The Importance of Local History

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IT is an encouraging feature of the times that local history is receiving a share of the attention it justly merits. The fact should be clear to everyone that local history is the A B C of all political and general history, so much so that without it the rest is impossible. Napoleon stated this fact laconically when the courtier was asking his opinion upon the feasibility of writing the history of one of the general’s great campaigns. The warrior looked the embryonic historian in the eye and said: “No good history of an army can be written without the history of each company and regiment is written first.” Here the general showed deep forethought and sagacity, and of that nature that stamps him as a man of extraordinary genius. How true the remark is and just.

So no good history of our own beloved state can be written until we have first the written annals of her villages and towns the companies and regiments that make up the Army of Rhode Island.

It is frequently said that the subjects are “too trifling.” Granted; but it is these trifles that make up the whole. It’s the trifles; families and villages that form the towns, and the towns that form the counties and finally the state, and the states that form our great united nation and glorious republic. So it is men only that form the sections, and companies that form the battalions and regiments, and the regiments that form the brigades, divisions, and these the grand army itself.

The parallel is good here in formation, and holds equally good in dissolution. If a part is not written, or an army not fully made up, the result is seen. If great gaps remained unwritten, or a large portion is not recruited, it takes no historian or military genius to see that the work remains incomplete, and that it cannot do the labor required or expected of it in as able or as complete a manner as if every detail in both had been fully met and supplied. It now logically follows that a state history compared with another wherein these details had been more met will be condemned by historians and scholars just as surely as one army meeting another better supplied will be defeated, material in both cases being equal. The trifles in one case, and the men in the other accomplished the work. Therefore it stands to reason that we should attend to both the trifles and men, if we earnestly desire success.

Another objection we hear quite often, and frequently put in the form of a query, – “Will it pay to do it?” We ask will it pay to go to war and slaughter thousands? Will the glory and profits compensate for the tears, anguish, and miseries it entails upon the nation and people to win it? If to this you say, “Yes, the glory is pay enough;” then we reply. Yes, the glory is pay enough for the local historian to compensate him for the labor he bestows upon his work and, better, he leaves none of his fellow creatures the worse for his genius. He has no dark side to offer them of desolation, anguish, misery, but rather one of pleasure, instruction, beneficence. Every soldier, i.e., every one that helps him in his labor is like a private soldier entitled to his reward for his part of the conquest according to the importance of the part he took in it.

We think this comparison is reasonable, and to our mind, conclusive. We think we have demonstrated by these remarks that local history is of great importance, yea, of the first importance. We will go even further than this and say that we honestly believe that if a man cannot afford to own but one history, that history should be that of his native town, or state. If a town history be well written it is really astonishing how many new ideas it will draw out of the reader, and how much he will see that the historian has neglected to mention, and that too of matter which the reader thinks of as much, if of not more importance, than some of the topics the historian has treated. No doubt this is in many cases true, and no doubt the historian was ignorant of these facts at the time he wrote.

We trust it will not be thought egotistical in us to say that we concede to the reader his position, and add that this had great weight with us in starting our magazine; its columns being open it gives these men an opportunity to add their mite to the information already obtained, and he who will do this will confer a lasting favor upon the historian, the public, and posterity. We hope the reader of these remarks will remember this, and give us notes of this nature and it will truly render us a great favor. We wish to firmly impress upon our readers this fact, not to neglect these trifles but to treasure them; and therefore we trust our readers will aid us in this way to the utmost of their power, so that the historian and his readers working and moving as one will be enabled in the end to achieve a grand victory, and we feel that the victory will be worth all the powder and shot wasted to win it.

SOURCE: Page(s): 83-85; The Narragansett, Volume 1. October, 1882 Number 2

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