Article Title

The Presence of the Past

Publication Date



Modern historical writing had its inception in the nineteenth century, reflecting the changes in mentality and understanding produced by the political and scientific revolutions of the era. These changes were especially marked in the evolution of historical writing in the United States. In the early 1800s, the field of American history was made up of a cadre of historians who focused mainly on document collections and what would now be considered local history. Prominent among these was Jared Sparks, who held the first professorship in history in the United States, endowed at Harvard University in 1839, and whose primary legacy was several painstakingly researched collections of documents. These early historians were almost universally historians by hobby, not by profession. From doctors and lawyers to farmers, the field of history was dominated by amateurs, sometimes in the best sense of the word, sometimes in its less admirable meaning. But as the century progressed, three historians emerged who made history their primary focus, and who succeeded so well that they were ranked among the best of their age. All three concerned themselves primarily with the history of the American continent, and they each (by coincidence) focused on one of the three European major powers who dominated the Americas. Francis Parkman served as the historian of the American forests and the war for Canada, considering France in the New World. William Hickling Prescott concerned himself with the history of Spain, in both the New and the Old Worlds. Finally, George Bancroft, whose life work was a monumental history of America, studied the role of England in America from the foundation of the first colonies to the emergence of the nation.