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The Minds of
Certain Key Historians

By Henry Steele Commager, 1950

An Excerpt From
“The American Mind: An Interpretation of
American Thought and Character Since the 1880s"

This is Part Two of a Four-Part Excerpt

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Brooks Adams, like his brother Henry, was committed to the theory that impersonal forces determined the course of history. “If men move in a given direction,” he wrote, “they do so in obedience to an impulsion of gravitation,” and he was not thinking of that upward evolution which solaced John Fiske. Like Henry, too, he concluded that as far as they affected man’s fate the forces were malignant – if indeed anything so impersonal as force can be called malignant – for he had read history only to find that all our yesterdays had but lighted fools their way to dusty death. Where Henry fell back upon dubious physics and questionable mathematics, Brooks yielded to the arguments of economics, and he was happy to find in these confirmation of his most grievous fears. He traced the vicissitudes of civilization through its martial and spiritual and to its economic phase, and of all its manifestations he thought the economic the least admirable and the least vigorous and the most vulnerable to the forces of fragmentation. With the nineteenth century, he asserted, the last stage of concentration had been reached, and in this

the economic, and, perhaps, the scientific intellect is propagated, while the imagination fades, and the emotional, the martial, and the artistic types of manhood decay. When a social velocity has been attained at which the waste of energetic material is so great that the martial and imaginative stocks fail to reproduce themselves, intensifying competition appears to generate two extreme economic types – the usurer in his most formidable aspect, and the peasant whose nervous system is best adapted to thrive on scanty nutriment. At length a point must be reached where pressure can go no further, and then, perhaps, one of two results may follow: A stationary period may supervene, which may last until ended by war, by exhaustion, or by both combined, as seems to have been the case with Eastern Europe; or, as in the Western, disintegration may set in, the civilized population may perish, and a reversion may take place to a primitive form of organism. (“The Law of Civilization and Decay,” 1896 ed., Preface)

Henry Adams could stand aside and view the inexorable processes of history dispassionately; he could even imagine a return – in 1938, of all years! – to “a world that sensitive and timid natures could regard without a shudder.” There is no evidence that Brooks was sensitive, and conclusive evidence that he was not timid. Unlike Henry – who, we may believe, had his tongue in his cheek when he formulated his rule of phase – Brooks took himself and his ideas seriously. Because he was convinced that the law of history was the law of concentration of force, he was concerned that his country adapt its policies to that law and thereby achieve supremacy. As the military were superior to the industrial virtues, it behooved the United States to cultivate the military, and Adams became a chauvinist. As supremacy depended upon the control of the sources of power, it was essential that the United States seize power, and he became the first of American geopoliticians. As nations which failed to meet the challenge of competition – or of nature – declined, it was necessary for the United States to respond to the challenge of force, and Adams anticipated Arnold Toynbee’s theory of the rise and decline of civilizations. As “political principles are but a conventional dial on whose face the hands revolve which mark the movement of the mechanism within,” the American Government could safely ignore principles of democracy or idealism, and Adams anticipated those doctrines later associated with fascism.

Historians could scarcely be expected to accept the gray conclusions of this brace of Adamses, for these conclusions, as Henry Adams saw with characteristic clarity, would have made the writing of history both superfluous and futile. Nor, for that matter, was there any compulsive temptation to accept evidence so capricious and logic so ruinous. Yet the substitution of physical for spiritual force, of determinism for free will, upon which the Adamses insisted, was prophetic. For history did, in the end, bow to the doctrine of force, and of all forces which it was willing to recognize, the economic was the most compelling. In the half-century after Henry Adams published “The Tendency of History” and Brooks Adams “The Law of Civilization and Decay,” every major American historian subscribed, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to an economic interpretation of history. Evolution was not repudiated, but the emphasis was on environment rather than on heredity: the sifted-grain theory lost much of its authority, and it was no longer clear that those who proved fittest to survive the dangerous environment of the new age were necessarily the vehicles of progress. Progress itself came to be regarded, somewhat wistfully, as an ideal rather than a manifest destiny. Morality was not forgotten, nor ethics ignored, but they came increasingly to seem peculiar rather than universal and fortuitous rather than necessary. Thus morality became historically interesting as an American phenomenon rather than America as a moral phenomenon, and historians, who were entirely willing to concede the historical fact that Americans had long recognized God, no longer insisted upon God’s special recognition of America.

The historians of the new century, then, concerned themselves more largely with forces than with persons. They abandoned ethics for science, drama for photography, and narrative for analysis. Nothing was left to God and not much to chance, and such fortuity as had to be admitted was ascribed rather to the inadequacy of the historian than to the vagaries of history. All the past seemed to flow out of the interaction of great impersonal forces – economic, geographical, social, scientific, psychological: only the psychological were regarded as aberrations, and this suggested that men were supposed to conform to nature and to history rather than nature and history to men. Almost every historian of that generation, as Henry Adams observed in his presidential address to the American Historical Association, felt that he was on the verge of some discovery that should do for history what Darwin had done for Nature. Thirty years later Adams’ successor in the presidential chair, Edward P. Cheyney, submitted six laws of history and looked forward confidently to future meetings of the Association,

when the search for the laws of history and their application will have become the principal part of its procedure....The most conspicuous place on the programme will be assigned to some gifted young historical thinker who quite properly, disregarding the early and crude efforts of his predecessors, will propound and demonstrate to the satisfaction of all his colleagues some new and far reaching law or laws of history. (Law in History, p. 28, A.A. Knopf)

Yet society stubbornly refused to fit into the neat framework of impersonal forces so painstakingly constructed for it, and history remained a shambles. Not only were historians unable to predict future wars, they were unable to explain past ones, and half a century of emphasis on economic and social forces left Americans more confused about the causes of the Civil War than were those who fought it. Schoolbooks which had ceased to be either anecdotal or edifying and had reduced history to a series of problems, all impersonal, left children with a baffled feeling that history was a series of formulas that could never be used for reaching conclusions. Their more sophisticated elders could nurse the suspicion that the formulas were inaccurate or the apprehension that there were no conclusions.

Each generation sees the past in terms of its own interests, and this first twentieth-century generation was no exception. As its interests were material, it saw the past as economics; as its interests were democratic, it created social history; as its interests were liberal, it made the past plead the cause of reform; as its interests were scientific, it eschewed morals and stressed technics and mechanics; as its interests were social, it discounted the personal and the dramatic: while the popular mind wove legends around Washington and Lincoln, historians busied themselves with explaining instead the forces that produced and sustained them.

It was in this “scientific” spirit that the history of the nation was rewritten, and the term “revisionist,” so popular in the new century, generally suggested an economic interpretation. The impulses behind the expansion of Europe to the New World were seen to be economic rather than religious or political and the triumph of the English over the French to come from geographical and economic factors. Puritanism was discounted, but where allowed it was animated with economic significance. Colonial administration was studied as a commercial rather than a political phenomenon, and the term “tyranny,” which had once explained so much, was given an economic instead of political meaning. Revolutionary heroes were denied both their halos and their oratorical flights, while their constitutional arguments, once so persuasive, were catalogued as propaganda; students concentrated instead on such matters as land policy, trade, currency, and debts. An internal revolution was disclosed and recorded in terms of a class struggle. The palpable failure of the Articles of Confederation was ascribed rather to economic conditions than to political arrangements, the Constitution itself became an economic document, and the struggle for ratification was analyzed in terms that Karl Marx would have approved. Even Jefferson, long immune from the diagnosis of materialism, yielded to an economic interpretation. Frederick Jackson Turner discovered that the frontier was the most American part of America and interpreted the growth of democracy largely in environmental terms. The history of the law and the judiciary was rewritten to prove that they had always been the instruments of class rule. Slavery, heretofore the darling of the moralists, was viewed chiefly as an economic institution, Southerners pictured as victims of social and economic forces over which they had no effective control, and even abolitionism was subjected to dubious economic analysis. War is, by its very nature, force, and no new interpretation was required to make clear that the government which commanded the largest armies and the richest natural resources won the Civil War; what perplexed historians was rather that the Confederacy should have fought so long and so well and that the outcome should have been so close a thing. Where the constitutional dialectic of states’ rights, secession, war, and reconstruction could not be ignored, it was studied as a rationalization of social and economic realities.

The new fields of history, opened up with bewildering rapidity, were almost all in the arena of economics, and the ideal historian of the new day was one as much at home in the history of transportation, banking, labor, agriculture, and business as in politics. New schools emerged devoted to these aspect of history, once considered marginal or even unscholarly, and none now apologized for his preoccupation with the history of business as Thomas Madox had apologized for his “History of the Exchequer,” that “its Subject is Low.” Aesthetics fought a losing battle with sociology and economics even in the interpretation of literature, art, and architecture.

It is easy to exaggerate all this, and it would be misleading to suggest that history became a mere handmaiden to what had long been called the dismal science. It came close to that in those academic circles which, during most of the new century, all but monopolized the interpretation of history, but outside the universities wider experience encouraged a more catholic view of society and public life, a livelier interest in character. It is illuminating to observe that while the academicians dredged up the essential source material and reconstructed the history of institutions, most of the notable biographies were written by nonacademic scholars: witness Nicolay and Hay’s “Lincoln,” William Roscoe Thayer’s “Cavour,” Albert Bigelow Paine’s “Mark Twain,” Albert Beveridge’s “Marshall,” Claude Bowers’ “Jefferson,” Marquis James’s “Jackson,” Carl Van Doren’s “Franklin,” Carl Sandburg’s “Lincoln,” and Douglas Freeman’s “Lee.” And from Winston Churchill and Mary Johnson to Kenneth Roberts and Esther Forbes, the novelists who commanded the widest audience continued to exploit history for its drama and to praise famous men.


Neither the grim anticipations of Henry Adams nor the modest hopes of Edward Cheyney were destined to be fulfilled. The new century discovered no grand historical laws to which men were compelled to subscribe, and twentieth-century history could boast neither a Newton nor a Darwin nor even a Comte. Yet though no dominant figure emerged to do for history what Lester Ward (1841-1913) did for sociology or Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) for economics or Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1841-1935) for law, there were three scholars who did stamp their personality indelibly upon history and whose formulas commanded wide support and exercised an influence far beyond the realms of historical scholarship: Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932), Vernon Louis Parrington (1871-1929), and Charles A. Beard (1874-1948).

Superficially the three seemed very different, in character and in interests. Turner – homespun, erudite, cautious, the historians’ historian as Veblen was the economists’ economist – wrote fragmentarily of the frontier and sectionalism and enlisted an army of disciples who conquered the whole of American history for the frontier formula. Parrington – affluent, fastidious, aristocratic, and remote, a moralist who saw history as a struggle between the forces of darkness and light – erected during his lifetime one noble monument, its lines harmoniously balanced, its ornament intricate and rich, its colors radiant and splendid. Beard – incisive, searching, magisterial, and imperious, his inquisitive intelligence trained on almost every field of historical inquiry, his cascading energy breaking through the boundaries of the social sciences and flooding out over broad areas of public affairs – in the end repudiated the concept of a historical science and took refuge in a kind of neotranscendentalism.

Yet these three scholars had intellectually much in common. All came from that same Middle Border which nourished Ward and Veblen and John R. Commons (1862-1945) and Simon Patten (1852-1922) and Roscoe Pound (1870-1964) and so many other seminal thinkers of the new century. All were caught up, in youth, in the swift currents of liberalism and reform, though where the views of Turner and Parrington were colored by the agrarian radicalism of the nineties, those of Beard were illuminated by English and European radicalism and, eventually, by German historical philosophy. All three accepted the doctrine of evolution but as continuity rather than progress; all agreed in awarding environment a more influential role than heredity and in assigning to economy the dominant role in environment.

Of the three, Turner was first on the scene, and he remains in many respects the most influential. Himself relatively unproductive, he inspired a larger volume of historical writing than any other scholar of his generation. The most modest of men, he was most ambitious in his claims and the most successful in establishing them. The least chauvinistic of scholars, he was the most aggressively American, the most insistent upon the unique value of the American historical experience. Alert to the dangers inherent in unregulated individualism and with a tender social conscience, through his celebration of the pioneer virtues he gave aid and comfort to the champions of rugged individualism in the post-frontier era. Not primarily a philosophical historian, his influence was philosophical, for he was concerned with a point of view rather than with the view itself.

That point of view was the frontier, moving inexorably across the content. Yet Turner was not the historian of the frontier – that he left to others – but the historian of America, who took his vantage point along the frontier. To this vantage point he had made his way, originally, not so much with the aid of the historians’ surveying instruments as by instinct. The frontier, indeed, was in his blood. He had grown up in a Wisconsin not far removed from the wilderness stage. As a boy he had watched in fascination while the city fathers of Portage uncovered the graves of early French pioneers; from the old settlers he had heard stories of frontier days, and he was on the first train that puffed its way into the northern woods. His brief experience at the Johns Hopkins did not abate his zeal for the study of the West, and when he returned to Wisconsin, it was to the university that housed the great Draper collection of western history, that encouraged the pioneer work of Reuben Gold Thwaites, and that boasted such scholars as Ely, Commons, and Ross. Here he saw a pioneer democracy adjust itself to the realities of modern industrial capitalism; here he watched Robert LaFollette battle against corporate greed and exploitation; here he formulated his ideas about the significance of the frontier and of sectionalism. He was never really happy outside his Middle West, and for all his broad Americanism, for all his later years in Cambridge and in California, he was almost parochial in his conviction that the Mississippi Valley had somehow taken out a patent on democracy and on Americanism.

Turner’s epoch-making paper on the “Significance of the Frontier in American History” appeared the year of Francis Parkman’s death (1891). Turner was, in a sense, Parkman’s successor, and there could be no better illustration of the difference between the old history and the new than that afforded by the work of these two historians of the West. Parkman’s narrative was spacious, poetic, varicolored, and bold, its pages vibrant with life and with heroic deeds, tense with conspiracy and politics and war. Turner was incapable of narrative, eschewed color, ignored individuals except where they served as types, shunned heroism and drama except the heroism of unnamed pioneers and the drama of social evolution, and contented himself with analysis. The stately forests and glistening lakes and rushing waters, the frowning mountains and sweeping plains, which had served as a magnificent backdrop to Parkman’s history, with Turner moved into the foreground and became the very stuff of history; but the romantic characters – the black-robed priests and plumed warriors and couriers-de-bois and painted savages – vanished from the scene, their place usurped by impersonal institutions. Of all the fifty-some essays which Turner wrote, not one was biographical, and it is not a little curious that a historian so zealous to celebrate individualism should so consistently have ignored the individual.

Yet in this Turner was consistent enough. It was the frontier, after all, that was the hero of his story, the frontier that had molded the great individuals, the frontier that had distinguished American from Old World history and thus given meaning to its story:

The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and though. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and the Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him. Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a short stick; he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion. In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man....Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe, not simply the development of Germanic germs, any more than the first phenomenon was a case of reversion to the Germanic mark. The fact is, that here is a new product that is American....The advance of the frontier has meant a steady movement away from the influence of Europe, a steady growth of independence on American lines. And to study this advance, the men who grew up under these conditions, and the political, economic, and social results of it, is to study the really American part of our history. (“Significance of the Frontier in American History”)

All this was clearly in the evolutionary stream – an effort to explain the development of institutions from the simple to the complex – but it was just as clearly not the kind of evolution that John Fiske was teaching. For where Fiske emphasized inheritance, Turner emphasized environment; where Fiske liked to find the genesis of the New England town in the folkgemot of primitive Germany, or of liberty in Magna Carta, or of federalism in the leagues of the Greek city-states, Turner insisted that the American environment accounted sufficiently for these and for most other American institutions:

American democracy is fundamentally the outcome of the experiences of the American people in dealing with the West. Western democracy through the whole if its earlier period tended to the production of a society of which the most distinctive fact was the freedom of the individual to rise under conditions of social mobility, and whose ambition was the freedom and well-being of the masses....American democracy was born of no theorist’s dream; it was not carried in the Susan Constant to Virginia, nor in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier. Not the constitution, but free land, and an abundance of natural resources open to a fit people, made the democratic type of society in America for three centuries. (“Frontier in American History,” pp. 266, 293)

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