History of the University of Pennsylvania, 1740-1940
(Edward Potts Cheyney was invited by the Trustees of the U...)
Edward Potts Cheyney was invited by the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania to write a history of the University in celebration of its bicentennial. Cheyney completed the project, published as the present work, in 1940. This, then, is his history of the University of Pennsylvania from its founding to its bicentennial anniversary.
Edward Potts Cheyney was an American historical and economic writer. He was also the University of Pennsylvania math and classics professor and later Lea Professor of Medieval History.
Edward Potts Cheyney was born on January 17, 1861, in Wallingford, Pennsylvania. He was the son of Waldron J. Cheyney, a businessman, and Fannie (Potts) Cheyney.
His parents were pillars of the Wallingford community, due both to father Waldron J. Cheyney’s business success and his mother Fannie Potts Cheyney’s heritage as a descendant of one of the earliest Quaker settlers to arrive in Pennsylvania at the end of the seventeenth century.
Cheyney attended Penn Charter Academy and the University of Pennsylvania (Wharton School), where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree, in 1884, and his Master of Arts, in 1886. Cheyney’s educational career at the University of Pennsylvania was unremarkable in terms of scholarship, but the record of his college years demonstrated an already pronounced propensity for leadership: he was voted class president and served as editor of the university’s Pennsylvania Magazine.
Cheyney's education prepared him for a career in business, like his father, whose fortune was based on holdings in the mining and chemical industries. Whatever Cheyney’s original career intentions, his interests soon turned away from business and finance during his graduate career. After earning his master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, he made the conventional move into an academic career, first teaching math and the classics at his alma mater, but soon switching to the field that would consume his professional interests for the rest of his life - medieval history.
Cheyney’s primary field of endeavor dealt with medieval European history - he ultimately was awarded the Lea Professorship in Medieval History at the University of Pennsylvania - but his earliest publications were concerned with much more recent historical events in the United States. His first study, Early American Land Tenures was published in 1885, followed two years later by The Anti-Rent Agitation in the State of New York, 1839-1846. Soon, however, he turned his attention to European history, to the task of making original sources available in English through translation. To this end he, along with James Harvey Robinson and Dana C. Munro, both of the University of Pennsylvania’s history faculty, spent much of the decade of the 1890s editing the Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, and Cheyney personally contributed several volumes in the series that focused on British primary source documents.
While Cheyney’s work on translating source documents was important, by the early 1900s he was also publishing original studies and, more importantly, textbooks, again focusing on the subject of English history, including An Introduction to the Industrial and Social History of England (1901). A reviewer from the Springfield Republic lauded the book, saying Cheyney “tells just what the student wants to know and in the way which the student understands. Few textbooks of historical research have had the influence of this one.” A Short History of England followed in 1904, along with a companion volume entitled Readings in English History (1908).
In 1914, Cheyney published the first volume of his two-volume study A History of England, from the Defeat of the Armada to the Death of Elizabeth, with an Account of English Institutions during the Later Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries. The outbreak of World War I interrupted his work on this study, and the second volume did not see publication until 1926.
Perhaps fittingly, given Cheyney’s lifelong commitment to improving the way in which history was taught, the History of the University of Pennsylvania, 1740-1940 (1940) was his final scholarly work of major importance. Cheyney died of a heart attack on February 1, 1947, and was buried in Cheyney, Pennsylvania, in the family cemetery.
Cheyney never lost sight of his early belief that the study of history was not merely a preoccupation with the past but vitally necessary to help shape the future. To that end, he wrote Law in History and Other Essays, a collection of writings aimed at providing historical insights that could serve as a guide to the shaping of present-day public policy.
Cheyney was committed to a worldview that rejected the necessity of revolutionary breaks in the name of progress but rather relied on gradualism, on the orderly, progressive evolution of society. The events of the early decades of the twentieth century, from World War I to the rise of Socialism and Marxism in Europe - most particularly the Russian Revolution - were important inspirations to Cheyney. He firmly believed that a solid understanding of the forces and trends of history could help to avoid such tragic disruptions.
Toward the end of Cheyney’s career, he became more and more committed to this almost evangelical historical stance, prompted no doubt by the radical ferment in Europe and its implications at home in the United States. Noting that American academic and public discourse was becoming increasingly restricted in reaction to the new ideologies of fascism and Marxism, Cheyney was prompted to write Intellectual Freedom in a Democracy (1936), a pamphlet intended to foster the cause of free inquiry and free speech. He followed this with a contribution to Freedom of Inquiry and Expression, a collection of essays released by the Social Science Research Council in 1938.
Cheyney very early on turned away from the then-common academic practice of “approaching the past ‘with predetermined principles of classification and organization,’” as quoted by Gilbert. Cheyney felt that it was much more appropriate to treat the historical record as raw data that, when analyzed objectively, would themselves suggest relationships and progressions that preconceived analytical frameworks might otherwise render obscure. This approach, called “scientific history,” was on the ascendance in the scholarship of Cheyney’s era, but it would be Cheyney himself, along with a handful of others, who made it the central paradigm for the study of history, thereby helping to establish the authority of the discipline.
Cheyney’s commitment to a scientific approach to the study of history did not mean that he began his studies with no prior assumptions. He strongly believed that evolutionary theory held fundamental implications for the unfolding of history. He saw the course of human affairs as being ultimately a tale of progress - moving inexorably toward the final flower of civilized achievement, democracy. This assumption underlay his belief that the proper role of the historian was not simply to articulate a series of historical events and achievements, but also to employ historical insights in the making of present-day public policy.
Cheyney's works reflect one of his central commitments: his desire to improve the quality of historical teaching at the high school and university level. In his works he began to move beyond the classical approach to history and to incorporate what Gilbert described as “the insights and techniques of the developing social sciences into historical study.” It was a perspective that Cheyney shared with others of the “New Historians” writing at the time.
Believing as he did that the study of history was essentially a study of continuity, Cheyney viewed the history of the New World as “a branch of that of Europe,” and published European Background of American History, 1300-1600, which approached the history of the colonization of America as the natural fulfillment of a long ongoing process which had its roots in the Mediterranean cultures of the 1300s. For Cheyney, every point in the historical progression could be best understood by moving backwards in time to look at the political, social, and institutional movements and events that preceded it.
Cheyney was a member of the American Historical Association.
Quotes from others about the person
“His belief in the continuity of the university and his keen insights into the problems of internal administration of higher education and scholarship make this work one of the better university histories.”
Cheyney married Gertrude Levis Squires in 1886; they later had three children.
Waldron J. Cheyney
Fannie (Potts) Cheyney
Gertrude Levis Squires
Biographical Dictionary of Modern American Educators
This volume includes biographical sketches of more than 400 notable researchers, leaders, reformers, critics, and practitioners from all major fields of education and extends the coverage of its predecessor to the mid-20th century.