The Uses of Yesterday
NO NATION EVER BEGAN with a richer inheritance or more radiant prospects than the United States of America. But living up to the promise of a perfect childhood can be a terrible strain. Everything achieved afterward tends to appear as anticlimax: the course of adult life seems to run depressingly downhill.
So it has often been with America. As the pioneer vanguard of the young Republic swept westward, Americans were gradually confronted by an embarrassing discrepancy between political dreams and everyday realities. There was on the one hand the agrarian, egalitarian Eden of their early (often mythical) memory, and on the other, the violent have-and-have-not realities of an incipient industrial state. At the end of the 19th century, this conflict—exacerbated by a civil war and a massive infusion of immigrants—had dislocated millions of people, to say nothing of their ideals. Where was America going? Had a continent been laid waste only for material wealth? Faith in progress was an essential American religion. How was it to be sustained?
historic trio By and large, such questions troubled busy Americans only during pessimistic moments of crisis and political unrest. Near the turn of the century, however, the search for a usable past that would somehow square the original American ideal with exploitive American practices began to be the constant concern of a handful of historians. Their efforts and ideas form the background of this book by Columbia University's Richard Hofstadter. The Progressive Historians tells the story of three men—Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles A. Beard and Vernon L. Parrington—who did the most to shape America's image of its history as a tapestry of continued progress. Part biography, part intellectual history, part scholarly polemic, the volume is a sharp but generous inquiry into the underlying conceptions of American history and the reasons for writing it. Hofstadter, who has twice won the Pulitzer Prize (for The Age of Reform and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life), only rarely lapses into the repetitions of a professor who can never be quite sure that the whole class really attended his previous lecture.
Frederick Jackson Turner sounded his single but remarkably lasting note—on the paramount significance of the frontier in American history—in 1893. Charles Beard created his most influential and controversial book, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, in 1913. He had completed his most popular history, The Rise of American Civilization, by 1927, the year when an unknown English professor named V. L. Parrington published his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Main Currents in American Thought. These men, writes Hofstadter, were the first "to make American history relevant to the political and intellectual issues of the moment." And, he might have added, the issues of the moment endured.
They had much else in common. Born in the 1860s and early 1870s, brought up in the Midwest (Turner in Wisconsin, Beard in Indiana, Parrington in Kansas), all of them came of age at a time when the balance of power and influence was shifting from the effete East to the still raw and resentful Midwest. The financial panic of 1893 was in the making. The Populist movement was galvanizing Westerners and farm folk everywhere into a struggle against big money and big-city interests.
Earlier American historians had tended to be gifted amateurs. In 1880, Hofstadter points out, there were exactly eleven professors of American history in all U.S. colleges. They viewed the early Republic as an ideal state from which America had subsequently declined. For them the new democratic institutions established between 1776 and 1787 had been born of European theory, and flourished in America only with the help of Divine Providence. The new, progressive historians, aware of Marx and Darwin and stirred by the belief that history must be both dynamic and toughly realistic, read American history in radically different ways.
free land and hardship As Turner grasped it, American democracy was neither a perfected political boon granted to the Founding Fathers by a Protestant Providence nor an inheritance from European political theorists, but something else again. It was a unique, home-grown institution shaped on the American frontier. Free land, Turner argued, made Americans free and generous. Frontier hardship made them self-reliant and individualistic. Frontier challenges made them willing to cooperate democratically with one another. The absence of the trappings of privilege made them egalitarian.
It was in vain that later critics pointed out Turner's contradictions, observing that the frontier had also made Americans ruthless and violent and that many of the facts on which Turner based his theory did not check out. (For example, frontier settlers, who Turner insisted always wanted to broaden the vote, in fact often lagged behind their urban neighbors.) Turner's creative concept had caught the imagination, not merely of historians and students who revered him but of the people as well. It still does—witness Barry Goldwater's appeal in 1964 to the nostalgic hope of returning to the simple virtues of the American frontier.
found and lost Sharp-tongued and harder-hitting, Beard shattered the myth of America's perfect past by a frontal assault on the Founding Fathers. In An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, he argued that the great document, far from promoting the general welfare, was the reactionary work of wealthy men who in 1787 stood to profit from the creation of a strong, central and, above all, solvent government (nearly half the signers had lent the Government money). By suggesting that economic interests play a strong role in human events, Beard helped bring American history closer to the bitter realities of contemporary life. By implying that businessmen had betrayed the radical spirit of the American Revolution, he made U.S. history not a long fall from grace but an enduring crusade to restore lost revolutionary rights. (The fact that the Supreme Court for years regarded income tax laws as unconstitutional seemed to support Beard's contentions.) "Beardism," in any case, provoked savage attacks. The Marion Star, an Ohio newspaper owned by President-to-be Warren G. Harding headlined: SCAVENGERS, HYENA-LIKE, DESECRATE THE GRAVES OF THE DEAD PATRIOTS WE REVERE. Ex-President William Howard Taft observed acidly that Beard would no doubt have preferred a Constitution drafted by "dead beats, demagogues and cranks who never had any money."
Compared with Beard or Turner, Parrington seems a somewhat perfunctory figure. In a series of interlocking biographical sketches—marked by Anglophobia and a gift for rhetoric—Parrington, in Main Currents in American Thought, reconstructed the U.S. cultural evolution. His notion, deeply ingrained in the American character, was that art should have a social purpose; realism, it followed, was better than fantasy. The great republic, he said, had solved through a struggle between the ideas of Good Guy liberals, dissenters, democrats and humanitarians, like Roger Williams, Ben Franklin, and naturally, Thomas Jefferson, and Bad Guy conservatives like Jonathan Edwards, Increase Mather and Alexander Hamilton.
This kind of partisan polarity is as familiar to Americans as Sears Roebuck and peanut butter. But since World War II, modern scholarship has nitpicked Turner to death—on grounds of detailed inaccuracy and cloudy thinking. Parrington has been buried by the New Criticism as a prejudiced bore and a square to boot—both of which he most emphatically was. Beard has not so much been demolished as deplored for his slighting of the non-economic complexities of history.
fired for smoking In trying to fix his trio in a modern perspective and yet do them justice, Hofstadter does not evade such criticism. He is often at his best when throwing a few darts of his own. Beard's rendering of the Constitutional Convention, he suggests, makes the proceedings look like the secret and conspiratorial work of tycoons carving up some new banana republic.
As a fond if not indulgent critic, though, Hofstadter praises the vitality of his progressives and probes their private lives and times. In surprisingly effective thumbnail sketches, Turner appears as a generous teacher and enthusiast who would never have survived in the publish-or-perish world of today's scholar. During his lifetime he signed contracts to write at least nine books which he never finished, though he left 34 file cases of notes.
Parrington emerges as a largely self-taught loner who organized the English department at the University of Oklahoma, coached a rawboned football team to three years of victory, and was fired in 1908 by a Methodist board of governors, ostensibly for smoking. Turner loved the frontier; Parrington hated his prairie boyhood in Kansas. Beard, who lived on after World War II, is pictured as a man of moral passion who could never quite decide whether to be a liberal lobbyist or the most prodigious and painstaking historian of his century. Trying to be both, he marred his reputation but failed at neither.
Hofstadter observes that World War II, Hitler's death camps, and all that has followed have discouraged thoughtful men from believing too easily in progress. Historical scholarship today tends to be scrupulous, painstaking, neutral, but narrow in scope. Subscribing to this trend, Hofstadter yet betrays an admiration for the progressive historians' belief that history should not merely examine the past but help shape the future. "We need always before us," Beard once wrote, "high visions of our own possibilities." He used history not only to supply the visions but to bring them into political being—for Beardism was, and was intended to be, a polemical stick to prod America toward the use of the Constitution as a creative social force.
As this political year shows, a great many Americans believe that such use of the Constitution by the Supreme Court has gone too far. Still, Hofstadter is drawn to such social commitment. "In the American temperament," he observes, "there is a powerful bias toward accepting the pragmatic demand upon history." And he adds (one feels a trifle wistfully): "It is hard for us to believe that there is such a thing as a truth that cannot be made useful." In the end he settles for a modest aim. Write history only to show the world for what it was. In an age "infused with nihilism" and driven by partisanship, history may then remain "the most humanizing among the arts."