December 18

Blog #93 – Historiography of the Constitution

Historiography is the history of the history, or how interpretations of an event have changed over the years.  Usually, historians reflect the main concerns of the time period in which they write (for instance, Progressive historians are concerned about economic factors driving events because they wrote during the reform-minded era, the Progressive Era -1900-1915).  Sometimes, enough historians write in a similar viewpoint that history scholars call them historical schools of thought (Nationalist, Progressive, Consensus, New Left, etc.).  And sometimes, these schools of thought are dominated by an historian who writes an incredibly influential book on that subject (Charles Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution).  One of the things that I hope you understand from this look at historiography is that the history of events and their interpretations can and are constantly changing.  Here is a link to a wikipedia page on general U.S. historiography – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historiography_of_the_United_States

Before the Civil War (1861-65), many people were focused on who the Constitution put in charge of the nation: the states or the federal government?  Also, many controversies surfaced in whether they should interpret the Constitution literally as written (strict interpretation) or to interpret the Founders’ intent (loose interpretation).  It seems that the writers of this document weren’t ready to answer those questions either in Philadelphia in 1787 and wanted to leave some wiggle room for interpretation for future generations (this is my loose interpretation).  The Civil War ended this controversy with the federal government enforcing its supremacy over the  states in the defeat on the Confederacy.

Nationalist School (post Civil War – 1900)

George Bancroft began writing his epic history of the U.S. before the Civil War and continued until 1887.  His first volume, found here, covers from the early voyages to the New World until the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688 (for us in APUSH, this history ignored the Native Americans in Ch. 1 and focused primarily on the Spanish and the founding of the colonies up until 1688 – over 600 pages in his first volume!).  Bancroft and other historians wrote American history reflecting the Gilded Age and American economic growth, railroad expansion, the closing of the interior frontier, and their beliefs in Anglo-Saxon superiority.  Nationalist writers believed that “the orderly progress of mankind toward greater personal liberty” was due to white Christian people and their inherent ability to build strong governments.  

Nationalists viewed the creation of the Constitution as an extension of the Revolution.  The Articles of Confederation were too weak to deal with internal threats and problems (Shays Rebellion, economic depression) or with external threats (Spain and England).  The American people were divinely picked by God (“City on a hill”?  American exceptionallism?) to create a perfect republic, and the men at Philly were creating a new government for the betterment of the nation.

Progressive School (1900 – 1930s) 

This time period saw many people concerned about the effects of massive wealth redistribution that widened the gap between rich and poor, in addition to the negative effects of urbanization and industrialization (slums, poor working conditions, low wages).   This era saw a huge uptick in reforms that attempted to solve these problems.  Carl Becker saw the Revolution as two concurrent changes: one to break away from British rule, and another as to who will rule at home (which culminates in the Constitution).  Charles A. Beard was the one of leading historians of the time with his popular 1913 book, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the U.S. (found here).  

Beard found that the men who made the Constitution had strong economic motives to ensure a powerful federal government because “most of these men held public securities, a form of personal property that would increase dramatically in value” if a new government was strong and improved its credit rating.  These conservative men had economic interests in banking, public securities (or bonds and promissory notes to Revolutionary war soldiers), manufacturers, and merchants involved in shipping and trade.  All of these economic interests declined because of the weakness of the Articles of Confederation.  Those who opposed the Constitution were working men and small farmers who were deep in debt.  Our new document was designed to protect private property against state assemblies that were much more democratic and likely to protect small farmers and debtors.  Beard also saw the creation of the Constitution as undemocratic because there were no “common men” involved, and the proceedings were done in secret.  Also, there was no bill of rights protection for Americans, unlike many state constitutions.  Beard’s primary focus in his history is class conflict.

Consensus School (1940s – 1960s)

After World War II, some historians moved away from the class conflict interpretation of American history and shifted toward consensus.  Because we were engaged in the Cold War with Russians (a country whose ideology is steeped in class conflict – Marxism), consensus historians de-emphasized class conflict and taught that our conflicts are steeped in competition of businessmen and entreprenuers that has made America great.  These historians are somewhat throwbacks to the Nationalist school who wanted to strengthen America “as a world leader with a history as a strong and united country free from class-based oppression”.  “The cement holding us together is our widespread prosperity and universal acceptance of the principles succinctly summarized in the first parts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Our political struggles have always been within the center rather than between the left and right extremists.”

They saw the Revolution and Constitution as one continuous movement (as opposed to Beard’s democratic revolution against the British and a conservative counter-revolution for private property with the Constitution), and that the state constitutions were created by the same people who signed the Declaration of Independence.  Consensus historians saw the Constitution as primarily a political document, not economic like Beard.  The delegates at the convention were primarily concerned with making a better government than the Articles, one that was based upon “representation, fixed elections, a written constitution that is a supreme law and contains an amendment clause, separation of powers and checks and balances, a bicameral legislature, a single executive, and a separate court system.”  These historians challenged Beard’s assertion that the poor didn’t have a say in the Constitution, stating that 2/3 of men at this time owned enough property to vote in state elections, many of whom were small farmers.  These historians include two of my favorites, Daniel Boorstin and Richard Hofstadter (author of the extra article on the Founding Fathers: The Age of Realism).

Intellectual or Republicanism Historians (1950s – 1980s)

This group of historians is dominated by Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn.  These two assert that Americans adopted many British ideas like anti-authoritarianism, written constitutions, compact theory, and human rights.  Both the Federalists and Anti-Federalists shared a major distrust of central government, and that the 1770s and 80s saw a big push for egalitarianism (push for equality) that the Constitution tried to restrain.  The Constitution, essentially, was a rescue attempt to save the Revolution from failure by restraining its democratic excesses.   

Revolutionary Republicanism was centered on limiting corruption and greed. Virtue was of the utmost importance for citizens and representatives. Revolutionaries took a lesson from ancient Rome, they knew it was necessary to avoid the luxury that had destroyed the Empire.[33] A virtuous citizen was one that ignored monetary compensation and made a commitment to resist and eradicate corruption. The Republic was sacred; therefore it is necessary to served the state in a truly representative way, ignoring self-interest and individual will. Republicanism required the service of those who were willing to give up their own interests for a common good. According to Bernard Bailyn, “The preservation of liberty rested on the ability of the people to maintain effective checks on wielders of power and hence in the last analysis rested on the vigilance and moral stamina of the people.” Virtuous citizens needed to be strong defenders of liberty and challenge the corruption and greed in government. The duty of the virtuous citizen become a foundation for the American Revolution.”

New Left / Neo-Progressive School (1960s – 1980s)

These historians were shaped by the social and political changes going on in the U.S. like the Civil Rights and women’s rights movement and the student protest movements against the Vietnam War.  They are a throwback to the Progressive Era, but some writers thought that Beard had oversimplified things with his strictly economic approach.  Beard did not include many of the people who were not part of the political process in the Revolutionary Era: blacks (both free and slave), women, and Native Americans.  Social historians began to weave their stories within the tapestry of American history and present a fuller picture. “The “new” theoretically differentiates them from the unimaginative, Socialist Party orientation of the old left of the 1930s and 1940s.  The “left” signifies an orientation toward methods and concepts that focus on the masses and their experiences, “history from the bottom up,” as it is called.  Unlike the old left, the New Left avoids the preconceived molds of Marxist theories, which distorted the facts to fit a foreign doctrine.  The historians of the New Left demand the inclusion of those features of our history that explain how we came to be a violent, racist, repressive society.”  Some of these historians are Gary Nash (you read his essay, “Radical Revolution from the Bottom Up”) and Howard Zinn.

This video is here just for your interest.  

Nash, in particular, looks at both Northerners and Southerners deeply involved in making the Constitution a stamp of approval for slavery since it guaranteed slavery with a fugitive slave clause and the South’s boost in Congressional representation with the 3/5 Compromise.  Other historians argued against the Consensus historians’ assertion that our political legacy is basically liberal and democratic.  The time period of the 1780s -leading up to the Constitutional Convention – was time of disruption, overtaxation, and heavy economic hardships.  The poor were forced to pay their taxes in gold and silver (extremely hard to get) and not allowed to use paper money.   This school’s approach refocuses on class conflict in which different segments argued over who’s responsible for fixing the economy, “which segment should sacrifice for the good of the whole.”

I’ve presented you with four different schools of historiography concerning the Constitution.  Your job is to explain, with plenty of examples from class and your readings: 1. Which school of history do you agree with most and why?;  2. Which school of history do you disagree with most and why? 

Due Wednesday, December 21, 2016 by class.  300 words minimum. 

Sources:

http://www.angelfire.com/ny5/mrhorton/constitution%20historiography.htm

Interpretations of American History, ed. by Francis Couvares, et. al.

December 1

Blog #80 – How revolutionary was the American Revolution?

One of the primary themes that I’ve wanted you to consider over this unit on the American Revolution was the concept of whether or not it was a conservative revolution (people trying to keep powers/rights that they already have been exercising for years) or whether it was truly a radical revolution (people striking out on their own by overthrowing an existing political or social order and creating a new one).   American historians have been debating the very nature of the American Revolution soon after it ended.

As we read over and study chapter 7-8 in our textbook, many of you are asking questions about the use of my analogy of the American colonies as the spoiled child / teen overeeacting to limits being placed on the adolescent by previously indulgent parent (Britain / Parliament) who now realizes that their child has grown up and needs to take some responsibility.  My attitudes about the Revolution have changed over the past five years since I’ve started teaching APUSH and have become more nuanced.  What I mean by that is that I used to believe what most of you have probably been taught – we were right and the British were tyrants, and it was just a matter of time that we asserted our unalienable rights by breaking away from the British empire to become the greatest nation in the history of the world.

The more I study the Revolution, the more I see numbers like the taxation issue (Brits were taxed 26 shillings to the colonists’ 1 shilling), and I wonder what the big deal was.  Parliament wasn’t asking the colonies to pay the debt of 140 million pounds sterling that the empire had accrued during the French and Indian War – just 1/3 of the 100,000 pounds that it cost for the soldiers to be there to protect the Indians on the other side of the Proclamation Line of 1763.  Part of me sees the Stamp Act riots as an overreaction, the Boston Tea Party as vandalism not patriotism, and that the Revolution was about how indebted the wealthy were to the British.

Bancroft 

The pre-Civil War era (1840-1870) was filled with historians who saw the Revolution as a quest for liberty, and the most important scholar was George Bancroft who wrote a ten-volume History of the United States.  Bancroft felt that the Revolution was a “struggle between liberty and tyranny… represent[ing] one phase of a master plan by God for the march of all mankind toward a golden age of greater human freedom” (Bancroft 13).   Bancroft represented a national historian who told America’s epic story in an ultra-patriotic way.  After the Civil War, however, historians wanted to reassess the Revolution in light of the country’s amazing industrial growth.

Imperial and Progressive Schools 

The Imperial School believed that political and constitutional issues brought on the Revolution.  Britain’s colonial policies were not as unjust as Bancroft had said.  There were benefits and burdens with the Navigation Acts, and the colonists benefited under Salutary Neglect too.  Also, Imperial School historians felt that the British were justified in taxing the Americans b/c it was British blood and treasure spent during the Great War for Empire 1754-63.  American colonies were moving in the direction of more home rule which, in essence, was revolutionary, by nature.

The Progressive School emphasized that it was the economic split caused by the competition between the colonies and the mother country.  Not only that, but the Progressives placed a great emphasis on class conflict, so this Revolution was actually two revolutions – external against Britain and internal between social classes (which social class would rule America after the British left?).  Historian Arthur Schlesinger noted that usually conservative merchants played a key role in kick-starting the Revolution b/c they feared what would happen to their positions if the lower classes won the internal Revolution.

Consensus Movement

Historians in the 1950s, the consensus school of history, feel that there wasn’t class conflict during this time period, but that a “shared commitment to certain fundamental political principles of self-government” was what bound the colonists together (Bailey 140).  It was these ideas – liberty, voting, representative government, trial by jury, habeas corpus – that bound Americans together.  The leading historian of this movement was one of my favorites, Daniel Boorstin.  It was these grand, shared ideas that bound the varied colonial interests together and minimized the social and economic conflicts that could have torn the colonies apart.

After the 1950s, historian Bernard Bailyn focused on ideological and psychological factors that drove the RevolutionFront Cover.  He had read hundreds and hundreds of pamphlets from the Revolutionary era and discovered that not only were the colonists extremely literate, they were very knowledgeable in political theory.  These American writers also grew suspicious (some say too sensitive) of conspiracies, and this hypersensitivity led the colonists to begin armed revolt in 1775 at Lexington and Concord.

New Left (1960s, 70s)

Another one of my favorite historians, Gary Nash, has examined the social and economic forces that moved the Revolution along.  He pointed out the increasing gap between the social classes and lack of social mobility before the Revolution, especially among the people who lived in the countryside.  Attacks by the poor (the Paxton Boys in PA and the Regulators in N.C.) on the wealthy before the Revolution are prime examples of the frustration and resentment that laborers felt at being left out of the rapid economic change.  Unlike the Progressive historians, the New Left historians like Nash don’t pin all of the conflict upon economic conflict but include social changes as well.

Not only have you gotten a lesson in historiography (the history of the history – of the Revolution in this case), you can see that history is not a static thing and changes over time.  The history usually reflects the political and social conditions of the writers / historians living at that time.

Using what you’ve read here and in chapters 7 and 8 (“Whose Revolution?”), provide with me some insight into what you think our American Revolution was – a conservative revolution or truly radical one in nature.  Also, please provide some rationale for your answer from the ideas above and the Gary Nash article, “The Radical Revolution from the ‘Bottom Up'”. 

Due Friday, Dec. 4 by class time.  Minimum of 300 words.  

Sources:

Bailey, Thomas Andrew, David M. Kennedy, and Lizabeth Cohen. The American Pageant. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. Print.

Wood, Gordon S. “Rhetoric and Reality in the American Revolution.” The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States. London: Penguin, 2011. 25-55. Print

October 17

Blog #26 – A lesson in historiography

According to the handout that I gave you about Revolutionary historiography, there are two main schools of thought on how to view that time period. 

The first one, the socio-economic historians (now known as Progressives for the time period during which they wrote) felt that the AR erupted because of the economic and social inequalities endured by the poor and underprivileged between the 1750s and 1760s.  The middle-class merchants were adversely affected by the new Imperial taxes and regulations, and together with the poor, forged an alliance with the “radical groups” which actually sparked a class struggle.  You can see this in the Regulators of North Carolina and the Paxton Boys’ rebellion in addition to the several riots mentioned by Zinn in Ch. 4, “Tyranny is Tyranny.”  More people were allowed to vote, own property, and hold elected offices. A strong federal government wasn’t allowed to exist b/c the states had strong, written constitutions. 

Arthur M. Schlesinger mentioned in his 1918 book (read the text online!) on the time period that the radicals eventually lost the peace to the businessmen who wanted a stronger federal government after the AR was over because that stronger government was better at securing property rights and helped pay off a number of speculators’ debts.  Historians Mary and Oscar Handlin question Schlesinger’s assumptions by looking at class divisions both before and after the war (that there wasn’t much change), and this brings into question the whole revolutionary thesis.  

The second group of historians mentioned in our article, the conservative historians (now known as consensus because they were trying to emphasize American history as a cohesive whole and not a jumble of ideas and experiments in participatory democracy) felt that the AR really was not a true revolution.  Instead, the American colonists fought to maintain “the existing democratic social order in the colonies…[and] to protect American rights and liberties against British [tyranny].” 

For the most part, this was what I was taught in school and most likely so were you.  Our history teachers have tried to show us that after 1763, everything changed.  But in between 1607 and 1763, the time period called “salutary neglect,” English colonists developed their own democratic, legal and economic traditions mostly based on what they already knew – the English system.  As one of my favorite historians, Daniel Boorstin, wrote, the colonists adopted traditional English rights like trial by jury, free speech, petition, and assembly as well as no taxation without representation.  So, in essence, the most white male colonists already exercised these rights (b/c land was available and many more Americans owned land than did Englishmen) when the British tried to interfere w/ this awesome plan. 

Charlie Beard - A Progressive, just like it says.

The last observation in the article I gave you mentions that both groups, the Progressives and the Consensus historians, reflected the reality of the life that they were living at that time, and therefore their interpretation of the AR was influenced by that.  For instance, if someone wrote a history of an American war while America was currently at war, chances are, that historian’s view on the historic war might reflect the popularity of the current war or whether or not it was fought for a just cause. 

In this case, the Progressives wrote at the end of the 19th / early 20th Century when big corporations ruled, unions were oppressed, and working conditions were awful.  Wages were low, and hours were long.  Concerns about those present conditions (1895-1920) surely had to have influenced the Progressives.   Conversely, the Consensus historians wrote during the post World War II era (1945-1965) in which we struggled with the Soviet Union during the Cold War (and tried to put on a united front in which democracy and capitalism have always triumphed).  But at the same time, the country was torn with internal contradictions and strife (the Civil Rights era, women’s movement, anti-war campaign, widening gap between rich and poor starting in the late 60s), so historical ethnic strife was de-emphasized. 

After reading this whole thing, please answer these questions about the AR historiography:

1. Which side – Progressives or Consensus – seems to have the more persuasive argument about how to view the AR?  Why?

2. Does Howard Zinn seem to fit into these categories?  Explain your answer (I might suggest that you check out the last two links at the bottom).

3. After reading this handout and doing this blog, can you still define history as just facts, dates, and people?  Or does history include something else?  Explain. 

300 words minimum for the total blog.  Due by Friday, October 21 (yes, new due date) before class begins. 

Resources:
http://mises.org/daily/2541 – more detailed analysis on the historiography of the AR
http://www.dcte.udel.edu/hlp/resources/revolution/ChangingInterpRevol.pdf – simple one page summary of the major American historians and who changed the interpretations.  Includes post-1965 takes on the war. 
http://highered.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0012122005/student_view0/chapter5/where_historians_disagree.html – Another great summary look at AR historiography including the latest interpretation by Gordon Wood and his groundbreaking book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992).