Historians and Their Craft: A Study of the Presidential Addresses of the American Historical Association

Historians and Their Craft: A Study of the Presidential Addresses of the American Historical Association

Historians and Their Craft: A Study of the Presidential Addresses of the American Historical Association

Historians and Their Craft: A Study of the Presidential Addresses of the American Historical Association

Excerpt

Almost every year since the American Historical Association was founded in 1884, it has held an annual session; and at this session the president of the Association, Clio's leading American spokesman for the year, has had to meet the one inexorable demand imposed by an otherwise undemanding office. He has had to deliver a presidential message.

Free to deal with any subject whatsoever, the men and the one woman who headed the Association in its first sixty or so years preferred nevertheless to talk shop. Some of them presented the results of their recent researches. Others ventured to discuss what the manner and matter of history should be. By 1910, at the twenty-sixth annual meeting of the Association, Frederick Jackson Turner could declare that it had become something of a tradition for a president to incorporate in his message a statement of his views on the nature of history. And by 1917 Worthington C. Ford could confess that he found it difficult to make a fresh contribution to historical thought. Listing some of the subjects which his predecessors had explored in their messages, Ford noted that there were attempts to define history, to apply historical principles, to interpret events and periods, and to use knowledge of the past to forecast the future. "After such a series of treatments," he added, "the field has been so well gleaned as to leave little yet to be garnered." The fact, however, is that the need to prepare a presidential message has forced many a leader of the Association to undertake--and in some cases for the first time--a formal statement of his historical credo, the kind of statement that would take into account the common problems that faced all historians regardless of their particular specialty. As Alfred T. Mahan put it in 1902: "I have to do for myself what but for this call I probably should never have attempted, namely, to analyze and formulate to my own consciousness the various impressions . . . which have formed my mental experience as a writer of history . . . . . . ."

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