Commentary Magazine


The Study of Man: The Human Element in History

It is by now a truism that each age writes its own history: and conversely trends in history writing may reflect—even foreshadow—changes in cultural attitudes and political thinking. Nowhere has this fact been more clearly exemplified than in the interpretation of the American Civil War, a conflict that stands at the center of almost every attempt to interpret the meaning of American civilization. Edward N. Saveth, who analyzes here some recent historical writing on the Civil War—especially that latest monument in a distinguished tradition, Allan Nevins’ Ordeal of the Union—sees a shift from the deterministic view (prevailing in recent years) which sees history as the product of impersonal economic and social facts and forces, to one in which the factors of human personality and choice are again seen as playing important roles. 

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The Civil War is a theme of unfailing attraction to the American historian; and if the sales of such books as Gone With the Wind and House Divided are an index of popular appeal, it is no less fascinating to the layman. The deaths of the political giants Webster, Calhoun, and Clay after the Compromise of 1850; the spectacle of adolescent America at the mercy of the political mediocrities who dominated the scene in the decade preceding the war; bleeding Kansas and martyred John Brown; the fanaticism of Abolitionists and anti-Abolitionists; the emergence of a national savior in the figure of Lincoln; the whole spectacle of American society turned against itself—all this is drama of irresistible appeal.

For the historian, moreover, the war itself has the advantage of a certain clarity: it was a modern war—almost what we have come to call a “total” war—without yet being a mechanized war. The purely military spectacle of the Civil War and the personalities of its generals—Lee, Sherman, Grant, Jackson—retain the vividness of life, while the still living leaders of the two World Wars are overshadowed by the very instruments they wielded.

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The Civil War is the focus of a new history being written by Professor Allan Nevins of Columbia University, two volumes of which have recently been published (Ordeal of the Union; Scribner’s, 1947). These volumes not only set out to capture the epoch in all its complexity and vitality; they mark the emergence of a new narrative synthesis in the writing of American history.

The great histories of America—those by Bancroft, Hildreth, McMaster, Rhodes, Schouler, Parkman, Henry Adams, Von Holst, Channing—have been narrative histories. They are all multi-volumed accounts, covering relatively large periods of history, and embracing definite views or conceptions of the historical process. This kind of narrative history was a relatively early development in American historiography, and was the most widely-used form until, in the 1890’s, it was challenged by the monograph and a new conception of “objective,” scientific technique in historical research.

The new approach, which enshrined “scientific method,” was a product of the seminars of Bluntschli and Erdmannsdoeffer at Heidelberg and was introduced by Herbert Baxter Adams into the course of historical study at Johns Hopkins. Albert Bushnell Hart made it popular at Harvard, John W. Burgess at Columbia. The new scientific technique was concerned less with the grand sweep of history and its human significance and more with ascertaining and documenting factual information in relatively narrow fields of inquiry. Some of the older scholars were displeased with the new techniques, and complained that the monographs were really dry-as-dust affairs that held little interest for anyone except the specialist in a particular field. Edward Channing, on the other hand, himself the author of a narrative history, defended the innovators with the declaration that historians, under the new dispensation, were at last ceasing to copy from one another and were going to the sources.

This conception of history as scientific research was brought forth at a time when the scientific method was gaining prestige in America; the historians felt it necessary to justify the place of history among the sciences. There followed a sharp conflict between what W. Stull Holt describes as “two distinct and contradictory conceptions of scientific history.” One is the belief that scientific history consists of a “search for facts alone, with no laws or generalizations and with a renunciation of all philosophy”; the other is the belief that there are historical laws or generalizations which may be scientifically formulated. It was the latter conception that finally showed itself vulnerable and had to give ground: too many of the interpretations spun by the historians in their vain search for the “key to history” were not only patently refutable, but, as in the case of H. B. Adams’ “Teutonic hypothesis of the origin of democracy,” produced no little mischief.

The victory of the monograph added much to our knowledge of men and events, but it discouraged the writing of narrative history. One decade of history-writing succeeded another, footnotes multiplied and sources grew, and the writing of narrative history seemed on its way to becoming a lost art. With the publication of Edward Channing’s final volume in 1925, its day seemed finally over.

It is the special virtue of Professor Nevins’ work that he attempts his revaluation of American history without throwing off the discipline of science. Perhaps more than any other American historian, Nevins combines scientific technique in fact-finding and documentation, care and responsibility in drawing conclusions, with a powerful impulse toward intellectual synthesis and a strong sense of narrative style. Nevins, to be sure, is less of a stylist than Francis Parkman, for example, but it must be kept in mind that the harvest of monographs from the last fifty years makes Nevins in some degree the prisoner of his documentation: often, in historical writing, the very weight of the evidence seems to press down the nimblest of pens.

There is a more significant point of comparison between Professor Nevins’ two volumes and the narrative American histories of former eras. The older writers, far more than the monographists, tended to introduce their personal preconceptions into their volumes, and these preconceptions are often, to the modem mind, surprisingly parochial. George Bancroft and James Schouler wrote as Democrats; Richard Hildreth, Henry Adams, and Hermann Eduard von Holst were strongly Federalist. Nevins is never partisan in this sense; he does not write to sustain the point of view of any political party or interested group, and none of the contending factions of the 1850’s could find retrospective justification in his account. But his history is nevertheless expressive of a specific social and political orientation.

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Navins might be roughy classified as a New Dealer with very firm anti-totalitarian convictions. He believes that if social progress is to be made at all it must be made slowly, and that recommendations for progress that are conditional upon a violent upheaval in the body of society accomplish no good purpose. At bottom, he is always concerned with the values of the individual life, rather than the impersonal march of progress and historical forces. Thus he is pragmatic, and a gradualist; he is interested in means as well as ends; and he is not made indifferent to human suffering by concentration on “historical necessities” and high political abstractions, whether of class or nation.

This point of view permeates his interpretation of the Civil War period. He does not like the extremists of that age any more than he admires extremist solutions of our contemporary problems. A combination of extremism and inept statesmanship, he contends, brought on a war that might have been avoided, and the war itself contributed no more to the solution of the nation’s problems than negotiation and intelligence could have accomplished without waste of blood and wealth. “The primary task of statesmanship in this era,” he writes, “was to furnish a workable adjustment between the two sections, while offering strong inducements to the Southern people to regard their labor system not as static but evolutionary, and equal persuasions to the Northern people to assume a helpful rather than a scolding attitude.”

Nevins is of course clearly conscious that he writes from a definite point of view, that he advances a “thesis,” but his conception of the role of a thesis in historical writing is, too, a rather qualified one. He would agree that historians are human beings and that their ideas about history are themselves subject to historical forces. Yet he is steadfast in the opinion that the historian “should avoid bias in the sense of prejudice; he should court it in the sense of honest conviction. That conviction should follow, not precede, a study of the evidence and be formed during and by the historian’s researches. . . .”

What Nevins asks for is a more intelligent and moderate use of the thesis in historical writing. His present volumes seem very successful in that respect, and precisely because of this they are not likely to become rapidly outdated. No one today takes seriously Brooks Adams’ cyclical theory of history expressed in the Law of Civilization and Decay or Henry Adams’ equally startling application of the second law of thermodynamics to history. Nor, for that matter, do historians today so unqualifiedly accept the economic interpretation of history as Beard did in 1913 when his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution was published. The most striking thesis has not always produced the best history (one senses already a growing unwillingness to take Toynbee seriously).

Nevins’ view of the place of the thesis in writing history is much the same as that advanced by James Ford Rhodes, the first volume of whose History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 appeared in 1893. Undoubtedly, Nevins’ work will replace Rhodes’ as the outstanding narrative history of the Civil War era, but Rhodes’ earlier volumes are still very readable and are again indicative of the enduring value of narrative history, when intelligently and not too one-sidedly written.

Rhodes found in the classical historians of Greece and Rome the virtues of “diligence, accuracy, love of truth, impartiality” (of course, they too had their biases); and he saw himself as “an earnest seeker after truth, trying to hold a judicial balance and to tell the story without prejudice.” Rhodes also revealed heavy prejudices in some sections of his work. But on the whole he was moderately successful in his aspirations. And there is something of his undogmatic but judgmental temper in Nevins’ praise of the compromisers of 1850 and his condemnation of those who sought to widen the North-South breach.

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Despite the basic similarity of Nevins’ and Rhodes’ conceptions of history, there are important differences between the two works that are a measure of the advances made in historiography during the past fifty years. While both Rhodes and Nevins are by inclination political historians, Nevins’ canvas is broader and his insight deeper in so far as he sees political history as developing out of a broad range of possibilities within the social matrix of the time. Rhodes would have been satisfied with Edward Augustus Freeman’s conception of history as past politics; Nevins takes his text from John Richard Green: “Political history, to be intelligible and just, must be based on social history in its largest sense.”

But social history, too, though it is in general an advance over the purely political and military narrative, has not escaped the blight of pedestrian “scholarship.” Even John Bach McMaster, the father of American social history, whose History of the People of the United States represents a truly impressive achievement, frequently leads his reader in a maze of descriptive narration about widely disparate elements of social life. And there are volumes in the “American Life Series” that read like catalogs. Nevins’ approach to social history is analytic rather than descriptive, and he uses his conception of the political issues to knot the entire fabric together. The result is that while the historical canvas is extremely broad, the picture itself is not without focus.

But his integration of social and political phenomena does not lead Nevins to see the one as necessarily determined by the other. In a statement of his philosophy of history made some years ago in The Gateway to History, he admits that, as a result of the scientific approach, “we can today account by logical and orderly causes for much that formerly seemed mysterious.” But, he adds, “when scientific research and interpretation have done their utmost,” we must still take account of the “powerful role which fortune or accident plays in history.”

This view joins with Nevins’ political predispositions to strengthen his conviction that the Civil War was not inevitable, and could have been avoided had there not been a collapse of statesmanship in the middle and late 1850’s. In thus placing blame for the outbreak of the conflict upon the shoulders of inept statesmen, Professor Nevins is applying to the pre-Civil War situation what he sees as the “decided element of truth” in the “Carlylean gospel” of the influence of personality on history. He is also taking issue with a very popular modern interpretation of history—especially popular in dealing with the Civil War.

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The idea of the Civil War as an “irrepressible conflict” has an interesting background in American historiography. In the 1870’s, the German-born American historian Hermann Eduard von Hoist, in his Verfassung und Demokratie der Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika, pounced upon the theme of slavery, proclaimed it a moral abomination and in conflict with the “spirit of the age.” Von Hoist conceived of the Civil War as a bloody and inevitable expiation for a moral crime.

Von Holst’s work served to counterbalance the Southern historical apologetics published by two statesmen of the Confederacy, Alexander H. Stephens and Jefferson Davis. Both of these men, sensitive to the accusation that they had fought a war in defense of the “peculiar institution” of human slavery, maintained that the fundamental issue in the war was a constitutional one—the North believing in a loose construction of the Federal Constitution and the South in a rigid construction. (Southern opponents of civil rights legislation still make use of this argument.)

These two views—that the Civil War was an inevitable product of the historical process, and that it was fought over a constitutional issue—were synthesized by John W. Burgess, founder of the Columbia Graduate School of Political Science. Burgess was a student in Germany in the aftermath of that nation’s unification; impressed with the Bismarckian spirit of “blood and iron,” he believed that only the test of arms could decide the question of secession. As a proponent of integral nationalism, Burgess saw the Civil War as a necessary step in the emergence of American nationality.

More recently, the Civil War has been regarded as an irrepressible conflict on economic grounds. In the first half of the 19th century, so the story goes, there developed in the United States two opposing economic systems: the plantation-agrarian economy of the South, based upon slave labor, and the free-labor industrial system of the North. Inevitably these two divergent systems came into conflict as the plantation owners and the manufacturers struggled for control of the national government for the furtherance of their respective class interests. As Charles and Mary Beard have put it in The Rise of American Civilization: “When the modern student examines all the verbal disputes over the nature of the Union . . . he can hardly do otherwise than conclude that . . . the roots of the controversy lay . . . in divergent social forces, rather than varying degrees of righteousness and wisdom, or what romantic historians call ‘the magnetism of great personalities.’”

Allied to the economic determinist views of the Beards was the Marxist interpretation, which stressed the operation of class interest in the motivation of the conflict. For example, James S. Allen’s Reconstruction: The Battle for Democracy (1937) and Louis Hacker’s “The American Civil War: Economic Aspects” (Marxist Quarterly, April-June, 1937) speak of a conflict between the slavocracy and the capitalists. This interpretation was sustained by the Marxist assumption that a dominant class will not surrender power peacefully. Actually, the assumption that only violence could dislodge the plantation aristocracy arises perhaps less from what Marx had to say than from the state of mind of those who applied his theories in a period which saw the triumph of Nazism in Germany, the consolidation of Stalinism in Russia, the rise of the Popular Front in France, and the Spanish Civil War. Inevitably, the issues of the American past were interpreted in terms of the violence that made newspaper headlines in the 30’s. In some of the accounts by Marxist historians, the Civil War became a struggle between “fascist” Southerners and a “progressive” coalition in the North and West. It became popular, also, to stress the elements of “realism” in the character of Lincoln, who thus became a historical justification for unprincipled “popular-front” tactics.

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Although Marxist political dogmas were never very popular in the United States, the Marxist interpretation of the “irrepressible conflict,” reinforced by the economic interpretation of the Beards, gained a considerable vogue. And historians of the 30’s, armed with Marxian ideological concepts, resumed the ancient quest for a key to history—which in this case saw American capitalism as doomed, and American democracy as a mask for the material interests of the bourgeoisie, and interpreted the “meaning” of American history in terms of a future classless society that had not yet come into being. Many historians, to be sure, opposed this point of view, but they did not themselves have a philosophy of history to replace it.

In recent years, however, with the collapse of faith in Marxism and, even more important, with the growing sense that the values of American democracy represent one of the focuses of hope for a world in desperate straits, there has grown up a desire to gain from the study of history some new and more solid grasp of human possibilities and the human fate. This has given rise to greater emphasis upon the role of non-material forces in American history and a revival of narrative history, which, in contrast to the simplification of Marxism, is essentially a recognition of and response to the complexity of human behavior and history.

A psychological interpretation was first applied to the American Civil War in the late 30’s by Avery Craven in an article entitled “The Coming of the War Between the States” (Journal of Southern History, August 1936), and by James G. Randall in his book The Civil War and Reconstruction (1937). Craven and Randall are far from ignoring the socio-economic background of the conflict, but they are convinced that the economic, political, and constitutional conflicts of the period neither made the war inevitable nor even were its basic causes. Economic issues such as the tariff, internal improvements, ship subsidies, banking policies, could have been peacefully resolved as they were at earlier and later periods in our history. Even slavery as an economic system was doomed because its future was contingent upon the expansion of slavery into the territories where it could not be profitably maintained.

The real causes of the war, according to these writers, were such psychological factors as the zeal and fanaticism of reformers, intolerance, concepts of sectional honor, a sense of “mission” felt in both the North and the South. All these factors are judged by Craven and Randall to have been avoidable: had there been better means of communication and understanding among the sections of the country, had the majority of responsible men not been submerged under a flood of emotional oratory, a “blundering generation” need not have stumbled into war.

In thus removing the discussion, at least in part, from the realm of immutable socioeconomic forces which manipulate men like puppets, Craven and Randall introduced imponderables and unpredictables into the historical situation. This was an important new element in the historiography of the Civil War in the post-Marxian era, deriving in part from the great stress placed in recent years upon the roles of propaganda and group emotions as social forces, and in part from the general rejection of Marxist rigidity.

Nevins’ approach is the next logical step. Conscious of the point of view advanced by Craven and Randall, he goes a step beyond them in concentrating on the role of the politicians and statesmen upon whom rested the burden of decision for war or peace. The economic determinists and Marxists lost sight of the fact that it is not the socio-economic forces themselves which declare war, but the statesmen on whom these forces operate.

Nevins’ is a different political history from that of the older historians such as Von Holst, Burgess, and even Rhodes. It is a political history which recognizes the influence of social and economic factors upon political behavior, and which is continually aware that the needs and anxieties of the day generate psychological forces that, in turn, act upon each individual. For Nevins, emotional and economic forces condition rather than determine political behavior; he recognizes that within a given socio-economic and psychological framework there exists an area for individual action, and that there always exist alternative courses of action. He sees it as the duty of the individual historian, therefore, both to describe the course that was taken and to evaluate it in the light of the alternatives. Above all, this new history is less a political narrative than a study and critique of political behavior in a given milieu.

Illustrative of this approach is Nevins’ account of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, introduced into the Senate by Stephen A. Douglas in 1854. This measure, which reopened the delicate question of slavery in the territories—an issue many believed settled by the Compromise of 1850—had momentous political effects. It revived the issues of 1848-50; it split the Democratic party; it completed the destruction of the Whig party; it paved the way for organizing the Republican party.

Nevins sees Douglas’ action as the result of a complex of motives: “He had to think of the disorganized, discontented state of the Democratic party, lacking both leader and policy; the obligation resting upon ‘Young America’ for bold, trenchant action; his own legitimate ambition to become President; the demand of the Northwest for a Pacific railroad, with the consequent necessity for settling the Kansas-Nebraska country to furnish its future path; the fear of Missouri slaveholders lest they be surrounded on three sides by freesoil territory; Atchison’s stubborn assertion that he would let Nebraska ‘sink in hell’ before he would see it organized on a basis of excluding slaveholders with their property; and Atchison’s ability to rally a solid block of Southern Senators behind him. Douglas knew that, as the Washington Union remarked on January 5, 1854, ‘this subject had been looked to with serious apprehensions, in consequence of the supposition that it might fearfully revive the slavery agitations.’ But he believed, with Webster, that nature had closed this whole region to slavery. He recalled how easily Congress, in dealing with New Mexico and Utah in 1850, had evaded the slavery issue by leaving it to the future determination of the inhabitants. As chairman of the Committee on Territories, he had to move immediately and to move in a way that would maintain Democratic unity.”

Moreover, once Douglas’ logical motives are accounted for, Nevins is careful to add that “men’s motives are seldom simple, seldom completely logical, and seldom quite clear even to themselves. Douglas, his mind in Shakespeare’s phrase a very opal, was a leader of extroverted personality, of rapid decisions and headlong action, and of pronounced love of combat. . . . In this particular situation, pure impulse doubtless played a large part in his course.”

More than anything else, it is this broad comprehension of the complexity of human motives that sets Nevins’ narrative apart from earlier treatment of political history. Although, according to Nevins, “it could be said that circumstances rather than Douglas were at fault” in unleashing the forces that made for war, he also suggests the possibility of another course of action. Douglas did not appreciate the full tidal force of the slavery issue, and “he did not remember that it is the essence of democratic government that a temporary majority shall not abuse its power. . . .” Nevins concludes: “Had Douglas busied himself in 1850-53 battling for a clear understanding and acceptance of popular sovereignty . . . and had he consistently asserted that the restriction of 1820 was dead, his course would have been unexceptionable. But to seize victory for his ‘principle’ by a sudden coup when circumstances favored it appeared to many Americans indefensible.”

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Looking back from this latest work to the three-quarters of a century of Civil War historiography that preceded it, one is struck by the essential logic of the progression that has taken us from the morally inexorable determinism of Von Holst and Burgess, through the materialist determinism of the Marxists, to the moderate and carefully responsible eclecticism of Professor Nevins, who reexamines the period in terms of its leading personalities and their political choices: the politician as actor, seen against the full backdrop of his time. For Nevins, historical forces “determine” only the situation in which men must act; within that situation there is some possibility of choice.

Professor Nevins’ volumes are something more than a new history of the American Civil War. They offer Americans of today what they most need: a renewed sense of the complexity of human behavior and a reaffirmation of the ultimate importance of the acting, thinking, choosing human being.

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