Herbert Levi Osgood

The American historian Herbert Levi Osgood (1855-1918) was a leading authority on colonial history in America, especially the origin and development of English-American political institutions.

Herbert Levi Osgood was born on April 9, 1855, in Canton, Maine. He studied at Amherst, and after he graduated he taught for 2 years at Worcester Academy in Massachusetts. He then went on to graduate school at Yale and in 1882-1883 studied in Berlin under Heinrich von Treitschke and consulted frequently with Leopold von Ranke. In general, Osgood adopted Ranke's view of history. Ranke's goal was to reconstruct historical events "as they actually were," avoiding subjective interpretations and moralistic judgments.

Osgood taught at Brooklyn High School from 1883 to 1889, also pursuing his doctorate at Columbia College's faculty of political science, where he received his degree in 1889. Shortly thereafter he decided to concentrate on the political history of the English colonies in America. This area of interest was not an abrupt change from his earlier work. In an article which antedates his doctorate, he urged American scholars to consider British colonial policy more sympathetically. The article, entitled "England and the Colonies" and published in the Political Science Quarterly, was of some significance in that it revealed him as one of the first scholars, if not indeed the first, to question the legal justification of the American Revolution, however inevitable it may have been otherwise.

In pursuit of this interest, Osgood spent 15 months in London studying public records. He then received an appointment to the faculty at Columbia, becoming a full professor in 1896. He taught the survey course on European history and the constitutional history of England. However, his primary interest remained the political development of the American colonies. Through his graduate seminar he was responsible for more than 50 dissertations on the early history of every one of the original 13 colonies and Canada and on certain phases of British imperial administration in London. Both Osgood and his students concentrated for the most part on legal institutions in these works, since he contended that, although social and economic forces contribute to and condition historical development, "the historian must never lose sight of the fact that they operate within a framework of law." Osgood thus abandoned the customary geographical classification of the colonies, substituting instead a legal-political classification (royal, proprietary charters, and corporate charters) that is still commonly used in political science texts.

Osgood's major works were The American Colonies in the Seventeenth Century (3 vols., 1904-1907) and The American Colonies in the Eighteenth Century (4 vols., 1924). In 1908 he received the Lambat Prize for the best work on early American history published during the previous 5 years, an honor which he gained again, though posthumously, in 1926. Much of the ground covered in these volumes had never before been subjected to scientific historiography. As a whole, the works concern mainly developments between the British Cabinets and the colonial assemblies, which progressively represent the emerging consciousness of the embryo nation.

Osgood edited the eight-volume Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1675-1776 (1905), which became a model for subsequent surveys in the area. He was also responsible for reforming the administration of the archives of New York State in 1907. He died on Sept. 11, 1918.

Further Reading on Herbert Levi Osgood

Dixon Ryan Fox, Herbert Levi Osgood, an American Scholar (1924), is a biography written by his son-in-law. There is a chapter on Osgood by E. C. O. Beatty in William T. Hutchinson, ed., The Marcus W. Jernegan Essays in American Historiography (1937). John Higham and others, History (1965), has a biographical sketch of Osgood.