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[p. 126]

The work of local Historical societies.

LOCAL historical societies in the United States are numerous and rapidly increasing. They possess in the aggregate large wealth in buildings, libraries, collections, and invested funds. This property is well placed and much more may profitably be given by contributing members and men of wealth to a work which is in the highest degree educative and patriotic. Good citizenship flourishes best in that community which holds in respect its past and knows well the growth of its own institutions. No one who is qualified to hold an opinion doubts that the historical society has a mission. It is equally certain that its functions are not yet fully defined and understood. The work of local and State societies in this field will unfold itself by gradual development, as has that of the historical student and teacher, in accord with the growth of the science of history itself. To every local historical society, therefore, the questions of its proper functions, how it may best relate itself to the broader field of human history, and whether any new ways of usefulness, unrecognized by it hitherto, have opened, are always pertinent for consideration.

Herein lies a real problem. That the work of these societies is appropriately in the local field is an axiom. On the other hand the question arises: How far can the study of history in the local field be wisely carried without reference to the wider life with which the local life is and always has been inseparably associated? There is danger of belittling true history into mere antiquarianism by an excessive attention to the purely local. Work in the closely associated field of genealogy illustrates the same danger. Many ardent investigators of their genealogy devote weeks of patient research to filling in charts with names utterly meaningless to them and to others. To know the sources [p. 127] and currents of strength and power in the family is a task that does not present itself to them. A dead array of names and dates is the ultima Thule of their genealogical ambition. It is as though a man considered his fence built when the holes were dug for the posts.

Vermonters are justly proud of the part played by their troops at Gettysburg. The writer of this article once met among the Vermont hills a youth who could recount in considerable detail the movements, organization, and record of one of the Vermont regiments in that battle, but he did not understand the significance of Gettysburg in the Civil war; he barely knew the nature of the war. He had heard over and over the record of the Vermonters at Gettysburg from one or two veterans who had gone from his town. It had never occurred to him that there was anything else to it. History was a blank to him, except as it concerned his own community, by the limits of which his vision of the world was bounded. But how small from that point of view were the grand deeds of Stannard's heroes! To know Gettysburg that youth needed to know the war; to know the war he must know the long political and constitutional struggle and the social and economic developments that made the war inevitable; behind that he must find the sources of AngloAmeri-can life in the colonies, in England, in Europe. That superb stand against Pickett in the bloody angle was an episode in the history of a great race and a great struggle, but as that young Vermonter saw it the scene dwindled to a mere brutal encounter between armed men. There is no break in historic continuity, and even local historical societies must keep the whole in view. This is not to say that they should undertake studies in general history, but that their work must be directed with constant reference to broader human relationships than those of the community. The community is like a plant whose roots are imbedded in and draw their life from the deep soil out of which comes [p. 128] the life of a State, a nation, a people. If the dignity of history is to be preserved it must never be regarded in a petty way.

It is easy for the individual, especially if he lacks historical training, or that broad insight which often supplies its place, to fall into this local antiquarianism. One of the important functions of the historical society, in relation to its members, is to lift them out of this habit by that constant comparison of work along different lines with a common object, which inevitably opens new ranges of vision, and tends to prevent the narrowness resulting from concentration of interest upon a single object. But more than this, we must always keep in sight the great movements in which those of the town merge and by which they are interpreted. Localism must not mean isolation, and limitation of field must not be allowed to produce narrowness of view. To a younger writer about to undertake the biography of one of America's Revolutionary statesmen a veteran historical scholar gave this advice: ‘Don't hurry. Do not settle to real work on this for a year or two. You must read everything of importance on the period of this man's life and for half a century before and afterward. Soak yourself in the period of which he formed a part. Then you can interpret his life.’

There is the same difference between real history and history as it is often treated that there is between the preservation of real historic memorials and the collection of worthless relics. The Royall House as it stands to-day ought to be preserved, with restorations where needed, because it is a rare type of the grander old-colonial houses, now fast passing away, and assists more than many volumes could do in reconstructing for us the life of a very interesting and important epoch in New England history. But if the Royall House should give way some day before the march of improvement, the chips and blocks and bricks that the relic hunters will collect with such avidity will have no more value [p. 129] or interest than any other bricks or sticks in Medford, in spite of which many people will preserve them with care; and it may even be that the Medford Historical Society will, for some reason that none of its members can ever explain, find room for something of the sort on its shelves. We shall do well to get out of the amateurish relic stage as soon as possible. The boy collects pieces of the Charter Oak and the Washington Elm and the House that Jack Built; but when he becomes a man he puts away childish things and learns that the Connecticut charter probably was never put in the Charter Oak, that the greatness of Washington is not fitly illustrated by a misplaced bit of wood, and that Jack's house was no better than his next-door neighbor's.

In a thoughtful paper, read at the 1897 meeting of the American Historical Association, on ‘The Function of State and Local Historical Societies with respect to Research and Publication,’ Prof. J. F. Jameson, of Brown University, dealt in his usual clear-cut way with some of the questions considered in this article. A passage may well be quoted. Dr. Jameson is seeking for an explanation of certain shortcomings in the research and publication work of many of our historical societies. He says:

‘In the first place, should we not all agree that our older historical societies have often seemed to conceive of their respective fields and duties in too narrow, and even parochial, a sense? The reason for their existence is, of course, local history, and they win their public support, their money, and their members by devoting themselves to local history. But there are some topics of local history which are purely local and nothing else, and there are those which, while no less important to the history of the locality, are also of significance with respect to the larger life of the nation. The historical society which devotes itself to the former when it might be doing something to elucidate the latter fails of the best part of its mission. Is a subject in the history of [p. 130] the locality more worthy of the society's time and money because nobody outside of the locality can by any possibility be expected to take an interest in it? On the contrary, it is just these subjects which deaden historical societies. If the State or the locality has any importance whatever which should make it worth while to have its history studied it is because it has played some part in the life of the world. This is the thing to work at. Hoc opus, hic labor. Every one knows that one of the leading defects of American historical writing has been that the writers knew too little of other history. So it is with local history. Neither men nor societies can hope to deal with it rightly unless their minds are full of American history at large and quick to see the relations of their tasks to that which explains them and gives them meaning. . . . With increase of intercommunication purely local feeling has become less acute. The number of people who care a rush whether the Blue Boar Tavern stood in First street or in Second street, or who can excite themselves over silly questions of local priority in this or that small achievement, has grown considerably smaller and is constantly diminishing. Meanwhile the number of persons who have read a considerable amount of general American history or who take an intelligent interest in it has greatly increased. It is to these people that societies must, in the long run, make their appeal for pecuniary and other support. It is highly probable that by avoiding fussy antiquarianism and looking chiefly at the larger aspects of local history they would accomplish the difficult feat of serving both God and Mammon. Not a few of our historical societies consist of two or three hundred sustaining members, who like to help in keeping up such an institution, and who are not without interest in American history, but who never attend the meetings, which have become the exclusive property of a few fossilized antiquarians. Would not fresh life be brought in if the society were to perceive clearly that its field of [p. 131] work is, rightly stated, American history locally exemplified?’

Thus much for the case as stated by one of our leading historical scholars and teachers, and a practical man withal, who, as may be seen, looks at the question from the business side, as well as from that of sound learning. Provincialism is a thing that the modern spirit in history will not tolerate, and local historical societies must keep clear of it if they would march with the spirit of the age and the ages.

The Medford Historical Society cannot be charged with sinning in these directions to any extent. It is young and it has been conducted through its early organization period with energy, discretion, and breadth of view. But because it is young and has a name to make, these considerations of possible policies are pertinent. It may be said to have passed the experimental stage and to have become an institution with serious work to do. Its members are studying local history, a library is being collected, and a regular publication is closing its second volume. The obvious subjects for research, the apparent opportunities, are becoming exhausted. In finding new ones the wider view should guide. This society has an opportunity to take a place in the front rank of active exemplars of all that is best in historical work. The history of Medford runs with that of Massachusetts. It has been in the movement of the grand old Commonwealth from the beginning. This young society enters a rich field at a time when the full meaning of history is becoming understood. It has no dry-as-dust policy saddled upon it from past generations. In its programs of work, the character of its publications, and the development of its library it may study the best examples and create its own traditions.

The relation of a local historical society to its community should be as to the past that of a teacher and recorder, and as to the present and future that of an [p. 132] inspiration; for it is characteristic of the new spirit in history that it looks forward as well as backward, and regards the past in its vital relation to the present. The mistake is often made of regarding that which is farthest distant in point of time as of most interest and value. This again is the view of the antiquarian and not of the real historian, who knows no such distinction. The earliest period in the colonial history of America has been much more thoroughly exploited than that equally important half century of development that preceded the Revolution. We do not do justice to our mission if we forget that we are making history now, and that while the first business of the Medford Historical Society is to rescue past records before they are entirely lost, it is also and equally its business to see that ample material is properly preserved for later historians to study without obscurity all the phases of its history now enacting. It seldom does harm for the institution, like the individual, to magnify its office, and the mission of the local historical society will broaden and deepen the longer it is studied in the true spirit of history.

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