W. C. Ford, 1918, historical editing

August 14, 2006

The Editorial Function in United States History
Worthington Chauncey Ford

Worthing C. Ford, enrolled at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute before dropping out of Columbia but eventually became the head of the Library of Congress’s new Division of Manuscripts under Herbert Putnam. Ford gathered from various government departments the papers of Presidents Jackson, Van Buren, Polk, Andrew Johnson, and Pierce, as well as those of other prominent American statesmen and intellectual and cultural leaders and was able to process them enough to make them available to scholars.

I should like to look into more about how this processing took place, and also into the daily goings on at Library of Congress Manuscript Division in the period after WWI until WWII. In this classic essay, originally presented as a presidential address to the American Historical Associated, Ford passes onto future generations the important role for documentation and in doing so creates a creditable list of collected letters worthy of historical retention. Reading the essay one gets the feeling for the freshness that certains materials had to the scholar in 1918. So much of historical documentation had been caught up in family tensions or in bureaucraftic fears. By Ford’s time, the age of Jackson was till entirely undecided and unexplored and was literally in the closets of descendants and locked up in the Department of State. It stood two generations behind. (In a side note Schlesinger’s 1945 Age of Jackson acknowledges manuscript collections from only Harvard ‘College Library,’ Massachusetts Historical Society, Library of Congress, Pennsylvania Historical Society, Maryland Historical Society, Norte Dame University Library (?) and the New York Public Library.)

Ford’s in-text references;

-Begining with diaries of Puritan clergymen
-Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, 1818
-Major General William Heath’s journal
-Marshall’s Life of Washington used original documents
-Life and Correspondence of Richard Henry Lee, 1825 & Arthur Lee, 1829
-Thomas Jefferson Randolph’s letters of his grandfather, 1830, omitting much.
-Hamilton’s papers drifted for years until 1840 there were used by his son to his brothers’ regret.
-Watt’s State Papers 1815 were a forerunner of Force’s Archives
-Acts and Procedings of the Convention of 1787 by John Quincy Adams
-Eliza Susan Quincy’s editing, or wheeding (a lovely quote inserted about women) of her grandfather’s Josiah Quincy’s papers in 1825.
-Spark’s Washington 1834, in ten volumes


“The editor deals with individuals, the historian with generals. The cultivation of a balanced and non-partizan spirit and utterance, no small accomplishment, brings its reward in confidence and clarity of vision.

What is the application of this excursion? For three years the country has been under a stress which has tested its people and its government. In the mass of interested discussion and propaganda, licit and illicit, it has been difficult not to take a position and express the faith that is in us. Even before actual participation in the war necessary information was wanting. Of partial statements the number was and is in excess, but it may be doubted if the fullest exposure of motives and performance will much change general opinion. The extremist is beyond change, and among these extremists on both sides are some historians. Their honesty of conviction is not to be question, but their violence of expression is to be regretted. Exaggeration in language is not confined to the newspaper. The is not yet come for a final weighing of evidence, for we are living, as in the England of the Reformation, under a “Royal Gazette.” Cables and mails are under a censorship which tends to become more rigid; discussion of governmental policy and execution is under a threatened interference by officials, who are wanting in experience and are fallible and extremely sensitive to currents of public opinion; and American opinion is subject to excitements, fitfuls and destructive reputations. But unless a man sell his soul he can be heard and answered, or left to the certainties of time. It is all very well to speak of the sober second thought of the people; the first thought may not be sober and my inflict great injury, and in war times the first thought is explosive. How long has it been since our text-books on history consented to modify their denunciation of Great Britain? How many years have allowed the war with Mexico to pose as a shocking example of greed and broken faith? The word rebel as applied to the South is a survival; the bitterness has slowly turned into sweetness, and the glory of honorable conflict is shared between the two sections. Much of what parades as history to-day will fortunately sink into the forgetfulness of the future, to be exhumed at times as curious examples of misdirected energy and ill-exercised thought. What remains, clarified of its partizanship, may serve for real history. It will be two generations before the full publication of documents can begin, and then will be applied the of fair judgement – the real editing. In the meanwhile we should cultivate, as far as possible, the editorial attitude, keeping our minds open, restraining our criticism lest it lead to injustice and persecution, avoiding personalities, and exercising the same patience and restraint under wrongs and violations of good faith as have place our country with an unsoiled record at the front of a world movement.”


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