After its long career of triumph and disaster, glory and shame, the world stands to-day at the end of an old and the beginning of a new century, looking forward with hope and backward with pride, for it has just completed the most wonderful hundred years it has ever known, and has laid a noble foundation for the twentieth century, now at its dawn. There can be no more fitting time than this to review the marvelous progress of the closing century, through a portion of which all of us have lived, many of us through a great portion of it. Some of the greatest of its events have taken place before our own eyes; in some of them many now living have borne a part; to picture them again to our mental vision cannot fail to be of interest and profit to us all.
When, after a weary climb, we find ourselves on the summit of a lofty mountain, and look back from that commanding altitude over the ground we have traversed, what is it that we behold? The minor details of the scenery, many of which seemed large and important to us as we passed, are now lost to view, and we see only the great and imposing features of the landscape, the high elevations, the town-studded valleys, the deep and winding streams, the broad forests. It is the same when, from the summit of an age, we gaze backward over the plain of time. The myriad of petty happenings are lost to sight, and we see only the striking events, the critical epochs, the mighty crises through which the world has passed. These are the things that make true history, not the daily doings in the king’s palace or the peasant’s hut. What we should seek to observe and store up in our memories are the turning points in human events, the great thoughts which have ripened into noble deeds, the hands of might which have pushed the world forward in its career; not the trifling occurrences which signify nothing, the passing actions which have borne no fruit in human affairs. It is with such turning points, such critical periods in the history of the nineteenth century, that this work proposes to deal; not to picture the passing bubbles on the stream of time, but to point out the great ships which have sailed up that stream laden deep with a noble freight. This is history in its deepest and best aspect, and we have set our camera to photograph only the men who have made and the events which constitute this true history of the nineteenth century.
On the threshold of the century with which we have to deal two grand events stand forth; two of those masterpieces of political evolution which mold the world and fashion the destiny of mankind. These are, in the Eastern hemisphere, the French Revolution; in the Western hemisphere, the American Revolution and the founding of the republic of the United States. In the whole history of the world there are no events that surpass these in importance, and they may fitly be dwelt upon as main foundation stones in the structure we are seeking to build. The French Revolution shaped the history of Europe for nearly a quarter century after 1800. The American Revolution shaped the history of America for a still longer period, and is now beginning to shape the history of the world. It is important therefore that we dwell on those two events sufficiently to show the part they have played in the history of the age. Here, however, we shall confine our attention to the Revolution in France. That in America must be left to the American section of our work.