American Historical Association

Theodore Roosevelt served as president of the American Historical Association (AHA) in 1912. The organization was founded in 1884 at a time when the discipline of history was still very new. The AHA led the effort to professionalize the field of history as it moved out of the hands of antiquarians and into universities as a subject of academic endeavor. The discipline of history came to be marked by an emphasis on an objective treatment of the past based upon the collection and rigorous analysis of primary sources (documents created at the time of the event studied). In 1889, the AHA was chartered by Congress “for the promotion of historical studies, the collection and preservation of historical manuscripts and for kindred purposes in the interest of American history and of history in America.” 

Roosevelt was one of the earliest members of the AHA. He attended the association’s 1889 conference and presented a paper entitled “The Westward Movement during the Revolutionary War,” throughout which he chided the mostly East-coast historians for ignoring Western history. At the 1896 conference, Roosevelt was a discussant on a panel led by the famous Western historian Frederick Jackson Turner. Bad weather forced President Roosevelt to cancel a talk he was supposed to give at the 1909 AHA conference. In 1912, he presented “The Lessons of Our Military History,” a paper ostensibly calling for the writing of better military history, but that also included a warning about the importance of military preparedness.

Theodore Roosevelt authored many historical articles, book reviews, and several works of history: The Naval War of 1812 (1882), Thomas Hart Benton (1887), Gouverneur Morris (1888), The Winning of the West (1889-1896), The Life of Oliver Cromwell (1890), and, with Henry Cabot Lodge, Hero Tales from American History (1895). He continued to write after his AHA presidency ended, including History as Literature and Other Essays (1913). Thus, his presidential stint was not simply honorary: he earned the position. On December 30, 1910, despite some misgivings about the limited time he could devote to the organization and the narrowly focused, academic nature of the group, Roosevelt was elected vice-president of the AHA, and on December 29, 1911, he began his presidency.

Among the initiatives he advocated was the creation of an adequate building for the nation’s archives, as important governmental documents, dating from 1789, were scattered among several federal agencies rather than being properly tended at one central location. He also called for a national historical commission that would work hand-in-hand with the (proposed) national archives staff to publish finding aids and other informational material. He also promoted the protection of historic sites.

All AHA presidential terms are one year long and conclude with a speech to the members. Roosevelt gave his address, “History as Literature,” on December 27, 1912, at the 28th annual AHA meeting in snowy Boston. There were 2,500 people in attendance to hear him at Symphony Hall, even though only 450 were registered members of the AHA. Roosevelt began by asking whether history should be classified as science or as literature. He concluded that good history should balance the two. Excellent historical writing, Roosevelt decided, must include “profound research, patient, laborious, [and] painstaking,” as well as “vivid” and colorful prose. Historians required, he said, “vision and imagination, the power to grasp what is essential and to reject the infinitely more numerous nonessentials, the power to embody ghosts, to put flesh and blood on dry bones, to make dead men living before our eyes. In short he must have the power to take the science of history and turn it into literature.”

Roosevelt went on to suggest that historians should investigate the broadest array of historical topics, employ the use of more than one viewpoint, and borrow from the methodologies of sister fields such as anthropology, ethnology, and archeology. He called for historians to study all corners of the earth, systems as well as individuals, the wealthy and “the plain people, the ordinary men and women.” Historians must analyze the “extraordinary” times, “the spectacular and the exceptional” eras, but “we can [not] forget that it is the ordinary every-day life which counts most.” Roosevelt extolled the teaching of history because it was imperative that citizens in a democracy understood the past and its lessons, even unpleasant ones. “The true historian,” he said in summation, “must bring the past before our eyes as if it were the present.”

Today the AHA bestows the Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Award on those “individuals outside the historical profession who have made a significant contribution to the study, teaching, and public understanding of history.”