January 9

Blog #116 – 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 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.

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  and Howard Zinn (Took the negative side in the Columbus debate).

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 (Socratic Seminar readings, and don’t forget “The Meanings of the Constitution” (pgs. 164-65) as mentioned in the Google Docs:

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 Monday 1/14 by class.  350 words.  

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Posted January 9, 2019 by geoffwickersham in category Blogs

54 thoughts on “Blog #116 – Historiography of the Constitution

  1. Carlos McIntyre

    The school I would agree with most the the Progressive school. I agree with this for the reason that the men who wrote the constitution would have the want for personal gain. It says that they had personal properties that would all benefit from the constitution. It say they also says that their economic interests would benefit from the constitution as they articles of confederation had weekend those interests so this way they would gain personally. The only part of the constitution that helped other classes would help protect small farmers and debtors. I think that while some of the constitution would help lower classes, the constitution would most help the higher classes as they would benefit most from constitution economically. For these reasons I most agree with the progressive school.

    The school that I would have to disagree with most would be the Nationalist school. I think this because I don’t agree with city on a hill or that America was chosen by God. I would also have to disagree with their racist views of anglo-saxon superiority and white Christian people being able to create good governments, I believe that the articles of confederation were not strong and that the constitution was not a strong form of government as not being clear of some things like whether states or the federal government held more power and this lead to the American Civil War. Also I don’t believe that ignoring what happened with native americans is something you can really do as it concerns so much of the history of the creating the US as their land was stolen, and their people were mistreated/killed. I also don’t believe that nationalistic view such as american exceptionalism are good as they they can create a superiority complex of the people of a country and they will look down on other. I due to, ignoring the native americans, and focusing on prejudice views and anglo-saxon supremacy, I disagree with this school the most.

  2. Liam O'Gorman

    1.I agree most with the Progressive school and how the ideals of the economy affected thee growth of the nation, mainly the constitution. What economic social class you were in determined what side of the constitutional debate you would be on. The constitution greatly affected how this nation was formed, and if it was formed to give privileges to the wealthy while people in debt or the lower class suffer, then it should be an important focus of history. It also mentions how the weaknesses of the articles of confederation weakened the economy in trade and manufacturing. The economy is a big part of history and the Progressive school seems to mainly focus in on that which is why I agree with it. The role wealthy diplomats played in the creation of the constitution and many other things can affect others lives and they have no say in it because it was suited to the upper class and not the common man. All social classes should be involved in something that will affect their lives and their country.
    2.I disagree most with the Nationalist school the most because of its belief of one race having superiority and how the country was formed by white christians, when in reality a bunch of moving parts contributed to the creation of the constitution and our nation. Saying that the Anglo saxons are superior is also something i mainly disagree with because we all are created equal and this school should be more like the Neo progressive and focus on social issues. Most schools share the same idea that the articles of confederation had too many weaknesses to be fixed, and i agree with that, however, they view the constitution as an extension of the revolution and I view it as a way to control the damage and chaos of the fallbacks of the articles of confederation. Being patriotic and prideful about your country doesn’t mean you can be arrogant about the way it was formed, and the nationalists show an overwhelming pride for their country and how it was formed.

  3. Ryan Goodman

    1) I agree most with the New Left/ Neo-Progressive School of history most. I think that their analysis of history takes the original Progressive School and adds social and political reasoning to the economic viewpoint. The Neo-Progressive historians agreed that Beard didn’t include people who weren’t affect by economics in his telling of history, which excluded key groups like blacks, women, and Native Americans who pushed for social and political change in the Revolutionary era. It specifically included the portions of history that pushed American society to be aggressive, repressive, and racist. They also avoided the Marxist ideals and point of view in their telling of history. I think this is the most accurate and inclusive telling of history and is thus most appropriate for the current time period. Past Schools of History reflected their respective time periods. The Nationalist school focused on the Spanish founding of the Americas and ignored the plight of Native Americans. The progressive school focused almost exclusively on economics and the concern over the growing division of wealth, leaving out social and political viewpoints. The only school of history that includes most viewpoints is the New Left/ Neo-Progressive School. Because it displays history from the most viewpoints, I think it’s the most accurate representation of history.
    2) I most disagree with the Nationalist School of History. I disagree with this school of thought because it’s essentially the opposite of the Neo-Progressive school. Instead of including a variety of viewpoints to have the most accurate version of history, it focuses on the Spanish acquisition of the Americas, and ignores the marginalized people viewpoints. It totally ignores the effects the Spanish conquistadors had on Native American civilization. It ignores the terrible events leading up to Americas creation in order to shine a positive light on the situation, when, America was built off the backs of slaves and excelled in marginalizing minorities for centuries. Even as the world around America became more and more progressive, it remained stuck in its old ways, and this historical viewpoint ignores that completely. I like to view a situation from every view so I can make the most informed decision, so a telling of history that doesn’t include multiple accurate viewpoints is unappealing.

  4. Geoffrey Wickersham

    Sarah L.

    1. I would say I agree the most with the views of the Consensus School. They disagree with the views of Charles Beard and describe the writing of the constitution to do more with politics than Beards view on economics. These historians say that the constitution and state constitutions were composed by the similar types of men as the Declaration of Independence, common men. These common men were men who were farmers and men who had debts to pay off. At this time in history two thirds of men in America could vote showing that a variety of different classes were involved with voting and had their say in politics. I agree that the Constitution was not just made up by and for wealthy men who wanted good economics. Although some of the developments in the government may have been encouraged by the hopes of increasing economics of the country, as said by Jackson Turner. I agree with these historian’s views of American politics being democratic and opened to new ideas.

    2. I disagree with the Nationalist School views even though they share some beliefs with the Consensus School. The Nationalist historians talk about how they see the United States as a perfect example of how people can design a good government system. They see America, as puritans used to describe, as the city on a hill, an example for everyone to follow. They see this through the Gilded Age, our reforms, and economic growth. However, I do not think that America is really a perfect example and government. In designing the republic there are many flaws and uncertainties through interpretation. For example, there have been different political parties that have formed since the constitution, as now we have Democratic and Republic and some Independent. I see America as having formed a good government however, not a perfect one. The nationalist school also talks about the US as being a world leader, although we were at the time and still are dependent on other countries for trade and other things. I do not see the Nationalist School’s view on the Constitution and America as very clear and strongly defended.

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