How a nation grows; how from central points its population spreads itself and forms new political communities; what may be the incentives that prompt to removal, and the outcome of all attempts to turn to man’s advantage the wilderness; all present to the interested person fruitful themes for reflection. They, too, present the peculiarity of becoming ever more interesting, the more they are studied; and the longer they are critically viewed the more replete with suggestion are they found to be.
History, as such, cannot reproduce the life of a people in all the infinite variety of its details; it must be content with exhibiting the development of life as a whole. The doings and dealings, the thoughts and imaginings of the individual, however strongly they may reflect the characteristics of the national mind, form no part of history. While it may be argued, and correctly, that the life of the individual is intimately bound up in that of the state or nation, and that the former must frequently be noticed in describing the latter, it may be argued, on the other hand, that the nation exists only through the unity of its individual members, and that it is not the exact counterpart of individual views, but the results of a harmonious and intelligent combination of opinions — often originally directly at variance with each other. No department of human action or thought could long remain unaffected when opposing interests clash. Change-certain far—reaching, radical—is written plainly on the face of opposition—a change that affects not the individual, or a class of individuals, but the united whole. It is this feature that renders history possible that places it far beyond the scope of mere biography, that admits of those broad, deep, generalizations which men call laws, and which are the very foundation stones of the philosophy of history, and without which there can be no intelligent comprehension of the development and sequence of events, and the results to which they lead.
What is true of the state is equally true of its separate parts. There are no true laws that are of limited application. To be truly philosophical deductions they should be general enough to warrant broad inferences and specific enough to apply to the minutiae of the smallest political subdivision. While, it is true, the history of a single county—embracing, as it does, but a limited territory and a meager population—may present none of those grander laws in obedience to which nations exist and flourish, and by which their power is felt, nevertheless, those principles which make history possible, are found in every community, and find a harbor in every heart. Then there is the added fact, that the history of the county comes nearer to the individual life and character of its citizens than does that of the state, or of the nation of which the state forms a part.
The spread of population merely, the political progress of a people and the military annals, are a part only of our history, and that part which is most easily discerned. The American of the present day wants to know how his ancestors lived, how they looked, what clothes they wore, on what they fed, what were their daily tasks and conversation, and how life dealt with them. This is the most difficult part of history to reproduce accurately, but it is after all that which gives us the clearest and most vivid insight into the spirit of the past. This important element should never be overlooked, for in no other manner can the intellectual growth of the people, the amelioration of manners, the changes in habits and customs, the advance in science and art, the progress of invention, the relation of classes, the increase of prosperity, or the want of it, the moral condition of society, and the every-day life of the people be understood and made to subserve the interests of the present. The events that are recorded are such as occurred at our very doors, were compassed by men whom we know, and which affect our individual interests for woe or for weal. It is not only while these events are fresh in the memory that one may form accurate estimates of their relative importance, and he impartial and candid in forming his judgments; but he may also from present circumstances which have an origin in remote times, and which are historical in the largest, fullest, truest sense, freed from myth, or conjecture, or uncertain tradition, read the promise of the future. It is beyond doubt true that those most closely identified with great or sudden revolutions in opinion or in government are least competent to decide on their value; they make history; the student of after years, decides, the correctness of their theories, or the justice of their cause, and decides, too, under circumstances which preclude the bias of partisan feeling. There is that entire originality of work, that subtlety of thought, that carefulness of observation, that catholicity of views, that honest, kind, perhaps keen criticism of events and men, in the work of those who write years after events have transpired, which they who lived at the time, and contributed to them, are unable to exercise.
The history of a county exhibits a much more limited series of facts in their proper connection, of which, indeed, each individual one is interesting in its proper place—doubly interesting, perhaps, because it marks the progress of thinking, toiling men, in our very presence; men who have lived in the same moral and social atmosphere, struggled for the same ends for which we have struggled, acquired their experience and reputation in the same manner, and exhibited the same loves and hates, the same proclivities and sympathies. This is the purely biographical element of history—that element which opens to us the sources of human activity, and enables us to read how far and in what manner the views of individuals became impressed on public life and morals. It enables us to know the kind of men who become leaders, to note the conditions and results of their successes or defeats. This is the part of history directly affecting the individual man, for from it does he select his type of character, of thought, and of conduct. The remark of Plutarch is most applicable to the realization of individual hopes and wishes, for it depicts the true conditions of success.
Says he: “Whenever we begin an enterprise, or take possession of a charge, or experience a calamity, we place before our eyes the example of the greatest men of our own or of by-gone ages, and we ask ourselves how Plato or Epaminondas, Lycurgus or Agesilaus, would have acted. Looking into these personages as into a faithful mirror, we can remedy our defects in word or deed. Whenever any perplexity arrives, or any passion disturbs the mind, the student of philosophy pictures to himself some of those who have been celebrated for their virtue, and the recollection sustains his tottering steps and prevents his fall.” Such inspiring examples as these are the kind that have given to the world names in every walk of life that will never die.
Transcribed by Roseanna Zehner and Jennifer Miller;
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