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Historiography, American


HISTORIOGRAPHY, AMERICAN. Historiography refers to the history of historical writing. It also encompasses the philosophy, scope, and methods employed in historical work.

The Colonial Period

American historical writing has a long, if sporadic, history until the middle of the nineteenth century. Initial works of history in the seventeenth century were often composed by men who had participated in the events described. Typical of this genre was John Smith's The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles (1624). Captain Smith described his years in the Jamestown wilderness, the starvation endured by the settlers, and his "rescue" by the Indian princess Pocahontas. Smith's vivid descriptions and personality coexisted with his desire to settle scores and to fabricate material.

In the colonies to the north, a group of capable chroniclers described the early history of settlements in New England. Between 1630 and 1650, William Bradford wrote his History of Plimoth Plantation, although the work was not published in full until 1856, with a definitive edition appearing in 1912. Bradford, who began his journey to the New World from Holland and who served as governor of Plymouth Colony, covered the controversies of the early years of the colony: the natural disasters and near starvation of the settlers until the kindly intervention of local Indian tribes. John Winthrop's journal, covering the Massachusetts Bay Colony for the period 1630–1639, chronicled religious disputes with Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, the growth of a theodicy, and the daily life of the community.

A handful of other significant works of history appeared in the seventeenth century, most notably Edward Johnson's The Wonder-Working Providence of Sion's Savior in New England (1654); Increase Mather's A Brief History of the War with the Indians (1676), his account of King Philip's War; and Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana (1702). The method employed in most of these histories combined documents with occasional reflections on them. The narrative holding them together was a descriptive thread designed to capture the trials and tribulations of colonial settlement. Among the Puritan historians especially, a philosophy of history animated each line of the text. In their work as settlers and historians, these men announced that they were following God's divine plan, founding, as Winthrop famously stated, "A City Upon a Hill." Their work was intended to help lay the foundation for that endeavor.

Revolutionary War Era

In the years leading up to the American Revolution, loyalist historians condemned the colonial movement toward independence from Great Britain. George Chalmers, William Smith, and Thomas Hutchinson, most famously, in History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts Bay (1764), offered interventions, through history, into the politics of the era. They failed, however, to stem the tide of revolutionary fervor and their influence in America was minimal.

The revolutionary period and its immediate aftermath was dominated by attempts to move away from local histories toward national ones. David Ramsay's The History of the American Revolution (1789) was notable for its strident nationalism and Federalist perspective, as well as for its tendency toward plagiarism. Despite the patriarchy that marked American society in this era, two women contributed importantly to the historiography. Both of them were wealthy and well connected. Hannah Adams's A Summary History of New England (1799) demonstrated an Enlightenment view on religious affairs, condemning the intolerance of her Puritan forefathers. Mercy Otis Warren's History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (1805) was a work that rendered moral and political reflections upon the leading actors of the Revolution. Fiercely democratic and idealist, Warren used her study to speculate on human nature, on the passions and reason. Warren followed her ancestors in positing that human action was part of a providential plan. Thus she combined aspects of Calvinist and Enlightenment thought within her history of the figures of the Revolution.

Romantic History

American historical writing blossomed in the 1830s during the period of the American literary renaissance associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. Writers turned to the American continent to record the romance of America and the unfolding of a new type of individual, the American democrat. Although their politics differed somewhat, both George Bancroft and Francis Parkman were Romantic historians with a vision of American progress. Trained in Germany and conversant with transcendental strains of philosophy, Bancroft's ten-volume History of the United States (1834–1874) was a paean to the development of freedom and equality. American nationalism, exemplified by the populist revolution in American democracy associated with Andrew Jackson, of which Bancroft was an adherent, is written on every page of his history. Park-man's historical writing was a literary event of the highest order. He rendered judgments like an Olympian deity. His major theme, captured most famously in the volume Montcalm and Wolfe: The French and Indian War (1884), depicted the American wilderness as an arena where the French empire, associated with the decay of absolutism, was inevitably pushed aside by a British empire on the cutting edge of colonial American liberty and democracy. For Parkman, history was a tale of heroic figures locked in struggle. But great white men were invariably caught up in forces and circumstances not of their own choosing. Parkman, in particular, was quite conversant with the frontier, and he was attentive to nature as a force in history. His histories, however, slighted the importance of Native Americans, except in their role as savage combatants in larger colonial contests. The work of Bancroft and Parkman, for all of its self-conscious literary concerns, was built upon diligent research and concern with getting the facts right, although sometimes the quest for narrative power and political meaning got in the way.

History as a Science

The Romantic school of historians was soon to become a minor element in American historical writing. In the post–Civil War years, American society began a search for institutional authority and expertise. In field after field, professional scholarship, dedicated to the ideals of liberal capitalism, progress, and objectivity, came to the fore. In 1884, the American Historical Association was founded, an organization devoted to the advancement of historical research in America. Initially, the organization was populated with both professional and gentleman scholars. Indeed, at the time of the founding of the association, there were fewer than two dozen full-time teachers of history in America's colleges. By the turn of the century, with the explosion of higher education in America, historical study had become a central part of the curriculum. With this development came graduate programs, such as the one at Johns Hopkins University, where seminars trained scholars in the latest in European historical research, dedicated to the collection of sources, the careful scrutiny of documents, and employment of the scientific method.

By the 1880s, practicing historians in America, be they university trained or not, were attracted to the idea of a scientific history. Historians were practicing their craft, after all, under the long and imposing shadow cast by Darwinian and other evolutionary theories. The very notion of evolution, of development from a simple to a complex organism, had predated Darwin and was part of the legacy of Romanticism. Historians, in any case, were determined to demonstrate that history, rather than being cyclical or hodgepodge, had an interior logic, no less so than biology. For some historians, history could be reduced to a set of scientific rules. John Fiske, in his popular works of history influenced by the evolutionary views of the French thinker Auguste Comte and the English philosopher Herbert Spencer, attempted to chart American development as a necessary process, one exemplifying laissez-faire economics and individualism. His The Discovery of America (1892) was an archaeological and ethnographic analysis of the development of a continent, with the ascendancy of the white settlers assured by the logic of scientific evolutionary forces. Science, as law and method, was the operating belief among diverse historians. All celebrated John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White's view of history as the triumph of science over superstition. Herbert Baxter Adams at Johns Hopkins University was convinced that history was a natural science and the seminar was a laboratory for the application of scientific methods to the study of history. Adams and his followers maintained that history was rightly the study of political institutions, their development over time from a germ (with origins in Germany) to the democratic communities of Puritan New England.

No historian grappled more with the philosophical implications of scientific history than Henry Adams. Adams began as a reasonably conventional historian, focusing his energies on the period of American history between the presidential administrations of his grandfather, John Adams, and his father, John Quincy Adams. With an eye for detail, historical research, and literary craftsmanship, Adams's nine-volume History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (1889–1891) was an exhaustive work of professional history. In articles addressed to the profession and, most famously, in his autobiography, Adams's relation to science soured. Unlike many of his colleagues who viewed evolution and history as progressive and optimistic, Adams's science mirrored his growing pessimism in the face of social change and dislocation in the 1890s. Science revealed chaos as much as order, devolution more than progress. Adams's philosophy of science seemingly led historians into an intellectual and philosophical cul-de-sac.

The Progressive Historians

At the moment when Adams's philosophy of history indicated a downward spiral, a new generation of historians committed to social change and professionalism came to the fore. With Adams, they were well aware of the clash of interests that had defined American history, and they too rejected the genteel tradition in America that celebrated America as the apotheosis of liberty and freedom. In their vision of history as present politics, historians such as Frederick Jackson Turner, Vernon L. Parrington, and James Harvey Robinson revolutionized the study of history. These Progressive Era historians, often inspired by the political reformism of their age and the scope of the developing social sciences, attempted to capture the forces that had created, and that continued to inform, the economic and political reality of America. Their historical assumptions were akin to those of the muckrakers in politics: exposure of the reality hidden from view would open up the possibility of reform. Knowledge was possibility and power.

The Progressive historians were professionally trained and joined only loosely in their political allegiances. But they were all dedicated to using history to understand the dynamics of American society. Turner began the revolution in historical thought with his important address, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" (1893). In a relatively short piece, Turner proclaimed that understanding the frontier and sectional nature of America explained American democracy, individualism, and self-sufficiency. He rejected any reliance on the evolution of British or Germanic traditions (the germ theory) in America, focusing instead on how the American character was shaped by the savage challenge of the frontier. His large theories were sketched deftly and presumptively. Turner's essay ended in tantalizing fashion: the four-hundred-year history of the American pioneer being molded by the frontier environment was over: what was to happen next?

The clash between the pioneer and frontier that de-fined Turner's histories was less prominent in the work of other Progressive Era historians. Parrington and Charles A. Beard, for instance, viewed the American past as a series of conflicts between various interest groups. Working from this perspective, they overturned pietistic visions about the motives of the founders and the openness of American society. Beard's most important work, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913), argued that economic interests rather than abstract ideals underwrote the Constitution. And the sub-text of such an argument was apparent: economic interests were continuing to define American politics in the twentieth century. Building upon the Populist and Progressive critique of the monied interests, Parrington presented in his Main Currents in American Thought (1927) a Jeffersonian, liberal critique of aristocratic power and capitalist concentration of wealth. His was a political reading of American literature, in the American grain.

The native-born radicalism of Beard and Parrington was particularly appealing in its methodology. Beard and Parrington presented many examples of class and interest conflict in America but without the apparatus of Marxian terminology. With the exception of work by W. E. B. Du Bois on Reconstruction and by Herbert Aptheker on slave revolts, little historical writing in America until the 1960s was explicitly Marxist in methodology. Yet the clash of interests and classes was present in some of the best historical writing from the 1940s. The liberal activist historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., for instance, in The Age of Jackson (1945), forthrightly presented the Jacksonian revolution in terms of its conflict of interests, while also undermining earlier interpretations that simplified the sectional dynamics of the revolution. Moreover, Schlesinger's Jacksonian thrust represented an intervention into contemporary politics, a stirring defense of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.

Consensus History

Focus on the clash of interests with hints of class conflict in historical writing diminished in the years after World War II. With the conflict of ideologies between the United States and the Soviet Union, in the midst of sustained economic growth, and under the dark cloud of McCarthyism and conformity, historians came to emphasize the factors that held Americans of all classes and nationalities together. Consensus history was a wide tent, holding within it works as diverse and influential as Richard Hofstadter's The American Political Tradition (1948), Daniel J. Boorstin's The Genius of American Politics (1953), David Potter's People of Plenty (1954), and Louis Hartz's The Liberal Tradition in America (1955). These works were of a piece in their observation that the history of America was marked by a lack of ideological conflict. Hofstadter, for all of his emphasis on consensus, was too much of an ironist to rest content in the recognition that the pull of American politics was toward the middle. Hartz demonstrated how America's lack of a feudal past forced it to be a nation of Lockean individualism. He found this problematic in many ways. Boorstin and Potter were less ironic in their depictions of consensus. For Potter, abundance of land and material goods, as well as opportunity, beneficently shaped the American character. Boorstin, the most conservative of the consensus historians, celebrated the lack of ideological thinking in America. He concentrated on the "genius" of an American polity rooted in opportunity and historical circumstance; Americans did things rather than relying on abstract and inherited thought. Boorstin's view supported both American consensus and exceptionalism.

History and the Social Sciences

The postwar period and the early 1960s were marked by historical writing that was deeply influenced by the social sciences, especially psychology and sociology. This was hardly new, since in the 1910s, James Harvey Robinson had called upon historians to employ social science in their writings. But in the 1960s, the turn to social science–influenced history exploded. This new interest may have been an attempt by historians to add the cachet of social scientific rigor to their analyses. In the best cases, it gave historians new ways of conceptualizing historical data; in the worst cases, it reduced historical complexity to formulae. Hofstadter's deeply influential The Age of Reform (1955) employed the concept of "status anxiety" to explain the motivations and rhetoric behind the Populist and Progressive movements. This sometimes led Hofstadter to play down the importance of real grievances in favor of psychological explanations of displacement, nostalgia, and conspiracy as the motivating factors in history. The work of Erik Erikson and other psychologists marked a significant turn in history. Erikson paved the way with his groundbreaking work of psychohistory, Young Man Luther (1958), where he demonstrated how Martin Luther's religious protest and intensity were rooted in his childhood experiences. Soon historians followed suit with interpretations that seemed less beholden to historical causation than to psychological reduction. David Donald's biographical examination of the abolitionist Charles Sumner seemed to care more for Sumner's psychological quirks than for his devotion to a great cause.

Perhaps Stanley M. Elkins's Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1959) was the most daring, and problematic, application of psychological and sociological concepts to a historical problem. Elkins maintained that slaves had acted in a docile, lazy, and nonrebellious manner. But he revised traditional racist historical interpretations of the slave personality by Ulrich B. Phillips and William A. Dunning by rejecting such attributes as inherent to any racial group. Instead, using concepts such as "significant other" and work done by psychologists of the concentration camp experience, as well as comparative historical analysis of slave institutions, Elkins contended that the Sambo personality was the result of a psychological breaking of the individual, akin to that which occurred in concentration camps. Yet, as later historians demonstrated, despite all of the social science paraphernalia that informed Elkins's work, he missed much of the complexity of slavery and the disjuncture between the concentration and the slave camp experiences.

Interpretations of Slavery

Elkins stepped into an arena of American historiography that had been transformed by Kenneth M. Stampp's The Peculiar Institution (1956). Borrowing from anthropology, Stampp demonstrated respect for the sophistication of African cultures, and he recorded the injustice and inhumanity of slavery at the moment when the modern civil rights movement was in motion. Moreover, Stampp was clear in his liberal conviction that African Americans were not different from individuals of other races. Of course, Stampp was not the first historian to condemn slavery. Important work by African American historians such as W. E. B. Du Bois had examined the plight of blacks in America with great depth. But their work had been largely ignored by the profession. With the rise of the civil rights movement, and in the wake of the controversy of Elkins's interpretation, the institution and personality of the slave and the role of the African American in American life became central to historical investigation. Important works by John W. Blassingame, George Rawick, and Lawrence Levine redefined and expanded the study of slavery. This was in marked contrast to the earlier excision of blacks from serious historical analysis.

The most sophisticated work of analysis, building upon Marxian and Hegelian foundations, was by Eugene Genovese. In Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974), Genovese argued that the slave system was based upon negotiations between master and slave. The paternalistic ideology of the slaveholders allowed the slaves some room in which to take control of their lives. The unwritten contract between slave and slaveholder, as defined by Genovese, permitted slaves to retain their humanity and the slave-holders to be viewed as antagonistic to the capitalist model of production. While influential, Genovese's analysis came under attack, especially as a new generation of historians of the slave experience began to focus on the complexity of slavery in different regions, the imposition of work rules upon slaves, the prevalence of slave resistance and running away, and on the distinctions in the slave experience on account of gender and position within the plantation hierarchy.

The Radical Reinterpretation of America

By the 1960s, the days of consensus history had been shattered, replaced by a new skepticism and widening of the subject matter of history. A new generation of radical historians would build upon the work of Howard Zinn, Staughton Lynd, Gabriel Kolko, and, most importantly, William Appleman Williams. Williams's The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959) and The Contours of American History (1961) echoed themes that had appeared in Beard's history. Williams argued that American diplomacy, while not evil in intent, was often misdirected and distanced from its presumed ideals. Williams wrote radical history in an American idiom. He would have a wide audience with an emerging generation of radical historians in the 1960s that confronted an America distanced from its ideals of freedom and equality. The war in Vietnam, the prevalence of American racism, and economic inequality fed into the radical critique of America. This critique began to turn upside down all areas of historical inquiry. Earlier visions of the Progressives as reformists were replaced by interpretations of the era as corporate capitalist. If initial accounts of the dropping of the atomic bomb at the end of World War II had been supportive of the act, analyses of New Left historians pictured the use of the bomb less as a military necessity than as the first strike in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. If early accounts of the Cold War had invariably blamed the Soviet Union, the history of the New Left attempted to demonstrate, at the least, that the United States' imperial goals played a significant role in the onset of conflict. If earlier histories of labor had focused on the hierarchy of unions, New Left historians celebrated history from the bottom up.

History from the Bottom Up

The desire to move away from elitist history, to get to the experiences of the common person and to undermine historical myths, informed much of the social history of the 1960s and 1970s. Labor history became an important field of study. Influenced by the stirring call of the British historian E. P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class (1963) to study the class consciousness of workers as it developed, American historians such as Herbert Gutman and David Montgomery contributed important work. Armed with sophisticated methods of quantitative analysis and the turn to census records, historians sought to test whether America was an upwardly mobile nation, as myth would have it. In works such as Stephan Thernstrom's Poverty and Progress (1964), a new generation of urban historians argued that upward mobility was less common than imagined, that Americans were constantly on the move, and that economic success was often uncertain for most Americans.

The New Left had a revolutionary impact on the scope of historical analysis and on the politics of the profession. If some of their analyses have since been found to be problematic, especially in terms of Soviet intentions, the movement opened the profession to new fields of analysis, shattered many prevailing assumptions, and demonstrated that historical analysis has relevance to contemporary problems.

Women's and Gender History

In the 1970s, another major gap in the historical record began to be bridged. Although Mary Ritter Beard and Eleanor Flexner had done important earlier work on the history of women in America, the study of women in American history by the 1970s emerged as a major revolution in historiography. Gerda Lerner led the way toward women's history as a central element to the study of history. This was the initial phase in women's history—to put women back into the picture of history. The second phase of women's history, as outlined by Joan Wallach Scott, was to apply gender analysis to the past. Now the history of labor unions, politics, and the family came under critical scrutiny to establish how women's identities were forged. Despite the impositions of a patriarchal society, as Carroll Smith-Rosenberg noted, women were able to build networks of mutual support and encouragement. As gender analysis came into the profession, many traditional interpretations of major movements in American history were revised. Thanks to the work of Theda Skocpol, Nancy Cott, Ellen Carol DuBois, and Kathryn Kish Sklar, twentieth-century liberalism came to be seen as an outgrowth of a maternalist consciousness, connected with the important work of women in social reform.

A More Inclusive History and the Problem of Synthesis

A new willingness to challenge assumptions and to be more inclusive came to define historical practice. In the field of Western historiography, thanks to the work of Patricia Nelson Limerick, Donald Worster, Richard White, and Quintard Taylor, which built on an older, outsider tradition exemplified by the popular historian Bernard De Voto, triumphalist interpretations of the settlement of the West were rejected. Now the history of the West was comprehended in terms of the displacement of the Native American, the battle over land and water rights, and the inclusion of women, African Americans, and Mexicans as major players in the history of Western development.

By the 1980s, the profession of history had been transformed in a host of ways, not only by dint of the expansive subject matter that now fell under the purview of history, but also in terms of the implications of historical analysis for American society. Gone was the ideal of consensus; in its place was a vision of American history rent by class, racial, and gender division. For some conservative historians, this shift represented the triumph of a radical agenda, the undermining of traditional values, and an assault upon foundational assumptions. But other historians, many with liberal politics, began to worry that something had been lost, as well as gained, in the new historical focus and the flowering of specialized studies. Thomas Bender, in an influential article, noted that with the fragmentation of historical analysis the ideal of a synthetic history had fallen by the wayside. Social history seemed disconnected from analyses of power and politics. Historians appeared unwilling to offer generalizations that could transcend the academic specialties that historians had so carefully cultivated. Gone was the possibility of a common core of knowledge for historians. Few articles in the leading historical journals could speak across disciplinary lines or offer a new vision of an American public culture. But the call for synthesis fell on deaf ears, in part because of the diversity of the historical profession and the fear of an imposed and artificial order on the new data of history. Most importantly, concerns shifted in the wake of a linguistic challenge to history in the 1980s that provoked a new set of issues and concerns for historical practice.

Postmodern Challenges

The greatest challenge to historiography came from a theoretical questioning of the foundations of historical practice and method. Certainly historians such as Charles Beard and Carl Becker had already questioned the ideal of objectivity. They were well aware that present interests influenced the subject matter to be studied and the interpretations to be applied to the past. A broader methodological attack appeared in Peter Novick's That Noble Dream (1988). Epistemological issues dealing with the theory and philosophy of historical study had traditionally been ceded to philosophers, and they rarely intruded upon the consciousness of practicing historians. Instead, historians, borrowing models from the social sciences, upheld the need to be fair to the sources and to strive for objectivity. Postmodernist theories, especially in the hands of Hayden White and others, began to challenge the practice and patience of historians. Historians were forced to confront the argument that history is a narrative endeavor, that all social reality is understood through language, and that our comprehension of the facts is not a knowledge of something but a representation of something. This understanding of the linguistic nature of social reality, in its best moments, forced historians to become more reflective about their own assumptions, about how their work constituted a narrative. It also led some historians, such as Simon Schama, James Goodman, and John Demos, to attempt to tell a story from multiple perspectives and to diminish the lines between historical fact and fiction. In its worst moments, the postmodern turn seemed to strip historians of any special relationship to truth claims and perhaps to turn history into an exercise in futility.

For many historians, the solution to the challenge of postmodernism was to split the differences. Historians could no longer practice history without attention to language and representation, nor could they claim that the contextualization of data was an unproblematic endeavor. But in the view of Thomas Haskell, David A. Hollinger, and others, the new historical consciousness was pragmatic, open to a plurality of methods, and based upon the willingness of historians to recognize that context was plural, rather than singular. The truth claims of historians, in the pragmatic mode, were open to debate with the presumption that certain contexts could be demonstrated to be compelling for particular and discernible reasons.

The challenge and opportunity of diversity and post-modernism and the need for larger synthesis led, by the end of the twentieth century, to new areas of study premised on an emphasis on the interrelatedness of groups. Gender and queer theory are predicated upon the belief that identity is constructed and relational. The work of George Chauncey and Leila Rupp established new connections between outsiders and dominant society. Ann Douglas's study of the Harlem Renaissance demonstrated how interracial relations ("mongrelization," in her terminology) brought together white pragmatist theorists and African American thinkers and artists. In the new field of whiteness studies, as pioneered by David Roediger, Eric Lott, Noel Ignatieff, George Lipsitz, and Matthew Frye Jacobson, historians have demonstrated how racial categories were constructed and how they shifted over time, thus allowing certain excluded groups to later be subsumed under the designation "white." "Whiteness" is no longer a term of neutrality but a concept laden with power and privilege. These works have placed the dynamic between different groups in American society at the center of historical analysis. But grand syntheses or compilations of historical data have not been driven from the field of history. In the initial volumes of the Oxford History of the United States, begun in 1982, the historians James McPherson, James T. Patterson, and David M. Kennedy have attempted to bring together political and diplomatic with social and cultural history.

The profession of history, and historiography, changes with the times. In the age of the Internet, the scope of the profession expands. Hypertext computer programs may render problematic traditional historical emphasis on linear development. The coming of the computer book and Web publishing may allow monographic historical studies with small readerships to become financially feasible and easily accessible. The precise future of historical research may be impossible to predict, but the challenges of the Internet, popular film histories by Ken Burns, and the need to balance diversity with synthesis will have to be met.


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George B.Cotkin

See alsoEthnohistory ; Progressive Movement ; Romanticism ; Sociology ; Women's Studies .

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