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American Historical Review
THE HISTORICAL OPPORTUNITY IN AMERICA
THAT the people of the United States are fond of history is
shown by their eagerness to make it, rather than by any habit of turning to the past as furnishing precedents for guidance in times of uncertainty or peril. We are at this moment engaged in an exciting episode of a contest already centuries old; we feel the liveliest interest in the details of the historical drama going on before our eyes; and we understand the importance of keeping an accurate record of the deeds of our popular heroes. We not only require detailed information as to what they say and do in moments of crisis and peril, but we insist on exact statements of what they would have done had circumstances been otherwise, what they declined to do, what they eat and drink or refuse to partake of, how they are clad and how they prepare themselves for a plunge into the sea under an enemy's guns. The events now passing are like the meteorological observations of Arctic travellers or the cases before a crowded court; they accumulate faster than we can dispose of them; and it will require a generation of historical writers to sift the crude materials and to work out the story of our own times.
Side by side with this fierce interest in the events of the day is a disregard, almost an ignorance, of the past history of America. At the end of a quiet and uneventful decade, the nation has suddenly awakened to the possibility of a new career; but it seems disposed to look on the war, its causes and its results, as sudden and unexpected; as something to be met and settled with due reference to the conditions of the end of the nineteenth century, but with an impatient ignoring of the slow development of a Spanish question in the four hundred years which have rolled away since America was discovered. There has been a passionate appeal to principles of for
eign intercourse laid down by Washington and Jefferson and Monroe-and but little reference to the historical progress of the Cuban question as shown in almost every volume of our national records. We work over again, in foreign relations as in financial affairs, things which might be supposed to have been settled by the experience of a century. We cheerfully send arms and suggest organization to the Cubans, without troubling ourselves to remember how little aid and comfort we have had from insurgent allies in Canada, in Tripoli, in California, in New Mexico and in Samoa.
Yet the Americans are one of the most conservative of all peoples, and our whole political system rests on a respect for preceWithout knowing the details of the Spanish-American domination the nation has somehow a consciousness that it has grown to be intolerable. If there be a fault, it is not that of the makers of history, but of the historians, who have failed to set clearly before their countrymen the course of our diplomatic policy; and of historical teachers, who have not imbued their students or pupils with the sense of the sequence of historical events.
Three years ago, in the opening number of the AMERICAN HISTORICAL REVIEW, a writer discussed the attitude of democracy toward the spirit of historical inquiry. Later experience shows no reason for abandoning his conclusions: the great American democracy both makes and records history; and gains in accuracy of vision from decade to decade. At the beginning of the fourth volume of the REVIEW it may be worth while to enter on a humbler inquiry -to see how far public bodies, individuals and societies are performing their task of collecting, preserving and opening up historical materials; what is now doing by American historical scholars to put into systematic form the details of our national history; how far writers are striving to tell the consecutive story of our national life; and what unused opportunities there are for transmitting the knowledge of our memorable past and uplifting present. The field is broad, the material enormous, the workers many, organizations powerful and increasing. What is doing and what may
well be done for historical science in America?
Too little attention has so far been paid to the geographical and topographical side of American history; and a prime duty of Americans is the preservation and marking of our historical sites. In foreign cities not only are famous houses carefully preserved, such as Dürer's in Nuremberg and the Plantins' in Antwerp, but memorial tablets everywhere abound. In America some of the stateliest and most memorable buildings have been
sacrificed, like the Hancock mansion in Boston; but at present the tendency is to preserve really handsome public and private edifices; and good people everywhere give money and time to keep these causes of civic pride before the eyes of their countrymen. The great incitement to this virtuous work was doubtless the purchase of Mount Vernon by the Ladies' Association, in the fifties, for which purpose Edward Everett coined his silver voice into golden eagles. Among hundreds of instances may be mentioned the restoration of the old Philadelphia city buildings, including Independence Hall; the keeping up the old church at Williamsburg, Va.; the establishment of the Rufus Putnam house at Rutland as a place of pilgrimage; and the repair of Californian convent buildings. Many private owners acknowledge that the historical houses which they inhabit are subject to a kind of public use, like Madison's seat at Montpellier; and some even busy themselves in working out the history of their habitation, and of the famous people who have entered its portals, as has been done by the present owner and occupant of the Craigie House in Cambridge.
By this time the principles which ought to govern the use of an historic building are widely recognized: it should be restored so far as possible to its condition at the time of its greatest historical importance-Carpenter's Hall as it was when the Continental Congress occupied it, and Monticello as Jefferson knew it. It should be called to the attention of the wayfarer by a suitable, permanent tablet of stone or brass; if possible, it should be kept up as a public monument or at least freely opened to public view. It must be admitted that, though most of the buildings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which are still preserved have a dignity and beauty which makes them worth keeping as works of art, the nineteenth-century cradles of civil government in the West are not inspiring pieces of architecture, even in the few cases where they have not long ago been replaced. We do not realize that our ancestors went through the same process as ourselves, that they also had to build and rebuild, before they left the comely courthouses and quaint churches and stately dwellings which we now admire.
Even if the building be worthless or destroyed, the site may fitly be commemorated by a permanent inscription. We moderns are so overwhelmed with reading matter that we do not fully understand the effect of inscriptions which stand in public view-the literature of the bookless; yet the noble sentences on the new Congressional Library will be read longer and will have greater influence than any contribution to the AMERICAN HISTORICAL REVIEW. There is a
citizen of Massachusetts who takes special delight in leading his English visitors to a stone in Arlington which reads:
Near this spot
Then 80 years old
Killed three British soldiers
April 19, 1775
He was shot, bayoneted
However repellent to the British may be the toughness of ablebodied Samuel, the inscription does bring home strongly the force and passion of that April day when, as Sir Edward Thornton pithily stated it, "Englishmen now know that you were fighting our battles." The route from Boston to Concord is designated all the way by memorial stones; and there are many historical marches of the Revolution and the Civil War which deserve like attention.
Tablets upon public buildings or within them are too little regarded in this country, though senseless decorations are not uncommon. For instance, the state house of Connecticut, one of the few beautiful and individual capitols, which might well bear tribute to the founders of the first written constitution of an American commonwealth, is embellished with "a charm" of two thousand tarnished buttons. Compare with this barbaric gewgaw the arms. of the podestas which hang on the walls of the court of one of the public palaces at Florence. At the University of Padua the spacious "aula," the stone stairways, and the courts, are adorned with hundreds of coats of arms of noble students; compare this historical monument with the bare walls of the buildings of an ancient seat of learning in Massachusetts, the authorities of which refused to permit a list of distinguished occupants of an eighteenth-century dormitory to be placed upon its walls, because it made distinctions. In the ef fort to preserve sets of portraits of governors of states and mayors of cities the public recognizes the desire to keep men once honored in the minds of other men. Shall our elder worthies plead in vain before a matter-of-fact generation, "Lord, keep my memory green"?
The time to mark the sites of buildings and the scenes of notable events, the time to note the houses and the rooms once occupied by famous men, is the present, while they can be identified. Many are already lost or disappearing. Who knows where Governor Berkeley roared with official fury? Who marks the college rooms of James Madison, of John Adams or Daniel Web