The New England historians' achievement entitles them to a far more important place in the American Renaissance than they have usually been given. Their fifty volumes on Spanish, Dutch, Franco- and Anglo-American history are not a curious by-product but a central expression of romantic thought in America. They found in romantic conventions a way of giving the Past artistic order and contemporary moral significance. Confronted with real historical characters, they did what any historian who wants to portray individual character is likely to do: they turned to the vocabulary of contemporary literature. That vocabulary allowed them to adapt romantic conceptions of the hero to the values of a liberal, republican society; to concentrate on representative types who had drawn much of their strength from their "natural" relationship with the People. In this terminology the historians also found the means to express the moral drama that the Unitarian, along with most liberal Americans, saw in history. They did not ignore the influence of "forces"--even of economic forces--on history, nor did they ignore the importance of struggle. Almost every one of their works dramatizes that conflict between "artificial" and "natural" principles which they all regarded as the inevitable condition of progress.
Even in Motley and Bancroft this conflict did not mean a decisive battle between absolute good
and absolute evil. The historians achieved their greatest success when they dramatized the
struggle by portraying a wide range of types--from the "savage" to the sensual reactionary--whose
differences might be emphasized by the very organization of the history. When the romantic
placed Indian, priest, and Catholic king against the progressive hero, he not only reinforced
mid-nineteenth-century conceptions of destiny; he clarified the meaning of the "natural," and he
prepared for a more convincing resolution of the conflict than historical romancers like Cooper had
been able to achieve. For although the historical hero's victory, like that of Cooper's Edward
Effingham, represented a compromise between the extremes, the historical hero was real--a
Although their reliance on contrasting types restricted the historians to limited kinds of subjects, it gave their best histories an order and a significance that more recent, "scientific" monographs too often lack. Despite their inconsistencies and their peculiar terminology, their version of moral and historical truth often has an enduring value. The economic, religious, and political errors of Mexico, of Spain in the Netherlands and at home, of France in Canada and England in the colonies, seem as clear to modern historians as they seemed in nineteenth-century America; the romantic historians made the errors memorable by dramatizing them in the context of moral vigor and torpor.
The conventional methods also limited the kinds of traits that might be delineated in the histories. But although they could not suffice to explain individual psychology, they gave Motley's villains, Prescott's Montezuma and Cortés, and Parkman's La Salle and Montcalm a deeper reality than these characters might otherwise have had. To individual portraits, scenes, and incidents, moreover, they gave a human truth that transcends all the obvious inadequacies. The pictures of La Salle amid the wreckage of his last voyage, of Montezuma sitting in chains, of the Prior of Saint Vaast bribing the Malcontents--these are unforgettable not in spite of the conventional ideas, but because of them.
Clearly, then, the New England histories suggest the impossibility of divorcing literary methods from historical theory. Although one might like to know just how deliberately the historians imposed the romantic formulas on the historical record, the question seems unanswerable. The assumptions on which the formulas were based had already pervaded the historians' conception of the Past before they began writing; the assumptions, indeed, had affected each man's decision to write history in the first place, and they had also helped to attract each of them to his particular subject. One cannot separate the New England case against Rome from the literary types in which the case was embodied.
It is precisely because of this relationship that the New England historians belong not on the periphery of the American Renaissance, but at the center. Their histories provide a foundation in documented fact for the tension between form and essence, head and heart, civilization and Nature, that preoccupied so many of their contemporaries. Their three greatest works dramatize that conflict by exploiting the most effective conventions of the period without belying its highest standards of historical research.
[End of book]