The earliest attempts to record the nation’s history took the form of accounts of military campaigns, summaries of state and federal legislative activity, dispatches from the frontier and other narrowly focused reports. In the 19th century, these were replaced by a master narrative of the colonial and founding era, best exemplified by “the father of American history,” George Bancroft, in his “History of the United States, From the Discovery of the American Continent.” Published in 10 volumes from the 1830s through the 1870s, Bancroft’s opus is generally seen as the first comprehensive history of the country, and its influence was incalculable. Bancroft’s ambition was to synthesize American history into a grand and glorious epic. He viewed the European colonists who settled the continent as acting out a divine plan and the revolution as an almost purely philosophical act, undertaken to model self-government for all the world.
The scholarly effort to revise this narrative began in the early 20th century with the work of the “Progressive historians,” most notably Charles A. Beard, who tried to show that the founders were motivated not exclusively by idealism and virtue but also by their pocketbooks. “Suppose,” Beard asked in 1913, “our fundamental law was not the product of an abstraction known as ‘the whole people,’ but of a group of economic interests which must have expected beneficial results from its adoption?” Though the Progressives’ work was influential, they were bitterly attacked for their theories, which shocked many Americans. “SCAVENGERS, HYENA-LIKE, DESECRATE THE GRAVES OF THE DEAD PATRIOTS WE REVERE,” blared one headline in an Ohio newspaper.
As the Cold War dawned, it became clear that this school could not provide the necessary inspiration for an America that envisioned itself a defender of global freedom and democracy. The Beardian approach was beaten back by the counter-Progressive or “Consensus” school, which emphasized the founders’ shared values and played down class conflict. Among Consensus historians, a keen sense of national purpose was evident, as well as an eagerness to disavow the whiff of Marxism in the progressive narrative and re-establish the founders’ idealism. In 1950, the Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison lamented that the Progressives were “robbing the people of their heroes” and “insulting their folk-memory of the great figures whom they admired.” Seven years later, one of his former students, Edmund S. Morgan, published “The Birth of the Republic, 1763-1789,” a key text of this era (described by one reviewer at the time as having the “brilliant hue of the era of Eisenhower prosperity”). Morgan stressed the revolution as a “search for principles” that led to a nation committed to liberty and equality.
By the 1960s, the pendulum was ready to swing the other way. A group of scholars identified variously as Neo-Progressive historians, New Left historians or social historians challenged the old paradigm, turning their focus to the lives of common people in colonial society and U.S. history more broadly. Earlier generations primarily studied elites, who left a copious archive of written material. Because the subjects of the new history — laborers, seamen, enslaved people, women, Indigenous people — produced relatively little writing of their own, many of these scholars turned instead to large data sets like tax lists, real estate inventories and other public records to illuminate the lives of what were sometimes called the “inarticulate masses.” This novel approach set aside “the central assumption of traditional history, what might be called the doctrine of implicit importance,” wrote the historian Jack P. Greene in a 1975 article in The Times. “From the perspective supplied by the new history, it has become clear that the experience of women, children, servants, slaves and other neglected groups are quite as integral to a comprehensive understanding of the past as that of lawyers, lords and ministers of state.”
An explosion of new research resulted, transforming the field of American history. One of the most significant developments was an increased attention to Black history and the role of slavery. For more than a century, a profession dominated by white men had mostly consigned these subjects to the sidelines. Bancroft had seen slavery as problematic — “an anomaly in a democratic country” — but mostly because it empowered a Southern planter elite he considered corrupt, lazy and aristocratic. Beard and the other Progressives hadn’t focused much on slavery, either. Until the 1950s, the institution was treated in canonical works of American history as an aberration best addressed minimally if at all. When it was taken up for close study, as in Ulrich B. Phillips’s 1918 book, “American Negro Slavery,” it was seen as an inefficient enterprise sustained by benevolent masters to whom enslaved people felt mostly gratitude. That began to change in the 1950s and 1960s, as works by Herbert Aptheker, Stanley Elkins, Philip S. Foner, John Hope Franklin, Eugene D. Genovese, Benjamin Quarles, Kenneth M. Stampp, C. Vann Woodward and many others transformed the mainstream view of slavery.
Published on: Article source