Faith of A Historian

Topics: History / Pages: 26 (6315 words) / Published: Dec 11th, 2013
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

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