Joseph Allan Nevins

Joseph Allan Nevins (20 May 1890–05 March 1971)

Today is the 132nd anniversary of the birth of Joseph Allan Nevins (20 May 1890–05 March 1971), who was born on this date in 1890.

Nevins was a prolific American historians whose works spanned the US Civil War and works on his contemporaries, such as John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford. Nevins also wrote an historiographical study, The Gateway to History, a collection of essays edited by Ray Allen Billington, and he delivered the Presidential Address to the American Historical Association, “Not Capulets, Not Montagus,” (included in the aforementioned collection of essays) on 29 December 1959.

In his AHA Presidential Address, Nevins invokes the century prior and the names of Macaulay, Parkman, and other leading lights, and contrasts this with the confusion and conflict of his own time. He states that the “democratic public” had four fundamental requirements works of history:

One is that history shall be offered in God’s plenty, so that it shall be available for every need, taste, and mood. A broad catholicity should open it to the rich in knowledge and to those as ill-schooled as Macaulay’s workingmen, to lovers of bare fact and votaries of interpretation, to the imaginative and the prosaic.

The second basic prescription is that a considerable part of history should be written with gusto, for those who will read with gusto; written with a delight that communicates itself to style.

A third requirement is that a great part of the history shall be assimilable to current needs. The donnish mind retreats too easily into an antiquarian past, losing itself in Hannibal’s strategy or Charlemagne’s politics or Lollard pamphleteering as if they were detached entities. But the democratic public lives in the present and future, and except in moods of escapism wants history at least as directly apposite to its concerns as Gibbon’s study of the Antonines was apposite to eighteenth-century England — which was very directly indeed.

The fourth and cardinal requirement is that the history offered a broad democratic public should not be dehumanized; that instead of dissecting impersonal forces, or presenting those misty wraiths the economic man or sociological man, the historian should narrate the past in terms of living men and women seen as individuals, groups, or communities; and that he should give due emphasis to personal motivation and initiative.

Other American historians, such as Charles Beard and Carl Becker have had a similar concern with the inculcation of democratic values through history, and have taken positions on historiography that reflect this concern. Implying that this ship has already sailed, Nevins asked, “Why, then, do historians no longer speak of instructing the nation, and why do so few aspire to a general democratic public?”

As distinctively American as these concerns sound, the issues that Nevins took up in his Presidential Address, they are not that far from the concerns of Nietzsche in The Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life. While Nietzsche would had have little sympathy for the idea of a “democratic public,” his division of history in the monumental, the antiquarian, and the critical are, essentially, moral demands placed upon the historian no less than the moral demands Nevins discerned on the part of the democratic public. The donnish mind, retreating into an antiquarian past, is the same figure that Nietzsche invokes in relation to antiquarian history; the humanized figures of the past in Nevins, as well as the demand for gusto, is much the same as Nietzsche’s monumental history, which is propounded for the sake of the moral instruction of the great individual who turns to the past for inspiration. Missing in Nevins is only Nietzsche’s critical history, which brings the past before the bar of the present to interrogate it, and, if necessary, to condemn it.

In his essay “Advances in the Social Sciences” Nevins writes:

“When a new key is found, its limitations as well as potentialities must be studied. The first impulse of some enthusiasts is to claim too much, and this impulse must be resisted. One of the best authorities on the so-called ‘mathematizing’ of knowledge, on the application of the new quantitative techniques, has warned his associates of ‘the great hidden danger of subjective interpretation’ of statistics — yes, even of statistics. And various scholars have been quick to point out what vast areas of life and knowledge have no responsiveness whatever to figures or graphs or any form of quantitative concept.”

Context makes it clear that Nevins had in mind new scientific techniques — I have mentioned previously that it was in vogue in the mid-twentieth century to call for history to be interpreted in light of psychodynamic psychology or in light of sociology — which, applied to history, might seem to provide a new master key to the past, but this observation could just as well apply to a new moral key to the past, i.e., the newly fashionable moral idea applied to the entirety of the past that is to set all previous history to naught. Here we find Nietzsche’s critical history, missing from Nevins’ Presidential Address, but here making a tangential appearance in the form of a warning: the new idea that seems to push all before it has limitations as well as potentialities.

In “The Old History and the New” (1967) Nevins returned to some of the themes in his earlier Presidential Address, reiterating his call for variety in history, as long as that variety is pursued in the quest for historical truth and moral edification:

“The first requirement of the true lover of history is that he shall delight in its endless varieties — that he shall be tolerant of all themes, all approaches, and all styles, so long as the work under examination meets two tests. First, it must be written in a patient search for truth about some phase or segment of the past. Imagination must go into this search, imagination as a literary as well as a historical tool. In the second place, its presentation of truth must be designed to give moral and intellectual nutriment to the spirit of man, just as our most ambitious poetry, fiction, and philosophy should be so designed. This is essentially a literary design. Why did Thucydides describe so graphically the terrible plague which shook the Peloponnesian army and paint so faithfully the public attributes of Pericles? For precisely the same reason, I take it, that Aeschylus wrote the great drama of Agamemnon, and Euripides, the drama of Medea. They wished to probe spiritual and moral situations in a search for truth, and they intended to provide moral and intellectual nutriment for the spirit of man.”

One must take one’s more edification where one can find it. I have here compared Nevins to Nietzsche, which seems tendentious at best, but while Nietzsche could have had little tolerance for conventional expressions of morality, even he recognized that his was a moral point of view. Nietzsche wrote in a letter to Paul Rée about Lou Salomé, “She told me herself that she had no morality — and I thought she had, like myself, a more severe morality than anybody.” In same vein, Machiavelli was a man of stern if unconventional morality, and we might take our moral edification from Machiavelli no less than from Nietzsche or Nevins.

In The Gateway to History Nevins writes, “a great historian is always a great moralist” (p. 58), but later in the book takes up the problems of being a great moralist engaged with the past:

“It remains to mention one special difficulty in using historical evidence and solving historical problems — the difficulty of evaluating events and figures of the far-distant past by the standards and atmosphere of their own time, not of ours. The essence of truth often depends upon giving the correct setting, material and more especially moral, to an occurrence. Yet the nunc pro tunc fallacy crops up repeatedly in even the best writers. Though it is probably impossible ever to see events of a past age precisely as men living in that age regarded them, we can at least avoid the grosser errors of perspective.” (p. 253)

This occurs in the chapter “Problems in History,” and given the moralistic tone of Nevins’ approach, changing moral standards would indeed pose a significant problem. Nunc pro tunc — a retroactive setting of the record straight — is always a temptation, except that we understand that we will be retroactively corrected in our turn, so that our moral judgment upon the past may well be reversed by a later generation. Nevins pursues the problem through the end of the chapter, but comes to no definitive resolution, citing conflicting authorities on both sides of an ill-defined question:

“Few subjects have inspired so much controversial writing as the position which students of history should take as moralists. A fundamentalist position was stated by Lord Acton, who remarked that one tendency against which his moral sense revolted grew out of the laudable wish of historians to be sympathetic to men of distant ages and alien modes of thought — a wish that was pushed into indiscriminate tolerance of past abuses. He saw with dismay that ‘the general growth of historical methods of thinking supplied a sense of the relativity of moral principles, and led to a desire to condone if not commend the crimes of other ages. It became almost a trick of style to talk of judging men by the standard of their day, and to allege the spirit of the age in excuse for the Albigensian Crusade or the burning of Huss’.” (p. 258)

There is a lot here that could be patiently unpacked. This explicitly moral concern overlaps considerably with the problem of historicism (judging the past morality by its own standards is one aspect of judging the whole of the past by its own standards, so that historicism is a generalization of the problem of a moral judgment passed upon history), which is a large a complicated question in itself, made the more complex by making it a moral issue. There is also the commonly expressed belief on the part of historians in the uniformity of human nature throughout history — Gibbon and Pirenne were explicit about this, and it is an unstated assumption in most historians. If human nature remains uniform over time, then whatever part of human moral experience overlaps with human nature must also possess the same uniformity, and therefore to this extent we would be justified in judging past according to uniform moral standards that also apply to the present.

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