The Plain and Noble Garb of Truth
Nationalism and Impartiality in American Historical Writing, 1784–1860

Eileen Ka-May Cheng

Early national historians in cultural context

Reviews

"Eileen Cheng's thorough and persuasive account of our nation's first historians will remind today's historians and their readers of how much we owe to the founding fathers of our profession. Writing before university seminars and graduate degrees became initiation rites of scholars, the first historians nevertheless displayed the hallmarks of professionalism: a concern for accuracy, a demand that history begin with documentary sources, and a quality which many academic historians have forgotten—the desire that their histories speak to all educated Americans. Cheng proves that we can still learn about and from these historians."
—Peter Charles Hoffer, author of Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud—American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin

"Those interested in the history of American historical writing—or nineteenth-century American intellectual history in general—will want to read this extremely well written book."
—Peter Novick, author of That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession


Description
American historians of the early national period, argues Eileen Ka-May Cheng, grappled with objectivity, professionalism, and other “modern” issues to a greater degree than their successors in later generations acknowledge. Her extensive readings of antebellum historians show that by the 1820s, a small but influential group of practitioners had begun to develop many of the doctrines and concerns that undergird contemporary historical practice. The Plain and Noble Garb of Truth challenges the entrenched notion that America’s first generations of historians were romantics or propagandists for a struggling young nation.

Cheng engages with the works of well-known early national historians like George Bancroft, William Prescott, and David Ramsay; such lesser-known figures as Jared Sparks and Lorenzo Sabine; and leading political and intellectual elites of the day, including Francis Bowen and Charles Francis Adams. She shows that their work, which focused on the American Revolution, was often nuanced and surprisingly sympathetic in its treatment of American Indians and loyalists. She also demonstrates how the rise of the novel contributed to the emergence of history as an autonomous discipline, arguing that paradoxically “early national historians at once described truth in opposition to the novel and were influenced by the novel in their understanding of truth.”

Modern historians should recognize that the discipline of history is itself a product of history, says Cheng. By taking seriously a group of too-often-dismissed historians, she challenges contemporary historians to examine some ahistorical aspects of the way they understand their own discipline.

Page count: 376 pp.
Trim size: 6 x 9

 



Paper
List price: $29.95
978-0-8203-3877-4
3/1/2011

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Eileen Ka-May Cheng teaches history at Sarah Lawrence College.