The Great Events by Famous Historians/Volume 1/General Introduction
THE GREAT EVENTS BY FAMOUS HISTORIANS is the answer to a problem which has long been agitating the learned world. How shall real history, the ablest and profoundest work of the greatest historians, be rescued from its present oblivion on the dusty shelves of scholars, and made welcome to the homes of the people?
THE NATIONAL ALUMNI, an association of college men, having given this question long and earnest discussion among themselves, sought finally the views of a carefully elaborated list of authorities throughout America and Europe. They consulted the foremost living historians and professors of history, successful writers in other fields, statesmen, university and college presidents, and prominent business men. From this widely gathered consensus of opinions, after much comparison and sifting of ideas, was evolved the following practical, and it would seem incontrovertible, series of plain facts. And these all pointed toward "THE GREAT EVENTS."
In the first place, the entire American public, from top to bottom of the social ladder, are at this moment anxious to read history. Its predominant importance among the varied forms of literature is fully recognized. To understand the past is to understand the future. The successful men in every line of life are those who look ahead, whose keen foresight enables them to probe into the future, not by magic, but by patiently acquired knowledge. To see clearly what the world has done, and why, is to see at least vaguely what the world will do, and when.
Moreover, no man can understand himself unless he understands others; and he cannot do that without some idea of the past, which has produced both him and them. To know his neighbors, he must know something of the country from which they came, the conditions under which they formerly lived. He cannot do his own simple duty by his own country if he does not know through what tribulations that country has passed. He cannot be a good citizen, he cannot even vote honestly, much less intelligently, unless he has read history. Fortunately the point needs little urging. It is almost an impertinence to refer to it. We are all anxious, more than anxious to learn—if only the path of study be made easy.
Can this be accomplished? Can the vanishing pictures of the past be made as simply obvious as mathematics, as fascinating as a breezy novel of adventure? Genius has already answered, yes. Hand to a mere boy Macaulay's sketch of Warren Hastings in India, and the lad will see as easily as if laid out upon a map the host of interwoven and elaborate problems that perplexed the great administrator. Offer to the youngest lass the tale told by Guizot of King Robert of France and his struggle to retain his beloved wife Bertha. Its vivid reality will draw from the girl's heart far deeper and truer tears than the most pathetic romance.
We begin to realize that in very truth History has been one vast stupendous drama, world-embracing in its splendor, majestic, awful, irresistible in the insistence of its pointing finger of fate. It has indeed its comic interludes, a Prussian king befuddling ambassadors in his "Tobacco Parliament"; its pauses of intense and cumulative suspense, Queen Louise pleading to Napoleon for her country's life; but it has also its magnificent pageants, its gorgeous culminating spectacles of wonder. Kings and emperors are but the supernumeraries upon its boards; its hero is the common man, its plot his triumph over ignorance, his struggle upward out of the slime of earth.
Yet the great historians are not being widely read. The ablest and most convincing stories of his own development seem closed against the ordinary man. Why? In the first place, the works of the masters are too voluminous. Grote's unrivalled history of Greece fills ten large and forbidding volumes. Guizot takes thirty-one to tell a portion of the story of France. Freeman won credit in the professorial world by devoting five to the detailing of a single episode, the Norman Conquest. Surely no busy man can gather a general historic knowledge, if he must read such works as these! We are told that the great library of Paris contains over four hundred thousand volumes and pamphlets on French history alone. The output of historic works in all languages approaches ten thousand volumes every year. No scholar, even, can peruse more than the smallest fraction of this enormously increasing mass. Herodotus is forgotten, Livy remains to most of us but a recollection of our school-days, and Thucydides has become an exercise in Greek.
There is yet another difficulty. Even the honest man who tries, who takes down his Grote or Freeman, heroically resolved to struggle through it at all speed, fails often in his purpose. He discovers that the greatest masters nod. Sometimes in their slow advance they come upon a point that rouses their enthusiasm; they become vigorous, passionate, sarcastic, fascinating, they are masters indeed. But the fire soon dies, the inspiration flags, "no man can be always on the heights," and the unhappy reader drowses in the company of his guide.
This leads us then to one clear point. From these justly famous works a selection should be made. Their length should be avoided, their prosy passages eliminated; the one picture, or perhaps the many pictures, which each master has painted better than any rival before or since, that and that alone should be preserved.
Read in this way, history may be sought with genuine pleasure. It is only pedantry has made it dreary, only blindness has left it dull. The story of man is the most wonderful ever conceived. It can be made the most fascinating ever written.
With this idea firmly established in mind, we seek another line of thought. The world grows smaller every day. Russia fights huge battles five thousand miles from her capital. England governs India. Spain and the United States contend for empire in the antipodes. Our rapidly improving means of communication, electric trains, and, it may be, flying machines, cables, and wireless telegraphy, link lands so close together that no man lives to-day the subject of an isolated state. Rather, indeed, do all the kingdoms seem to shrink, to become but districts in one world-including commonwealth.
To tell the story of one nation by itself is thus no longer possible. Great movements of the human race do not stop for imaginary boundary lines thrown across a map. It was not the German students, nor the Parisian mob, nor the Italian peasants who rebelled in 1848; it was the "people of Europe" who arose against their oppressors. To read the history of one's own country only is to get distorted views, to exaggerate our own importance, to remain often in densest ignorance of the real meaning of what we read. The ideas American school-boys get of the Revolution are in many cases simply absurd, until they have been modified by wider reading.
From this it becomes very evident that a good history now must be, not a local, but a world history. The idea of such a work is not new. Diodorus penned one two hundred years before Christ. But even then the tale took forty books; and we have been making history rather rapidly since Diodorus' time. Of the many who have more recently attempted his task, few have improved upon his methods; and the best of these works only shows upon a larger scale the same dreariness that we have found in other masters.
Let us then be frank and admit that no one man can make a thoroughly good world history. No one man could be possessed of the almost infinite learning required; none could have the infinite enthusiasm to delight equally in each separate event, to dwell on all impartially and yet ecstatically. So once more we are forced back upon the same conclusion. We will take what we already have. We will appeal to each master for the event in which he did delight, the one in which we find him at his best.
This also has been attempted before, but perhaps in a manner too lengthy, too exact, too pedantic to be popular. The aim has been to get in everything. Everything great or small has been narrated, and so the real points of value have been lost in the multiplicity of lesser facts, about which no ordinary reader cares or needs to care. After all, what we want to know and remember are the Great Events, the ones which have really changed and influenced humanity. How many of us do really know about them? or even know what they are? or one-twentieth part of them? And until we know, is it not a waste of time to pore over the lesser happenings between?
Yet the connection between these events must somehow be shown. They must not stand as separate, unrelated fragments. If the story of the world is indeed one, it must be shown as one, not even broken by arbitrary division into countries, those temporary political constructions, often separating a single race, lines of imaginary demarcation, varying with the centuries, invisible in earth's yesterday, sure to change if not to perish in her to-morrow. Moreover, such a system of division necessitates endless repetition. Each really important occurrence influences many countries, and so is told of again and again with monotonous iteration and extravagant waste of space.
It may, however, be fairly urged that the story should vary according to the country for which it is designed. To our individual lives the events happening nearest prove most important. Great though others be, their influence diminishes with their increasing distance in space and time. For the people of North America the story of the world should have the part taken by America written large across the pages.
From all these lines of reasoning arose the present work, which the National Alumni believe has solved the problem. It tells the story of the world, tells it in the most famous words of the most famous writers, makes of it a single, continued story, giving the results of the most recent research. Yet all dry detail has been deliberately eliminated; the tale runs rapidly and brightly. Whatever else may happen, the reader shall not yawn. Only important points are dwelt on, and their relative value is made clear.
Each volume of THE GREAT EVENTS opens with a brief survey of the period with which it deals. The broad world movements of the time are pointed out, their importance is emphasized, their mutual relationship made clear. If the reader finds his interest specially roused in one of these events, and he would learn more of it, he is aided by a directing note, which, in each case, tells him where in the body of the volume the subject is further treated. Turning thither he may plunge at once into the fuller account which he desires, sure that it will be both vivid and authoritative; in short, the best-known treatment of the subject.
Meanwhile the general survey, being thus relieved from the necessity of constant explanation, expansion, and digression, is enabled to flow straight onward with its story, rapidly, simply, entertainingly. Indeed, these opening sketches, written especially for this series, and in a popular style, may be read on from volume to volume, forming a book in themselves, presenting a bird's-eye view of the whole course of earth, an ideal world history which leaves the details to be filled in by the reader at his pleasure. It is thus, we believe, and thus only, that world history can be made plain and popular. The great lessons of history can thus be clearly grasped. And by their light all life takes on a deeper meaning.
The body of each volume, then, contains the Great Events of the period, ranged in chronological order. Of each event there are given one, perhaps two, or even three complete accounts, not chosen hap-hazard, but selected after conference with many scholars, accounts the most accurate and most celebrated in existence, gathered from all languages and all times. Where the event itself is under dispute, the editors do not presume to judge for the reader; they present the authorities upon both sides. The Reformation is thus portrayed from the Catholic as well as the Protestant standpoint. The American Revolution is shown in part as England saw it; and in the American Civil War, and the causes which produced it, the North and the South speak for themselves in the words of their best historians.
To each of these accounts is prefixed a brief introduction, prepared for this work by a specialist in the field of history of which it treats. This introduction serves a double purpose. In the first place, it explains whatever is necessary for the understanding and appreciation of the story that follows. Unfortunately, many a striking bit of historic writing has become antiquated in the present day. Scholars have discovered that it blunders here and there, perhaps is prejudiced, perhaps extravagant. Newer writers, therefore, base a new book upon the old one, not changing much, but paraphrasing it into deadly dullness by their efforts after accuracy. Thanks to our introduction we can revive the more spirited account, and, while pointing out its value to the reader, can warn him of its errors. Thus he secures in briefest form the results of the most recent research.
Another purpose of the introduction is to link each event with the preceding ones in whatever countries it affects. Thus if one chooses he may read by countries after all, and get a completed story of a single nation. That is, he may peruse the account of the battle of Hastings and then turn onward to the making of the Domesday Book, where he will find a few brief lines to cover the intervening space in England's history. From the struggles of Stephen and Matilda he is led to the quarrel of her son, King Henry, with Thomas Becket, and so onward step by step.
Starting with this ground plan of the design in mind, the reader will see that its compilation was a work of enormous labor. This has been undertaken seriously, patiently, and with earnest purpose. The first problem to be confronted was, What were the Great Events that should be told? Almost every writer and teacher of history, every well-known authority, was appealed to; many lists of events were compiled, revised, collated, and compared; and so at last our final list was evolved, fitted to bear the brunt of every criticism.
Then came the heavier problem of what authorities to quote for each event. And here also the editors owe much to the capable aid of many generous, unremunerated advisers. Thus, for instance, they sought and obtained from the Hon. Joseph Chamberlain his advice as to the authorities to be used for the Jameson raid and the Boer war. The account presented may therefore be fairly regarded as England's own authoritative presentment of those events. Several little known and wholly unused Russian sources were pointed out by Professor Rambaud, the French Academician. But this is mentioned only to illustrate the impartiality with which the editors have endeavored to cover all fields. If, under the plea of expressing gratitude to all those who have lent us courteous assistance, we were to spread across these pages the long roll of their distinguished names, it would sound too much like boasting of their condescension.
The work of selecting the accounts has been one of time and careful thought. Many thousands of books have been read and read again. The cardinal points of consideration in the choice have been: (1) Interest, that is, vividness of narration; (2) simplicity, for we aim to reach the people, to make a book fit even for a child; (3) the fame of the author, for everyone is pleased to be thus easily introduced to some long-heard-of celebrity, distantly revered, but dreaded; and (4) accuracy, a point set last because its defects could be so easily remedied by the specialist's introduction to each event.
These considerations have led occasionally to the selection of very ancient documents, the original "sources" of history themselves, as, for instance, Columbus' own story of his voyage, rather than any later account built up on this; Pliny's picture of the destruction of Pompeii, for Pliny was there and saw the heavens rain down fire, and told of it as no man has done since. So, too, we give a literal translation of the earliest known code of laws, antedating those of Moses by more than a thousand years, rather than some modern commentary on them. At other times the same principles have led to the other extreme, and on modern events, where there seemed no wholly satisfactory or standard accounts, we have had them written for us by the specialists best acquainted with the field.
As the work thus grew in hand, it became manifest that it would be, in truth, far more than a mere story of events. With each event was connected the man who embodied it. Often his life was handled quite as fully as the event, and so we had biography. Lands had to be described—geography. Peoples and customs—sociology. Laws and the arguments concerning them—political economy. In short, our history proved a universal cyclopædia as well.
To give it its full value, therefore, an index became obviously necessary—and no ordinary index. Its aim must be to anticipate every possible question with which a reader might approach the past, and direct him to the answer. Even, it might be, he would want details more elaborate than we give. If so, we must direct him where to find them.
Professional index-makers were therefore summoned to our help, a complete and readable chronology was appended to each volume, and the final volume of the series was turned over to the indexers entirely. We believe their work will prove not the least valuable feature of the whole. Briefly, the Index Volume contains:
1. A complete list of the Great Events of the world's history. Opposite each event are given the date, the name of the author and standard work from which our account is selected, and a number of references to other works and to a short discussion of these in our Bibliography. Thus the reader may pursue an extended course of study on each particular event.
2. A bibliography of the best general histories of ancient, mediæval, and modern times, and of important political, religious, and educational movements; also a bibliography of the best historical works dealing with each nation, and arranged under the following subdivisions: (a) The general history of the nation; (b) special periods in its career; (c) the descriptions of the people, their civilization and institutions. On each work thus mentioned there is a critical comment with suggestions to readers. This bibliography is designed chiefly for those who desire to pursue more extended courses of reading, and it offers them the experience and guidance of those who have preceded them on their special field.
3. A classified index of famous historic characters. The names are grouped under such headings as "Rulers, Statesmen, and Patriots," "Famous Women," "Military and Naval Commanders," "Philosophers and Teachers," "Religious Leaders," etc. Under each person's name is given a biographical chronology of his career, showing every important event in which he played a part, together with the date of the event, and the volume and page of this series where a full account of it may be found. This plan provides a new and very valuable means of reading the biography of any noted personage, one of the great advantages being that the accounts of the various events in his life are not all in the language of the same author, not written by a man anxious to bring out the importance of his special hero. The writers are mainly interested in the event, and show the hero only in his true and unexaggerated relation to it. Under each name will also be found references to such further authorities on the biography of the personage as may be consulted with profit by those students and scholars who wish to pursue an exhaustive study of his career.
4. A biographical index of the authors represented in the series. This consists of brief sketches of the many writers whose work has been drawn upon for the narratives of Great Events. It is intended for ready reference, and gives only the essential facts. This index serves a double purpose. Suppose, for instance, that a reader is familiar with the name of John Lothrop Motley, but happens not to know whether he is still living, whether he had other occupation than writing, or what offices he held. This index will answer these questions. On the other hand, an admirer of Thomas Jefferson or Theodore Roosevelt may wish to know whether we have taken anything—and, if so, what—from their writings. This index will answer at once.
5. A general index covering every reference in the series to dates, events, persons, and places of historic importance. These are made easily accessible by a careful and elaborate system of cross-references.
6. A separate and complete chronology of each nation of ancient, mediæval, and modern times, with references to the volume and page where each item is treated, either as an entire article or as part of one; so that the history of any one nation may be read in its logical order and in the language of its best historians.
Such, as the National Alumni regard it, are the general character, wide scope, and earnest purpose of THE GREAT EVENTS BY FAMOUS HISTORIANS. Let us end by saying, in the friendly fashion of the old days when bookmakers and their readers were more intimate than now: "Kind reader, if this our performance doth in aught fall short of promise, blame not our good intent, but our unperfect wit."
THE NATIONAL ALUMNI.