In 1969 Hofstadter published a book on American historical writing with the intriguing title, Progressive Historians. The book is a study of three important American historians from the first few decades of the twentieth century, Frederick Jackson Turner (The Frontier in American History), Charles Beard (An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States), and Vernon Parrington (Main Currents in American Thought: Volume 1 – The Colonial Mind, 1620-1800).
Here is a quick précis of progressive issues at the turn of the century, as expressed by Richard Hofstadter in his account of Charles Beard’s development as a historian:
Beard’s years at Columbia coincided with the Progressive era in national politics. He had come back to a scene of political and social reform that compared in the intensity of its intellectual ferment with the scene he had left in England. The first outburst of muckraking came during the years of his doctoral work, and by the time his book on the Constitution appeared, the national mood had grown so suspicious, that, as Walter Lippmann put it, the public had a distinct prejudice in favor of those who made the accusations. The political machines and the bosses were under constant fire from political reformers and muckrakers, and all the problems of popular government were being re-examined. Though it had no clear idea what to do about them, the country was in full cry against the great industrialists and the big monopolies. It had become aware too of the pitiful condition of many of the working class — particularly women and children — in the factories, mines, and sweatshops, and was making halting experiments at the legal control of industrial exploitation. Almost every aspect of American life, from sex, religion, and race relations to foreign policy, the regulation of business, and the role of the Courts, was being reconsidered…. There was no better moment than the zenith of the Progressive movement for a book dealing with the Constitution as the product of a class conflict, dwelling at great length upon the economic interests and objectives of its framers and advocates, and stressing their opposition to majoritarian democracy. (181-182)
The title itself raises interesting questions of historiography: what is a “progressive” historian? Does this phrase build an unacceptable degree of normative commitment into Hofstadter’s understanding of historical writing? The big question here is this: how should a historian think about the two axes of “what happened?” and “was it part of a good thing or a bad thing?” in constructing a program of research in a historical topic. Are the two questions inseparable, or is a dispassionate and discovery of the events and causes of the history in question, without an attempt to theorize how that narrative fits into a set of political values?
Here is what Hofstadter has to say about the commonality across these three historians:
In grouping these three as Progressive historians I do no more than follow the precedent of other recent writers on American historiography. Not one of them was, to be sure, an easily classifiable partisan in the day-to-day national politics of their time, but all of them took their cues from the intellectual ferment of the period from 1890 to 1915, from the demands for reform raised by the Populists and Progressives, and from the new burst of political and intellectual activity that came with these demands. They were directed to their major concerns by the political debate of their time; they in turn contributed to it by giving reform politics a historical rationale. It was these men above all others who explained the American liberal mind to itself in historical terms. Progressive historical writing did for history what pragmatism did for philosophy, sociological jurisprudence for law, the muckraking spirit for journalism, and what Parrington called “critical realism” for letters. If pragmatism, as someone has said, provided American liberalism with its philosophical nerve, Progressive historiography gave it memory and myth, and naturalized it within the whole framework of American historical experience. (xii)
So their status as “progressive” thinkers does not derive directly from their political views, or at least the political views expressed in their historical writings; but rather from the background assumptions on the basis of which they proceeded. They were historians within the idiom and mental frameworks of the Progressive era. They were oriented by the conflicts of interest that existed in the United States — in politics, in universities, in letters — and they believed that ideas and interests unavoidably intersected. And they sought to understand important elements of political culture in terms of those conflicts.
So what about the other part of the phrase, “history”? Hofstadter recognizes that there are several different purposes served by historical writing. But one crucial role is the establishment of public memory as a foundation for civic identity.
MEMORY is the thread of personal identity, history of public identity. Men who have achieved any civic existence at all must, to sustain it, have some kind of history, though it may be history that is partly mythological or simply untrue. That the business of history always involves a subtle transaction with civic identity has long been understood, even in America where the sense of time is shallow. One of our early nineteenth-century promoters of canals and public works was also a promoter of historical collections because he understood with perfect clarity that there was some relation between the two. “To visit a people who have no history,” he wrote, “is like going into a wilderness where there are no roads to direct a traveller. The people have nothing to which they can look back; the wisdom and acts of their forefathers are forgotten; the experience of one generation is lost to the succeeding one; and the consequence is, that people have little attachment to their state, their policy has no system, and their legislature no decided character.” (3)
This is a view of history that emphasizes the committed nature of the genre — the need to tell a story that inspires identity and admiration. But what about objectivity and facticity? Hofstadter refers to “scientific” history, but he doubts that this genre succeeds in excluding a normative stance from the interpretation of a people’s history.
Most of these writers were affected to some extent by the idea of “scientific” or critical history: there would be no more bowdlerization like that of Sparks, no more historical orations or rearranged quotations as in Bancroft. But they did not relinquish the idea of history as a forum for moral judgments: they were deeply concerned with such questions as Who was right? or Which principles were correct? when they dealt with the background of the Revolution, the adoption of the Constitution, the struggles between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians, or Jackson and the Whigs…. In short, what the conservative nationalist historians did was to was forge a view of the past that needed only to be inverted point by point by the Progressive historians to yield a historical rationale for social reform. (26-27)
Several key ideas are found in all three historians: the power of large propertied interests in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America (robber barons, exploitation, food adulteration, corruption); the role of individualism in the American political identity; and the role that majoritarian institutions should play in a modern society. In his discussion of Turner’s interpretation of America’s western frontier Hofstadter teases out four different meanings of “individualism” that have very different implications for political philosophy:
There are at least four senses in which [individualism] can be used. First, a culture may be called individualistic if it offers favorable conditions for the development of personal assertiveness and ambition, encourages material aspiration, self-confidence, and aggressive morale, offers multiple opportunities for advancement and encourages the will to seize them. Second, it may indicate the absence of mutuality or of common and collective effort, in a society that supposedly functions almost as a conglomerate of individual atoms. Third, it may designate a more or less formal creed in which private action is at a premium and governmental action is condemned — as a synonym, in short, for laissez faire. Finally — and I believe this usage can be quite misleading — it may be used as though it were synonymous with individuality, that is with a high tolerance for deviance, eccentricity, nonconformity, privacy, and dissent. (141-142)
Since individualism is so central to the American political identity that Turner addresses, these distinctions are critical.
What was happening, in effect, was that a modern critical intelligentsia was emerging in the United States. Modernism, in thought as in art, was dawning upon the American mind. Beard’s book on the Constitution fittingly appeared in the same year as the New York Armory show — an event that was far more shocking to the world of art than Beard’s book was to scholars….The rebels against formalism were trying to assert, above everything else, that all things are related, that all things change, and that all things should therefore be explained historically rather than deductively. And for the most part, they were concerned with knowledge as a rationale for social action, not for passivity. (185)
In 1913 Beard found nothing in the ideas of the Founding Fathers that made him feel as close to basic realities as the old Treasury Department records he had enterprising lay turned up. For all the amplitude and moral intensity of political thought in the Revolutionary era, he seems to have believed it’s residue was not fundamentally important for the Constitution. (246-247)
The topic of scientific objectivity mentioned above comes up as well in Hofstadter’s discussion of Beard’s early struggles with this issue:
Historical science demanded that the historian, whatever his role as a citizen, should be a detached investigator, seeking the truth for truth’s sake. Beard was rationalist enough to respond to this scientific note in Powell, and even in his Oxford days we can see in him an uncomfortable duality that was always to haunt him — a duality between the aseptic ideal of scientific inquiry and his social passions. (179)
Beard’s own passions were clear:
Beard had sworn in 1900 that he would never stop agitating “till the workers who bear upon their shoulders the burden of the world should realize the identity of their own interests and rise to take possession of the means of life”. (179)
The book warrants close reading. This is another of the books published a half century ago that still have light to shed on our current predicaments in understanding our own unfolding history — not antiquarian but very contemporary.
(Here is a good piece by David Greenberg from the Atlantic on Hofstadter’s work (link).)