Robinson, James Harvey

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Robinson, James Harvey

Education and influences

Career and traits as a teacher

The New History


From teacher to preacher of history

The Columbia school of New Historians




James Harvey Robinson (1863–1936), by common consent, did more than any other American historian to develop both academic and popular interest in the historiographical movement called the “New History.” The New History had two principal and related characteristics. It repudiated the study of history for its own sake, placing it instead at the service of comprehension of the present and improvement of the future. Rather than concentrating on political and diplomatic events, the New History gave primary attention to social, economic, and intellectual developments.

Education and influences

Born of a well-to-do family in Bloomington, Illinois, Robinson had a rather unusual precollege education, his main interests at that stage apparently having been in science, notably biology and astronomy. He entered Harvard in 1883 and received his bachelor’s degree in 1887, remaining a year for his master’s degree. During this time he started work on what was to be his doctoral thesis, “The Original and Derived Features of the Constitution of the United States.” He developed no absorbing enthusiasm for historical studies at Harvard, later stating that the only important intellectual inspiration he received there came from his work with William James in psychology and philosophy. Robinson studied for his doctorate in Germany under Hermann Eduard von Hoist at the University of Freiburg. After he finished his doctoral work on the American constitution in 1890, von Hoist interested him in German constitutional history, and in 1891 Robinson produced his German Bundesrath. These subjects were far removed from his later interests in general European intellectual and social history, but at this period of his life Robinson was really absorbed in constitutional history. However, the main permanent influence coming from his studies in Germany was his mastery of historical research and of the auxiliary sciences on which it depends: epigraphy, paleography, lexicography, and diplomatics.

Few historians have been as much affected by natural science as was Robinson, and it had a strong impact on his attitude toward history. His childhood interest in biology was continued and stimulated by his contacts with E. G. Conklin at the University of Pennsylvania (where he held his first teaching position) and with E. B. Wilson at Columbia (where Robinson taught later), as well as by summers at the marine biology laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Robinson declared that he derived his genetic view of historical processes from biology rather than from historiography. He demanded that history go beyond Leopold von Ranke’s injunction to describe what happened and that it explain how and why it happened. Robinson was much impressed with the sensational advances that had recently been made in astronomy, and he believed that the new cosmic perspective had implications far more devastating to the traditional supernaturalism than even the teachings of biological evolution.

Those principally responsible for impressing on Robinson the importance of social and economic factors in historical development were Charles A. Beard, James T. Shotwell, Thorstein Veblen, and R. H. Tawney; Shotwell and Veblen, particularly, were inclined to emphasize the effects of technology and mechanization.

Related to Robinson’s special concern with intellectual history was his interest in psychology, which dated from the strong impression that William James had made on him at Harvard. He gained a much more thorough, up-to-date, and technical knowledge of the field as the result of his long and close friendship with E. L. Thorndike at Columbia. In his later years Robinson became much interested in psychoanalysis, especially through his friendship with one of the leading analysts of that time, L. Pierce Clark, author of psychoanalytic studies of Napoleon and Lincoln. During their long friendship John Dewey fueled Robinson’s interest in philosophical reflection on the course and meaning of history. Next to his interest in psychology the most potent factor encouraging Robinson’s concern with intellectual history was his long, intensive, and appreciative study of the French rationalists.

The first person to have an important and enduring influence on Robinson’s conception of history was Simon N. Patten, a welfare economist with a marked interest in the history of institutions, with whom Robinson worked at the University of Pennsylvania. Patten helped convince Robinson that the main value of history is its presentation of the past in a manner that facilitates understanding of the present and thereby permits a more rational approach to improvement of the future. Beard’s early socialist inclinations also exerted some influence on Robinson’s concern with the meliorative effect of historical knowledge. During his later years at Columbia Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy, his leadership in progressive education, and his other strong reformist interests constituted the main influence on this aspect of Robinson’s thinking. Robinson was never significantly affected by leaders in the New History abroad, such as Karl Lamprecht and his disciples in Germany, Henri Berr, Charles Seignobos, and Alfred Rambaud in France, or Guglielmo Ferrero and Corrado Barbagallo in Italy.

Career and traits as a teacher

Robinson’s professional career as a teacher of history was spent at the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, and, for a brief terminal period, at the New School for Social Research in New York City. While in Germany Robinson had met Patten and evidently made a very favorable impression on him, for Patten induced his university to invite Robinson as a lecturer in history. He was made an associate professor in 1892 and held that rank until he was called to Columbia in 1895 as a professor of European history.

The work at Pennsylvania for which he was best known grew out of his conviction that a command of source material is mandatory for any historian, for the practitioner of the New History as much as for the most haughty traditionalist in the profession. From the beginning of his teaching career, therefore, he believed strongly that history students should read source material, and to this end he edited several volumes of “Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History” (see works edited by Robinson in bibliography).

Robinson’s call to Columbia was the result of the determination of Dean John W. Burgess of the faculty of political science to add a specialist in European history. Robinson was selected mainly because William A. Dunning had been attracted by Robinson’s emphasis on source material and by his skill in editing the “Translations and Reprints.” Dunning also believed that Robinson could help him in his work as editor of the Political Science Quarterly, which proved to be true.

Aside from the final period in Robinson’s instruction, during which he roamed fruitfully over the whole historical record of mankind in his presentation of intellectual history, his courses dealt with the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the French Revolution. His original and very influential interpretations of each of these periods or movements rank next to his promotion of the New History in determining his role in American historiography; indeed, they were an early phase of his New History and were embodied in his later lectures on intellectual history.

Robinson vigorously criticized the traditional view of the Middle Ages as a unique millennium of uniform gloom and cultural collapse following a mythical fall of Rome in 476, and he maintained that there was probably no sharper break in the whole history of western Europe than that which separated the earlier from the later Middle Ages. He viewed the Renaissance as a slow and gradual development from late medieval advances and held that the conventional conception of it as a sudden flowering of a new culture was a myth. He taught that it is equally false to believe that the Reformation grew out of the Renaissance; instead, he emphasized the sharply contrasting traits of the two events and maintained that the Reformation was more a national political movement than a sudden religious uprising. He contended that the most fruitful approach to the French Revolution lay in a study of its causes and the course of its development, with less attention given to its dramatic and sensational episodes, which were transient and of little institutional import.

Robinson’s method of presenting historical material to his classes varied notably during the course of his teaching career. At the outset he was very energetic and systematic and presented his material in a carefully organized way. Cheyney said that it “was his habit [to write] an outline of his lecture on the blackboard before he began to talk to the students. I know it made a great impression on them to feel that he had in mind exactly the group of things he wanted to say, classified in the way he wanted to say them” (Letter to Barnes, March 3, 1926). At Columbia he appears to have become gradually more relaxed and informal. According to Carl Becker, the famed Cornell historian, who was a student of Robinson’s in his first decade at Columbia, “The professor talked so informally and entertainingly that taking notes seemed out of place. He had wit, a dry, mordant humor, and a fund of striking, unacademic bits of information which I had not found in textbooks or formal histories; and there was a sadness in the countenance, a quality, half plaintiveness half resignation, in the voice that made even simple statements of fact amusing or illuminating, or both” (Becker 1937, p. 48). Toward the end of his second decade at Columbia, Robinson’s classroom popularity was perhaps unsurpassed in the teaching of history in the United States, despite a lecture method that would have made any other teacher appear very dull. Arthur M. Schlesinger, a student of Robinson’s around 1910, has given us one of the best characterizations of Robinson’s classroom manner at this period: “His lectures …proved the most provocative of any I attended and triggered endless arguments among the students…. Peering quizzically above his spectacles and impishly salting his observations with wit, he spoke quietly, as though interviewing himself, with the class present merely as eavesdroppers” (Schlesinger 1963, pp. 34–35).

In retrospect it appears most unfortunate that Robinson resigned from Columbia in 1919 rather than remaining there until he reached formal retirement age in 1928. His brief experience at the New School for Social Research was unsatisfactory; it did not give him opportunities to lecture to large classes and was not the type of educational experiment he had anticipated.

The New History

Since Robinson stands out in the evolution of historiography and historical writing primarily as the most widely known and effective exponent of the New History, his role in this area requires a rather precise examination.

His most readily visible accomplishment was the volume entitled The New History (1912), a book that exerted a wide and enduring influence on American historical writing and thinking. This influence was due partly to the attention it attracted by its appropriate title, partly to its convenient presentation of most of Robinson’s observations on what the New History should be. But the contents of the book were not “new” even to Robinson. The first chapter, on the contrasts between the new—or cultural—history and the old—or political, episodical, and biographical—history, had first appeared as an article in 1900, and the succeeding chapters were articles and addresses published in the first decade of the twentieth century.

More than that, as Robinson himself was sufficiently well read in the history of historical writing to know, the New History was not his exclusive progeny. Although he was little affected by his European predecessors and contemporaries who exemplified the New History, he was well aware of such books as Andrew D. White’s A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom, Moses Coit Tyler’s Literary History of the American Revolution: 1763–1783, H. C. Lea’s work on the medieval church, Henry AdamsMont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, and the work done by Frederick Jackson Turner and his students on the effect of the western frontier upon American culture and thought, to mention only a few of the authors who had already abandoned the older political and episodical history. What Robinson did was to christen the new departure in historical thought and writing, to found a movement around it, and actually to write exemplary history in terms of his conception of the subject.

Robinson’s own development as the leading protagonist of the New History was a gradual one. As early as 1892, when he served on the Committee on Secondary School Studies of the National Education Association, he had enunciated what was to be a main tenet of his conception of the New History: that history should be written and taught in such a manner as to enable students to understand the conditions of their own time. He amplified this while serving on the 1904 Committee of the Association of History Teachers of the Middle States and Maryland, and he also advocated giving greater attention to modern history and world history. His collaboration with Beard on The Development of Modern Europe (Robinson & Beard 1907–1908) gave him a better comprehension of the importance of economic factors, especially of the industrial revolution, in the historical experience of mankind (see chapter 5 of The New History [1912] 1958, pp. 132–153).

Robinson’s conception of the New History inevitably inclined him to regard history as a social science rather than as a branch of literature or an exercise in “collective biography.” He was one of the first historians to call attention to the indispensable services of the social sciences to history, notably in his address before the American Historical Association in December 1910, entitled “The Relation of History to the Newer Sciences of Man,” which constitutes the third chapter of The New History (ibid., pp. 70–100). The fourth and the final chapters of The New History indicated Robinson’s shift of interest to intellectual history, where he believed particularly strategic material could be found for the use of history in the service of social improvement. This was a theme he developed further about a decade later in two brief books, The Mind in the Making (1921), and The Humanizing of Knowledge (1923).

In his program of interpreting history and applying its lessons for the improvement of society, present and future, Robinson wrote many articles for historical periodicals in the 1920s and 1930s. These were brought together by Harry Elmer Barnes in a symposium entitled The Human Comedy (1937). The book is far and away the most comprehensive and revealing of all of the publications which present Robinson’s contributions, containing as it does many of the important ideas that may be found in his other works and specific coverage of most of the leading topics and problems of modern history and contemporary life.


While it is rather commonly believed that Robinson’s main contributions to the concepts and development of the New History are to be found in his writings about history, it seems highly probable that he did far more to communicate his ideas about the nature and purpose of history by making them the core of his popular and widely used textbooks. The first and most revolutionary of these was An Introduction to the History of Western Europe (1902–1903), which was immediately followed by two volumes of Readings in European History (Robinson & Beard 1908–1909). Into the 1903 volume Robinson put his best thought and put it very well, this being the time of his maximum intellectual vigor and enthusiasm. This work set an entirely new standard for textbook writing in the historical field.

The outstanding aspect of the Introduction to the History of Western Europe lay in the author’s successful discerning of the leading threads of medieval and modern European history and his tracing them with clarity and consistency. While he included all the political history that was necessary to understand the changing structures of European institutional life, he abandoned the traditional view that “history is past politics” and introduced ample material on social, cultural, and intellectual life. All this material was presented with Robinson’s human touch and sprightly style, which gave vividness to the narrative and made it enjoyable to read. His readers were left unaware that Robinson’s fluid prose was based on a rigorous study of the original sources which “controlled with relentless precision his reconstruction of the past,” as his famed student, James Thomson Shotwell, insisted (Letter to Barnes, April 15, 1926).

Although the work ran counter to all precedent in the textbook field, it produced such a striking and favorable reaction on the part of history teachers that for more than a generation it dominated the college market. Over a quarter of a million copies of the first edition were sold. Admittedly, it was weak in treating the economic factors in history, especially in the modern period, and English constitutional history was given scanty attention. These defects were remedied in later editions after Robinson came into greater contact with Beard and collaborated with him in producing The Development of Modern Europe.

Robinson’s influence in making the New History the basis of history teaching was extended to the secondary schools for many years through the two volumes of Outlines of European History, published in 1912–1914 (Robinson et al. 1912–1914). Robinson’s collaborators in this instance were James H. Breasted of the University of Chicago and again Beard, with Breasted covering the ancient period and Beard giving primary attention to the treatment of economic factors in modern times. Revised and adapted with the assistance of Emma Peters Smith and others, the work sold well until after Robinson’s death. But there was little vital material in it that had not appeared in his college books, and by the 1920s, writers like Hutton Webster were producing texts that surpassed Robinson’s in presenting the New History in fresh and original ways for the secondary schools.

From teacher to preacher of history

Between 1900 and 1912 Robinson was active and energetic in writing substantial, pioneer textbooks and in producing the articles and addresses that came to make up The New History. In the quarter of a century that followed 1912, an evident change took place, affecting both his professional life and his zest for writing. Robinson became wealthy and independent through his textbook royalties, but also increasingly relaxed in most matters, except for his ideas about history. Moreover, he loved to talk, was a witty and intriguing conversationalist, and spent more and more time talking to his favorite colleagues like Dewey, Thorndike, and Wilson. Beard was inclined to think that this did more than anything else to distract Robinson from further substantial historical publications, and may have accounted for his failure to produce his expected magnum opus on the history of the intellectual class in western Europe. Although Robinson was still a relatively young man in 1907 when The Development of Modern Europe (Robinson & Beard 1907–1908) was published, he never produced another historical volume of the scale and quality of this book and of his original Introduction to the History of Western Europe.

As Robinson devoted himself more and more to thinking and talking about history rather than writing it, he gave increased attention to interpreting history and to considering what service it might render to the understanding and betterment of mankind. As Lynn Thorndike put it, The chief change that came over Professor Robinson in the course of his life …was that from being a teacher of history he became a preacher of history. The small seminars and informal classes gave way to crowded lectures and these to a host of readers…. He would humanize knowledge. While some of us are content with the hope that our ideas and findings may gradually filter down through our students and learned publications to have their ultimate effect on human thought and society, Robinson was impelled to make more direct contacts. Despite his critical attitude toward past and existing religion, he had the faith not merely that would move mountains but would move muttonheads. (Thorndike 1937, p. 369)

The Columbia school of New Historians

Robinson’s associates were tied together not so much by their common interest in a particular subject of investigation but by a common attitude toward the nature and purpose of history in general and by a sort of filial devotion to Robinson. The nature of the so-called “Robinson school” has been well stated by Crane Brinton: “…around Mr. Robinson and other leaders a definite, self-conscious school of historians has formed, and …this school has cohesion, common purposes, common watchwords, common loves and hatreds ... in short, it is a school in the good, loose sense in which the Stoa, the Pleiad, the Lake poets, or the Utilitarians were schools” (Brinton 1936, p. 134).

Writers from this school produced creditable, and in some cases impressive, works in many fields. In the area of intellectual history probably the most important were the able editorial work and translations of church and medieval historical works and documents by Louise R. Loomis, Ernest Brehaut, and Irving W. Raymond; the massively erudite volumes of Lynn Thorndike on the history of European magic and science; Alexander C. Flick’s substantial treatment of the medieval church; the definitive writings of Preserved Smith on the Renaissance and Reformation and the intellectual life of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; Dorothy Stimson’s account of the impact of the Copernican system; Martha Ornstein’s brilliant work on the rise of the scientific societies; Becker’s influential interpretations of the intellectual backgrounds of the English, American, and French revolutions; the work of Howard Robinson on French rationalism; Anne E. Burlingame’s study of Condorcet; J. Salwyn Schapiro’s treatment of modern French liberal and revolutionary thought; Carlton Hayes’s writings on the nature, ramifications, and influence of nationalism; and J. H. Randall, Jr.’s monumental history of European philosophy and thought. The Robinsonian emphasis on social history was applied in American as well as in European history, by Beard, Schlesinger, Harold U. Faulkner, Dixon Ryan Fox, and Harry J. Carman. Robinson’s interests in historiography were carried on mainly by Shotwell and Barnes, with some incidental but valuable contributions by Schlesinger and Henry Johnson. The only one of Robinson’s disciples who gave special attention to social reform and amelioriation was Barnes, who did this as much in his role as sociologist and criminologist as in that of historian.

It was Barnes also who produced the only comprehensive synthetic works in the Robinsonian tradition, of which the first was A History of Western Civilization (Barnes & David 1935). Robinson himself lived to read, review, and approve of this work. Crane Brinton, although somewhat critical of the Robinsonians, characterized the book as “this advertised inheritance, this harvest of a long tradition, this long-awaited fruition” of the Columbia school (Brinton 1936, p. 135); and Preserved Smith described it as “incontestably the masterpiece of the New History” (Letter to Barnes, Sept. 6, 1935). Barnes next endeavored to fill the gap created by Robinson’s failure to produce his intellectual history. Aided by experts in the history of art, literature, and music—subjects with which Robinson did not deal extensively in his writings— Barnes produced the Intellectual and Cultural History of the Western World (1937), a more comprehensive work than Robinson had ever planned.

In 1929 a symposium entitled Essays in Intellectual History, containing contributions by some of Robinson’s leading students in this field, was presented to him at the time of his election to the presidency of the American Historical Association. This testimonial volume attested to the distinction of his students and to the diversity of interests that he stimulated.

As an appraisal of the significance of the Robin-sonian epoch in historical writing one may conclude with the critical and restrained summation by Brinton:

Now the battle to free history from the limitation of the doctrine that history is “past politics” …has been won, and won largely through the efforts of the Columbians. With all their faults, the history text-books of today afford a far more nourishing fare than did the text-books which Mr. Robinson ridiculed so effectively in The New History…. The battle against purely political history was worth fighting, and the victory worth winning. (Brinton 1936, p. 135)

Harry Elmer Barnes

[Directly related are the entriesHistory, articles onSOCIAL HISTORYandINTELLECTUAL HISTORY; and the biographies ofBarnes; Beard; Dewey; James; Ranke; Thorndike; Verlen.]


1890 The Original and Derived Features of the Constitution. American Academy of Political and Social Science, Annals 1:203–243.

1891 The German Bundesrath: A Study in Comparative Constitutional Law. University of Pennsylvania Political Economy and Public Law Series, Vol. 3, No. 1. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

(1902–1903) 1946 An Introduction to the History of Western Europe. Rev. & enl. by James T. Shotwell. 2 vols. Boston: Ginn.

1904–1906 Readings in European History: A Collection of Extracts From the Sources Chosen With the Purpose of Illustrating the Progress of Culture in Western Europe Since the German Invasions. 2 vols. Boston: Ginn. → Volume 1: From the Breaking Up of the

Roman Empire to the Protestant Revolt. Volume 2: From the Opening of the Protestant Revolt to the Present Day.

(1907–1908) 1929–1930 Robinson, James Harvey; and Beard, Charles A. The Development of Modern Europe: An Introduction to the Study of Current History. Rev. & enl. ed. Boston: Ginn.

1908–1909 Robinson, James Harvey; and Beard, Charles A. Readings in Modern European History: A Collection of Extracts From the Sources Chosen With the Purpose of Illustrating Some of the Chief Phases of the Development of Europe During the Last Two Hundred Years. 2 vols. jdoston: Ginn. → Volume 1: The Eighteenth Century: The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Period. Volume 2: Europe Since the Congress of Vienna

(1911) 1919 An Outline of the History of the Western European Mind. 4th ed., rev. New York: Marion. → First published as An Outline of the History of the Intellectual Classes in Western Europe.

(1912) 1958 The New History: Essays Illustrating the Modern Historical Outlook. Springfield, Mass.: Walden. → See especially pages 70–100 on ’The New Allies in History” and pages 132–153 on “History for the Common Man.”

(1912–1914) 1914–1918 Robinson, James Harvey et al. Outlines of European History. 2 vols. Boston: Ginn.

1918 The Last Decade of European History and the Great War. Boston: Ginn. → Designed as a supplement to The Development of Modern Europe: An Introduction to the Study of Current History by James Harvey Robinson and Charles A. Beard and to An Introduction to the History of Western Europe by James Harvey Robinson.

(1921) 1950 The Mind in the Making: The Relation of Intelligence to Social Reform. With an introduction by Stuart Chase. New York: Harper.

(1921) 1934 Robinson, James Harvey; and Beard, Charles A. History of Europe, Our Own Times, the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries: The Opening of the Twentieth Century, the World War and Recent Events. Rev. ed. Boston: Ginn.

(1921) 1934 Robinson, James Harvey; and Smith, Emma P. Our World Today and Yesterday: A History of Modern Civilization. Boston: Ginn. → First published as A General History of Europe From the Origins of Civilization to the Present Time.

(1923) 1926 The Humanizing of Knowledge. 2d ed., rev. New York: Doran.

1926 The Ordeal of Civilization: A Sketch of the Development and World-wide Diffusion of Our Present-day Institutions and Ideas. New York: Harper.

1937 The Human Comedy as Devised and Directed by Mankind Itself. With an introduction by Harry Elmer Barnes. New York: Harper. → Published posthumously.


(1894) 1897 Robinson, James Harvey (editor) The French Revolution: 1789–1791. Rev. ed. Translations and Reprints, Vol. 1, No. 5. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania, Department of History.

1895 Robinson, James Harvey (editor) The Napoleonic Period. Translations and Reprints, Vol. 2, No. 2. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania, Department of History.

1895 Robinson, James Harvey; and Whitcomb, Mer-rick (editors) The Period of the Early Reformation in Germany. Translations and Reprints, Vol. 2, No. 6. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania, Department of History.

1896 Robinson, James Harvey (editor) The Restoration and the European Policy of Metternich: 1814—1820. Translations and Reprints, Vol. 1, No. 3. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania, Department of History.

1897 Robinson, James Harvey (editor) The Pre-refor-mation Period. Translations and Reprints, Vol. 3, No. 6. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania, Department of History.

1899 Robinson, James Harvey (editor) France, Cour des aides, Protest of the Cour des aides of Paris, 10 April 1775. Translations and Reprints, Vol. 5, No. 2. Philadelphia: Urr’v. of Pennsylvania, Department of History.


[Book Review of] An Introduction to the History of Western Europe, by James Harvey Robinson. 1903 Nation 76:502–503.

Barnes, Harry E. (1927) 1965 James Harvey Robinson. Pages 319–408 in Howard W. Odum (editor), American Masters of Social Science: An Approach to the Study of the Social Sciences Through a Neglected Field of Biography. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikut.

Barnes, Harry E. (1937) 1961 Intellectual and Cultural History of the Western World. 3d rev. ed., 3 vols. New York: Reynal-Hitchcock. → A paperback edition was published by Dover in 1965.

Barnes, Harry E.; and David, Henry 1935 A History of Western Civilization. 2 vols. New York: Harcourt.

Becker, Carl 1937 James Harvey Robinson. Nation 144:48–50.

Brinton, Crane 1936 The New History: Twenty-five Years After. Journal of Social Philosophy 1:134–147.

Essays in Intellectual History: Dedicated to James Harvey Robinson by His Former Seminar Students. 1929 New York: Harper.

Hendricks, Luther V. 1946 James Harvey Robinson: Teacher of History. New York: King’s Crown Press.

Johnson, Henry 1943 The Other Side of Main Street: A History Teacher From Sauk Centre. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Miller, Alice [Duer]; and Myers, Susan 1939 Barnard College: The First Fifty Years. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Schapiro, J. Salwyn 1936 James Harvey Robinson (1863–1936). Journal of Social Philosophy 1:278–281.

Schlesinger, Arthur M. 1963 In Retrospect: The History of a Historian. New York: Harcourt.

Sellery, George S. 1904 [Book Review of] An Introduction to the History of Western Europe, by James Harvey Robinson. American Academy of Political and Social Science, Annals 23:165–167.

Thorndike, Lynn 1937 [Book Review of] The Human Comedy as Devised and Directed by Mankind Itself, by James Harvey Robinson. Journal of Modern History 9:367–369.

James Harvey Robinson

views updated May 23 2018

James Harvey Robinson

James Harvey Robinson (1863-1936), American historian, was the central figure in the New History movement, which attempted to use history to understand contemporary problems.

James Harvey Robinson was born on June 29, 1863, in Bloomington, Ill., the son of a local banker. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Harvard and did his doctoral work at the University of Freiburg. There he studied under Hermann von Holst, the constitutional historian, and wrote a dissertation on the Federal principle in the American constitution.

Robinson's first teaching position was in European history at the University of Pennsylvania, where the welfare economist Simon N. Patten, who had helped him secure the job, influenced him. After a year Robinson moved to Columbia University as an associate professor of European history and became active on the curriculum subcommittee of the National Education Association for history. In 1895 he became a full professor.

At Columbia, Robinson shared progressive, reformist views with colleagues like John Dewey and continued to develop his New History idea. This historiography movement believed in history as an instrument in helping solve contemporary problems, concentrated upon the life of the common man, and cooperated with other social sciences. Robinson's concepts appeared in his course, "The Intellectual History of Western Europe," which his students called "The Downfall of Christianity."

Robinson's first textbook, An Introduction to the History of Western Europe (1902), although quite popular, was more conventional than innovative. The ideas of the New History did not appear in significant text form until The Development of Modern Europe (1907), written in collaboration with his most famous student, Charles A. Beard. A group of Robinson's essays, all but one previously published, appeared in The New History (1912). This book brought together his ideas and remains the representative work in the movement.

In 1919 Robinson resigned from Columbia to help found the New School for Social Research. There he was chairman of the executive committee and taught one course. He continued to write, producing two popular polemical books—The Mind in the Making (1921), a best seller, and The Humanizing of Knowledge (1923). These books held that a just social order could be created by applied intelligence. Robinson's ideas remained constant until his death on Feb. 16, 1936, in New York City; this is obvious in the collection of his essays edited by his student Harry Elmer Barnes and published posthumously as The Human Comedy (1937).

Further Reading

Luther V. Hendricks, James Harvey Robinson: Teacher of History (1946), is short but good and includes a comprehensive bibliography of Robinson's writings. Harry Elmer Barnes's sketch of Robinson in Howard Odum, ed., American Masters of Social Science: An Approach to the Study of the Social Studies through a Neglected Field of Biography (1927), is the appraisal of an enthusiastic disciple. Harvey Wish's introduction to the paperback edition of Robinson's The New History (1965) is balanced and succinct. □

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