12 December 2014

History as Science

Reading the important introduction to Hayden White's Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973), I am struck by White's lucidity. I do not recall a clearer explanation of why history is not a science.
[H]istory differs from the sciences precisely because historians disagree, not only over what are the laws of social causation that they might invoke to explain a given sequence of events, but also over the question of the form that a "scientific" explanation ought to take. There is a long history of dispute over whether natural scientific and historical explanations must have the same formal characteristics. This dispute turns on the problem of whether the kinds of laws that might be invoked in scientific explanations have their counterparts in the realm of the so-called human or spiritual sciences, such as sociology and history. The physical sciences appear to progress by virtue of the agreements, reached from time to time among members of the established communities of scientists, regarding what will count as a scientific problem, the form that a scientific explanation must take, and the kinds of data that will be permitted to count as evidence in a properly scientific account of reality. Among historians no such agreement exists, or ever has existed. ... [H]istorical explanations are bound to be based on different metahistorical presuppositions about the nature of the historical field, presuppositions that generate different conceptions of the kind of explanations that can be used in historiographical analysis.
White, Metahistory, 12-13. 
The assertion, "[t]here is a long history of dispute...", catches my eye, however. White offers here a proof that settles the question of the unsettled matter of historical method and narrative. How is it possible to make such an assertion without taking sides in the dispute under investigation?

16 July 2014

The Columbian Exchange

The Columbian Exchange (1972) by Alfred W. Crosby is among a small number of texts with which every American historian has some familiarity. Although many historians, perhaps even most, have read Crosby's text by extract, few are ignorant of its thesis.*

Crosby expresses the thesis succinctly: "the most important changes brought on by the Columbian voyages were biological in nature" (xiv). He then proceeds to elucidate the impact of disease, the spread of Old World flora and fauna in the Americas, and examines the impact of New World plants on the Old World. He also offers a reconsideration of the origins of syphilis, although others have reconsidered it since the publication of his seminal work.

Efforts to minimize the significance of the Columbian Exchange characterize A Patriot's History of the United States, as I have expanded upon at length in this blog. Michael Allen and Larry Schweikart dispute the significance of disease, while almost wholly ignoring the impact of pigs, cows, wheat, peaches, Russian thistle, and so on. Howard Zinn errs another way. In A People's History of the United States, he uncritically accepts and transmits the crude and almost certainly exaggerated population estimates of Bartolomé de Las Casas (see "Fragments from Bartolomé de Las Casas"). He does little better than Schweikart and Allen on the history of the peach, as well as cows, pigs, wheat, and thistle. Both A People's History and A Patriot's History are driven by politics. One serves the cause of today's conservatives, while the other serves socialist-leaning liberals.

Among the enduring impacts of the Columbian Exchange:

  • The peppers in General Tso's chicken
  • Tomato sauce on spaghetti
  • The Irish Potato
  • Kansas Wheat
  • Lakota horses, the American rodeo, and everything associated with cowboys
  • Mullein along the Spokane River (see photo)

*"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others..." Francis Bacon, "Of Studies" (1597).

14 July 2014

Monday Morning

It is the privilege of historians to be wise after the event, and the more foolish the historian the wiser he usually aims to be.
C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins (1963 [1938]), 172.

11 July 2014

What is History?

Essential Bibliography

What books and articles belong on a short list of essential readings defining history?

Marc Bloch, The Historian's Craft (1953) might make the list. Bloch and Lucien Febvre founded the influential Annales School. Perhaps instead of, or in addition to, The Historian's Craft, the short list should include Peter Burke, ed., A New Kind of History: From the Writings of Lucien Febvre (1973).

I am reasonably certain that the list must exclude Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, 12 vols. (1934-1961). However, perhaps there is merit to M.F. Ashley Montagu, ed., Toynbee and History: Critical Essays and Reviews (1956).

E.H. Carr, What is History? (1961) certainly belongs on any short list. But what about the responses?

Geoffrey Elton, The Practice of History (1967).
Hugh Trevor-Roper, "E.H. Carr's Success Story," Encounter (1962), 69-77.
Michael Fox, ed., E.H. Carr: A Critical Appraisal (2000).
John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History (2004).

There are dozens of others.

Would it be cheating to list the entire print run of the academic journal History and Theory (1960- )?

I am inclined to leave out Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession (1988). This book lacks international scope. But this omission could be an error.

Is there a place on a short list for Herodotus, The Histories (c. 440 BCE)? Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (c.395 BCE)? Tacitus?

The provocative Carl Becker, "Everyman His Own Historian," American Historical Review (1932), 221-236 certainly merits inclusion.

Is there a single text by Leopold von Ranke that would serve to note his contribution to historiography?

Perhaps an important element concerns the practice of history appears with the inclusion of such works as Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (2001) and Lendol Calder, "Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey," The Journal of American History (March 2006), 1358-1370.

History is as much a way of thinking as an object of study.

My short list of no more than a dozen titles remains to be compiled. Suggestions are welcome.

27 January 2014

Molasses: Historical Significance

Wits may laugh at our fondness for molasses, and we ought all to join in the laugh with as much good humor as General Lincoln did. General Washington, however, always asserted and proved, that Virginians loved molasses as well as New Englandmen did. I know not why we should blush to confess that molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence. Many great events have proceeded from much smaller causes.
John Adams to William Tudor, 11 August 1818
From The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856. 10 volumes. Vol. 10.

Molasses, of course, was sought by those in New England because it was the principal ingredient in the manufacture of rum. The 1733 tax to which Adams alludes was a protective measure designed to render importation of molasses from French plantations so prohibitively expensive as to eliminate French sources. New England rum distillers would thus be forced to secure molasses from Barbados, Jamaica, and other British islands in the Caribbean.

Matthew Parker, The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, and War in the West Indies (New York: Walker Publishing, 2011), 241, 400 attributes "[m]olasses was an essential ingredient in American Independence" to Novanglus (vol. 4 in The Works of John Adams). Parker also spells his source Novangulus.

04 January 2014

Getting It Right!

Starting out reading Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830 (2006) by J. H. Elliott, I am immediately impressed with the depth and breadth of the author's work. There is much worthy of praise, including a single word in a one sentence: "Cortés, an inspired leader, beached his boats and led his expedition resolutely into the interior of an unknown land to conquer it for his royal master" (emphasis added, 16). Five years ago, I wrote about the common misconception that I had learned decades earlier and held to be true until early 2008 that Cortés had burned his boats (see "the burning of boats"). He did not burn them.

Elliott's bibliography and notes are impressive. There are several citations in the first chapter to Hugh Thomas, The Conquest of Mexico (1993), the text in a 2005 American edition with a slightly different title that set me straight on this small, but not insignificant point. There are several explanations that have been offered by several historians for the long-held and frequently repeated error. Thomas's simple observation of the handwriting in the original primary text offers the simplest and best explanation. Two words are easily confused: quebrando (breaking) and quemando (burning).

Employing the best available scholarship as the basis of his narrative, Elliott gets this detail right.

02 January 2014

The Dog and the Shark

A constant pleasure of history are the little stories that pop out while reading primary sources. Often distracting from the purpose that led to the text in the first place, these episodes entertain and add texture. They also offer unexpected connections to other stories.

As I prepare to teach Atlantic history in the fall, I am perusing texts concerned with the development of the sugar industry in the West Indies. Matthew Parker, The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies (2011) has filled time-spaces between the social activities of New Year's celebrations the past few days. Parker draws heavily upon Richard Ligon, A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes (1657). Inasmuch as the 1673 edition of Ligon's text is readily available via Internet Archive, I have delved into that text. Ligon offers three compelling paragraphs concerning "a Fish called a Shark" (5).

Several sharks were taken on board the Achilles, the ship on which Ligon made passage from England to the West Indies in 1647. Once the shark had been landed on board, however, the adventure began. Most of the passengers were afraid to approach it. Only the fearless sailors and a very large dog had the courage.
We had aboard divers mastive [mastiff] Dogs, and amongst them, one so large and fierce, as I have seldom seen any like him; this Dog flew to [the shark] with the greatest Courage that might be, but could take no hold of him, by reason of his large roundness and sliminess; but if by chance he got hold of one of his Fins, the Shark would throw him from side to side of the Ship, as if he had been nothing; and doubtless if he had encountered him in his own Element, the Sea, he would have made quick work with him.
Ligon, True and Exact History, 5.
Reading of the flopping shark's ability to fling this large mastiff across the ship's deck, I am reminded of the fate of the Aztecs who faced such animals in battle.

It is often assumed by those with superficial understanding of history that Europeans prevailed in the New World because they had superior armaments (see "Superior European Technology"). On the contrary, the most important weapon the Europeans possessed was infectious disease. The Aztecs were weakened by disease prior to their conquest in 1521. Their repression of neighboring peoples also helped the Spanish, who were able to recruit allies among enemies of the Aztecs. In battle, guns were insignificant except where cannon were useful. But the Spanish had two terribly powerful weapons of use in close combat--their swords--Toledo steel--and their dogs--mastiffs bred for war.

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