist is that of religious justification or taboo rather than of social welfare; and the particularly unfortunate element in the whole matter is that the average formalist never grasps the idea that his religious imperatives were built up in the past when economic and social conditions were very different from those of to-day. The thoroughgoing formalist is obsessed by the idea of fixity in all moral, ethical and religious ideals and requirements. He is unfortunately so insistent upon upholding a fixed and authoritative ideal of individual goodness or of individual conformity to certain doctrines or ceremonial forms that he can not see the intricacy and complexity of modern social relations and the potency of environmental reaction upon the character and ideals of individual members of society. The religious formalist is a conservative; he is prone to look askance upon the sociologist who is studying the great social cauldron as the chemist examines his test-tube or the biologist the organism under the lens of his microscope. The sociologist is judged, and rightly judged, to be an innovator and It radical; therefore he is held to be vulgar, uncultured, dangerous, an undesirable individual and probably a "heretic" (whatever that may mean). The religious worker of the future must cast off his antiquated garb and become a student of modern society. If not, his power for good will soon be a vanishing quantity.

One of the most potent conservative and reactionary influences on American progress is our federal constitution. This document was drawn in an era before the trust, the railway, the world market and a multitude of revolutionary discoveries and theories. It can be amended only with extreme difficulty; and has only been continued by stretching the meaning of words to fit new conditions. But as the interpretation of the phraseology of the constitution is given to men who were trained a generation or more ago, and who are members of a profession which is peculiarly precedent-shackled, even this crude method does not suffice to enable our legal forms to conform to the ever-changing social and economic requirements of the present.

As long as free land and a frontier were important factors in the nation, the constitution could be adequately stretched to meet new situations—the old laissez faire, individualistic interpretation of liberty and constitutional rights was not seriously out of step with the course of events. But when the frontier disappears, and great industry enters, our legal and constitutional edifice is subjected to serious strain. Libert} r, the right of contract, the right to do business, and similar indefinite phrases must be interpreted anew in the light of a changed and complicated economic and industrial situation. Yet, our courts seem prone to decide cases relating to the relation of labor to capital in the same way that John Marshall did. It is apparently forgotten that when aggregated capital faces organized labor, the situation is very different from that which obtained when the isolated employer faced the independent worker. Legal forms have not infrequently concealed and overshadowed common sense and social welfare; the inalienable rights of men often seem to have been displaced by the sacred rights of property and privilege.

Race prejudice often acts as a force opposing economic pressure. Slavery in the south was becoming in 1860 an uneconomical system even for the slave owner; but the progress toward emancipation was blocked by the fear of the free negro and the demand of social conventionalities. The negro race is at the present time handicapped because of race prejudice which prevents its members from obtaining the same economic opportunity as their white-skinned neighbors or competitors. Yet, on the other hand, race prejudice seems frequently, if not usually, to be generated out of economic friction and antagonism, out of the opposition engendered by competition between people accustomed to widely different standards of living.

Education may be an instrument of progress or of conservatism. When emphasis is laid upon the classical or so-called cultural elements, education becomes a potent force in maintaining the status quo. When the emphasis is placed upon the narrowly practical—purely trade instruction of a restricted sort—the tendency is to increase the distinction between the different classes in the community. Education only becomes a potent factor in human progress when sociological and psychological principles are introduced to determine the proper treatment of each and every child. The social standard of education is progressive; the business and the cultural standards are conservative or reactionary.

Social scientists are reaching the long-delayed conclusion that happenings in the social and the political sphere are not the result of chance, and individual impulse or willing, or of direct and arbitrary interference of an infinite power. Social and political happenings, like physical and chemical actions and reactions, occur in an orderly and law-abiding manner. Events, movements, reforms, agitations, decay or growth of institutions may, in a measure, be prophesied, directed and aided or retarded. There is, or may be, a social science (or social sciences) as well as physical sciences. Social mechanics, social physics and social chemistry are real terms.

Science is gathering data for cooperative and purposive action. Industrial evolution, city planning, workingmen's insurance, tax reform and socialism are some of the lines along which the infant science of society is slowly feeling its way—like the physical sciences of a few generations ago—in the face of opposition which is often violent, noisy, hypocritical and ignorant. Science has brought order out of chaos and guesswork in the factory. Why can it not do likewise in the nation? To the social scientist rule-of-thumb methods, secrecy, waste of natural and human resources and disregard of social welfare and of race improvement are criminal. The social scientist is becoming an expert, and is acquiring the professional spirit. He is the future maker of history.