The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XVII. Writers on American History, 1783–1850

§ 18. Force

Peter Force was born in New Jersey in 1790. When very small he accompanied his father to New York, where, after a short term at school, he became a printer’s boy. He proved intelligent and reliable and rose to the first place in the business. In 1816 he became managing partner in a shop which his former master established in Washington to execute a government contract. In 1823 he became editor and proprietor of The National Journal, then in the interest of Monroe’s administration and later an Adams organ. In 1830 his party had disintegrated, and, being of all men least able to find another, he saw his paper run into a decline that left him without employment.

Earlier than this he had made plans for publishing a great collection of documents on the American Revolution. Sparks was just bringing his Diplomatic Correspondence to a successful close, and the profits of the enterprise had attracted the attention of more than one Washington editor. It seemed a favourable time to attempt the execution of Force’s scheme. He found a partner in Matthew St. Clair Clarke, clerk of the House of Representatives, who had money enough to launch the enterprise and political influence enough to get it authorized by Congress. Accordingly, after some negotiations Congress on 2 March, 1833, at the very time the compromise tariff bill and the “Force Bill” disposed of the South Carolina crisis, passed a brief law authorizing the secretary of state to contract with Force and Clarke for the publication of a documentary history of the American Revolution, provided it did not cost more proportionally than Sparks’s work.

Edward Livingston was then secretary of state. His contemporaries considered him an impractical man, and the contract he now made goes far to support their view. It was agreed that the work should be published in folio form, the government to take fifteen hundred copies at 1 7/8 cents a page a copy. Thus $22,500 would be paid for each volume of eight hundred pages. No limit was set to the number of volumes, and as the mass of materials was large the work might be made to extend to many volumes. Among Force’s manuscripts, in the Library of Congress, is a memorandum in which he and Clarke estimated their profits, not including the expenses of collecting materials, at $11,000 on a volume of eight hundred and fifty pages. Force had begun to collect, according to his own statement, as early as 1822; but his efforts had evidently been desultory. He now gave all his time to the work, his partner advancing the necessary funds.

By 1834 a storm of denunciation broke over them. Clarke had lost his office through the triumph of the Jackson men in the House. He was believed, before going, to have filched this fat job, by which he could publish an indefinite number of volumes at a great profit. The secretary of state was called on for an investigation, and there was an angry debate in the House; but nobody could discover means to annul a contract about which the only complaint was that it was unwisely made. Moreover, the plan announced provided for six series each containing several volumes, covering the whole existence of the country from the days of settlement until the adoption of the constitution. The title was The American Archives.

In 1837 the initial volume, the first of the fourth series, was before the public. It was made on such a comprehensive scale that the completed series would necessarily be gigantic. Moreover, the character of the contents was alarming. By “documents” most people understood manuscript materials, or rare fugitive papers; but here were included whole sections of the debates in Parliament, the journals of the Continental Congress, and many state laws, all previously accessible in print. It was Force’s idea to make a complete collection of Revolutionary material. In 1839 the second volume of the fourth series appeared, and in 1840 the third volume. Such was the feeling that in 1843 the publishers had not been paid for the third volume and could not get $6000 of the amount due on the second. Under these circumstances a compromise was made. The publishers agreed that the series should not exceed twenty volumes at a maximum average cost of $20,400 each, and that the secretary of state should approve the materials offered for publication. About this time Clarke sold his interest in the series to Rives, the partner of F. P. Blair.

For several years matters now proceeded satisfactorily. The fourth volume appeared in 1843, the fifth in 1844, and the sixth, completing the fourth series, in 1846. The first volume of the fifth series came in 1848, the second in 1851, and the third in 1853. Marcy was secretary of state in 1855, and when the material for the fourth volume was submitted, he refused to approve it in any part. To Force he said: “I do not believe in your work, sir! It is of no use to anybody. I never read a page of it and never expect to.” Neither he nor his successor, Lewis Cass, could be induced to change this decision, and The American Archives came to an end with Volume III of the fifth series, nine volumes in all having been issued.

In 1832 Force thought the series would contain not more than five volumes, eleven years later it was limited to twenty, but when nine had been published the story of the Revolution had been carried only to the end of 1776. At this rate it would have taken over thirty volumes to bring the story to the treaty of peace; and if it had been limited to twenty it must have been left incomplete. One other fact may have aroused Marcy’s disapprobation. By 1855 each Congress had formed the habit of ordering copies of the work for its own members not previously in the House, a species of graft unlikely to be terminated by Congress itself. On the other hand, it is undeniable that Marcy did not appreciate Force’s work and that he was illiberal, if not narrow-minded.

Early in the series Force adopted the following division of the matter bearing on the period any given volume was to cover: (1) The proceedings, papers, and correspondence of the Continental Congress; (2) The proceedings, papers, and correspondence of the assemblies, conventions, and councils of safety of the several states; (3) The proceedings, papers, and correspondence of the British Government and of the officers acting under it in our Revolution; (4) Miscellaneous letters and papers relating to the Revolution. This material was presented with accuracy and completeness, but poorly arranged, and with very few editorial notes. The indexes in the fourth series were inadequate, but the deficiency was remedied in the fifth.

After the rejection of his work Force continued in Washington, completing his collections and putting them into shape for publication, if fortune should bring the opportunity. The outbreak of the war removed the last hope of this kind. In 1867 he was too old to complete his task, and sold his library to the Government for $100,000. It contained 22,529 printed volumes, about 40,000 pamphlets, some valuable newspaper files, and enough transcripts to make 129 bound volumes. The collection was placed in the Library of Congress, where Force’s manuscripts remain unpublished. In 1879 Congress called for a report on the value of the collection, and received a lucid statement from the Librarian of Congress. No practical results followed.

Aside from the Archives Force is best remembered for four volumes of Tracts published from 1836 to 1846. They were mostly reprints of rare pamphlets relating to the earliest period of American history, and their publication was accomplished with financial sacrifices. “Whenever I found a little more money in my purse than I absolutely needed,” he said, “I printed a volume of Tracts.” Several pamphlets of his own composition were also published, none of them of much importance. They serve to show us how little of an author he was.

Bancroft and Sparks collected documents, and Sparks published documents, but each was an historian first of all. Force collected documents and published them, without a thought of editing or interpreting them. If his great work had been more discreetly conducted, it might have weathered the storm of popular criticism. But Force was not discreet. In all the confusion around him he never relaxed an inch in his plan of making a complete and all-inclusive collection.

Force has had no successor, probably because his example raised up such a large school of local collectors and compilers that there has been no room for one vast treasure. The work he did not do has been carried on by many workers and has resulted in many restricted collections. Force played a large part in awakening the interest of this group; and in doing so he contributed much to the progress of American historical scholarship in the last fifty years, its latest and most fruitful period.