Andrew Dickson White and America’s Unfinished (French) Revolution

This piece is a part of our ongoing series, entitled “Rethinking the Revolutionary Canon.” 

By Gregory S. Brown

Laissons au grands écrivains le récit dramatiques des choses …nous cherchons dans la Révolution …une leçon pour le présent” — Edouard René de Laboulaye, December 3, 1850

Andrew Dickson White is not considered a canonical author in the French Revolution’s historiography, but rather is known as the founding president of both Cornell University and the American Historical Association (AHA). His best-known published historical writings, when referenced at all, are often derided.[1] Yet in his intellectually formative years, as an earnest abolitionist and ambitious Republican, eager to enter the arena of American political life and anticipating what he would later call “the great revolution” of the Civil War, White made the topic his central academic pursuit – and effectively invented a distinctly American tradition of historiography.

During the 1859-1860 and 1860-1861 academic years, not yet thirty years old and newly appointed as a Professor of History at the University of Michigan, White conceived and delivered the first academic courses in the United States on the French Revolution. Then, on December 9, 1865, while serving as a reform-minded Republican in the New York state senate, he delivered to the Long Island Historical Society this country’s first recorded academic lecture on the relevance of, and on the question of America’s influence on, the French Revolution. This same paper would become, twenty years later, the AHA’s very first presidential inaugural address. Through these works, the extensive source collection he curated and his influence on the burgeoning discipline of History, White contributed considerably to the founding of a distinctly American “canon” of the French Revolution.[2] 

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The oldest son of an Episcopalian Whig family of modest financial wealth and New England Yankee lineage, White was raised in Syracuse, New York. As a teenager, White attended abolitionist meetings and expressed to his father dissent from Calvinist doctrines, but recorded no significant intellectual or political engagement. Nevertheless, upon his graduation from Yale in 1953, he was recommended to Connecticut Governor Thomas Seymour, whom President Franklin Pierce had appointed United States Minister to the Russian Empire. Seymour offered White an opportunity to undertake a genteel, if not quite aristocratic, Grand Tour in Europe. After several months in Oxford and Cambridge devoted primarily to bookshops, White arrived in Paris in February 1854, to learn French, essential for anticipated diplomatic service.

Paris, just emerging from the suppression of the Second Republic by its President, then Emperor Napoleon III, was not a favorable environment to discover revolutionary or republican ideals. And White, if he had read about the French Revolution at Yale, had almost certainly encountered Burkean refutations of Jacobinism and the romantic account of Thomas Carlyle.[3] Indeed, White’s initial interest is best interpreted as antiquarianism. In his Autobiography, he recalled that he “visited nearly all the places most closely connected with” the major events of the Revolution, and that he spoke at Invalides with veterans of the Napoleonic wars. Even as, in that same spring of 1854, Alexis de Tocqueville researched in the archives of both Paris and Tours for L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution (1856), White had yet to encounter primary source material or give serious thought to historical interpretation. Henry Randall prompted White’s initial foray into the Imperial Archives. Randall, another prominent upstate New Yorker, completing a biography of Thomas Jefferson, commissioned White to search for correspondence between Jefferson and Robespierre, which had been a political bogeyman since 1796.[4]

In that fall of 1854, White’s French had advanced sufficiently so he began to attend lectures at the Sorbonne and the Collège de France. Here he discovered historical methods and broader interpretations of the Revolution through the tutorship of liberal legal theorist and political historian Edouard René de Laboulaye. Laboulaye, known for his writings on the United States and for his engagement in American politics on behalf of abolitionism, the Union, and the Republican party, was also, through his relationship with White, a significant influence on the American “canon” of French Revolutionary historiography. Having advised the provisional government on the constitution of the Second Republic, and having supported the unsuccessful Moderate Republicans in the presidential election of December 1848, Laboulaye in 1849 had accepted an appointment to a chair in “comparative legislation” at the Collège de France, where in December 1850, he lectured on the Great Revolution of 1789. However, following the Bonapartist coup in 1851 and the ensuing purge of left-wing educators and intellectuals, Laboulaye turned to the less politically charged topics of Roman and canon law. By the fall of 1854, he gave limited expression to his liberal political ideals by offering the first scholarly lectures in France on the constitutional and political history of the United States, with particular interest in how colonial-era debates over land tenure, slavery, religious pluralism, commerce, and executive power played out in the American Revolution and in the framing and ratification of the Constitution.[5] Through private tutorials with Laboulaye, White learned of the significant primary source collections on the Revolution and a method of studying political principles and institutions in historical context,  to explain the significance of contemporary events. Whereas Laboulaye, perhaps out of necessity, had pursued his center-left political ideals through the study of the United States, White explored his nascent intellectual and political ideals in the French Revolution.

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In 1855, White did join Seymour in Petersburg and pursued further linguistic and historical study in Berlin before returning to the United States in late 1856. However, Buchanon’s election blocked his opportunity for another diplomatic appointment. He spent several months tutoring in New Haven to satisfy the residency requirement necessary to receive an MA in History in 1857. Declining an offer to teach literature and art at Yale, White instead became a Professor of History at the University of Michigan. White described this choice as made out of a belief that “life in the United States was too earnest for a devotion to pure literature,” and he preferred to engage, through teaching history, with the “great political problems of our time.” By 1859, he felt an even more urgent need to develop courses that would reveal “the strength and weakness of democracies and throw light upon many problems which our own republic must endeavor to solve….Out of this effort came a shorter series of lectures upon which I took especial pains—namely, the ‘History of the Causes of the French Revolution.’”[6]

These lectures represent the first academic work in the United States on what would become the fields of the French Enlightenment and Revolution. The initial lectures, during the 1859-1860 university year, focused on the intellectual and political origins: “French Institutions Before the Revolution;” “French Philosophers of the Eighteenth Century;” “The Influence of American Ideas on the French Revolution,” and “Louis XVI,” which focused on his attempted political and economic reforms. White considered these four lectures to constitute a single work, “Causes of the French Revolution.” The following year, 1860-1861, he delivered a sequence of nine lectures narrating from the convening of the Estates General to the fall of the Empire. These lectures were never published in their original form, although manuscripts of his notes and outlines of these and later versions enable us to assess his initial approach.[7]

White continued to elaborate his cycle on the “Causes of the French Revolution” over the course of his academic, diplomatic, political, and administrative career. He left his position at Michigan in 1862 to embark on a mission to Britain and France to win support for the Unionist and abolitionist causes. Having inherited over $200,000 from his father in 1862, White also had the means to expand greatly the collection of books and manuscripts on the Revolution which he had begun in 1854. Returning to the US in the fall of 1863, White won election to the New York state senate on the Republican Union slate. In April 1864, in his first significant floor speech, White drew upon his French Revolution lecture notes on the assignat in support of federal regulation of commercial banks. In December 1865, while leading an investigation into corruption in the New York Board of Health, he accepted an invitation to speak to the newly founded Long Island Historical Society, where he delivered a public lecture on “Influence of American Ideas on the French Revolution.”[8]

Between 1881 and 1892, he would revise “Causes of the French Revolution” adding new material based on sources acquired during another diplomatic mission to Europe in 1879, and he delivered these lectures to Cornell students and to many other scholarly audiences. In 1885, as founding president of the AHA, he delivered “American Influences on the French Revolution” as the inaugural presidential address, and between 1889 and 1892, he delivered the full cycle at Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Pennsylvania, and Stanford. These lectures helped establish the French Revolution as a topic of interest in these leading American history departments; moreover, his account of the French Revolution influenced the recommendations for secondary school curricula set forth in AHA’s Study of History in Schools.[9] Only one of these lectures would be published, on the assignat; however, the published version was an explicitly partisan campaign speech for the Republican campaign of 1896, andis highly unrepresentative of his historical approach.[10]

In preparing these lectures, White referenced liberally from newspapers, pamphlets, and manuscripts, which he acquired. In his interpretation, White consciously sought to speak to an American audience, which he expected to be concerned primarily with democratic and constitutional principles and the inherent risks to them from both landowning, privileged elites and from popular egalitarianism. He rejected Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution, as a “prose poem,” too inclined to overlook constitutional and legal principles, and dismissed the essays and commentaries on royalty, nobility, and military affairs published by the Irish conservative J. W. Croker as “Tory…sham history.” Nor does White draw on Tocqueville, whom he probably read only much later and characterized as “a cloud of doubt and disappointment.”[11] White favorably referenced the work of Francois-Auguste Mignet, a July Monarchy liberal and associate of Guizot, though his primary inspiration certainly had been Laboulaye.[12]

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White never realized his ambition to publish these lectures as a book, but this work framed a distinctly American approach to French Revolutionary historiography. His lectures should be considered “canonical” for several reasons. First, they proposed an historiography of the French Revolution in the United States that would be at the center of scholastic and academic, or as White would have considered it, scientific history. Secondly, he conceived and delivered them as based upon primary source material open to interpretation; that is to say, he did not draw upon a broader body of interpretation or even a textbook in his undergraduate courses. A third historiographically significant attribute of White’s’ lectures was the focus he brought to “the causes of the Revolution” and in particular, the intellectual origins of its ideals, and was explicit in presenting the French Revolution as part of an Atlantic republican political tradition. As he put it in his 1865 lecture to the Long Island Historical Society, “facts” are merely the “husks and the rinds,” but “ideas are the kernel” of history, and the French Revolution he presented was a moment in which a “great flood of new thought … swept away ideas, institutions and men with such fury that it seemed about to surge over the whole world.” He emphasized that through such an approach, “local history and national history connect necessarily with world history.”[13]

The impact of these contributions on American students and scholars was attenuated over several generations. In 1874, he contributed a brief bibliographical essay and annotated bibliography to a book by the Irish historian William O’Connor Morris.[14] Beginning that year, White also oversaw the hiring of a series of professors to use these materials in teaching the French Revolution: Charles Kendall Adams, H. Morse Stephens, Ralph Catteral, and Carl Becker; each adhered to White’s approach.[15] Of these, only Stephens had undertaken research on the French Revolution prior to working with White’s source collection.[16] In the 1880s, Adams and another former student, George Lincoln Burr, catalogued the collection, and in 1891, White formally donated it, with his personal papers, to Cornell.[17] Becker, being interviewed by Charles Hull in December 1916, was told the only specific requirement would be to use White’s materials to train doctoral students on the French Revolution.[18]

Statue of Andrew Dickson White sitting in a chair, in front a building at Cornell university.
Andrew Dickson White statue at Cornell University created by Karl Bitter (1867-1915)

With the turn of the century, White’s approach and collection would be eclipsed in the United States by the works of “new history” by James Harvey Robinson[19] and in France by Jaurès’ Histoire socialiste. Yet we would be mistaken to limit White’s legacy to a Whiggish fore-runner of progressive historiography or an Orleanist juste milieu predecessor to the Jacobin-Marxist tradition. Rather, his influence on the American historiographical canon may be measured in the works of Becker’s students, which bear the essential elements of White’s lectures. Leo Gershoy, far from White’s Episcopalian Yankee origins, whose Jewish family had emigrated from the Ukraine in Imperial Russia in 1911, entered Cornell as an undergraduate in 1915. He took Becker’s first courses in 1917, and, like White, he became animated by the Revolution as a template for contemporary political events. As had White a half century earlier, Gershoy in 1919 rejected his father’s advice to enter banking and enrolled for graduate study. Clearly preoccupied with the Great War and Bolshevik Revolution, he sought, when he set out on dissertation research in Europe in 1922, to explore the interdependent relationships of nationalism and democracy and of social progress and violent revolution. Under Becker’s guidance, and benefitting from White’s collection, he took up the study of Bertrand Barère. Moreover, Gershoy, in 1927, took up another recommendation from Becker to write a systematic textbook on the French Revolution for an American audience; after some delay due to professional difficulties during the Depression, it would be published in 1933 – bearing the clear mark of White’s influence on its approach and substance.[20] And as readers have surely recognized, crucial elements of White’s approach pervaded the influential work of Becker’s last, and best-known, doctoral student, R. R. Palmer. Indeed, Palmer’s unpublished doctoral dissertation addressed precisely the topic of White’s 1865 lecture, the influence of American political ideals on the Revolution, and his “age of democratic revolutions” thesis reflected White’s preoccupations.[21]

I’ll conclude with one more illustration of not only the breadth of White’s influence, but also how the American academic canon of French Revolution historiography is inextricably bound up in the contexts in which it was born. In 1936, Rayford Logan, then completing a dissertation on 150 years of US-Haitian relations and working on the envisioned “Encyclopedia of the Negro,” highlighted for its lead editor, W. E. B. Dubois, the need to correct “the omission of the very important Andrew D. White Collection on the French Revolution and Saint Domingue.”[22] For 160 years and counting, American scholars have followed White – whether aware of it or not – in looking to the origins, course, and legacies of the age of revolutions as an expression of the interrelations among French, American, Atlantic, and world history.


Gregory S. Brown is Professor in the Department of History, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Senior Research Fellow of the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford, where he is General Editor of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment. He is the author of several books including A Field of Honor: Writers, Court Culture and Public Theater in French Literary Life from Racine to the Revolution (NY: Columbia U.P., 2002), and (with Isser Woloch), Eighteenth-Century Europe: Tradition and Progress 2nd ed (NY: Norton, 2012). This piece is drawn from an ongoing project on the emergence of an American historiography of the Enlightenment.

Title image: A.D. White Reading Room, Uris Library, Cornell University

Endnotes:

[1] A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (New York: Appleton, 1896), 2 vols., is regarded with disdain in the history of science and of theology. Paper Money Inflation in France (New York: Appleton, 1876), on which more below.On White’s life, the only comprehensive biography is Glenn C. Altschuler, Andrew D. White: Educator, Scholar, Diplomat (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1979). His historiography is discussed in ch. 2, “The Abolitionist Professor,” (36-50), but there is only fleeting reference to his French Revolution lectures.

[2] The most comprehensive work on early American scholarship on the French Revolution is Lynn Hunt, “Forgetting and Remembering: the French Revolution Then and Now,” The American Historical Review 100: 4 (1995), 1119-1135, which is concerned solely with works published after the founding of the American Historical Association in 1885.

[3]According to Memoir of William Ellery Channing (Boston: Crosby & Nichols, 1848) vol I: 61, Harvard College sought to refute the “French mania” of the late 1700s by giving every student a copy of Richard Watson, An Apology for the Bible (1796); I thank Adam Lebovitz for this reference. The first American edition of Carlyle, The French Revolution: A History (London: James Fraser, 1837), 3 vols; the first American edition, published by Little & Brown in 1838, circulated widely in the United States in the 1840s.

[4] Andrew Dickson White, Autobiography (New York: Century, 1905) vol I, ch. XV. Henry Randall, Life of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1858), 3 vols. On Tocqueville’s writing of his classic work, see Richard Herr, Tocqueville and the Old Regime (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1962).

[5] His lecture on the French Revolution printed in early 1851, Edouard Laboulaye, La Révolution française étudiée dans ses institutions Discours prononcé le 3 décembre 1850 (Paris: 1851), BNF La32-281. His lectures on the colonial and revolutionary history of the United States were published in Histoire politique des Etats Unis (Paris: Durand, 1855-1866), 3 vols, with the lectures on the Revolution and Constitution making up volumes 2 and 3. On Laboulaye’s writings on the United States, see William D. Gray, Interpreting American Democracy in France, The Career of Edouard Laboulaye (Newark: U Delaware P, 1994), 56-80 and Aurelien Craiutu, “Laboulaye et les États-Unis,” Révue française d’Histoire des idées politiques 47:1 (2018): 203-225; and on Laboulaye’s novels,

Carol Harrisson, “Edouard Laboulaye, Liberal and Romantic Catholic,” French History and Civilization 6 (2015): 149-158. During the Third Republic, Laboulaye would edit and annotate the Oeuvres complètes de Montesquieu (Paris: Garnier, 1875-1879), 7 vols.  

[6] Autobiography, vol 2, ch. XVII.

[7] Andrew Dickson White Papers, Collection 1-2-2, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, Box 161-165. 

[8] The Cornell manuscript catalog dates the manuscript of the initial lecture as 1861, but the LIHS was not founded until 1863. The date of December 9, 1865, is confirmed by the Brooklyn Eagle (December 15, 1865, 2), which records the title as “American Thought and its Influence on the French Revolution.”

[9]The study of history in schools (New York: Macmillan, 1899).

[10] While serving in the New York state senate in 1865, he adapted one of his classroom lectures on the assignat to refute opposition to National Bank Act. In 1876, he revised it further into a public lecture to support Republican opposition to the Greenback, published as Paper Money Inflation in France (NY: Appleton). A second edition, brought out in 1896 to oppose silver coinage, under the title Fiat Money Inflation in France (NY: Appleton), has been frequently republished by classical monetarist entities.   

[11]”An Abridged Bibliography of the French Revolution,” in William O’Connor Morris, The French Revolution and First Empire: An Historical Sketch (NY: Scribner, 1874), 275-306.

[12] Mignet, Histoire de la Révolution française (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1824), 2 vols. Although so obscure today as to be mentioned only in passing in Linda Orr, Headless History: Nineteenth-Century French Historiography of the Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990), 22; Mignet had reached in its 8th edition by the time White drafted his lectures and would reach 18 editions by the end of the 19th century; Laboulaye, La Révolution française.

[13] Andrew Dickson White Papers, Box 162, folder 12 (Reel 142, 473).

[14] Morris, William O’Connor, 1824-1904, and Andrew Dickson White. The French Revolution and First Empire: an Historical Sketch New York: Scribner, Armstrong & co., 1874.

[15] Charles Kendall Adams, Democracy and Monarchy in France from the Inception of the Great Revolution to the Overthrow of the Second Empire (1874). Crucial elements of White’s lectures and his collection are evident in both Becker’s legendary graduate seminars and in his influential, if deeply flawed, Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (New Haven: Yale UP, 1932).

[16] Stephens, A History of the French Revolution (New York: Scribners, 1886-1889), 3 vols.

[17] Burr, Catalogue of the Historical Library of Andrew Dickson White: Part II, The French Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1892). Included in the collection of over 40,000 items are a sizeable number of manuscripts and engravings.

[18] Burleigh Taylor Wilkins, Carl Becker: A Biographical Study in American Intellectual History (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1961), 98-107.

[19] James Harvey Robinson, “The Tennis Court Oath,” Political Science Quarterly 10:3 (1895): 460-474, which references the White collection on 463; however, his wide-ranging review essay “Recent Tendencies in the Study of the French Revolution,” American Historical Review 11:3 (1906): 529-547 mentions neither White nor his collection. Charles Downer Hazen, The French Revolution and Napoleon (1917) is anything but a “new history,” though it did explicitly tie the diplomatic and military history of the period to the contemporary events of the Great War, but did not reference White. Also noteworthy for its influence on undergraduate teaching is Frederick Morrow Fling, Source Problems on the French Revolution (New York: Harper, 1913).

[20] Leo Gershoy, The French Revolution and Napoleon (1933). This book reached 5 editions before 1962, when he published Bertrand Barère, A Reluctant Terrorist (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1962).

[21] Palmer, “The French Idea of American Independence on the Eve of the French Revolution” (Ph. D. dissertation, Cornell University, 1934). 

[22] “Memorandum from Rayford W. Logan to W. E. B. Du Bois,” October 10, 1936. W. E. B. Dubois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.

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