Historiography of the United States
American historiography has evolved through the years. Some of the changes were because of the European influence of Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) and his methodology including historicism, Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) Origin of the Species (1859), and Karl Marx’s (1819-1883) Communist Manifesto (1848). At the turn of the twentieth century the Industrial Revolution swept across America.
The Industrial Revolution (1871-1940) caused a mass exodus from the small towns and farms. The American historians had seen the horrors of the Civil War (1831-1865) and were now seeing the ills of society. They were no longer satisfied with the traditional historiography based on Rankean methodology which includes historicism. Historicism is defined as studying history by looking at the past through the eyes of the past instead of looking through the lens of the present which enables the historian to preserve the uniqueness of the people from the past. Another aspect of von Ranke’s method was his belief that historians should look at the past objectively with no judgement being given by the historian.
Next the Progressive historiography was based on seeing its task as, “reconciliation of the democratic ideals with the political, social and economic realities of the new urban and industrialized America.” Some examples of the Progressive historiography were written by Charles Beard (1874-1946) and Carl L. Becker (1873-1945). Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) position was the constitution was created to protect the landowners’ property under the pretense of the founder’s ideology.
Becker’s The Heavenly City of Eighteenth Century argued his belief that the myth of Christianity was replaced with rationalism. They believed the ideas of progress and realism were at the core of a nation and mankind. Progressive history lasted up through World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945). Lastly, the historical thought known as the Consensus historiography replaced Progressive history, because American historians were no longer satisfied with the Progressive historiography’s division of American history by sections and social groups.
Consensus historiography entered in American historiography after World War II. The United States entered the stage as a world power after leading the allies in defeating Nazism and the Japanese totalitarianism in 1945. There was a feeling of national pride in America, and it included the historians. The historians wanted to stress the strengths of America as a whole unlike their progressive predecessors. Thus, Consensus historiography became a part of American historiography.
Next Consensus historiography also developed in response to two other groups besides the traditional progressives. They were the revisionists and the Non-Beardian progressives. Breisach described the revisionists as mostly southern historians who wrote amoral history with no respect for the moral and economic aspects of slavery and the emotions of the people while trusting the south to make the right decisions on its own. Also, he described the Non-Beardian progressives as historians who despise the process of democracy. Lastly, he mentioned, “…Consensus historian had too much respect for ideas and ideals to have them labeled as illusions and delusions.”
What is Consensus historiography? Consensus historiography were historians who had an underlying conviction that American society had a fundamental core of shared experiences, ideals and supported the idea of the United States as a united nation and, it’s at least as important or even more important than the concept of an ideal democracy which is built by necessary and contentious strife between competing interests and groups.
Also, the Consensus historians were uncompromising in their belief of America as a one of a kind in her experiences as a nation. Furthermore Consensus historiography according to Breisach, “…discovered and depicted the nation as a whole, shaped not by abstract design but by collective ideals and shared life experience.” Unlike their predecessors who saw the United States as many different groups with many different factions within those groups like Europe, the Consensus historians saw the United States of America as one whole nation. Two of the Consensus historians were Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970) and Daniel Boorstin (1914-2004).
Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition was written in 1948, and he reasoned that the different American political parties had the following in common with each other: believed in property rights, individualism, competition, and capitalism. Also, Daniel Boorstin’s The Genius of American Politics rationalized that the Civil War’s conflict was caused by sociological differences and the nature of federalism.
Furthermore, Consensus historiography tried to resolve the intellectual problems which had been evolving since the late nineteenth century. Another element of the Consensus historiography minimized the dissimilarity of the political groups like the Whigs and Jacksonians. Additionally, Ribuffo wrote that the Consensus historian’s weakest area was their reluctance to analyze the strife between the different ethnic groups of immigrants in the nineteenth century and twentieth century.
In addition, John Highman wrote critically of the Consensus historiography. He argued Consensus historiography led to its own demise in his article “Changing Paradigms: The Collapse of Consensus History,” and the rise of radical history. He shared the Consensus historian role of destruction was,” Their downgrading of social conflict in American history, their stress on continuities in a stable social order, and their explicit critique of Progressive ideas about class severely damaged the features of Progressive historiography that appealed most strongly to scholars dissatisfied with the status quo.”
Subsequently, the Consensus historiography was interesting for the writer for several reasons. First, the fact that the Consensus historiography developed after the World War II in response to Progressive history. Second, the author likes the Consensus historiography’s view of looking at the United States as one united country. Yet, the author believes the Consensus historians should have included some sectionalism with their historiography since all the sections make the United States whole. In the author’s opinion it is also important to study the sections to get a better understanding of all the areas of the United States.
For example, a European historian would not just study Great Britain to get an idea of European history. Thirdly, the Consensus historians believed in the importance of competition and capitalism with historiography. The writer believes competition may make individuals strive for the best. Also capitalism needs competition for it to be a good economic system since competition drives prices down and makes things affordable. Finally, the consensus school and the essayist both believe that America is unique and takes pride in being American.
Lastly, Consensus historiography became part of American historiography, because, “the vaunted realism of the progressive history no longer seem realistic enough.” Consensus school of thought became a part of the American historiography since it tried to answer the intellectual questions of historians. Also, it was a reflection of American nationalism and the middle class Americans in the United States. Consequently, Consensus historiography has made an impact on American historiography which led to a radical Revisionist history and the more conservative Post-revisionist history of the twentieth century.