FISKE, JOHN (1842–1901), American historical, philosophical and scientific writer, was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on the 30th of March 1842, and died at Gloucester, Massachusetts, on the 4th of July 1901. His name was originally Edmund Fiske Green, but in 1855 he took the name of a great-grandfather, John Fiske. His boyhood was spent with a grandmother in Middletown, Connecticut; and prior to his entering college he had read widely in English literature and history, had surpassed most boys in the extent of his Greek and Latin work, and had studied several modern languages. He graduated at Harvard in 1863, continuing to study languages and philosophy with zeal; spent two years in the Harvard law school, and opened an office in Boston; but soon devoted the greater portion of his time to writing for periodicals. With the exception of one year, he resided at Cambridge, Massachusetts, from the time of his graduation until his death. In 1869 he gave a course of lectures at Harvard on the Positive Philosophy; next year he was history tutor; in 1871 he delivered thirty-five lectures on the Doctrine of Evolution, afterwards revised and expanded as Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy (1874); and between 1872 and 1879 he was assistant-librarian. After that time he devoted himself to literary work and lecturing on history. Nearly all of his books were first given to the public in the form of lectures or magazine articles, revised and collected under a general title, such as Myths and Myth-Makers (1872), Darwinism and Other Essays (1879), Excursions of an Evolutionist (1883), and A Century of Science (1899). He did much, by the thoroughness of his learning and the lucidity of his style, to spread a knowledge of Darwin and Spencer in America. His Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy, while setting forth the Spencerian system, made psychological and sociological additions of original matter, in some respects anticipating Spencer’s later conclusions. Of one part of the argument of this work Fiske wrote in the preface of one of his later books (Through Nature to God, 1899): “The detection of the part played by the lengthening of infancy in the genesis of the human race is my own especial contribution to the Doctrine of Evolution.” In The Idea of God as affected by Modern Knowledge (1885) Fiske discusses the theistic problem, and declares that the mind of man, as developed, becomes an illuminating indication of the mind of God, which as a great immanent cause includes and controls both physical and moral forces. More original, perhaps, is the argument in the immediately preceding work, The Destiny of Man, viewed in the Light of his Origin (1884), which is, in substance, that physical evolution is a demonstrated fact; that intellectual force is a later, higher and more potent thing than bodily strength; and that, finally, in most men and some “lower animals” there is developed a new idea of the advantageous, a moral and non-selfish line of thought and procedure, which in itself so transcends the physical that it cannot be identified with it or be measured by its standards, and may or must be enduring, or at its best immortal.
It is principally, however, through his work as a historian that Fiske’s reputation will live. His historical writings, with the exception of a small volume on American Political Ideas (1885), an account of the system of Civil Government in the United States (1890), The Mississippi Valley in the Civil War (1900), a school history of the United States, and an elementary story of the American Revolution, are devoted to studies, in a unified general manner, of separate yet related episodes in American history. The volumes have not appeared in chronological order of subject, but form a nearly complete colonial history, as follows: The Discovery of America, with some Account of Ancient America, and the Spanish Conquest (1892, 2 vols.); Old Virginia and her Neighbours (1897, 2 vols.); The Beginnings of New England; or, The Puritan Theocracy in its Relations to Civil and Religious Liberty (1889); Dutch and Quaker Colonies in America (1899); The American Revolution (1891, 2 vols.); and The Critical Period of American History, 1783–1789 (1888). Of these the most original and valuable is the Critical Period volume, a history of the consolidation of the states into a government, and of the formation of the constitution. (C. F. R.)