American Historiographical Trends

One of the most interesting thing I learned about history when I decided I wanted to go back to school in order to be a history major was that it was not at all what I thought it was when I suffered through it in high school.  At younger ages, we’re given lists of names, dates, places, etc. and told to memorize them and it’s called history.  In college, however, you learn that history is vibrant and subjective and not a set of unquestionable facts that parade across time with snapshots being taken of them through historical tomes.  I love that history is expanding – and not just the history of tomorrow that we’re living today – but ancient, medieval and Renaissance history as well.  As new information, arguments and interpretations are discovered, history grows along with it, and the ability to change and challenge our thinking on any given subject based on available evidence or schools of thought is part of what makes history so interesting for me, personally.  In Interpretations of American History that we read this first week of class, it is made abundantly clear that it is not possible to write history purely objectively, and that all history is informed and filtered through the lens of the present.[1]  That does not, however mean that it is less valuable or meaningful.  The dangers inherent in writing present-minded history are varied, but the most obvious would be including clear and unapologetic cultural, ethnic or national biases and distorting interpretations of the past in order to fit an agenda in the present.  Present historians can counter even unconscious bias, however, by engaging with differing interpretations, expanding the scope of study and putting the study of history into a broader context by which their topic can be better understood and expanded.

The Post-Modern interpretation of history would indicate that opinion and history are virtually indistinguishable.[2]  While it is accurate to acknowledge that the study and writing of history is truly the writing of interpretations of past events and not merely a recitation of facts, dates and events, that does not necessarily mean that it is determined solely by opinion and its value is therefore reduced.  History can – and does – produce truth, although that truth can be varied depending on the particular focus or interpretation of it.  Like the interpretations of texts, meaning can be varied leading to divergent schools of thought but that hardly means that there is no truth in them – even when they disagree with each other.  The historical record – or our understanding of it through time – is something that binds the historians to the past in ways that novel writers are not, and there is a big difference between interpreting the record in different ways and making it up to suit a particular purpose.  To say that there can be no truth in history, as explained in Interpretations of American History, is to make the same mistake that positivists made by claiming the historical process could be achieved through the scientific method – only in the opposite direction.[3]  Not all history – and not all historians – are equal, and some are far more reliable and faithful to the historical record than others.  Research, cross-referencing, independent study and the study of historiography through time all can lead to history which is as close to objective as possible, especially as it goes through the peer review process and field discussion/disagreement.

The early period of American Historiography was known as Providential.  Under this religious perspective, early American colonists saw the hand of the divine in everything.  Good events were the blessing of God – rewards for living according to His standards.  Similarly, disasters, failed crops, etc. were the hand of the devil or punishment for collective sins of the community that needed to be atoned for.  The excerpts assigned from William Bradford highlight this historiographical school explicitly both in the persecution the Puritans experienced in Europe, the hardships they experienced trying to flee and in their journey to the New World.  While still in England, Bradford describes the differing opinions and doctrines within the body of Christ as Satan’s attempt to destroy God’s kingdom by spreading dissention, rather than simply attributing it to differing values or opinions.[4]  Again, in 1608, although the Puritans faced the daunting task of leaving their homes and finding a new place to live, they did not worry about them because they “rested on His (God’s) providence” and had faith that he would bring them through.[5]  When the traveler’s reached the new world, Bradford was again certain that because they acted in a Godly manner, the pilgrims could expect the blessing of God on their new endeavor to settle and claim a new land in His name.[6]

Growing out of providential historiography yet seemingly counter to it was the Rationalist historiography that was embraced and explained by many of the nation’s founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson as evident in his excerpt we were assigned to read this week.  Rationalist historiography separated itself from the ‘unenlightened’ providential school and its main focus was on reason and progress.  Science was a big part of rationalist thought, and examples of it are scattered throughout Jefferson’s work.

Jefferson’s perspectives on the Native Americans that prepopulated the land is a foreshadowing of the nationalist historiography which will be examined next, and he took a scientific approach to describing their “savageness” by explaining that, since they were never under any form of national law or organized government, resulting in the splintering of many different tribes or societies.[7]  He also importantly makes the distinction that land was not taken from the Native Americans by force, but rather by agreement, trade and legal purchase.[8]  His further postulations on ancestry of the Native Americans as descendants of the natives of Eastern Asia, or visa versa also shows rational, reasonable thought.[9]  As revolution loomed on the horizon, Jefferson indicated that – given the show of force and due to the rational ideologies of those in the colonies – no other option except armed resistance against tyranny was feasible.[10]  Reason, logic and a scientific approach to administering the new country as well as legal precedents including those of slavery and its correctness flow through the rest of the assigned text.

The Nationalist historiographical school certainly grew out of both the Providential and Rationalist schools in certain ways.  Certainly, as was seen in Jefferson’s writing, the primacy of the Anglo-Saxon race over “primitive” Africans and Native Americans was considered truth long before the Nationalist school of thought rose to prominence.  Francis Parkman’s work on Western expansion and colonization of the American West certainly showcase the belief that Anglo Americans had the right to take almost anything they could set their eyes on, regardless of any prior inhabitants, the cultures, history or lives of those who had come before them.  Settlers were described as apprehensive over what new adventures awaited them in the new lands ahead, and expressed nervousness over encounters with the native ‘savages’ whose land they were traveling across and settling within.[11]  Yet, without any misgivings whatsoever, the men exploring the territory felt confident in the belief that it was their right and their destiny to explore and make a new life for themselves wherever they saw fit.[12]  The local Native American tribe they encountered, the Pawnees, were described as not only cowardly but treacherous as well, and therefore well deserving of any punishment (including apparently the seizure of lands) that the government (that they didn’t acknowledge or necessarily even know about) saw fit to give them.[13]

[1] Francis G. Couvares, Martha Saxton, Gerald N. Grob and George Athan Billias, eds., “Introduction to U.S. Historiography,” in  Interpretations of American History, (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009), 2.                

[2] Couvares, 2.

[3] Couvares, 2.

[4] William Bradford, Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation 1606-1646, ed. William T. Davis (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908): 25, https://archive.org/details/bradfordshistor03bradgoog.

[5] Bradford, Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation, 33.

[6] Bradford, Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation, 48.

[7] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, (Chapel Hill: UNC Chapel Hill, 2006), 100, https://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/jefferson/jefferson.html.

[8] Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 101.

[9] Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 107.

[10] Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 124.

[11] Francis Parkman, The Oregon Trail, ed. William Ellery Leonard (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1849), http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/OREGON/otrail06.html.

[12] Parkman, The Oregon Trail.

[13] Parkman, The Oregon Trail.

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