Edward Channing

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Edward Channing

The historian Edward Channing (1856-1931), a specialist in American colonial and Revolutionary history, is best known for his multivolume "History of the United States."

Edward Channing, born on June 15, 1856, in Dorchester, Mass., was the son of William Ellery Channing the younger, a poet. At the age of 4 Edward was sent to Boston to live with his grandfather, Walter Channing, the dean of Harvard Medical School.

Channing graduated from Harvard in 1878. After hearing lectures by the distinguished Harvard history professor Henry Adams, Channing decided to pursue a career as a historian. He received his doctorate of philosophy in history from Harvard in 1880 with a dissertation on the Louisiana Purchase.

Channing applied to President Eliot of Harvard to teach American history but was refused. After touring Europe for a year Channing returned to Harvard as an independent student. In 1883 he became an instructor at Harvard. He married Alice Thacher in 1886 and gradually climbed the academic ladder, becoming a full professor in 1897. It was not until 1896, however, that Channing could offer a course in his special field, colonial history.

Channing won the coveted Tappan Prize for Town and County Government in the English Colonies (1884), in which he argued that comparisons of American with European institutions rested upon erroneous analogies and meaningless similarities. That year Channing helped found the American Historical Association.

During the 1880s Channing became a close friend of Justin Winsor and wrote essays for Winsor's Narrative and Critical History of America. Channing wrote several textbooks in the 1890s: English History for American Readers, with Thomas Wentworth Higginson; a volume in the "Cambridge Historical Series," The United States of America, 1765-1865; and Student's History of the United States.

In 1899 Channing embarked upon the project that occupied him for the rest of his life—a multivolume history of the United States. He had conceived the idea during his undergraduate days, planning to cover the period from A.D. 1000 to the end of the Civil War in eight volumes. To accomplish this feat, he devoted himself almost exclusively to it and to his teaching. Channing was able to complete only six volumes of The History of the United States (1905-1925); the sixth volume, The War for Southern Independence, won the Pulitzer Prize.

Channing's history was based on original sources; its theme, as historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote, was that "the single most important fact in our development has been the victory of the forces of union over particularism." Channing's nationalism led him to concentrate upon political and constitutional developments, although he did devote time to urban history as well as to religious and educational developments. Despite such methodological shortcomings as refusing to use contemporary newspapers as source material, Channing's was the most scholarly multivolume history of the United States that had been published to his day.

Channing retired from Harvard in 1929. He died in Cambridge on Jan. 6, 1931.

Further Reading

Samuel Eliot Morison, Channing's student, presented a warm, friendly view of his teacher in "Edward Channing: A Memoir," printed in Morison's By Land and by Sea: Essays and Addresses (1953). George W. Robinson compiled the Bibliography of Edward Channing (1932). Two other accounts that assess Channing as a historian are Ralph Ray Johrney's "Edward Channing" in William T. Hutchinson, ed., The Marcus W. Jernegan Essays in American Historiography (1937), and John Higham's comments in John Higham and others, History: The Development of Historical Studies in the United States (1965). □

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Edward Channing

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