|An Overview of Progressive Historiograhy
The rapid industrial, economic and population growth that accompanied the Gilded Age produced a multitude of ills in American society. Political and corporate corruption, exploitation of the workforce and unsafe living conditions in overcrowded urban areas were rampant in the last decade of the 19th century. The Progressive reform era, which began in the 1890's and lasted through the end of the World War I, was the nation's effort to cure these societal maladies. Religious groups, members of the press, social scientists and politicians all cried out for reform. They proposed solutions ranging from subtle reforms of the American capitalist economy, to a call for the creation of a socialist government.
American historians were likewise swept up by this movement and, as a result, a new school of historiography emerged. The Progressive historians were dedicated to using history as a means of understanding the dynamics of American society. This group was not solely bent on modernizing the American understanding of history. Its aim was much higher - persuading American citizens to reform their republic. They believed that change, and therefore progress, was inevitable. This school dominated American historical thinking from the beginning of the 20th century up through the 1930's.
Progressive history cannot be studied in a single work of any one scholar. To some, it was not a philosophy of history, nor even a scrupulously delineated, minutely defined interpretation of the American past. Rather it was a set of related impressions, a framework of pragmatic and progressive assumptions and attitudes. This school of thinking can be generally characterized by the following;
(1) A vivid sense of the social, economic, and intellectual processes which placed man, his institutions, and his ideas firmly in the stream of evolution (i.e. progress);
(2) A pragmatism which dealt only with concrete situations and avoided both empiricism and abstraction;
(3) An anti-intellectualism which regarded ideas as secondary and derivative from the really important forces in history, which were primarily economic and geographical;
(4) An epistemological relativism (i.e. the view that truth and falsity are relative and no statements are "objectively" true or false) which generally denied scientific history and sometimes even scholarly objectivity;
(5) A "presentism" which stressed the continuity of past, present, and future and sharply subordinated the past to the present;
(6) An emphasis on the moral and social utility of history;
(7) A tendency to see politics as a conspiratorial process in which dominant abstractions masked the play of "real" historical forces; and
(8) A deterministic interpretation of American history which stressed economic or geographical forces, or a combination of the two, and found a central theme in the conflict of agrarianism with commercialism and capitalism.
While a comprehensive listing of every Progressive historian is beyond the scope of this paper, the essence and ideals of this school can be found in four of its definitive works. The Significance of the Frontier in American History was written by one of the movement's founders, Frederick Jackson Turner, in 1893. Turner eventually followed that with The Significance of the Section in American History in 1925. Charles A. Beard, one of the school's most prolific authors and staunchest advocates, wrote An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States in 1913. Finally, there is Carl L. Becker's Everyman His Own Historian, written in 1931, which many feel marked the beginning of the end for Progressive historiography.
FREDERICK JACKSON TURNER
Frederick Jackson Turner was born in Portage, Wisconsin, in 1861. His father, a journalist by trade and local historian by avocation, was responsible for Turner's interest in history. After his graduation from the University of Wisconsin in 1884, Turner decided to become a professional historian. Accordingly, he earned his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1890. He served as a teacher and scholar at the University of Wisconsin from 1889 to 1910, when he joined the faculty at Harvard. He retired in 1924, but continued his research until his death in 1932. Turner was the first proponent of "American exceptionalism," the idea that the United States was not only different from other nations but also unique in its social evolution.
Frederick Jackson Turner
Until the 1890's, American history was essentially confined to the development of the Eastern states and seen as an extension of English history or a chapter in European overseas expansion. Herbert Baxter Adams' theory that the origins of American culture could be traced back to the Germanic forest was the prevailing view.
It was this "germ theory" which Turner attacked in his most famous work, The Significance of the Frontier in American History. He initially delivered this essay in a speech before a gathering of historians in 1893 at Chicago, then the site of the World's Columbian Exposition.It is somewhat ironic that this event was held in honor of the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus' voyage to "The New World." It was in this setting that Turner purported to separate the United States from its European roots.
In this presentation, which became known as "The Frontier Thesis", Turner put forth a revolutionary proposition — American democracy, the nature of American institutions of government, and the uniqueness of the American character could be traced to America's frontier experience. Our individualism, perseverance, notions of liberty and ingenuity were all the direct result of taming the western wilderness. It was this presence of free, or virtually free, land which stimulated this new American spirit
As far as the "germ theory" went, Turner concluded, "Too exclusive attention has been paid by institutional students to the Germanic origins, too little to the American factors... the frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization. Little by little (the settler) transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe, not simply the development of Germanic germs, any more than the first phenomenon was a case of reversion to the Germanic mark. The fact is that here is a new product that is American."
Turner believed that all settlements along the western frontier were generally comprised of three classes. Since Turner said these three distinct groups "like the waves of the ocean, have rolled one after the other", this hypothesis became known as the "wave theory."
The first class was typified by the pioneers who lived off what game they killed or what natural vegetation they foraged until they were able to grow their own food. Their farming tools were usually homemade, and they often struggled to grow a crop of corn. It was immaterial to these pioneers whether they owned the land they settled. They were the occupant for the time being, paid no rent, and felt as independent as the "lord of the manor."
The second group of settlers actually purchased the lands, added new fields of diverse crops, cleared out the roads, built bridges over the streams, constructed log houses with glass windows and brick or stone chimneys, planted orchards, built mills, schoolhouses, and courthouses. They laid the foundation for a permanent, civilized life.
The third wave consisted of the capitalists and industrialists. The members of the second wave are now ready to sell out and take the advantage of the rise in property. They push farther into the interior and become men of capital and enterprise themselves. The small village rises to a spacious town or city."
This process repeated itself as the frontier line moved westward. While Turner acknowledges that portions of the first two groups would stay stationary and integrate into society, he claimed to know, "Hundreds of men ... not over 50 years of age, who have settled for the fourth, fifth, or sixth time on a new spot."
Turner believed the frontier experience produced other benefits to American society. While a majority of American settlers could trace their roots back to England, there were also emigrants from most other European nations residing in the United States. Facing common hardships, these people of disparate ancestry were Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race, English in neither nationality nor characteristics. In Turner's view, the frontier was indeed the true "melting pot."
Turner was also of the opinion that the advance of the frontier decreased American dependence on England, at least indirectly. According to Turner, the coastal regions lacked diversified industries, and were dependent on England for the bulk of its supplies. However, the frontier created a demand for merchants. As the frontier line retreated from the coast it became less and less possible for England to bring supplies directly to the consumer. This rise in demand led to the creation of diversified agriculture and new industries. The advance of the frontier aroused seaboard cities like Boston, New York, and Baltimore to engage in a rivalry for "the extensive and valuable trade of a rising empire."
America's march westward also had a profound effect on how the country disposed of its public land. England used its public land as a source of revenue, and often withheld it in order to control growth and settlement. The Eastern states favored such a plan in the United States. However, this was met with fierce resistance by the Westerners. Several bills to that effect were vetoed by President Andrew Jackson who, in his 1832 state-of-the-union address, recommended "...all public lands should be gratuitously given away to individual adventurers and to the States in which the lands are situated."
However, Turner claimed the most important effect of the frontier was its promotion of democracy here and in Europe. Individuals, forced to rely on their own wits and strength were simply too scornful of rank to be amenable to the exercise of centralized political power.
It is important to note that three years before Turner delivered this essay, the U.S. Census Bureau had announced the disappearance of a contiguous frontier line. Turner offered his frontier thesis as both an analysis of the past and a warning about the future. Since he saw the frontier as essential to the development of American culture, he was left to wonder what would take its place. It was on this foreboding note that he closed his address: "And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history."
Although it was virtually ignored at the time, Turner's lecture eventually gained such wide distribution and influence that Dr. Dixon R. Fox, former chairman of the History Department at Columbia University, called it "the single most influential piece of writing in the history of American history." And while it dominated American historical thinking in the four decades that followed its presentation, Turner's ideas and approach would become hotly debated topics in academic circles, particularly following his death in 1932.
His critics have refuted everything from his most basic assumptions to the smallest details of his theories. One of his most outspoken critics is Patricia Nelson Limerick, Professor of History at the University of Colorado. In her book, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, Limerick claims that the frontier process has kept historians from viewing the West as a particular region, as with the South or the Midwest. Limerick found the very concept of a frontier dubious, because it applies to too many disparate places and times to be useful. For example, Puritan New England and the California of the transcontinental railroad era have little in common. She also takes exception with Turner's failure to criticize the violence and depravity involved in the saga of white, Anglo-Saxon westward encroachment. In describing westward expansion Turner described a closing rift between "civilization" and "savagery." According to Limerick, we should be using words like "imperialism" and "conquest" to describe the settlers' interaction with the Native Americans.
Critics also point out that Turner's view of America was distinctly male. A scan of 2,000 pages of Turner's published writings will reveal but a single paragraph on women, and that in an essay written after his retirement.
Following the Frontier Thesis, Turner authored another landmark work that would once again dominate historical thought and eventually generate another cauldron of debate. The Significance of the Section in American History was published in 1925. In this essay, Turner states that sectionalism provided most of the necessary clues to the history of conflict, national character, and development.
Turner felt that the different timing and length of the frontier process produced different degrees of individualism and democracy in the various regions of the country. Indeed, so distinct were the regions that he often compared them to separate nations. For the most part, he divided the nation into two sections, "The East" and "The West".
According to Turner, "The West" needed capital as it was a debtor region, while the East had the capital and was a creditor section. The West was rural, agricultural, while the East was becoming more and more urban and industrial. As for different attitudes and outlooks between the two regions, Turner believed "The West" favored majority rule and, as such, was more democratic. "The East" feared an unchecked democracy, which might overturn minority rights, destroy established institutions, and attack vested interests. The buoyant, optimistic, and sometimes reckless and extravagant spirit of innovation was the very life of the West. In the East innovation was a term of reproach.
Turner believed the basic tension between the regions could be summarized as follows, "The West demanded cheap or free lands on which to base a democratic farming population. The ruling interests in the East feared that such a policy would decrease land values at home and diminish the value of lands which its capitalists had purchased for speculation in the interior. It feared that cheap lands in the West would draw Eastern farmers into the wilderness; would break down the bonds of regular society; would prevent effective control of the discontented; would drain the labor supply away from the growing industrial towns, and thus raise wages."
This work was met with many of the same criticisms as the Frontier Thesis. The terms "East" and "West' were said to be too general, and the role of women, Native Americans, the Civil War and slavery were severely discounted, if mentioned at all.
Even though his hypothesis has fallen out of favor, it should be recognized that Turner set a precedent by suggesting that America's physical environment was the most important determinant in shaping the United States and its institutions. The Frontier Thesis challenged the prevailing tradition that emphasized the cerebral over the physical by showing that environment played an active role in shaping culture. This was a theme that would appear much later in the works of European historians Arnold Toynbee and Ferdinand Braudel. However, even Turner admitted that he perhaps exaggerated when he "hammered hard" on the subject of the frontier in promoting democracy.
His essays are collected in The Frontier in American History, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1933, a year after Turner's death. The Significance of the Frontier in American History became the first chapter of that book.
CHARLES A. BEARD
Charles Austin Beard (November 27, 1874 — September 1, 1948) was, along with Turner, one of the most influential American historians of the first half of the 20th century. He authored hundreds of monographs, textbooks and interpretive studies in both history and political science.
Beard attended DePauw University where he studied history until graduating in 1898. The following he went to England for graduate studies at Oxford University before returning to the U.S. in 1902. He enrolled at Columbia University, and received his doctorate in 1904. He immediately joined the faculty as a lecturer.
Among Beard's many works, his most famous, and controversial, was An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, which was published in 1913. In this volume, Beard offered an explanation of the economic implications of the Constitution, the motives of those who framed it and the rather undemocratic manner in which it was ratified.
Beard saw the American Revolution as a social revolution, the beginnings of an egalitarian democratic order that would liberate, and empower, the interests of the vast majority of Americans who were farmers, artisans, and laborers. As the majority discovered its power in street demonstrations and legislative halls, they came to view themselves as a social force capable of standing on equal footing with the financially elite, both at home and abroad.
Charles A. Beard
Beard and saw the Philadelphia Constitutional as a kind of counterrevolution against this American spirit of democracy. Borrowing from the Constitution's original opponents, the Anti-Federalists, Beard argued that the events of 1787 had brought the Revolution to an end by subverting it. He believed the Constitution had subordinated human rights to property rights and democracy to oligarchy.
The new system weakened the state governments and erected a powerful central government designed to limit the people's rule. It was also designed to be very difficult to alter or abolish. Far from being political demigods, the Framers were agents of the rich--of the bondholders, speculators, stockjobbers, bankers, and lawyers out to suppress the cash strapped farmer. The Constitution, Beard argued, was largely the product of this clash of economic interests, and its advocates often stood to personally gain from its ratification.
Beard believed the Bill of Rights was not part of the original Constitution the delegates presented because the framers of the Constitution did not support democracy as it is understood today. Most people in the United States opposed the constitution that came out of the Philadelphia convention. The Bill of Rights was proposed as a safeguard to insure the rights of the popular majority. Without it, the constitution would not have passed.
Beard traced the economic interests and holdings of each member of the Constitutional Convention. He paid particular attention to their ownership of public securities, information he gleaned by studying Treasury Department records. His research showed that forty of the fifty-five delegates owned such securities, twenty-four of them in amounts over $5,000. He discovered that a majority of the framers were lawyers and most came from towns on or near the east coast. There was not a single delegate from the agrarian or working classes. Fourteen had invested in speculative land deals, twenty-four had money loaned at high rates of interest, eleven were investors in mercantile, manufacturing or shipping businesses and fifteen were slave owners.
Beard also called into question the way the Constitution was adopted. No popular vote was taken on the proposal to hold a Constitutional Convention in 1787. A "large propertyless mass" was altogether unrepresented due to suffrage restrictions. In its ratification by the states, about three-fourths of the adult males failed to vote on the document due to ignorance, indifference or disfranchisement due to property qualifications.
For the most part, historians and other scholars were not shocked by Beard's premise. After all, much of what he had to say had been hinted at before. On the whole, academia received the book quite well. However, many outside the halls of scholarship were outraged.
The New York Bar Association summoned Beard to appear before it, and took his refusal, according to Beard, as "contempt of court." Former President William H. Taft wondered if Beard would have been more satisfied by the Constitution if it had been drafted by "dead beats, out-at-the-elbows demagogues and cranks who never had any money." William G. Harding's newspaper, The Marion Star, labeled the book as "filthy lies and rotten perversions....libelous, vicious, and damnable in its influence." This newspaper also ran a story on Beard's book under the headline: "SCAVENGERS, HYENA-LIKE, DESECRATE THE GRAVES OF THE DEAD PATRIOTS WE REVERE." Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "I thought Beard's book on that theme a stinker..." Many saw Beard's depiction of a fierce class struggle as quasi-Marxist, a claim he went to great effort to refute. According to Beard, the book was based on the "political science of James Madison."
Beard also defended his work by denying that he had accused the members of the Constitutional Convention of "working merely for their own pockets." He relied on a passage from the volume which said, "The purpose of such an inquiry is not, of course, to show that the Constitution was made for the personal benefit of the members of the Convention. Far from it...The only point considered here is 'Did they represent distinct groups whose economic interests they understood and felt in concrete, definite form through their own personal experience with identical property rights, or were they working merely under the guidance of abstract principles of political science?'"
Eventually, the work fell out of favor with the academic community. Forest McDonald, in his book, We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution, argued that Beard had misinterpreted the economic interests involved in writing the Constitution. Instead of only two conflicting interests, landed and mercantile, there were three dozen identifiable interests that forced the delegates to bargain.
Historian Peter Novick concluded, "By the early 1960s it was generally accepted within the historical profession that ...Beard's Progressive version of the ...framing of the Constitution had been decisively refuted. American historians came to see ....the framers of the Constitution, rather than having self-interested motives, were led by concern for political unity, national economic development, and diplomatic security."
Beard would later collaborate with his wife, the former Mary Ritter, on a number of popular history books. In the latter years of his life he became a staunch isolationist and a vocal critic of Franklin Roosevelt's decision to enter World War Two.
CARL L. BECKER
Carl Lotus Becker (1873-1945) was born near Waterloo, Iowa. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1896, where he had studied history under Frederick Jackson Turner. However, this does not mean Becker blindly accepted all of the Turnerian theories. Unlike his mentor, Becker believed that American institutions and values were rooted in the history of Europe. In fact, Becker was an avid student of European history, particularly that of France. Still, on the basis of his earlier works, he was classified as a progressive historian.
Turner's influence can be seen in Becker's doctoral thesis, The History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 1760-1776. Becker contended that the American Revolution was fundamentally a conflict over "who should rule at home." He argued that given the sharp social division in colonial society between the elite and lower classes, the American Revolution was less a war for independence, and more of a domestic war for equality.
The Progressive interpretation of history was built on the premise that society would continually evolve towards a future of democracy, equality and prosperity. The Great Depression undermined this belief. It gave Becker a reason to question the theoretical underpinnings of the Progressive school. It was his scrutiny of the "Idea of Progress" which ultimately led to its demise. To Becker, the America of the 1920's and early 1930's did not reflect the promise of hope which was the bedrock of Progressive Historiography.
Carl L. Becker
Becker's intellectual struggle came to a head with the publication of Everyman His Own Historian, his 1931 presidential address to the American Historical Association. This work, which amounts to a manifesto in favor of the relativist historical view, was considered by many to be the first death blow to the progressive school. Becker's embrace of relativism should have come as no surprise. He showed his relativistic leanings as far back as 1922, when he wrote The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas, in which he examined Declaration's notion of natural rights, treating them as neither true nor false in any absolute sense, but as mere reflections of that age.
Becker began the Everyman address by saying that to understand the essential nature of history, we have to break it reduce it to its "lowest terms", much the same way we would do with a mathematical fraction. He went on to explain that there are two histories: the actual series of events that occurred; and the idea of the event that we affirm and hold in memory. The first is forever absolute and unchanged; the second is relative, always changing in response to our increase or refinement of knowledge. According to Becker, reconciling these two histories, and reducing them to their "lowest terms" gives us a new definition - "History is the memory of things said and done." Since "Mr. Everyman (his term for mankind as a whole) remembers things which He has said and done, He can be said to be His own historian.
Becker then turns down the road to relativism by stating, "In constructing (a)... pattern of remembered things, Mr. Everyman works with something of the freedom of a creative artist; the history which he imaginatively recreates as an artificial extension of his personal experience will inevitably be an engaging blend of fact and fancy, a mythical adaptation of that which actually happened. In part it will be true, in part false; as a whole perhaps neither true nor false.... Not that Mr. Everyman wishes or intends to deceive himself or others... but he necessarily takes the facts as they come to him, and is enamored of those that seem best suited to his interests or promise most in the way of emotional satisfaction."
Becker believed the role of the historian was to keep alive the "recollection of memorable men and events." Historians had the same role as "wise men of the tribe, of bards and story-tellers and minstrels, of soothsayers and priests, to whom in successive ages has been entrusted the keeping of the useful myths." As such the history written by historians would ultimately be a convenient blend of truth and fancy, which we commonly distinguish as "fact" and "interpretation."
Becker also had some harsh criticism for the scientific approach to history. While affirming the first duty of the historian is to establish the facts, he claimed any notion that "the facts will speak for themselves" is an illusion. It was the historian's second duty to inject extraneous meaning into the facts, once they are established.
To Becker, complete objectivity was an impossible goal. He believed even the most disinterested historian has at least one preconception - which is the fixed idea that he has none. The least the historian can do with any historical fact is to select and affirm it. To select and affirm even the simplest complex of facts is to give them a certain place in a certain pattern of ideas, and this alone is sufficient to give them a special meaning.
As for the importance of research, Becker said, "Research, valuable not in itself but for some ulterior purpose, will be of little import except in so far as it is transmuted into common knowledge. The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world. The history that does work in the world, the history that influences the course of history, is living history, that pattern of remembered events, whether true or false, that enlarges and enriches the collective specious present, the specious present of Mr. Everyman."
Becker soon authored another seminal work, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers (1932), wherein he argued that Enlightenment philosophies were not as modern as most historians assumed. Rather, while they may have challenged traditional religious dogma they in fact simply replace one kind of religion for another, namely, zealous belief in reason.
To a large extent, it was epistemological relativism that allowed progressive historiography to flourish. It made possible the relative truth upon which the movement was founded - mankind would continually evolve towards progress. Based on the social reforms that swept the nation in the period between1890-1920, a future filled with hope seemed likely. However, when the Great Depression cast doubt on the certainty of such a future, America's relative truth changed. Accordingly, epistemological relativism came into play again — this time to hasten the progressive school's demise.
When Charles Beard publically converted to relativism in his 1933 presidential address before the AHA, Written History as an Act of Faith, the concept was no longer just a component of American historical thinking — it became the dominant theme. This was the end for progressive historiography as the dominant school of American historical thought. The events of the day cast doubt on the simplistic explanations and the gospel of progress which the progressive historians held dear.
Despite the decline of progressive historiography, its members left several legacies that still resonate today. Aside from The Frontier Thesis, Turner's most important contribution was to build the historical profession. He was a stimulating teacher who produced legions of successful students while he presided over the development of the University of Wisconsin's excellent history department. As for Beard, the economic interpretation of historical events, which he used in his analysis of the Constitution, is still seen as a useful tool of inquiry. Students of European history still read and debate the message of Becker's Heavenly City, and historians of every stripe find food for thought in Everyman His Own Historian. However, even more important than these contributions, progressive historiography prompted us to contemplate those characteristics of our society which are uniquely American. And for that fact alone, it can be considered to be a success.
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