history: History in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

History in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

The historians of the Enlightenment wrote broad accounts of social and cultural epochs. Voltaire cultivated the wider, universal view of history, stressing its social and moral aspects. The attempt to get back to the fundamental natural bases of human development was implicit in the Esprit des lois of Montesquieu. The 18th cent. saw, too, the great attempt made by Giovanni Battista Vico to synchronize history into meaningful general patterns. From England came the masterful work of Edward Gibbon, combining erudition with the philosophical concerns of the 18th cent. on the rise and decline of civilization.

The end of the century also brought the budding of archaeology out of antiquarianism and of philology out of classical scholarship. These two sciences were essential to the development, in the 19th cent., of critical objective history as an academic discipline. The father of the new objective school was the great Leopold von Ranke. His efforts and those of his successors, notably Theodor Mommsen, Johann Gustav Droysen, and Heinrich von Treitschke, established canons of criticism and historical methods. This German school made history writing into a profession and founded the formal academic study of history, though they fell short of their ideal of writing about the past “as it actually happened.” In France, modern academic history began with Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges. It was continued by such men as Ernest Lavisse, Charles Seignobos, and Achille Luchaire, who were among those who turned history into a wide study.

In the 19th cent. the history of the nation state became the dominant form of history writing. Among the more prominent romantic national historians were Thomas B. Macaulay in England, and Jules Michelet in France. In the United States, romantic historians, such as George Bancroft, William H. Prescott, John L. Motley, and Francis Parkman were followed by such brilliant and questioning men as Henry Adams.

The broader interest in the philosophy of history had not died, and the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel had created a school of idealistic historians. Other philosophical views were reflected in general theories, some of the later figures being Oswald Spengler, Benedetto Croce, and Arnold Toynbee. The theories of Karl Marx not only set in motion a continuing series of interpretations of history from the Marxist economic point of view but also affected historians of all other schools. The progressive school of U.S. historians, such as Frederick J. Turner, emphasized social and economic factors in explaining historical development, as did the “new history” of James Harvey Robinson and Charles A. Beard. The trend was toward broader social and economic history.

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