Faith of A Historian

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Faith of a Historian

By Samuel Eliot Morison

To you, fellow members, who have honored me by election to your presidency this year, I feel that I owe a sort of apologia pro vita mea, a statement of the beliefs and principles that have guided my teaching and writing during the thirty-eight years since my first article was published in the American Historical Review. I have nothing revolutionary or even novel to offer. Very early in my professional career I observed a certain frustration in a historian whom I greatly admired, Henry Adams, who had spent much time and thought searching for a "law of history." So I have cultivated the vast garden of human experience which is history, without troubling myself overmuch about laws, essential first causes, or how it is all coming out. My creed or confession is probably no different from that of the great majority of practicing historians in the Western world.

The late Charles A. Beard, certainly one of the most beloved and by all odds the most provocative of my predecessors, described all writing of history as "an act of faith." With that I agree, although after reading some of his books I suspect that Beard's "act of faith" was a literal translation of the Spanish auto-da-fe. Every historian with professional standards speaks or writes what he believes to be true. But he must also have faith in the receptiveness of his audience. If a lecturer, he wishes to be heard; if a writer, to be read. He always hopes for a public beyond that of the long-suffering wife.

This legitimate desire of the historian to interest, to instruct, and to please, is at once a leading motive for his labors, a challenge to present his work in artistic form, and a danger to his professional integrity. It tempts him to deviate from the truth in order to satisfy school committees on whom he depends for "adoptions"; or the prejudices of reviewers and the emotions of the public to whom he looks for circulation. Historians of repute have sold their skill for a mess of royalties; and I hope we do not envy them. Most writers of pseudo-history, however, are gifted amateurs seeking to bolster some pet theory with carefully screened facts, or people trained in journalism or some similar calling in which the story's the thing. If it accords with the facts, fine; if not, so much the worse for the facts.

No person without an inherent loyalty to truth, a high degree of intellectual honesty, and a sense of balance, can be a great or even a good historian. Truth about the past is the essence of history and historical biography, the thing that distinguishes them from every other branch of literature. Everyone agrees to that; but when we come to define truth, dissension starts.

For my part, I stand firm on the oft-quoted sentence of Leopold von Ranke, which we American historians remember when we have forgotten all the rest of our German. "The present investigation," said Ranke in the preface to his first volume, published in 1824, "will simply explain the event exactly as it happened."1 Ranke was far from being the first to say that. He picked up the phrase, I imagine, from Wilhelm von Humboldt, who, in an address to the Prussian Academy three years earlier, declared the proper function of history to be "the exposition of what has happened."2 Some 2200 years earlier, Thucydides wrote, "The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest. But if he who desires to have before his eyes a true picture of the events which have happened, and of the like events which may be expected to happen hereafter . . . shall pronounce what I have written to be useful, then I shall be satisfied."3

One might add quotation to quotation, merely to show that for almost 2500 years, in the Hebraic-Hellenic-Christian civilization that we inherit, truth has been recognized as the essence of history. In other words, the historian must be intellectually honest. Sublimating his own views of what ought...
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