Progressive Historians

.. 229). This example perhaps best summarizes Beckers view of the”rebels.” To be sure, he mentions the roles of radical ministers in New England, and of other “agitators.” Becker is perhaps best known for the line: “The war was not about home rule, but about who would rule at home.” This theme springs up repeatedly in the writings of the progressive historians. Sometimes the words are a little different, but the theme remains constant. Oddly enough, one of the most outspoken writers on this topic was Charles Beard. He has entered the annals of American historiography as perhaps the quintessential economic-school historian.

His seminal work, “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States,” published in 1913, argued that the forces of the revolution were in effect subverted by the forces of the established ruling class of the pre-war period. He argued that the history of America, and that the Constitution itself, was the result of Marxian-style class struggle. He further asserted that the Constitution was an economic document designed by those with money and property to protect those with money and property. This class-struggle view was applied by Beard to all of American history. He would undoubtedly stress the labor-management strife of the 1930s and the oppression of Indians and blacks as well if he were writing today of the history of the Great Depression.

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He would probably explain the western movement as a result of oppressed factory workers leaving the factory in order to find opportunity in the West (this comment is offered as evidence of Beards odd-man-out status within the “progressive school”). Beard also stands alone among the progressive historians inasmuch as he wrote a consensus-style book in collaboration with his wife. It was entitled “The Beards Basic History of the United States,” and was published in 1944. In it, he (is “they” perhaps better?) seconded many of Jamesons notions of the end of primogeniture, disestablishment of the Anglican Church, and so on. (Beard 1944, 119) But it is the chapter on the Constitution that stands out.

The view of the Constitution that was offered by Beard was a much mellower view than the one offered by him a bit more than thirty years earlier. He discussed the various features of the document and extolled its virtues. In short, he seemed more tolerant of “men of property” (Beard 1944, 120-137). Was it because two world wars had changed his world-view? Had he been cauterized by the barbarism of twentieth-century global war? On the other hand, had he merely begun to be more tolerant, as so often happens as people reach the ends of their lives? Probably all of these forces were in effect to one degree or another. Beard himself is quoted by Richard Hofstadter as saying in 1934 that “are indeed is the savant who does not appear to be at war with himself in his own breast” and in 1940 that “Olympian certitude has exploded” (Hofstadter, 285).

In any event, whether for wartime propaganda reasons, or for the reasons wrought by intellectual evolution, Charles Beard near the end of his life had softened his once-adversarial stance. The only important criticism of Beard is that economic interpretations of history that exclude all others, of the kind that Beard wrote in his earliest years, are at best one-dimensional. At worst they are narrow-minded, adversarial, sometimes even hate-filled, polemics. Taking a similar approach to Beards in his interpretation of history through economic eyes is Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. (But in many places Schlesinger sounds much more like Turner and Jameson than he sounds like Beard.) What is perhaps Schlesingers most important work on the subject of the American Revolution first appeared in 1918, with a new edition in 1939.

In the preface to the second edition, Schlesinger submitted that the assertions of the first edition had been”generally accepted by historians.” And that seems exactly to be the case more than fifty years later. Schlesingers view was sectional: he saw “two revolutions,” one in the North and one in the South (Schlesinger, 6). He argued that the non-importation policies of the colonies were far from universally successful. Nor were they universally accepted. Schlesingers view is that the non-importation zeal tended to be greater in the small towns rather than in the “great trading towns.” He notes, for example, that the leading merchants had gained a fair amount of relief from Parliament by 1770, and that their fever for non-importation, which they had happily supported in 1768, had rather more than subsided by 1770. The problem remained whether they could cease their non-importation practices without the consent of the general populace, which was largely composed of propertyless people of lesser means who still burned for the elimination of taxes entirely (Schlesinger, 218).

The crux of the view is that this business of the “consent of the people” was not philosophical or even truly political: it was strictly an economic consideration. Schlesinger puts it even more bluntly near the end of the book: .. the choice, which every merchant had to make, was not, and could not be, a mere mechanical one, premised upon strict considerations of an informed class interest. Like other human beings, his mind was affected or controlled by powerful influences of temperament, environment and tradition. Furthermore, the degree to which his wealth was removable was an important factor in his decision, for his business and the good will of his customers were not commodities to be packed up and carried bodily into British lines. These facts caused many a merchant to follow the line of least resistance when independence was promulgated (Schlesinger, 603; emphasis is mine).

It is the italicized sentence that gives the essence of Schlesingers book. The point that he makes is that there was a great deal of Loyalist sympathy among the merchant class, despite the myth of united and universal opposition to British tyranny that had come to exist by 1900. Nevertheless, these traders were no traitors; but it was pragmatism, not sudden philosophical enlightenment, that caused them to modify or mitigate their true attitudes. How many times have we heard it said? “Youve got to go along to get along.” So must it have been for the colonial merchants. This realization goes a long way to explain the on-again, off-again support for non-importation and later for independence that Schlesinger describes in such detail in his book. And at the root of it lies the influence of the masses, or at any rate the influence of what is nowadays called”public opinion.” There is, a single reason for mentioning the works of these two writers in this paper, and a single reason only: to demonstrate that American historiography in the Progressive Era was hardly unified in its interpretation.

Just as “diversity” is a buzzword on todays college and university campuses, so was genuine diversity a feature of American historiography. And, perhaps fittingly enough, this same diversity symbolizes one of the themes that progressive historians stress almost to a fault: that the views of the people during the war itself were far from universal. And so it was with historians as they wrote their books during the Progressive era. John Fiske wrote a two-volume treatment of the American Revolution in 1891. To be sure, this was at the earliest stages of the Progressive movement in the United States, but it falls well within the boundaries.

In that context, one can evaluate the contents of Fiskes book, and in one other also: which occurred in various places in Turners writings. Fiske writes much in the second volume of his history of “drums and trumpets.” However, there are still inklings of his views as to the nature of the war. He writes, for example, of the “absurd talk of John Adams,” who proposed the annual election of general officers by Congress, and that “if some great men should be sent home as a result, [then the nation will not be ruined]” (Fiske, 31). Fiske sees this as a ludicrous notion to say the least, indicating his great-man orientation. (As an aside, Fiske writes of Benedict Arnolds death-bed remorse at “ever having put on any other” uniform than that of the colonial forces, which story has found its way into American mythology.) In a sentence, Fiske writes of armies and leaders, of imperial nations and colonies, and of congresses and parliaments.

He clearly does not write of rivers, mountains, and mass suffrage. Albert Bushnell Hart wrote his story of the Formation of the Union in 1894. The publisher, Longmans, offered other works by professors of history, including one progressive professor who would someday become famous the world over: Woodrow Wilson. At the time, Fiske was an assistant professor of history at Harvard University. Hart asserted that the Constitution was more than a compact, the term he assigned to the Articles of Confederation.

He defined a “compact” as little more than a treaty, calling it an agreement between states that lost its force when one of the parties ceased to observe it. Instead, Hart held that the Constitution was as Daniel Webster had defined it: “..the peoples Constitution, the peoples government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people. The people of the United States have declared that this Constitution shall be supreme law” (Hart, 134). Of geography, Hart writes not of mountains and alluvial plains, but of man-made boundaries and political competition related to enlarging the entities of the competitors. Again, as in Fiske, whom Hart recommends along with George Bancroft and Henry Adams, the view is of and from the top, not of the common citizen.

Are these writers of interest other than for the reason already offered? It is important to mention these writers as a corollary of the question that was posed at the outset–and sought at first “to duck”: exactly what is a”progressive historian?” Again, spatial limitations require this to be brief: it is clear from examining the work of Fiske and Hart that if a”progressive historian” is defined as a writer of history during the Progressive Era, then the work one will encounter is diverse in its viewpoints and interpretations; if, however one defines a progressive historian as a member of a school of thought, then the events of the times in which they wrote take on a secondary value, supplanted by rivers, mountains, and the like. But then one must remind oneself of the example of Charles Beard, if for no other reason than to sully and sunder that grand generalization.. First, lets take a look at a few compare-and-contrast conclusions. Progressive historians have in common the world-view that goes with the economic interpretation of history. They do not, however, always conclude the same things (Jameson and Turner argued greater economic democracy, for example, while Beard argued the Constitution as a document written by the wealthy to protect the wealthy).

To a great degree, progressive historians are interested in geography, especially insofar as geographical factors are determinants in history. This interest varies, of course, from writer to writer, but Turner and Jameson are the best examples of those who ascribe to water-and-dirt determinism. Moreover, progressive historians, presuming that one defines the term as a historian who belongs to a school of thought, are interested more in the common man than in the great leaders; they are more likely to examine the writings of J. P. Martin than of George Washington.

They are in fact the predecessors of todays social historians. This focus is consistent with a great-forces-over-great-men deterministic view, inasmuch as “the will of the people” becomes a great force akin to rivers and towns. But the last common factor is perhaps the most important: progressive historians are generally in agreement that the war was a true revolution, and their meaning of the word transcends the mere throwing-off of “British tyranny” that so enthralled writers like George Bancroft and Mercy Otis Warren. This last factor brings the second part of the conclusions, which is more important than the first part. The argument that the war was a revolution is essentially universal among the progressives; that is, it is universal among those who took “progressive” world-views as they wrote. But the flip side of revolution is consensus. Turner, Becker, Jameson, et al.

argue that the war was fought for, or at least caused, greater democracy in the colonies. This may be true; that is, wars tend to cause the end of Old Orders and ancient regimes, but that is hardly a singular thing to say about the American Revolution. All of our wars have caused some sort or other of significant social change and reform. The argument that is to be brought forward is this: in being “revolutionary,” the colonists demonstrated a sort of consensus thinking. If they wanted greater democracy, that was not really change so much as it was an affirmation of the existing order.

Those who gained votes and other social privileges were saying, in effect, “The existing order is pretty good; it is so good in fact that I want a greater role in it. I want a bigger piece of it.” These were no sans-culottes cutting off the heads of kings and aristocrats as the Frenchmen did in their frenzied Terror. No; these were Englishmen who desired home rule, who at first sought to preserve local autonomy and loyalty to the King, not to Parliament; and it was only later that they slipped into the position of demanding sovereignty. The second half of the rebuttal to the thesis that states that the war was a revolution because of the change it wrought is this: since all of the wars the United States has fought have yielded dramatic social and political change, then they must all be revolutionary. The World Wars, Korea and Vietnam, the American Civil War: all were revolutions in this context.

But then the term begins to lose its meaning to a sort of rhetorical inflation, just as what were once bit players in Hollywood are now listed as “stars,” and what were once “stars” are now”superstars.” (Whats next, novas, and supernovas?) To put it another way, if the wars were all revolutionary, then none of them were. This brings back Turners statement quoted at the beginning of this paper. What he said in 1920 could easily have been said a few years after the end of the Vietnam War. Or it could just as easily be said today, with reference to the upheavals being caused by the Information Revolution. What of the events in Eastern Europe and their consequences in the United States as the realization hits that the Cold War appears to be over? What the colonists sought was control that they had already been accustomed to having. Parliament was not in the colonists “chain of command” in 1700, and for the House of Commons to attempt to place itself there was seen as a loss to the colonists. It was change that they resisted, not what they sought; they largely felt that they were resisting an invasion of their political birthright, not that they were breaking bold new political ground.

It would therefore be very easy to argue that the war was fought as a reactionary response, not as a radical one. And, as the businessmen like to say, “The bottom line is the bottom line.” The bottom line, in this case, is this: classwise, those who ruled in 1770 ruled in 1790; the Parliament, a bicameral legislature, was replaced by the Congress, itself a bicameral legislature; the King was replaced by a President, who could very easily have ruled for life, setting a tradition that the head-of-state-for-life would be chosen without the benefit of heredity. There is more, of course: only propertied white males had the vote, both before and after the war; the end of slavery was not exactly accelerated by the war, though there were a few (relatively minor) gains for blacks; the economic system was not changed, nor was the class structure, except to forbid a nobility that in any case did not truly exist in the colonies before the war. Perhaps Richard Hofstadter put it best in his statement regarding progressive historians in 1968: “Since the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, it has been hard for most Americans, and especially those who make our world policies, to recapture the memory of the early United States, Constitution and all, as a revolutionary force” (Hofstadter, 284). There is certainly much validity to Hofstadters view. Perhaps we cold warriors are ourselves cauterized to the sensitivity of the progressive historians. It is when one examines the period in which the progressive historians wrote that the most sense is made of their work.

Historiography is nought if it is not a reflection of the times that spawned it. Just as the Progressives were involved in a movement to improve the lot of the common man in a time of technological change, so did the progressive historians see the fighters of the Revolution as fighters for the lot of the common man. And in just the same way, as the new country was first forging its nationalistic unity, did George Bancroft see the war as a virtuous, nationalistic struggle. And likewise did Charles Beard, the erstwhile firebrand, see the Constitution in a different light in 1944, when democratic governments were only just beginning to win the first round in a deadly fight for their lives, than he did in 1913, the last year in which Civilization was spelled with a capital “C.” Could Beard have seen the war and its resulting constitution in any other light than the light in which the horrors of World War I were viewed in the 1920s and 1930s, that economic “special interests” held all the cards and manipulated the rest of us like so many puppets, making us fight and slaughter one another on a whim designed to make them still more money? Historical literature is a reflection of the contemporary events of its writers. When one strips away the influence of the times that colored the views of the writers discussed in this report, one must conclude by looking at the results that the war was one for independence, not a true revolution.

Voltaire was right on target when he said that there are truths that are not for all men, nor for all times. Bibliography Beard, Charles A. An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1913. Beard, Charles A. and Mary.

Basic History of the United States. New York: Doubleday, Doran, and Company, 1944. Becker, Carl. Beginnings of the American People. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1922.

Becker, Carl. The History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 1760-1776. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin, 1909. Billias, George Athan, ed. The American Revolution: How Revolutionary Was It? New York: Holt Rinehart, and Winston, Inc., 1990.

Originally published in 1965. Used for background reading only. Fiske, John. The American Revolution, vol. II. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1891.

Hart, Albert Bushnell. Formation of the Union, 1750-1829. New York: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1894. Hofstadter, Richard. The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington. New York: Alfred A.

Knopf, 1968. Jameson, J. Franklin. The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement. Princeton University: Princeton University Press, 1973. Originally published in 1926.

Schlesinger, Arthur M. Sr. The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution. New York: Facsimile Library, Inc., 1939. Originally published in 1918.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1962. Originally published in 1920.


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