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Fiske, Johnfree

(30 March 1842–04 July 1901)
  • Milton Berman

Fiske, John (30 March 1842–04 July 1901), historian and popularizer of evolutionary science, was born Edmund Fisk Green in Hartford, Connecticut, the son of Edmund Brewster Green, a lawyer and Whig journalist, and Mary Fisk Bound. When his father’s political journalism proved financially unsuccessful, his parents sent the one-year-old child to live with his grandmother Polly Fisk Bound and great-grandfather John Fisk in Middletown, Connecticut. In 1855, after the death of his father and his mother’s remarriage to Edwin Wallace Stoughton, a successful lawyer and later U.S. minister to Russia, he agreed to his grandmother’s request that he legally adopt her father’s name since he was the only male descendant of his great-grandfather (he added the “e” to his name in 1860).

Fiske grew up in an orthodox Christian family, formally joining the North Congregational Church in Middletown at the age of fourteen. A shy boy, he spent much of his time reading, exploring current literature, and discovering new attitudes to the world that shook his religious faith. At eighteen he declared himself an “infidel” and a convert to the positive philosophy of Auguste Comte, whose rational, scientific system of thought provided Fiske with a comprehensive explanation of the universe. His open rejection of his upbringing precipitated a family crisis that was resolved by his removal to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he prepared for admission to Harvard College, entering as a sophomore in 1860. He found the required studies uninspiring and spent most of his time on a self-directed, wide-ranging reading and study program in history and philosophy, also teaching himself the elements of a dozen languages, which he hoped to use to prepare for a career as a philologist.

While exploring Boston bookshops, Fiske stumbled on the work of Herbert Spencer. He reacted with enthusiasm, telling his mother that Spencer “has discovered a great law of evolution in nature, which underlies all phenomena, & which is as important & more comprehensive than Newton’s law of gravitation” (Berman, pp. 36–37). Fiske’s enthusiasm for Spencer’s philosophy of evolution never waned; much of his career would be devoted to applying his understanding of Spencer to linguistics, philosophy, religion, and history.

In 1863, the year he graduated from Harvard, Fiske published “The Evolution of Language” in the October North American Review, in which he argued that the classification systems created by the great nineteenth-century philologists were not simply descriptive, but also revealed a developmental progression from the simplest language, Chinese, to the most advanced and civilized languages, the Indo-European. He continued to write reviews and articles while studying at Harvard Law School (LL.B., 1865) and during a brief unproductive career as a lawyer. In 1864, with support from his mother and stepfather, he married Abby Morgan Brooks of Petersham, Massachusetts; they had six children.

New opportunities opened up for Fiske when Charles William Eliot became president of Harvard and began to develop postgraduate education in the arts and sciences. He invited Fiske to give a series of lectures on positive philosophy in 1869–1870. Manton Marble, an admirer of Spencer, published all eighteen lectures—as well as nineteen new ones Fiske wrote for the next academic year—in his New York World, printing the first four on the front page.

Fiske failed to obtain a position teaching history at Harvard due to opposition within the governing boards to placing a positivist, whose religious ideas seemed almost atheistic, on the faculty. Instead, Eliot appointed him assistant librarian in 1872. His library duties took little time, permitting him to continue to write articles, lecture, and revise his Harvard lectures, eliminating praise of Comte and moving closer to Spencer’s positions. In 1873 he traveled to England for a year’s stay, financed by his Boston admirers, to prepare his manuscript for publication. He thoroughly enjoyed his social and intellectual success in England; Spencer, Thomas Henry Huxley, Charles Darwin, George Eliot, and Sir Charles Lyell welcomed him to their homes and clubs and advised him on his revision.

In Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy (2 vols., 1874), a title Fiske kept despite Spencer’s objections to the word “cosmic,” Fiske demonstrated his mastery of Spencer’s philosophy of evolution. Not only did he explain, in much clearer language than the original, material that Spencer’s published work had covered, but he went on to apply these ideas to matters of social evolution that Spencer had not yet explored. He also showed much more interest in the religious implications of evolution, arguing that there was no conflict between science and religion because Spencer’s concept of the “Unknowable” was the basis of all religion.

The Cosmic Philosophy earned Fiske a reputation as a philosopher but did little to advance his position at Harvard. He welcomed an 1878 offer to give six lectures on American history for the Old South Association; in 1879 he resigned his Harvard library position and thereafter earned his living as a freelance lecturer and writer. Success came slowly; not until the Houghton Mifflin Company, in 1888, put him on an annual retainer did the financial stringency of the 1880s begin to ease. During that decade Fiske developed the process by which he wrote and marketed his historical works. Initially written as a series of lectures during lengthy tours that took him to northern cities from Maine to Oregon and as far south as Richmond, Virginia, they were later published as magazine articles and finally as books.

Fiske stated the philosophic basis of his histories in three lectures first given in 1879 and 1880 and published as American Political Ideas Viewed from the Standpoint of Universal History (1885). Drawing on the work of British historians who viewed Parliament as the acme of European ideas of freedom and self-government, he argued that the United States had evolved even further. The New England town meeting was the purest form of local government and the American Federal Union the highest form of representative government. English settlers carried these ideas to a new land where a new nation could evolve, “equipped as no other nation had ever been, for the task of combining sovereignty with liberty, indestructible union of the whole with indestructible life in the parts” (Fiske, Beginnings of New England, p. 56). The final lecture, “Manifest Destiny,” the most popular of his lectures, predicted the peaceful spread of English and American political ideas across the globe, ushering in a millennium of freedom and peace.

The first of Fiske’s historical series to be published, The Critical Period of American History, 1783–1789 (1888), argued that the years 1783–1789 were critical not just because of economic and political turmoil, as some have read the book, but because the adoption of the Constitution was the decisive step by which the United States advanced English political ideas of representative government to a new and higher level. The Beginnings of New England (1889) and The American Revolution (2 vols., 1891) were smoothly written anecdotal accounts based on secondary sources that could be read (and heard) as fascinating detail or as illustrations of his basic thesis. Only in The Discovery of America (2 vols., 1892) did he use primary sources, footnoting printed sources in a dozen languages on points in controversy. Old Virginia and Her Neighbours (2 vols., 1897), The Dutch and Quaker Colonies in America (2 vols., 1899), and New France and New England (1902) filled chronological gaps in his history with well-written if unoriginal narratives.

During the 1880s, as financial and family problems worsened, Fiske began to lecture on religion, replacing the abstract reconciliation of science and belief in his Cosmic Philosophy with discussions of the emotional consolation he found in the idea of an immanent deity guiding evolution to produce humanity as the crown of creation. He wrote:

He who has mastered the Darwinian theory, he who recognizes the slow and subtle process of evolution as the way in which God makes things come to pass, … sees that in the deadly struggle for existence that has raged throughout countless aeons of time, the whole creation has been groaning and travailing together in order to bring forth that last consummate specimen of God’s handiwork, the Human Soul. (Fiske, Studies in Religion, pp. 19–20)

Collected in 1902 as Studies in Religion, the lectures “The Destiny of Man in the Light of His Origins,” “The Idea of God as Affected by Modern Knowledge,” and “Through Nature to God” were given in many cities, sometimes as Sunday guest sermons, as Fiske toured with his history lectures.

In the 1890s Fiske’s optimistic faith in the peaceful evolution and expansion of American democracy weakened. The rise of urban political machines based on the votes of immigrant citizens troubled him. When a group of young Harvard graduates formed the Immigration Restriction League in 1894 and offered him the presidency, he accepted, although he apparently did not attend any meetings. William Jennings Bryan’s 1896 free silver campaign led Fiske to abandon his lifelong allegiance to the Democratic party. The Spanish-American War caused even more intellectual discomfort. Fiske’s Manifest Destiny expected peaceful expansion through consent; at first he opposed annexation of the Philippines, then reluctantly supported the move.

Fiske’s health deteriorated in his last years; he complained of shortness of breath. A period of hot, muggy weather in June 1901 sent him from Cambridge to Gloucester, Massachusetts, for the sea air, where he died as the nation celebrated its 125th birthday.

Fiske’s work drew audiences partly because of his literary skills but even more because his ideas spoke so eloquently to the needs of his time. He became the most popular historian of his generation, though not a bestselling author in the modern sense; few of his books sold as many as 15,000 copies in their year of issue. Academics might fault his scholarship, but to educated audiences across the United States who came to his lectures and bought his books, he presented a view of their past that appealed to their national pride and a reconciliation of science and religion that eased accommodation to the challenge of evolutionary thought.


The family collection of Fiske letters, lectures, and book manuscripts is in the Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif. The Manton Marble Papers in the Library of Congress and various collections in the Harvard University Archives and the Houghton Library of Harvard University hold significant manuscripts. John Spencer Clark, The Life and Letters of John Fiske (2 vols., 1917), is an uncritical biography but is the most useful edition of his letters. The Letters of John Fiske, edited by his daughter, Ethel F[iske] Fisk (1940), is heavily edited and unreliable. His work was collected as The Historical Writings of John Fiske (12 vols., 1902) and The Miscellaneous Writings of John Fiske (12 vols., 1902). Milton Berman, John Fiske: The Evolution of a Popularizer (1961), includes an annotated bibliography. See also Jennings B. Saunders, “John Fiske,” in The Marcus W. Jernegan Essays in American Historiography, ed. William T. Hutchinson (1937), pp. 144–70; H. Burnell Pannill, The Religious Faith of John Fiske (1957); Bruce Kuklick, The Rise of American Philosophy (1977); Lewis O. Saum, “John Fiske and the West,” Huntington Library Quarterly 48 (1985): 47–58; and Jon H. Roberts, Darwinism and the Divine in America (1988). Significant obituaries are in the Nation, 11 July 1901; Harper’s Weekly, 20 July 1901; Critic, Aug. 1901; and International Monthly, Oct. 1901.