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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 Three of a Four-Part Excerpt

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four


It was inevitable that such a formula should appeal to a people who felt instinctively that they had created more than they had inherited and that they owed little to the Old World. It was a nationalistic formula, for it suggested that democracy and freedom and the institutions that gave them meaning were largely American inventions; insofar as it did not inquire into the experience of other peoples with their frontiers, it was almost parochial. It was a democratic formula, for it presented American history as a creative act and one in which all had particpated, the humble and obscure as well as the famous. It gave to each new generation an equal chance, made every American a contributor, and made the contribution a continuous one. It fitted the individualistic temper of the time, revealing what had been achieved in the past by individual enterprise and fortitude, yet it gave some support to the forces of progressivism for it made clear that the individualism of the pioneer had necessarily been accommodated to the security and prosperity of the community. It fitted the pragmatic mood, for it submitted American institutions and ideals to the test of experience and accepted as American what had come out of the crucible of experience. It appeared to be a scientific formula, for it rejected all a priori notions and discovered the nature of the American character and of American institutions by laboratory tests, and for all its celebration of individualism it made clear that the processes of history were controlled by grand, impersonal forces. It justified optimism, for if out of such rude and awkward beginnings Nature and man had fashioned a great civilization, what might not be achieved in the future? Nor did the emphasis on the role of environment detract in any way from the satisfaction felt for the American achievement; it was, after all, as gratifying to discover that America had molded Washington as that Washington had fathered America, that America had created Lincoln as that Lincoln had preserved America.

It was ominous, to be sure, to be reminded that the frontier had gone, for with it much of the old America seemed to have vanished, the America of freedom and individualism, the America of the second chance. Sectionalism rather than the frontier held the key to the future, and if American sections were comparable to European nations, as Turner insisted, could America hope to avoid the rivalries and wars that had for so long plagued the Old World? Turner assessed soberly enough the problems that confronted twentieth-century America – urbanization, industrialism, class conflicts, the rise of the giant corporation – but his deep-rooted optimism did not permit discouragement, and his study of “Sections and the Nation” ended on a lyrical note which revealed how transcendental the new scientific history could be:

There are American ideals....It is inconceivable that we should follow the evil path of Europe, and place our reliance upon triumphant force. We shall not become cynical, and convinced that sections, like European nations, must dominate their neighbors and strike first and hardest. However profound the economic changes, we shall not give up our American ideals and our hopes for man, which had their origin in our own pioneering experience, in favor of any mechanical solution offered by doctrinaires educated in Old World grievances. Rather, we shall find strength to build from our past a nobler structure, in which each section will find its place as a fit room in a worthy house. We shall courageously maintain the American system expressed by nation-wide parties, acting under sectional and class compromises. We shall continue to present to our sister continent of Europe the underlying ideas of America as a better way of solving difficulties. We shall point to the Pax Americana and seek the path of peace on earth to men of good will. (“Sections in American History,” p. 339, Holt)

*

Parrington, like Turner, was sure that there were American ideals and, what is more, he was zealous to champion them. But he was by no means sure that those ideals had their origin in the American environment and experience, nor was he confident of their power to resist Old World influences. Like Turner he had been born and raised on the Middle Border, and he had early committed himself to that most characteristic manifestation of the Middle Border spirit – the Populist revolt – nor did he ever wholly abandon the youthful enthusiasm with which he had embraced the radicalism of the nineties. A political cyclone had blown him from Oklahoma to the Pacific coast, and there he passed the mature years of his life, working quietly and confidently on the book which was to insure him such immortality as scholars can attain. He knew – what Easterners so often forgot – that Cambridge was as far from Seattle as Seattle from Cambridge, and much of his work, as he cheerfully confessed, was a calculated revolt against the intellectual dominion so long exercised by Harvard College. Yet for all his seeming provincialism, for all his identity with and loyalty to the Middle and Far West, Parrington was in every way a more sophisticated and cultivated scholar than the homespun historian of the frontier. Familiar not only with the whole course of American thought and literature but with English and Continental as well, he was as deeply read in philosophy and art, sociology and economics as in history and literature, and he never fell into the error of interpreting American intellectual development in a vacuum. He was the historian of ideas, and he knew that, however creative the frontier might be of habits, practices, and institutions, ideas have a long genealogy; however the frontier might resist political or economic pressures, ideas are carried with the wind.

Parrington was a professor of literature, and the “Main Currents in American Thought” which he charted were, for the most part, literary currents. Yet it is as mistaken to label him a historian of literature as to label Turner a historian of the frontier. From the vantage point of literature, Parrington surveyed the whole sweep of American history. His concept of literature was a catholic one, embracing theology, economics, law, politics, and journalism, as well as belles-lettres; he saw it as a product of the total experience of a people and read it as a faithful expression of that experience. In literature he saw mirrored the mind of America, and he addressed himself valiantly to the greatest subject which can challenge the understanding of a historian – the mind and character of a people.

Deeply influenced by Hippolyte Taine and Georg Brandes, Parrington interpreted American literature as these distinguished critics had interpreted English and European, and his performance was neither less scholarly nor less brilliant than theirs. Yet he was no mere imitator; his work was original and bold, fitted to the pattern of American history and consistent with the American character. More sensitive than any other major historian to the interplay of European and American thought, he was as concerned with the Americanization of imported ideas as with the impact of those ideas on the American mind. His interest in ideas was not genealogical but consequential. That Americans had inherited or imported much of their philosophy was clear; what was important was to understand the principle of natural selection and the consequence of transplantation. For,

transplanted to American soil these vigorous seedlings from old world nurseries took root and flourished in such spots as proved congenial, stimulating American thought, suggesting programs for fresh Utopian ventures, providing an intellectual sanction for new experiments in government. Profoundly liberalising in their influences, they gave impulse and form to our native idealism, and contributed largely to the outcome of our social experience. The child of two continents, America can be explained in its significant traits by neither alone.

He had a strong sense of the continuity of history, rejected wholly Henry Adams’ conclusion that the sequence of thought was chaos, and believed that the main currents of thought, like some Gulf Stream or Black Stream, flowed on, undiverted, from generation to generation. “The principle of religious toleration that was involved in a movement of Independency,” he wrote, “was the ecclesiastical form of a struggle which, shifting later to the field of politics, and then to economics, is still raging about us.”

One of the few American historians who had matured a philosophy of history, Parrington’s whole work was a repudiation of those notions, which owed their inspiration to Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886, German historian, one of the founders of modern source-based historical scholarship), that the historian’s task was limited to the accumulation of data and that this edifying task could be performed with complete impartiality. A generation earlier, Moses Coit Tyler had written of his own admirable history of American literature during the colonial era, “it is a very grave judicial responsibility that the author is forced to assume; it is also a very sacred responsibility,” and his work had been a miracle of impartiality. Parrington did not regard his task as a judicial one or pretend to be objective, impartial, or aloof. He interpreted American intellectual history as a struggle between the forces of freedom and of privilege, and he deliberately took sides in that struggle.

Indeed this fastidious scholar, himself so aloof from controversy, so remote from the hurly-burly of public affairs, lived all his life in the midst of battle. His splendid pages pulse and glow with passion and excitement, resound with the clash of arms and echo with the rallying cries of chieftains. He was a veritable Edward Creasy (1812-78, British historian, best known for “Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World” [1851]), and all the decisive battles of American history were fought anew in his volumes: the struggle between theocracy and Independency, Old World tyranny and New World liberty, federalism and republicanism, slavery and freedom, frontier and seaboard, agrarianism and capitalism, labor and industry. All his heroes were warriors; those who somehow did not fit into the neat scheme were passed over or made to do service in a civilian capacity, as it were.

What emerged from all this was an identification of democracy with Americanism. The great tradition of American thought, Parrington insisted, was the tradition of liberalism and revolt; and they were the most American who spoke with the accent of radicalism – the word he originally used instead of the weaker “liberalism.” His heroes, some famous, some forgotten, are, all of them, popular champions – Roger Williams and Sam Adams, Jefferson and Paine, Theodore Parker and Ellery Channing, Jackson and Lincoln, Wendell Phillips and Peter Cooper, Henry George and Edward Bellamy, and a host of other world-movers and world-shakers – and when he writes of them his prose leaps and soars. Listen to his tribute to Roger Williams:

A great thinker and a bold innovator, the repository of the generous liberalisms of a vigorous age, he brought with him the fine wheat of long years of English tillage to sow in the American wilderness....The shadow of Massachusetts Bay still too much obscures the large proportions of one who was certainly the most generous, most open-minded, most lovable of the Puritan emigrants – the truest Christian among many who sincerely desired to be Christian. He believed in men and in their native justice, and he spent his life freely in the cause of humanity. Neither race nor creed sundered him from his fellows; the Indian was his brother equally with the Englishman. He was a Leveler because he was convinced that society with its caste institutions dealt unjustly with the common man; he was a democrat because he believed that the end and object of the political state was the common well-being; he was an iconoclast because he was convinced that the time had come when a new social order must be erected on the decay of the old. (Main Currents, I, 74-75)

Or to Jefferson, whom he admired above all other Americans:

To all who profess faith in the democratic ideal Jefferson is a perennial inspiration. A free soul, he loved freedom enough to deny it to none; an idealist, he believed that the welfare of the whole, and not the prosperity of any group, is the single end of government. He was our first great leader to erect a political philosophy native to the economics and experience of America, as he was the first to break consciously with the past. His life was dedicated to the service of freedom, and later generations may well recall his words “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

Or to that sturdy keeper of the conscience of his generation, Theodore Parker:

More completely than perhaps any other representative, he gathered up and expressed the major revolutionary impulses of his time and world: the idealistic theism implicit in the Unitarian reaction from Calvinism; the transcendental individualism latent in the doctrine of divine immanence; and the passion for righteousness, to make the will of God prevail in a world where the devil quite openly kept his ledgers. He was an eager and thorough iconoclast, impatient to break the false images – the God of John Calvin with its slanders of human nature, and the God of State Street with its contempt for justice – which New England, he believed, had worshipped too long, forgetting the ideals of the Revolutionary fathers. The mind and conscience of Boston seemed to him stifled by the strait-jacket of respectability....As a free soul loving freedom, and a righteous man loving righteousness, he believed a duty was laid on him to cut away the strait-jacket, to shame the Boston that had sold the poor in the gates for a pair of shoes. He must labor to set free the mind and conscience of Boston that they might go forth purified to work a beneficent work in a world that was God’s and not the Devil’s. (Main Currents, II, 415-416)

As these passages make clear, Parrington was not only the historian of the tradition of American liberalism but himself heir to that tradition, transmitting it from the age that was past to the age that was waiting before. His work was not merely a record of battle but a summons to battle. And it was a summons that, for all its stately style, was yet harmonious with the idiom of the time. Parrington had begun to write his great work the year (1913) that Beard published “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution” and Wilson went to the White House, and he remained a belated Populist, an unreconstructed Progressive. He was one of that younger group of liberals – Weyl, Croly, Lippmann, Bourne, Steffens, Simons, Beard – who were busy rescuing liberalism from the dead hand of Godkin and the neo-Manchesterians. Like them he understood the economic bases of politics, and alone of the group he was able to place American thought in its economic context in a systematic and comprehensive fashion. Time and the war had scattered or disintegrated that group, and when, a decade after the collapse of Wilsonian idealism, Main Currents appeared, many younger intellectuals were turning for inspiration to Marx and Lenin. Parrington was familiar enough with Marx and Lenin and, for that matter, with older and more esoteric radicalisms, but he knew what so many of the young intellectuals had never learned, that America had its own tough-minded radicalism on which protestants and rebels could confidently draw. He taught them that, properly read, Jefferson and Emerson were more relevant to the problems of twentieth-century America than anything that they could import, and he taught them how to read properly. His book was a contribution to philosophy, history, and politics; it was a monument to all that had been pledged and sacrificed that America might continue to mean liberty and democracy; it was a magnificent tract calling upon Americans to be true to their past and worthy of their destiny.

*

It can be said, with some exaggeration, that Turner’s fame derives from a single essay and, with none, that Parrington’s depends upon a single book. The fame and influence of Charles A. Beard rest, in no inconsiderable part, upon the very volume of his writings. His industry was prodigious, his curiosity insatiable, and the range of his interests was wider than that of any other major American historian except Henry Adams. Textbooks, from the most elementary to the most sophisticated, popular and semipopular histories, collections of readings and editorial surveys of society and culture, monographs on politics, administration, economics, and foreign policy, studies in English and European as well as in American history, a steady stream of articles, letters, communications, documents, and committee reports flowed from his facile pen. He was ubiquitous and he seemed omniscient; he ranged almost blithely, from dry investigations of municipal administration to ventures in philosophy. He was not only historian but commentator and critic, an objective – if he would let us use the word – recorder of the past, a vigorous participant in the present, a pamphleteer and polemicist, a veritable Voltaire let loose in the complex world of the twentieth century, with something of Voltaire’s wit, irony, and philosophy, and something, too, of his passion.

The most philosophical of modern American historians, Beard never formulated a philosophy of history unless it was – in the end – the negative conclusion that no philosophy of history could be formulated. Probing mercilessly beneath the surface appearance to underlying realities, searching tirelessly for the meaning to be found in apparently casual manifestations, he repudiated the possibility of ascertaining true reality or ultimate meaning. Zealous to fix the role of economics in history and largely responsible for the widespread acceptance of economic determinism by younger scholars, he was himself the foe of any form of determinism. Rejecting contemptuously the “devil theory” of history1 and persistently warning against the application of the moral standards of the present to the events of the past, his findings provided ammunition for those who saw conspiracy and even deviltry in the making of the Constitution, the fabrication of the Fourteenth Amendment, and American participation in World War II. The most cosmopolitan of scholars, versed in European as in American history, at home in philosophy, law, economics, sociology, and literature, he became the intellectual leader of the isolationists and consorted with those whose views were bound by the Atlantic and the Pacific and whose sympathies were narrow and provincial.

“Any selection and arrangement of facts,” said Beard, in his presidential address to the American Historical Association, “pertaining to any large area of history, either local or world, race or class, is controlled inexorably by the frame of reference in the mind of the selector and arranger.” His own frame of reference changed, but originally it would seem to have been the Progressive movement, with its insistence upon the economic bases of politics, its attacks upon privilege, its passion for reform. Born in Indiana in 1874, he came to maturity during the Populist and Progressive crusades; he early associated himself with the British labor movement, and was not untouched by Fabianism with its zest for the concrete and the functional and its realistic practicality. In a letter to his fellow-historians in 1935 he quoted wit approval Andrew D. White’s admonition that “historical scholars....ought to contribute powerfully to the opening up of a better political and social future for the nation at large,” and his own career, particularly before the 1930’s, was a fulfillment of that admonition. Certainly from the days he helped found Ruskin College at Oxford to the time, over a generation later, when he became the spokesman of the isolationists, he was never aloof from public affairs. Ceaselessly active in the political and economic arenas, temporary advisor to the governments of Japan and Yugoslavia, counselor to a host of left-wing movements, one of the founders of the New School of Social Research, his penetrating mind and unflagging energy carried him to all the major political movements of his generation, and his vigorous personality stamped itself upon the whole reform movement of the first quarter of the new century. A student of politics as of history, he did much to improve municipal government, advance the initiative and referendum, illuminate the preconceptions of lawyers and courts, expose the malpractices of big business, sustain civil liberties, and rally scholars to public affairs. Only John Dewey, among later American scholars, played a comparable role or exercised a comparable influence.

In all this, Beard, like Parrington, belonged to the Progressive era, but it was the progressivism of LaFollette and Brandeis – tough-minded, competent, and empirical – rather than that of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Like LaFollette and Brandeis, Beard had profited from acquaintance with British and Continental social thought, and like them, too, he was economic minded. He was, almost by instinct, a muckraker and an iconoclast, though his exposures of the malpractices of the past were couched in impeccable historical terms. He was closer to Veblen and Brooks Adams – whom he later revived – than to the more opportunistic muckrakers of the Roosevelt era such as Russell or Hendrick or Tarbell; he was incurably skeptical, and he applied to all pretensions toward idealism and disinteredness in economic and political history the same skepticism which he was later to apply to the pretensions of his colleagues to historical objectivity.

This background of progressivism goes far to explain that emphasis upon the economic basis of politics and the economic interpretation of history with which Beard’s fame is associated. That the major issues of politics were economic; that its essence was acquisition and exploitation; that party platforms, campaign oratory, Congressional debates, made sense only in terms of class and interest groups – all this was to Populists and Progressives the common sense of the matter. What Beard did was to apply to earlier chapters of American history the same tests that contemporaries like LaFollette and Altgeld and Lloyd and Tom Johnson applied to trusts, railroads, the tariff, and the currency. Like them he cut through the rhetoric of patriotism, the cliches of campaign oratory, the cabalistic pronouncements of the courts, to underlying economic realties.

That he was by no means the first in the field is irrelevant; he was assuredly the most influential. Over a decade before the appearance of “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution,” Beard’s colleague, E.R.A. Seligman, had announced that “to economic causes....must be traced in last instance those transformations in the structure of society which themselves condition the relation of the social classes and the various manifestations of social life,” and six years later Parrington’s friend, J. Allen Smith, had described the Constitution as a mechanism calculated to frustrate democracy. Beard’s carefully documented analysis had two signal advantages over previous economic interpretations: its method and its timing. It was not so much a polemic as a case study, and a generation more susceptible to scientific evidence than to argument found it all but irresistible. It appeared just as the Progressive movement reached its climax, suggested that the technique of the Pujo Committee2 was as relevant to the eighteenth as to the twentieth century, and seemed to give historical perspective to the assaults of Roosevelt and Wilson upon privilege and exploitation. As Justice Holmes said of John Marshall, it was “a strategic point in the campaign of history,” and part of its greatness consisted “in being there.”

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