Exam preparation materials

Historians and Their Work

The writing of U.S. history reflects clear-cut patterns of thought at various periods. The Puritans had their Christian interpretation of history. Early colonial leaders such as William Bradford and John Winthrop reflected this approach. In the eighteenth century, historians stressed the Enlightenment idea that reason would guide mankind along the path of progress. Historians in the next century turned to romantic beliefs in hero worship and adventure. Near the end of the nineteenth century, American historians, many of them with academic training in Germany, began to practice the teaching and writing of history as a profession. It was quite the fashion at the time to think of history writing in scientific rather than literary terms. During the Depression of the 1930s, practically every study involved an economic interpretation. As you can see, the way history is written is not static; it mirrors the ideas and characteristics of the time in which it was written.

Perhaps the most well-known school of thought is that of the Progressive historians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. These scholars viewed American history in terms of conflict — rich vs. poor, farmer vs. merchant, debtor vs. creditor, democracy vs. aristocracy. They believed that progress was inevitable, that the United States was moving toward a more ideal order. To the Progressive historian, all periods in American history could be divided into two clear and distinct phases: periods of active reform and periods of conservative consolidation.

Many Progressive historians were themselves committed to reform movements in the early 1900s and tended to view their own era in terms of a struggle by the people to free themselves from the large corporate monopolies. They read back into history the same conflict between the masses and the upper classes that seemed to be taking place before their own eyes. An excellent analysis of this group is Richard Hofstadter’s The Progressive Historians, which focuses on Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles Beard, and Vernon L. Parrington.

After World War II, historical writing in the United States became more conservative.

Historians such as Daniel Boorstin and Richard Hoftstadter viewed American history in terms of consensus rather than conflict. They deemphasized class and sectional divisions, arguing instead that there was never any class struggle in the United States as there had been in Europe. They were cynical about the optimistic view of the Progressive historians. The war, nuclear weapons, and the apathy of the masses during the 1950s made them see their predecessors’ views as too simple. The Conservative historians claimed that Americans have fought only over the means of reaching their basic objectives but that the goals have always been the same. Their writing shows a need to prove national unity among the American people.

The Revisionists are in sharp contrast to the Conservative historians of the 1940s and 1950s. Revisionism occurs when a historian challenges the accepted understanding of an event or issue. Revisionist historians such as Howard Zinn, William Appelman Williams, and Eugene Genovese offer new versions that on occasion overwhelm conventional understanding and become the new standard interpretation. A subject that revisionists have written extensively on is the involvement of the United States in World War II. The United States entered the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The conventional interpretation is that Japan began the war with an unfair “sneak attack” that was part of a policy of aggression in the Pacific. The Revisionists maintain that President Franklin Roosevelt, through inept and racist foreign policies, placed Japan in a no-win position where the only alternative was to attack. Some historians also maintain that the United States knew about Japan’s plans to attack Pearl Harbor but did nothing so as to provide a reason for getting involved in the war in Europe.

Students interested in the current work of American historians should examine The New American History (1997), which was edited for the American Historical Association by Eric Foner. It contains essays reviewing the latest scholarship both by time period and subject, e.g., women’s history, labor history, diplomatic history. Each essay includes an extensive bibliography of books and articles.

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