History: Professional Scholarship in America
John Higham, 1965

Peter Novick in
That Noble Dream (which I will cover tomorrow) characterized John Higham’s historiography as celebratory and Whiggish, and Higham actually acknowledged the validity of these points in his review of Novick’s book. In 1965, he explained, there seemed to be something to celebrate. Who knew the profession was standing on the edge of fragmentation? Almost immediately after Higham’s book came out, sub-disciplines began going their separate ways and post-modernists began challenging what they believed was the naive epistemology of historians. Instead of three acts ending in victory, we were left with four acts. Higham’s self-congratulatory third act now seems like pride before the fall.

But there’s still a lot of good information in the book, and nearly fifty years later, it’s a primary source for historiographers wanting to understand the point of view of the profession in the 1960s. Higham celebrated a sense of professionalism that set itself against an earlier, “patrician” style of history, as he set out to trace the “reciprocal relations between this emerging Association [the American Historical Association (AHA)] and the existing world of amateur scholarship.”

“College curriculums until the 1870s,” Higham said, “had room for very few history courses, and these were generally taught by professors primarily interested in the classics or in philosophy. As late as 1884 the four hundred American institutions of higher education had about twenty full-time teachers of history.” A decade later, there were over a hundred. Professional historians began “cooperative action [to] establish and maintain their own standards of achievement instead of obeying some external authority.” This “cooperative ethic,” Higham admitted, “discouraged to some degree a quest for genius.” The guiding light of professionalization, J. Franklin Jameson, expected “the insular and fraternal habits of professional association...to perpetuate the high level of mediocrity” that Jameson believed would (somehow) inevitably lead to “truly great and profound work.” Higham added that under the demands of teaching, the historian “does not easily hold to an extravagant and selfish idea of achievement.” So much for professionalism fostering sstrong work ethics.

In contrast, Higham told the story of the “amateur historian [who] cherished his independence.” His example was John Bach McMaster, “a self-made historian who secured a professorship...because he wrote an outstanding book, a scholar who was notably absent at the founding” of the AHA and who showed his unprofessional lack of solidarity by opposing Carnegie pensions for retired professors. “The amateur historian expected his work to survive or perish on its individual merits,” Higham said. “He was little concerned about its status as a ‘contribution’ to some continuing collective inquiry...He chose his subject for its intrinsic interest and wrote either for his own satisfaction or for a public that would accept him on his own terms.”

It’s interesting, the central role Higham gave Jameson, as “the administrative genius of the historical profession.” Despite his amateur roots, Jameson’s “committee formulated a precise and extensive plan for coordinating professional scholarship in American history.” This, much more than the economic focus of Beard and Becker, seems like Progressivism at work.

Some of the valuable info I picked up in Higham’s notes, on books to check into:

  • Increase Mather, Brief History of the War with the Indians in New England, 1676
  • Samuel Miller, Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century, (history of science) 1803
  • Prescott, Conquest of Mexico, 1843 (“appealed so widely that seventy or more American newspapers reviewed it within a month of publication.” Of course, it was 1843.)
  • “Henry Adams’ profound and scintillating History of the United States during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison (1889-91), sold a mere three thousand sets during the entire decade of the Nineties.”
  • Rhodes’ History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 (1892-1906): “Each volume sold about two or three thousand copies in its first year in print.”
  • Hiram Martin Chittenden, who spent his leisure as an Army officer in the Missouri Valley writing The American Fur Trade in the Far West (1902).
  • “Even a scholarly work so controversial and contemporary in interest as Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913) sold fewer than eight thousand copies over a span of four decades.”
  • “H.G. Wells’s Outline of History, issued by a hesitant publisher at an exorbitant price in 1920, sold one and a half million copies--one copy for every twenty homes in the country--within twelve years.”
  • “Albert J. Beveridge, a former United States Senator...had done an astonishingly successful four-volume biography of John Marshall (1919) before he retired completely from politics and surpassed all previous biographers of Lincoln in breadth of research and in critical acumen.”
  • “Some of the principal attributes of scientific history first appeared in the work of a good many amateur historians, beginning perhaps with Richard Hildreth, whose six-volume History of the United States was published between 1849 and 1852.” Higham celebrated the home-grown nature of scientific history: few if any of the “amateur pioneers of scientific history studied abroad.”
  • Don’t forget Theodore Roosevelt’s The Winning of the West (1889-96)
  • “All of the leading historical journals ignored Main Currents in American Thought, presumably considering it outside their purview.” Really? Read that again, slowly.