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We speak of Time as a stream -- thus the philosopher Marcus Aurelius, ''Time is a river of passing events, aye a rushing torrent.'' It is a very apt metaphor: Time is a stream sometimes placid and peaceful, sometimes turbulent and dangerous. And like a stream, it can never be neatly divided at any one point: it flows on and on, like life itself. Longfellow put this most poetically:
What is Time? The shadow on the dial, the striking of the clock, the running of the sand, centuries -- these are but arbitrary and outward signs, the measure of Time, not Time itself. Time is the life of the soul.
''Time,'' like ''space,'' is a profound intellectual concept. But our use of that concept is intensely practical. Doubtless, our chronological divisions are artificial: our division of the calendar into minutes, hours, weeks, months, years; our divisions of human life itself into infancy, childhood, adolescence, maturity, and old age are commonplaces we could not do without. Doubtless, too, the artificiality of those chronological divisions we have imposed upon history: Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Reformation, and Modern -- all are arbitrary, and not only arbitrary but parochial, for certainly the Chinese, the Indians, and the Arabs would not try to impose these same chronological divisions on their concepts of history. But how convenient they are, nay, how essential! Imagine doing without chronology, without fixed periods, artificial or even arbitrary as some of them may be. Time, even exact time, is one of the fixtures of our system: eighteen years for voting and for signing legal documents; twenty-five years for membership in the House of Representatives, thirty for the Senate, thirty-five for the Presidency; Congressional terms of two years and of six; Presidential terms of four; Social Security effective at a series of precise ages; exact, though arbitrary, distinctions between crimes before six and after six o'clock, and so forth, ad infinitum.
Granted that dates are tiresome -- but what would we do without them? What would Americans do without 1492, 1776, 1787, and 1861; what would the English do without 1066, 1215, 1588, and 1689?
Facts by themselves are all but meaningless. No wonder the great historians of the era of the Enlightenment poured scorn upon them. ''Let us begin,'' wrote Rousseau in his Essay on the Inequalities of Mankind, ''by laying facts aside.'' That is the way most historians of the Enlightenment did, in fact, begin. ''Confound details,'' said its greatest spokesman, François Voltaire, ''they are the vermin which destroy books. Posterity forgets them all.'' And his own histories -- perhaps the most widely read of their day -- inspired a tribute from that other great philosopher of the Enlightenment, Diderot (who edited a great encyclopedia crammed with facts): ''Other historians teach us facts -- you excite our souls to a hatred of lying, ignorance and hypocrisy.'' And Edward Gibbon, who devoted six massive volumes to tracing the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, acknowledged that ''events are the least interesting part of history.''
Yet they did not really scorn facts, these scholars and philosophers who created modern history; they rejected, instead, the notion that facts could stand by themselves, that facts had any meaning except in connection with hundreds of other facts.
In all this, Rousseau, Voltaire, and other historians of the Enlightenment were, of course, right. The passion for neatness is one of the hazards of Politics, Philosophy, and History: indeed, after 2500 years (note even that figure is hopelessly imprecise!) we still do not agree on the definition of any of these terms -- Politics, Philosophy, History, or Education. Nevertheless, this passion for neatness and for precision is not only legitimate, it is essential: without it there could be neither politics, nor law, nor history, nor education. Certainly if we had to delay all education until there was general agreement on its character and its content, we should have to close all schools and colleges. Historians, lawyers, teachers, and scholars are committed to bringing some kind of order out of what would otherwise be chaos: they are committed to the task of organizing in usable form such facts as they can discover and explain.
Henry Adams, the American historian who combined the best qualities of both Voltaire and Gibbon, put the problem of the dependence of History upon facts most cogently. It was, he wrote, ''the function of history to arrange such facts as seemed sure, in such order as seemed rigorously consequent, in order to fix for a familiar moment a necessary sequence of human movement.''
What Adams here acknowledged is the inescapable duty of every historian to select out of the myriad facts which confront him those that are of interest to more than a single individual and those that have contributed in some fashion to society, economy, law, culture, and morals: those, in short, that appear to be significant.
But appear so to whom? The view, after all, depends upon the point of view, and the points of view of an American and a Russian are quite different; so, too, the points of view of a frontiersman ''planning civilization'' on the Ohio River and an Indian determined to protect his hereditary hunting grounds. For that matter, the points of view of members of the same society are often very different: an economist and an anthropologist do not think the same things significant; neither do a Protestant and a Catholic, a Democrat and a Republican. Yet there is, on the whole, a substantial consensus.
Both the diversity and the consensus come out dramatically in the Timetables of American History. The diversity is dramatized by all the historic or economic or cultural ''facts'' that occur together; the consensus is dramatized precisely by the extent to which so many of these ''facts'' are interrelated and interdependent.
Consider, for example, the year 1492, to which most Americans ascribe almost global significance. It is for Americans and for a great many Europeans the year of the Discovery. But Asians had discovered America several thousand years before that date, and over these centuries innumerable Asians, whom Columbus mistakenly called ''Indians,'' swarmed over the American continents. The Norsemen, too, had ''discovered'' America some five centuries before Columbus set sail on his hazardous voyage. Nor was America ''discovered'' all at once: the discovery went on and on, all through the seventeenth, the eighteenth, and the nineteenth centuries; parts of it -- in Alaska, in back-country Brazil -- are still being discovered. What, then, is important about 1492? It is important because historians everywhere have come to see it as a dramatic point in the emergence of that culture we associate with the Renaissance, in the birth of modern science, modern navigation, and modern thought, and in the first stirrings of nationalism. Thus the date takes on larger significance: it helps to ''fix for a moment a necessary sequence of human movement.'' It is only when we put this elementary fact of Columbus' great venture into the larger context that it takes on global significance.
Or consider that most famous of all American dates, 1776, a date now generally acknowledged throughout the Western world as one of the most dramatic in history. And surely the drama is clear enough. Yet the history of every nation is filled with drama. The ''significance'' of 1776 is, however, in no sense a discovery of later generations, as was the case with 1492. Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, and their associates all read a fateful fame into their act. Here is John Adams, who was, as Jefferson said, ''The Atlas of Independence,'' writing to his wife Abigail after signing the Declaration of Independence.
It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.
You will think me transported with enthusiasm, but I am not. I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure it will cost us to maintain this declaration and support and defend these States. Yet through all the gloom I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory....
I cite this moving letter, not just for its own sake, but as a reminder that just as the Declaration of Independence is itself a fact, so are the role of John Adams and the spirit and the vision which he and his associates in the great enterprise revealed. It is all part of what we call ''The Spirit of '76,'' a spirit which in turn is immortalized in the painting which is both a fact and an artifact....
The Declaration of Independence, then, is a Fact which, like a magnet, attracts and clusters about itself a thousand other facts.
No one would think of ignoring great Facts, like the Declaration of Independence; but the small, the fortuitous fact has its own significance, and we ignore, at our peril, the day-by-day events that somehow find their way into the historical record, often because of their association with those facts which we have decided are significant. In the same way that the Significant Facts can be understood only in the light of other developments and against a broad background, so the fortuitous facts derive their meaning from circumstances. Consider the fact that on the night of December 25-26, Washington crossed the Delaware. In itself that fact is meaningless; after all, thousands of people cross the Delaware every day. It is only when we surround that historic episode with all that we know about the American struggle for independence, the desperation of the retreat of the Continental Army through New Jersey, the indomitable figure of Washington, the heroism of his ragged army, the Hessians sleeping off their Christmas debauch, the electrical impact of the astonishing victory at Trenton on the American cause at home and abroad -- it is only when we reflect on what might have happened had the crossing ended in disaster that we can appreciate the meaning and importance of the famous, though grossly misleading painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware by the German, Emanuel Leutze. Historically, of course, it was all wrong: it was painted in Germany; the river was the Rhine; Washington was an American artist visiting Düsseldorf; the Flag had not yet been made. But no matter; the painting itself made history and became part of that American mythology which is itself a chapter of American cultural history.
Facts, then, take on meaning only in connection with a hundred or a thousand other facts. By themselves they are like bricks, lying about in hopeless disarray; it is only when the historian fits them together in some formal design that they build a harmonious structure.
It is perhaps here that comparative chronology has its special function to perform. Chronology provides the latitude and longitude of History. It is to History what the multiplication tables are to mathematics, what grammar is to literature, and what scales are to music. It imposes order on that which is otherwise anarchical.
Thus, this Timetables of American History is a reflection of what may be called a general consensus on the part of the historical profession about what is significant and therefore memorable, in a comparative arrangement that enables each reader to draw meaning from and impart meaning to significant and fortuitous events. Although History is not by itself harmonious, this book can help us to give to each fact some larger significance and thus to impose upon the infinite profusion of historical facts some degree of harmony. Timetables of American History is designed to make the connections, to provide the meanings, and, by implication, to illuminate the significance of facts which are otherwise lifeless.
Henry Steele Commager
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