Schools of American Historiography Defining Historiography



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Schools of American Historiography
Defining Historiography: Two historians using the same facts may come to two different interpretations of a historical event. Contemporary British and American views of the battles of Lexington and Concord would likely differ because the two sides held different assumptions. Any two historians several years later also hold different assumptions, and produce different historical accounts. Decades later other historians declare that the previous historians only perceived part of the truth. Generation after generation rewrites history and theoretically comes closer to the truth. In actuality each historian reflects the time period in which they live. The study of changing historical interpretations, shifting emphasis, and different methodologies is called historiography.
Domestic History- Four Schools
Progressive Historiography (1900-1940’s):

Four different schools of historians emerged in the 20th century. The first, the Progressive school, named for the Progressive reform era, dominated historiography from the 20th century to the end of the Second World War. Like the writings of most intellectuals, the themes of the Progressive historians reflected the issues and concerns of their time. The Progressive movement was a collection of reforms designed to adjust to changes brought on my industrial urbanization. A second influence upon these historians was the rise of the social sciences – economics, sociology, psychology, etc. – as separate fields of study. Historians borrowed heavily from these new fields for insights into history, correcting what they saw as the overemphasis on political history.


Progressive historians stressed the differences between competing groups, sections, and classes. American society was an arena of competing social and economic forces. First one, then the other gained control in cycles of reform and reaction. The dominant theme was class and sectional conflict. Clearly defined turning points marked the ascension of one group and the defeat of the other. All of the following were used to represent our polarized history: rich vs. poor, interests vs. people, haves vs. have-nots, privileged vs. less privileged, aristocracy vs. democracy, liberalism vs. conservatism, and agrarianism vs. capitalism.
Progressive historians hoped for the social and political betterment of the society of their time, and made no effort to hide their loyalties. They championed liberal, democratic, progressive ideas and causes.
Consensus (Traditional) Historiography (1940’s-1960’s):

After the Second World War a new school emerged of historians who stressed that the shared ideas of Americans were more important in our history than conflicts among them. This school of history was in many ways a throwback to the traditional history writing of the previous century, but also reflected the recent emergence of the United States as a global superpower. They believed that Americans possessed a much narrower range of divisive issues and conflicts compared with other peoples of the world. We had conflicts, but our domestic disputes had never approached the nastiness of European uprisings and revolutions. The bloody reign of terror in the French Revolution had no comparable American counterpart.


The Consensus historians unabashedly celebrated the accomplishments and achievements of American democratic capitalism. A key word used to describe them is continuity. They rejected much of the periodization of American history, and studied ideas that crossed over the typical political periods. Consensus historians saw in American culture common traits, expressed in the longevity and durability of our institutions. 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. What passes for conflict between the haves and have-nots in American history is really competition between competing groups of businessmen and entrepreneurs. The writings of consensus historians perpetuated the idea of American uniqueness that carried with it the implication of superiority.
New Left Historiography (1960’s-1980’s):

Great changes accompanied America’s transition into the 1960s. The 1950s had been characterized by a general agreement on national goals, by secure self-confidence, and by an easy categorization of other nations into good guys and bad guys. In the late 1950s, our smug self-assurance dissolved in successive waves of polarization over the issues of racism, imperialism and poverty. The seeming reemergence of conflict in current events stimulated a reexamination of conflict in American history.


The new champions of the theme of conflict in our history constituted an approach termed the “New Left”. 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.
The renewed emphasis on conflict and polarization was fed by the civil rights struggle. Unrest over the draft and the war in Vietnam, impatience with the pace of civil rights, and examples of political assassinations combined to produce explosions of violence in the cities in the 1960s. The final ingredients convulsing American society was the emergence of first the women’s, and then finally, the gay and lesbian movement. Women and minorities destroyed the homogenized image of “consensus” America. The new emphasis was on our pluralism, the existence of many different peoples, ethnic groups, and races.
Neo-Conservative Historiography (1980’s-Present):

During the 1970’s and ‘80’s there were many reactions to the changes sought by New Left social movements. The resulting Neo-Conservative history movement is arguably a simple re-assertion of consensus historiography. Like Consensus historians, Neo-Conservatives stress traditional American values, viewing the U.S. as a uniquely moral, stable country. In general, unity is valued over pluralism. Thus, Neo-Conservatives downplay conflicts in history, and dismiss New Left historians as “politically correct”. In distancing themselves from the expressly political style of the New Left, while celebrating “traditional American values”, Neo-Conservatives may present themselves as non-ideological and objective.


However, there are differences between Consensus and Neo-Conservative historians. Today, neo-conservatives are somewhat divided over the proper role of the Federal government. While many neo-conservatives are deeply suspicious of the use of Federal power, especially after the Civil Rights movement, some neo-conservatives stress the historic use of the Federal government to shape American culture, and now want Federal power to support conservative goals.


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