Samuel Eliot Morison's 1950 Address Still Has Lessons About Subjectivity (Though Not All He Intended)

tags: historiography, Charles Beard, Samuel Eliot Morison

Bruce W. Dearstyne is a historian in Albany, New York. SUNY Press recently published the second edition of his book The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History and his new book The Crucible of Public Policy: New York Courts in the Progressive Era.

Samuel Eliot Morison, 1953



Are historians too subjective? Should we strive to be impartial and objective? Should one of our purposes be to give people perspectives and incentives to shape the future?

These questions are not new. They have been debated in our field before. One of the most interesting perspectives comes from Samuel Eliot Morison’s American Historical Association 1950 presidential address “Faith of a Historian.” He was the author of several maritime histories, studies of New England, and co-author of a popular text.  His AHA Presidential essay is worth considering for his perspectives on the purposes of history, objectivity, and historians’ influence on the public.

A few themes:

*Historians are swayed too much by the desire to cater to and please their readers.

Historians need to stay objective. But the “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,” Morison wrote.

*Historians trying to write “popular” history face competition from “amateurs.”

Historians may want to consider writing “popular” history – books that appeal to a broad reading public. But, Morison cautioned, popular history is a field mostly occupied by less-than-qualified  non-historians. “Most writers of pseudo-history…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.”

*Historians should stick with the facts, not twist them to fit preconceived theses or patterns.

Morison endorsed an oft-quoted recommendation from 19th century historian Leopold von Ranke: historians should just “explain the event exactly as it happened." That had been an often-expressed goal in the  19th century but the history community in the 20th had mostly regarded it as simplistic. For one thing, it was historians who selected which facts to emphasize. That depended on research into evidence, which might change over time as more sources became available or historians looked at old evidence with new insights. But Morison held to the older view: just the facts.

*Too many contemporary historians think they need to insert their own viewpoint.

Too many historians think their work is about interpretation, said Morison. Somewhere along the assembly-line of their education, these students have had inserted in them a bolt called ‘points of view,’ secured with a nut called ‘trends,’ and they imagine that the historian's problem is simply to compare points of view and describe trends. It is not. The fundamental question is,’What actually happened, and why?’”

*Historians understand, illuminate, and explain the past.

The positive task for the honest historian…is to illuminate the past. He will inevitably try to answer some of the questions that contemporary society asks of the past, such as the causes of and prevention of war, the working of democracy under different sets of conditions and by various peoples, and the part that personality, climate, and environment play in determining events,” Morison went on. But “these considerations should be secondary in the historian's mind. After his main object of describing events ‘simply as they happened,’ his principal task is to understand the motives and objects of individuals and groups, even those that he personally dislikes, and to point out mistakes as well as achievements by persons and movements, even by those that he loves. In a word, he must preserve balance.”

*Charles A Beard is an example of where too much “interpretation” can lead to problems.

Morison spent much of his essay attacking a predecessor AHA president Charles A Beard. His 1933 presidential address "Written History as an Act of Faith" had asserted that all history is relative in a sense because a historian’s experience and frame of reference determines how they interpret history.

Morison pointed out that early in his career, Beard had a progressive or liberal bent. His famous 1913 book An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States had argued that the Founding Fathers were motivated by personal financial interests. That influenced how people thought about the Constitution and the government structure it created.  “The book had an immense success, promptly becoming the Progressives' Bible. Through it, Beard probably contributed more than any other writer, except [journalist and satirist] Henry L. Mencken, to the scornful attitude of intellectuals toward American institutions, that followed World War I.”

Later, though,  Morison went on, Beard became more positive about the founders, particularly in his book The Enduring Federalist. Beard was a supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal early on. But he became an isolationist and his 1948 book President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War,1941, contended that  FDR’s policies got the U.S. into World War II.

“Thus Beard came full circle. His 1913 book was received with greatest acclaim in the camp of  [socialist] Eugene Debs; his 1948 book evoked the wild enthusiasm of the [conservative, anti-Roosevelt] Hearst press and the Chicago Tribune.”

This is an example of the fact that “frames of reference constantly shift,” said Morison.  “Fashions in history are constantly changing.”

Of course, not all historians agreed with Morison, and probably fewer would now. Morison might not like to hear it, but his own “frames of reference” shifted over the years. On the other hand,  he might counter that yes, they did, and that bears out what he was saying.

Morison’s views may seem quaint now, the discussion dated. But studying past historians can shed light on our own times. Many historians these days are involved with social causes. Their books are cited in support of, or in opposition to, non-historians’ positions on issues related to race, gender, social justice, and other issues. Morison’s essay gives us reason to revisit our purpose, mission in society, and role in shaping how people understand their world and try to shape the future.

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