Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Sr. (1850–1924) is best known for organizing congressional opposition to the Treaty of Versailles shortly after World War I. His leading role in that debate came at the culmination of a career in the Republican Party spanning more than 30 years. But before Lodge ever spoke of an interest in running for office, his calling was that of an historian.
One of the first Americans to receive a Ph.D. in history, Lodge grew up in a prominent Boston Brahmin family whose fortunes were made in maritime shipping. Under the supervision of Henry Adams, he wrote his dissertation at Harvard on Anglo-Saxon land laws. After receiving a doctorate in 1876, Lodge quickly turned to the study of early American history. A prolific and well-reviewed author, he published a great many books and articles over the next few years including biographies of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Daniel Webster, and Lodge’s own great-grandfather George Cabot, also U.S. senator from Massachusetts.
Through his research and writing, the young Lodge developed a distinct interpretation of American history with practical consequences for his own day. The interpretation was one Lodge called Hamiltonian. And this Hamiltonian perspective would inform Lodge’s entry into political life over the course of the 1880s.
Lodge approached the study and writing of American history with a purpose. His goals were vindicatory, specific, and instructive. He worried that in Gilded Age America deep ethnic, class, religious, and sectional differences, the loss of historical memory, and a growing obsession with money had combined to loosen and erode the patriotic understanding of earlier generations. He looked to recover an awareness of U.S. history for his readers—that is to say, for U.S. citizens—in order to remind them of their common national past, their common national traditions, and their potentially common national purpose. For Lodge, the reading and writing of American history was itself a nationalist project.
The young Brahmin was skeptical of general or universal theories of history. Yet Lodge had a very strong sense of historical continuity in human affairs: “that however conditions change, the great underlying qualities which make and save men and nations do not alter.” Throughout his life, he found the study of history to be a source of political wisdom—perhaps the one true source. History was philosophy instructing by example. In fact it was a substitute for philosophical abstraction. He sought to learn from it and to apply its lessons to the present.
Lodge’s approach to the subject was also distinctly American. That is, he looked to inspire his fellow citizens with a deeper sympathy for their own country’s past. He aimed for a popular audience: “a scientific history, crammed with facts, well arranged, but unreadable … [is] as sad a monument of misspent labor as human vanity can show.” In keeping with his love of the theater, he believed useful lessons were best taught through vivid, dramatic, and personal examples. As he said, “the history of man is in large measure governed by … passion, sentiment, and emotion, and cannot be gauged, or understood, without the sympathy and the perception which only imagination and the dramatic instinct can give.” If American democracy faced immense challenges in his own time—and it did—then his inclination was to “look into the past, and see whether we cannot find suggestions that will help us in our difficulties.” This was a deeply conservative project. Lodge believed that certain worthwhile values and institutions from the past were under severe threat in his own time. He looked to preserve them. As his mentor Henry Adams said, Lodge “betrayed the consciousness that he and his people had a past, if they dared but avow it.”