Modern history

INTRODUCTION

WELL OVER A HALF CENTURY ago Isaiah Berlin published a little book entitled The Hedgehog and the Fox:An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History. He borrowed his title from a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin interpreted the words broadly and found in them one of the deepest differences that divide writers and thinkers and perhaps even human beings in general. On one side of this chasm, wrote Berlin, were the foxes, “who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle.” On the other side were the hedgehogs, “who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel—a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance.”

So in this scheme of things Berlin labels Dante as a hedgehog and Shakespeare as a fox. “Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce are foxes.”1

Although Berlin was interested mainly in placing great writers into one or another of these two categories, one might do the same with more mundane historians. There are historians who work on many different subjects, jumping from topic to topic as their various interests lead them. I have a remarkable colleague who began with a study of Congress in the 1930s, and followed that by an analysis of the impact of the New Deal on the states. Then, after he had written an impressive biography of an important politician of the 1940s and early 1950s, he wrote an extraordinary book on America’s struggle with poverty in the twentieth century. This work was followed by a fascinating history of cancer in modern American culture, which in turn was succeeded by an examination of an important Supreme Court decision of the 1950s. At the same time, this colleague was writing a huge narrative account of twentieth-century America and a prize-winning book on the decades in America following World War II. Even now he is on to brand-new subjects in modern America.

This colleague of mine is a fox and a superb one. He knows many things and is interested in many things. He even once said to me as he was casting about for a new subject to write about that if I had any ideas for him to please let him know.

By contrast, as a historian I fear I am a simple hedgehog. Throughout my career I have been most interested in the American Revolution and the political, social, and cultural changes that it engendered. Of course, I have taught university lecture courses that ranged from Columbus to the Jacksonian era and have led seminars on various topics. But nearly all of my publications have dealt with the American Revolution and its consequences. In addition to several books on the Revolution and its leaders, I have published a number of articles on the Revolutionary era, some of which are collected in this book.

My preoccupation with the Revolution comes from my belief that it is the most important event in American history, bar none. Not only did the Revolution legally create the United States, but it infused into our culture all of our highest aspirations and noblest values. Our beliefs in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and the well-being of ordinary people came out of the Revolutionary era. So too did our idea that we Americans are a special people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty and democracy. The Revolution, in short, gave birth to whatever sense of nationhood and national purpose we Americans have had.

Establishing their nationhood was not easy for the Revolutionaries, as my essay on “The American Enlightenment” in this volume attempts to show. Americans knew that they were not yet a nation, at least not a nation in the European sense of the term. Since the identity of the United States as a nation remains unusually fluid and elusive, we Americans have had to look back repeatedly to the Revolution and the Founding (as we call it) in order to know who we are. We go back to the Revolution and the values and institutions that came out of it in order to refresh and reaffirm our nationhood. That for me is why the Revolutionary era remains so significant.

ALTHOUGH I HAVE BEEN WORKING on the Revolutionary era for my entire career, I don’t now conceive of it in the same way as I did a half century ago. Like most other graduate students in the country in the early 1960s, I was trained to think of early American history as the period from the initial settlements in the seventeenth century to the establishment of the Constitution in 1787–1788. Specializing in the several decades following 1789 meant that one was not a colonial-Revolutionary historian but an early national historian. One specialized either in the colonial-Revolutionary period or in the early decades of the national period, but not in both. If colonial-Revolutionary historians did happen to spill over into the 1790s, they tended to see those years as the culmination of what had gone on before—the eighteenth century and the Revolution.

Early national historians who began their teaching and research on the 1790s not only rarely looked back to the colonial or Revolutionary periods but generally tended to look ahead to the Civil War or to the urbanization and industrialization that essentially occurred after the 1820s. So they often treated the period between 1789 and the 1820s as a prelude to what was really important to them in the nineteenth century. Consequently, graduate students in the 1960s who wished to study the early decades of the nation’s history were apt to fall between two specializations of the historical profession. Colonial-Revolutionary historians knew the period only as an epilogue; early national historians knew it only as a prologue. Neither group saw it in its own right.

Thus I began my teaching in the 1960s thinking of myself as exclusively a colonial-Revolutionary historian. I taught a two-semester course, with one semester dealing with the colonial period up to 1760 and a second dealing with the Revolutionary period from 1760 to 1788. But since my university had no history course covering the period from 1789 to the age of Jackson, I began to feel obliged to offer such a course. The experience in the 1970s of organizing a course on this period was eye-opening and ultimately very rewarding.

When I first began exploring the period, I was surprised by the nature of the historical scholarship on these decades following the creation of the Constitution. It didn’t seem to treat the period as seriously as I had expected; indeed, as historian James H. Broussard, who founded the Society for the History of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) in the late 1970s and almost single-handedly revived interest in the period, once pointed out, it was “often treated almost as a backwater of historical scholarship.”2 There were, of course, many good books and articles, especially biographies of the great men and the not-so-great men of the Revolutionary era. Mammoth editing projects promising to publish virtually everything written to and by each of the major Founders had been launched and were well along. Some works of scholarship—for example, a study of racial attitudes of early white Americans and an analysis of the Massachusetts Federalists—were truly outstanding, but they remained isolated and unconnected to any overall interpretation of the period.3 Despite publications like these, the early decades of America’s history seemed to lack what Broussard called an “organizing theme.” All kinds of labels and books flew about, but, as Broussard lamented, the problem was “how to group them together in a meaningful whole.”4

In the early 1960s the origins of political parties had attracted some scholarly interest, but they did little to invigorate the period. Political scientists and political sociologists like William Nisbet Chambers and Seymour Martin Lipset were not really interested in the history of the 1790s per se but instead in the conditions out of which political structures and political parties were created. They wanted to form generalizations about politics that were applicable to their present. Thus the United States became the “first new nation” and the conflict between the Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans became the “first party system”—object lessons for the newly developing and ex-colonial nations of the 1950s and 1960s.5 Consequently, these political scientists were not always sensitive to the differentness of the past, and in their works they often left readers with a very unhistorical and anachronistic view of America’s political parties in the 1790s.

All in all, the lack of any comprehensive synthesis of the period seemed to have given the decades of early national history a reputation for dreariness and insignificance. It seemed to be the most boring part of American history to study and teach.6

This was baffling to me. After all, the decades between 1789 and the 1820s seemed to have an immediate and palpable importance for all Americans. Not only was the period dominated by some of the greatest and most heroic figures in American history (Washington, Hamilton, Adams, Madison, Jefferson, and Marshall), but during these decades Americans established their political institutions—the presidency, the Congress, the Supreme Court—and created both political parties and modern democratic politics. Indeed, so much of political significance occurred in this period of the early Republic that the historians’ neglect of it was puzzling.

After much pondering, I concluded that historians themselves had created the problem. The so-called consensus interpretation of American history that dominated what has been called the “golden age” of historical writing in the 1950s and early 1960s was responsible for the diminished respect accorded the period of the early Republic.7 In fact, those historians who had written in the aftermath of World War II had effectively destroyed the dominant synthesis of the period created in the first half of the twentieth century and had not put anything else in its place.

During the first half of the twentieth century the Progressive generation of historians—those professional historians whose assumptions about reality came out of the Progressive era at the beginning of the twentieth century—not only had an overarching scheme for understanding the early Republic, but also had a special fascination for this period. Although the Progressive historians offered a framework for understanding all of American history, it was the period of the early Republic—from the Revolution to the age of Jackson—that particularly interested them. All the giants among them—Carl Becker, Charles Beard, Arthur Schlesinger Sr., Vernon Parrington—tackled problems in this period and felt most at home in this period. Even Frederick Jackson Turner thought his “frontier thesis” had a special applicability to the half century following the Revolution. The early Republic seemed to be the natural arena for demonstrating the truth of the Progressive historians’ interpretation of American history.8

These historians tended to see American history as full of conflicts, especially conflicts between a populist majority, usually agrarian, and a narrow aristocratic or business minority. According to these historians, the Revolution and the early Republic were essentially characterized by the seesawing struggle between these two groups. The aristocratic and merchant interests of the 1760s lost control of the resistance movement to more popular and radical elements who moved America into revolution. By the 1780s, however, the conservative and mercantile interests had reasserted themselves to the point where they were able to write the new federal Constitution of 1787. Charles Beard’s provocative book An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913) became the linchpin of this Progressive interpretation. These historians saw the 1790s as a continuation of the struggle between the commercial interests led by Alexander Hamilton and the popular agrarian and artisanal forces led by Thomas Jefferson.

With Jefferson’s election in 1800, the popular agrarian majorities finally came into their own. The next two or three decades saw the relentless emergence of the “common man” in American history. The last remnants of the colonial ancien régime were cast aside or destroyed. The churches were disestablished, the suffrage gates were opened, and the clamoring populace rushed to the polls and overthrew the commercial aristocracy, at least outside the South. The entire struggle climaxed with the election of Andrew Jackson, marking the completion of the unfinished business of the Revolution.

It was a powerful interpretative framework. It accommodated a wide variety of facts, and it was simple enough to be applied by hosts of student disciples. No wonder that some of the best and most durable monographs on the period, particularly the histories of states, have been written by followers of the Progressive historians. All had similar titles and themes, and all described political developments in terms of “from aristocracy to democracy.”9

This Progressive paradigm dominated historical writing about America’s past during the first half of the twentieth century. But in the years following World War II, this interpretative framework was assaulted from a hundred different directions and dismantled by a thousand different monographs. Book after book, article after article in the 1950s and 1960s ate away at every aspect of the Progressive explanation of America’s past. In this rich and flourishing period of American history writing, often labeled the era of “consensus” history, the Progressive interpretation that had featured social conflicts in America’s past was replaced by one that emphasized the similarity and like-mindedness of all Americans. This destruction of the Progressive interpretation affected all aspects and all eras of American history, but it affected the period of the early Republic the most.

The 1950s and 1960s assault on the Progressive understanding of the early Republic took the form of denying the extent of change that had taken place in the period. Colonial America, it appeared from a number of consensus studies, was not an ancien régime after all. Since roughly 60 percent of adult white males in the colonial period could legally vote, the high suffrage barriers that the Progressive historians had posited turned out to be not so high after all. The churches in the eighteenth century were already weak and did not much need disestablishment. The aristocracy that existed was hardly an aristocracy by European standards and scarcely required elimination. All in all, colonial Americans did not have much to revolt against; their revolution seemed to be essentially a mental shift, an intellectual adjustment to what had already taken place over the previous century or more. The Americans were born free and equal and thus, as Tocqueville had written, did not have to become so. The American Revolution therefore became a peculiarly conservative affair, an endorsement and realization, not a transformation, of the society.10

As early American historians were reinterpreting the colonial period, other historians were reevaluating the Jacksonian era. Not only did it now appear that the Jacksonians had less unfinished business to deal with than historians used to think, but Jacksonian society seemed less egalitarian and less democratic than earlier historians had believed. The distribution of wealth in the 1820s and 1830s was more unequal than it had been earlier in the century; indeed, some studies showed that the distribution of wealth after the Revolution was more unequal than in the colonial period. Some historians even suggested that the age of Jackson ought to be called “the era of the uncommon man.”11

Thus it seemed that no democratic Jacksonian revolution had occurred after all. It was hard to see much difference between the Democratic and Whig parties. As historians Richard Hofstadter and Bray Hammond emphasized, both parties were composed of men on the make; certainly they did not stand for coherent social classes in conflict.12 Nearly everyone in the North, at least, seemed to belong to the middle class. America was liberal and individualistic to its toes, and, according to Louis Hartz, whose 1955 book The Liberal Tradition in America epitomized the so-called consensus interpretation of the post–World War II decades, it had been so from the very beginning of its history.13

These attacks on the Progressive paradigm affected all periods of America’s past, but they especially ravaged the period between the Revolution and the age of Jackson, for the Progressive interpretation really had its heart and soul in these decades of the early Republic. If the Progressive interpretation was true anywhere, the Progressive historians believed, it was true there in the early Republic. This, after all, was the time when the conservative European-like aristocratic forces were supposed to have been finally shattered, when American democracy was first established, and when modern American liberalism was born.

But if this were not truly the case, if Revolutionary Americans were in fact already free and equal and did not have to experience a democratic revolution, then what significance could this period of the early Republic have? According to the findings of the consensus historians of the 1950s and 1960s, the period was not formative after all. The Progressive historians had been wrong about it; and with the collapse of their interpretative framework, the period of the early Republic on which they had rested so much of their case sank into insignificance.

By the time I began putting my course on the early Republic together in the 1970s, there were some tentative efforts to reinvigorate the period and to see it whole. Some historians tried to apply the social science concept of “modernization” to the period. But, as often happens, historians began using the concept just as it was going out of fashion among social scientists. Thus the effort died aborning, and much of the scholarship of the period remained diffuse and unconnected, without compelling significance.14

One of the problems faced in the 1970s by historians who were trying to deal with the period of the early Republic was the overriding dominance of politics and the presence of so many heroic political figures, such as Washington, Hamilton, and Jefferson. By writing so many biographies of these great men and thus describing the early Republic mainly in terms of the actions of great individual political leaders, historians tended to fragment our understanding of the period. Moreover, political events and political institutions in general tended to overwhelm the period and prevent historians who wished to write about other things from having much breathing room. With the establishment of America’s political institutions, a major rebellion, crises of various sorts, crucial elections, the beginnings of judicial review, the use of economic sanctions as an alternative to war, and a war itself, the period is full of what might be called headline events. Indeed, there is probably no period of American history that has more of these headline events concerning politics and diplomacy than the early Republic.15

Unfortunately, the new generation of historians coming of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s did not want to write about great headline political events. The social and cultural history they were interested in tended to deal with impersonal long-term developments. Such new history might involve changing demographic patterns over several generations or shifting attitudes toward childhood or death. The early Republic was probably the period of American history least receptive to treatment by these new social and cultural historians. Its extraordinary number of major political and diplomatic happenings tended to inhibit social and cultural studies that sought to sweep through decades and ignore prominent individuals and national elections in favor of statistical aggregates and long-term mentalities. Unlike the colonial period, when there were no presidents and congressional elections and very few headline events, the early Republic seemed to be an unattractive place for the new social and cultural history.

Yet in the end it was the new social and cultural historians themselves who helped revive interest in the early Republic. It was they who first began conceiving of the Revolutionary era in the most comprehensive manner and began knitting together the two periods that hitherto had been separated from one another: the colonial-Revolutionary era and the early Republic. In the late 1970s and the 1980s they wrote increasing numbers of broad social and cultural histories that ranged in time from the middle or last quarter of the eighteenth century to the early decades of the nineteenth century. These included impressive works on women and the family, the emerging professions, the decline of apprenticeship, the rise of statistics, the creation of common schools, the spread of alcohol drinking, the transformation of artisans, the emergence of capitalism, the change in urban mobs, the experience of the native Indians, the development of slavery and antislavery, and the emergence of the postal system. New studies of law were less interested in the decisions of the Marshall Court and more concerned with the long-term relationship between law and society. Indeed, even the most seemingly insignificant subjects—log construction in Ohio from 1750 to 1840, for example—were worthy of histories as long as they covered a long enough period of time.16

Not only did these social and cultural historians, together with the formation of SHEAR and the Journal of the Early Republic, help turn the early Republic into one of the most exciting and vibrant fields of American history writing, but they created new ways of dating developments—such as from 1750 to 1820, or 1780 to 1840—that ignored or transcended the traditional periodization that had used prominent political events to separate one era from another.17 Within these new and broader perspectives, the Revolution, when it was mentioned at all, became merely a political event expressive of wide-ranging social and cultural changes that took longer than a decade to work out. I came to believe that this new periodization marked a radical and rewarding change in American historiography.

It certainly had a powerful effect on my understanding of early America, and I began to think of the Revolution in new ways—not as a political event that could be confined to the period between 1763 and 1787 but one with great social and cultural significance that ran from at least the middle of the eighteenth century to the early decades of the nineteenth.

When I began studying and teaching both the colonial era and the early Republic up to the Jacksonian era, I was increasingly struck by how different the two periods were from one another politically, socially, and culturally. I became convinced that more had changed between 1760 and 1820 than the “consensus” historians of the 1950s had allowed. I began to suspect that the old Progressive historians had been more right than not in their interpretation of the Revolution and its consequences. Colonial society appeared to me much more of an ancien régime than the “consensus” historians had thought. It was certainly not quite the ancien régime that the Progressives had described—of rigid classes, legally restricted voting, and rich, exploitative merchants—but it was not the liberal, egalitarian, democratic society of Tocqueville’s America either.

Colonial society seemed to me to be hierarchical and patriarchal, a society generally organized vertically, not horizontally, and tied together by kinship and patron-client relations. Some of this traditional, hierarchical, small-scale eighteenth-century world survived the Revolution, but not much, at least not in the North. Many of the new social and cultural studies of the 1970s and 1980s, especially those having to do with economic developments, tended to stress the fundamental differences between the old aristocratic pre-Revolutionary society and the new bumptious popular commercial society that emerged in the nineteenth century. Studies of mid-eighteenth-century farm families in New England suggested their almost medieval-like practices and outlooks; they were portrayed as patriarchal communities concerned with patrimony and kin and resembling nothing like the brash capitalistic world of the early Republic. America, it seemed, was not born liberal after all, but became so in the decades following the Revolution.18

With this new understanding in hand, I tried to express these changes that had taken place between the mid-eighteenth century and the early decades of the nineteenth century. In effect, I hoped to create a more refined, more complicated, and more nuanced version of the old Progressive interpretation of the Revolution and the early Republic. I sought to recover the social conflict that had taken place—not quite the conflict the Progressive historians had emphasized, but a social conflict nonetheless. My theme became essentially the same as the Progressive historians’ theme: the change from aristocracy to democracy.

By seeking to write a more subtle version of the Progressive historians’ interpretation of the Revolution and early Republic, I hoped to improve upon that interpretation in two important respects. First, I wanted to emphasize the importance of ideas in the historical process—something the Progressive historians, in their preoccupation with economic and other underlying interests, had tended to belittle. And second, I wanted to avoid the partiality that plagued their histories, a partiality that was prompted by the need to find antecedents for the divisions of their own time.

As I point out in the opening essay, “Rhetoric and Reality in the American Revolution,” the Progressive historians generally had considered ideas to be manipulated entities, rationalizations or propaganda, mere epiphenomenal coverings for the underlying and determinative social reality. I thought they were wrong to conceive of ideas in this way. Without denying the importance of the underlying social reality, I wanted in my own work to write history that gave a proper place to the significance of ideas and to escape from the polarities that have plagued the historical profession. As historian Daniel T. Rodgers has reminded us, many of the debates historians have with one another have long been “reflexively dualistic: ideas versus behavior; rhetoric versus ‘the concrete realities of life’; propaganda and mystification on the one hand, the real stuff on the other.”19 I wanted to avoid these false dichotomies and see events like the Revolution or the making of the Constitution from both sides, both the intellectual and the social—in other words, to see events whole.

Although I have most often written about ideas, I have never assumed that ideas were the driving force explaining social change. As I tried to make clear in my “Rhetoric and Reality” essay of 1966, I have never believed that any event as momentous as the Revolution could be explained solely by the ideas of the participants. Ideas are important, but they ought never be set in opposition to economic interests as “causes” of human action. In fact, I do not believe that ideas “cause” human behavior. I am with David Hume in holding that passions, not reason, are the ruling element in all human action. T. H. Breen, in a recent book on the Revolution, has rightly emphasized this point. Of course, he writes, the American Revolutionaries had ideas. “But these were ideas driven by immediate passions; they were amplified through fear, fury, and resentment.”20

There are always forces larger than reason driving events, and I have indicated as much many times in my writings. I had a section on “Whig Resentment” in my first book, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787, and in my subsequent work I have always emphasized the underlying importance of structural forces—demographic, economic, and social changes—in accounting for the various expressions of ideas, including the periodic eruptions of religious enthusiasm.

In much of my work I have concentrated on ideas simply because I find them more interesting to write about than economic behavior and not because I believe they are a more important cause of events. As I suggested in my essay “Interests and Disinterestedness in the Making of the Constitution,” for example, economic interests of various sorts may have been crucially important in creating the Constitution.

Explaining human behavior is complicated, and the notion of “cause” is not very helpful. In fact, as I try to indicate in my essay entitled “Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style,” I think it is difficult, if not impossible, to apply the physical notion of “cause” to human action. Ideas do not “cause” people to act. Even if they did, historians would never be able to prove it; all they could do is multiply their citations of the documents in which ideas were expressed and stress their conviction that the historical participants were really sincere when they said they acted out of principles of republicanism or the public good. But hard-nosed realists like the twentieth-century historians Charles Beard and Sir Lewis Namier will simply smile knowingly at the naivety of those who would make ideas the cause of behavior and inform them of how little they know about the “real” world of human experience. Indeed, all that we have learned about the psychology and sociology of human behavior during the past century suggests that the realists are right and that the simple-minded notion that people’s professed beliefs—“no taxation without representation” or “devotion to our country”—are the motives for their behavior will never be persuasive. The tough-minded realists will always tell us otherwise, will tell us, in Namier’s words, that “what matters most is the underlying emotions, the music, to which ideas are a mere libretto, often of a very inferior quality.”21

Such realists or materialists—that is, the Progressive historians—may be right that ideas do not “cause” behavior, but it does not follow that ideas are unimportant and have little or no effect on behavior, or that they can be treated as just one “factor” that now and then comes into play in human experience. Otherwise we would not spend so much time and energy arguing about ideas. I think it is possible to concede the realist or materialist position—that passions and interests lie behind all our behavior—without deprecating the role of ideas. Even if ideas are not the underlying motives for our actions, they are constant accompaniments of our actions. There is no behavior without ideas, without language. Ideas and language give meaning to our actions, and there is almost nothing that we humans do to which we do not attribute meaning. These meanings constitute our ideas, our beliefs, our ideology, and collectively our culture. As we have learned from both “the linguistic turn” and “the cultural turn” over the past several decades, our minds are essential to the ordering of our experience.

Elite and popular thinking are of a piece in this ordering of our experience. One of the great contributions that the so-called cultural turn has made to recent historiography has been to bring high intellectual life, the so-called classic texts, down to the level of the general culture. It turns out that when we thoroughly contextualize the thinking or the texts of the likes of Locke, Montesquieu, or James Madison, we find that they were expressing ideas that grew out of and had great resonance in the culture of their time and place. Others were saying similar things but not as elegantly, not as pointedly, not as persuasively as they were. If they were not products of their society and culture and speaking directly to that society and culture, they, like Giambattista Vico earlier in the eighteenth century, would have been ignored, not listened to. Elite thinkers, in other words, are only refined extensions of other more popular thinkers in the culture, and, like ordinary thinkers, they have to be understood in relation to the context—the cultural and social circumstances—of their time.

Culture and society are not really separate entities. Because human behavior is of a piece with the meanings or ideas we give to it, our ideas do not exist apart from social circumstances or some more real world of economic behavior. Hence it is foolish to try to divide up historical explanations for events such as the Revolution or the making of the Constitution into “ideological” or “economic” schools. Ideas are essential to our experience. They are the means by which we perceive, understand, rationalize, judge, and manipulate our actions. The meanings that we give to our actions form the structure of our social world. Ideas or meanings make social behavior not just comprehensible but possible. We really cannot act unless we make our actions meaningful, unless we can find words that justify, legitimate, or explain our actions.

Of course, we are not free at any moment to give whatever meaning we wish to our behavior. This is where the Progressive historians went wrong. Ideas are not the easily manipulated entities they thought they were; ideas are not mere propaganda. We cannot simply create new words or a new language to justify and explain our actions. The words we use, the meanings we give to our behavior, are public ones, and they are defined and limited by the conventions and the available normative language of the culture of the time. Since democracy, for example, is highly valued in our society, we often try to label some controversial action we wish to engage in as “democratic.” But if we are unable to convince most people of our attributed meaning, then those who oppose our action or behavior as undemocratic win the intellectual debate, and we are inhibited in behaving in an undemocratic manner.

It is in this sense that culture—the collection of meanings available to us—both limits and creates behavior. It does so by forcing us to describe our actions in its terms. The definitions and meanings that we seek to give to our behavior cannot be bizarre or arbitrary; they have to be to some extent acceptable to the culture, to be part of the culture. Our actions thus are meaningful only publicly, only with respect to an inherited system of conventions and values. What is “liberal” or “tyrannical,” “democratic” or “aristocratic,” is determined by this cultural structure of meanings.

Our intellectual life is made up of struggles over getting people to accept different meanings of our experiences—in effect, trying to change the culture. The stakes are always high because actions that we cannot make meaningful—cannot conceive of, rationalize, legitimate, or persuade other people to accept—we in some sense cannot undertake. What is permissible culturally affects what is permissible socially or politically, so that although ideas may not be the motives for behavior (underlying interests and passions are the real motives), ideas do affect and limit behavior. They are not mere superstructure or epiphenomena.22

Indeed, once a new idea is expressed and becomes reasonably acceptable to many people, it can spawn new and sometimes unexpected behavior. When Alexander Hamilton, in The Federalist No. 78, suggested that judges were as much agents of the people as were the members of the state legislatures (a point developed in this collection of essays), he was only trying to find a novel justification for the judicial review of legislation. But others soon picked up Hamilton’s suggestion and began running with it. Before long some polemicists were arguing that if the judges were in fact a kind of representative of the people, then maybe the people ought to elect them. And sure enough this began to happen in the Jacksonian era; today, as I indicate in my essay on American constitutionalism, some thirty-nine states elect their judges in one way or another. This was a development that Hamilton could never have imagined and would have been appalled by, yet he helped to produce it. In our efforts to make new behavior meaningful, we create all sorts of unanticipated consequences.

This is certainly what happened with the arguments of the Federalists in 1787–1788. They were faced with the difficult task of justifying their new and strong national government in the face of both deeply rooted American fears of far-removed central power and the traditional theory that held that republics had to be small in size and homogeneous in character. Their opponents in the debate, the Anti-Federalists (the very name foisted on them suggests the polemical effectiveness of the Federalists), thought that the Constitution was an aristocratic and undemocratic document designed to limit certain popular pressures on government. They had considerable evidence to support their position; they had, in other words, many inherited meanings drawn from past Whig experience in the British Empire that made distant centralized power dangerous, and they made a persuasive case that the Constitution was a consolidated and an elitist threat to popular liberty.

If the Federalists were to combat these arguments and convince people that the new expanded federal government was thoroughly republican and not a threat to liberty, they would have to find new meanings for old words and somehow not repudiate the Americans’ long-existing Whig experience with power and liberty. In the debates over ratification of the Constitution, they were extraordinarily successful in exploiting the old idea of separation of powers in new ways and in giving a novel twist to the conventional meaning of sovereignty by locating it in the people. Yet by using the popular and democratic rhetoric that had emerged in the polemics of the previous decade to justify the aristocratic and expanded republic created by the Constitution, the Federalists created consequences they never intended. Their concessions to popular sovereignty and their many new democratic ideas were now on the table to be taken up and used by others in new ways. The Anti-Federalists may have lost the battle over the Constitution, but during the subsequent generation they essentially won the war over the character of the new nation.

When confronted with this 1787–1788 debate over the “aristocratic” and “democratic” nature of the Constitution, historians are not supposed to decide which was more “correct” or more “true.” The historians’ task, rather, is to explain the reasons for these contrasting meanings and why each side should have attempted to give to the Constitution the meanings it did. There was not in 1787–1788 one “correct” or “true” meaning of the Constitution. The Constitution meant whatever the Federalists or the Anti-Federalists could convince the country to accept. That is why the debate over the Constitution was so important.

I wish we could avoid the polarization of interpretations—setting those that are “ideological” against those that are “economic”—that seems to afflict the historical profession and instead try to explain events of the past in their entirety, from the top down as well as from the bottom up. Of course, the past is so complicated that there will always be disagreement over historians’ varying perceptions of it. Despite the fact that we collectively know much more now about the origins of the Revolution and the writing of the Constitution than Charles Beard and the other Progressive historians ever did, no single historian can know everything; thus the debates over our various historical explanations for the Founding or any other great event in our past will never cease.

IN ADDITION TO EMPHASIZING the importance of ideas in past behavior, I wanted my revisionist interpretation of the Progressive approach to the Revolution and the early Republic to avoid what I took to be the partisanship and one-sidedness of their interpretation. The partiality of the Progressive historians came out of their experience at the beginning of the twentieth century. Disgusted with the way the big corporations and the robber barons were exploiting the farmers and working people of their own time, they were naturally biased against Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists, whom they assumed were the progenitors of this despicable business world. They thus made Jefferson their hero; he was the one who led all the ordinary working people of the Democratic-Republican Party against those whom the popular historian of the 1920s Claude G. Bowers called “the rich, the powerful, and their retainers” in whose “drawing room were heard the sentiments of Chambers of Commerce—in glorification of materialism.”23 Unfortunately, too much of our history writing tends to take sides in this gross manner, crudely reading back into the past the issues of the present.

We have a somewhat different present now from that of a century ago. Class struggles against the rich and powerful still preoccupy many scholars, but in many cases their anticapitalist concerns have been supplanted by issues of race and gender. This in turn has transformed many historians’ perspectives on the early Republic. They still see a contest between Federalists and Republicans, but their bias has shifted. Because Jefferson and the other Southern leaders of the Republican Party were slaveholders, many present-day scholars have switched sides in accord with the political and cultural needs of our own time. Much as most historians continue to dislike businessmen and the commercial classes, they dislike slaveholders and racists more.

Since most of the Federalists were Northerners and opposed to slavery, their status has dramatically risen in the eyes of present-day scholars.24 In today’s society, where many scholars see an illiberal and narrow-minded populism running rampant, the elitism of the Federalists doesn’t seem all that bad. The Federalists might have been aristocrats, but, as some recent historians contend, at least they “were significantly more receptive than the Jeffersonians to the inclusion of women in the political process.” Indeed, the Federalists’ “conservative elitism” appears to present a “kinder face” on issues of gender and race than the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans do. “Federalists encouraged the migration of women to the West, believing that the presence of families there would counter the wildness of the frontiersmen. They called for fair treatment of Indians and tried to prohibit the spread of slavery into the region. The defeat of the Federalist vision by the new democratic order,” these historians conclude, “spelled a diminished status for women, Indians, and Africans.” Perhaps most damaging for the reputation of the Jeffersonian Republicans in our own time was their promotion of minimal government, which some scholars believe was motivated mainly by the need to protect slavery. By contrast, the Federalists were “committed to the idea that government was necessary to protect the weak.”25

So it has gone, each generation of historians finding in the era of the Revolution and early Republic whatever fits its particular political and cultural needs. This is perhaps understandable but nonetheless lamentable. Because the present is so strong and can easily overwhelm and distort interpretations of the past, we historians have to constantly guard against it. Of course, historians live in the present, and they cannot and should not ignore it in their forays into the past; historians are not antiquarians who wallow in the past for its own sake. Indeed, historical reconstruction is only possible because historians have different perspectives from those of the past about whom they write. The present is important in stimulating historical inquiry and the questions historians ask of the past. “There is always,” writes the eminent historian Bernard Bailyn, “a need to extract from the past some kind of bearing on contemporary problems, some message, commentary, or instruction to the writer’s age, and to see reflected in the past familiar aspects of the present.” But without “critical control,” says Bailyn, this need “generates an obvious kind of presentism, which at worst becomes indoctrination by historical example.”26

In many recent studies of the era of the Revolution and the early Republic, this “critical control” has not always been what it should have been. Our present preoccupation with race and gender has sometimes tended to misrepresent the period in much the same way that Charles Beard’s Progressive generation misrepresented the period with their preoccupation with the common people against the business interests. One would think that the exaggerations of Progressive historiography (which most historians now recognize as such) would make present-day historians wary of making the same mistake—of reading their present so heavy-handedly into their interpretations of the past. It is one thing for the present to provoke questions about the past; it is quite another when it shapes and controls what historians find there.27

I don’t believe that historians should take sides with the contestants of the past, whether Anti-Federalists versus Federalists or Republicans versus Federalists. The responsibility of the historian, it seems to me, is not to decide who in the past was right or who was wrong but to explain why the different contestants thought and behaved as they did.

Once we transcend this sort of partisan view of the past, once we realize that people in the past did not know their future any more than we know ours, and once we try to understand their behavior in their terms and not ours, then we will acquire a much more detached historical perspective. We can then come to appreciate more fully, for example, just how many illusions the generation of Founders lived with. Many of them hated political parties and tried to avoid them, and yet parties arose. Many of them thought their society in time would become more like Europe’s, and yet it did not, at least not during the first half of the nineteenth century. Many also believed that slavery would sooner or later die a natural death—that it would simply wither away. They could not have been more wrong. Many of them also thought that the West could be settled in an orderly fashion, in a manner that could protect Indian culture and keep the native peoples west of the Appalachians from disappearing as they believed they had in New England.

They had many illusions about the future, as I suggest in my essay “Illusions of Power in the Awkward Era of Federalism.” As late as 1822 Thomas Jefferson thought that “there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.”28 A Unitarian! What could he have been thinking? And this at a time when the evangelical Methodists and Baptists were growing by leaps and bounds.

If Jefferson, as smart and as well-read as he was, had illusions about the future, there is not much hope for the rest of us avoiding illusions about our future. But that is precisely the point of studying history. Before we become arrogant and condescending toward these people in the past, we should realize that we too live with illusions, only we don’t know what they are. Perhaps every generation lives with illusions, different ones for each generation. And that is how history moves from one generation to another, exploding the previous generation’s illusions and conjuring up its own.

If we approach the past in this way, we become more aware of just how much people then were victims as well as drivers of the historical process. We come to realize that those in the past were restricted by forces that they did not understand nor were even aware of—forces such as demographic movements, economic developments, or large-scale cultural patterns. The drama, indeed the tragedy, of history comes from our understanding of the tension that existed between the conscious wills and intentions of the participants in the past and the underlying conditions that constrained their actions and shaped their future. If the study of history teaches anything, it teaches us the limitations of life. It ought to produce prudence and humility.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!
Previous
Page
Next
Page