Blogs > Cliopatria > toward an increased focus on political history

Feb 3, 2006 6:15 am

toward an increased focus on political history

I confess that whenever I start writing something about the direction of the profession I immediately think to myself,"shut up 'n' play yer guitar" -- because after all I should be doing it, not talking about it, right? But I confess, too, that when someone throws down a gauntlet, I'm awfully tempted to pick it up. Even if Tim Burke has already had a whack at some related material. ("Didn't you learn your lesson the last time you strayed onto Burke turf?" No, evidently I didn't.)

the point at issue

Here's the suggestion as eb made it:

I would like to see someone lay out, post by post, a case for an increased focus on political history, one that makes no reference to current political representation or affiliation, partisan or otherwise, but which demonstrates the continued and future relevancy of the subject no matter which way the electorate turns.

Let me note two things: first, I see that this is about an increased focus on political history, which is to say increased presumably over the present focus of the profession (stipulating that the profession has a focus, which I doubt, but anyway, let's stipulate! it's fun to say); second that it is about an increased focus, which is to say we're not talking about increased quantity of political history being done, but about a sharper synthetic focus on the political in the broader view of the profession. Also, one has to argue for this without invoking what we usually call"presentist" concerns. Fair enough.

on presentism

No, wait, not fair enough. Let me say a word, or maybe three, in behalf of much-maligned presentism. James Harvey Robinson was right:

... interest in the developments of each year as it passes has led us to make certain discoveries which might otherwise have remained for the coming generation to point out. I will give but one very striking instance. Beard and I have been rewriting and greatly expanding our old Development of Modern Europe [way to name-check, JHR! and plug your book. Nice] prepared a score of years ago.... [W]e could [not] realize what was to be the outcome of European exploration, occupation and colonization when it was reënforced by machine manufacture, modern means of communication and financial enterprise.... In recognition of the impression it has made on us we decided to call our second volume The Merging of European into World History.

Historians write history for someone. Even if that someone is your mom, or yourself, or your imaginary friend, that someone lives somewhere and somewhen; they have points of reference that the historian needs to take into account. And in doing so, she's going to emphasize some events over others. We all know this: when many of us started lecturing undergraduates about history, the Cold War was a current event, and needed less, or at least different, explaining than it now does: come this fall, some of our freshmen will be people born the year the Berlin Wall came down.

And as we explain history to a particular audience, the history we explain changes substantially. There's no way around it. And sometimes, as Robinson says, that encourages us to return to the archives to pull out stories we would earlier have overlooked. We could say that a historian who does not lecture more now about the U.S. role in the Middle East throughout the twentieth century than he did before 2001 is not doing his job very well. But more importantly, a historian who does not understand more now about the U.S. role in the Middle East throughout the twentieth century than he did before 2001 is not doing his job very well.

That's only the less obvious of the two obvious defenses of presentism, the more obvious being Robinson's"So much of the discussion of obsessive problems in the ordering of human affairs is futile or feeble on account of failing to reckon with the traditions which produced the objectionable conditions." Which is to say, if you want people to solve the problems of today, you might tell them how those problems came to pass.

In either of these two obvious defenses of presentism, the point is that there's always a selective principle involved in telling history; we can't talk about everything. That selective principle need not be, in Robinson's phrase,"framing a coherent narrative making close connections with the morning newspaper,"* to have a clear and defensible presentist content.

The deeper point is that, except perhaps in the most trivial of ways, it's impossible to describe historical understanding without reference to the present. There's always a selective principle operating in explaining what you think is worth knowing about the past, and that selective principle simply cannot exist without reference to the minds in which it's deployed, i.e., you, me, us, now.

All this acknowledging of presentism's inevitable influence doesn't mean presentism can't lead you to make serious blunders (see, e.g., the invention of"Social Darwinism" as a historical concept). In fact, the right argument is going to be, you need to acknowledge the inevitably presentist character of your historical understanding to prevent it being crassly political. This might make your history, more elegantly,"philosophy teaching by examples". But I don't want to go further into this; this is all by the way of saying, I don't see anything wrong with arguing for more political history (or less, or anything else) with reference to present concerns; in fact, I don't see any other way of doing it.


what an increased focus on political history might mean

That was all by way of clearing one's throat so one could go on to say, we can make a case, as a sort of rhetorical exercise that acknowledges the foregoing, for an increased focus on political history with reference exclusively to what Burke calls the whiggish assumption that we can tomorrow understand the past better than we do today. (Roll over, Herbert Butterfield, and tell G. R. Elton the news.)

To do this I want to talk about the state, not of our accumulated knowledge, but of our shared narrative. This means, as I indicated above, making some informed guesses about what we mostly, as a profession, talk about when we talk historical narrative. Anytime anyone makes a claim on the order of"we need to know more about x," someone else will immediately say,"but Jones wrote a dissertation on x in 1974." But if Jones's dissertation hasn't become part of our common narrative, we still need to focus more on that issue as a matter of our shared professional competence. To give an example, if I were to say, per the above, we should treat"Social Darwinism" very skeptically as a historical concept, someone could pop up and say, correctly, that Robert Bannister did all one could do to put paid to the idea in 1979. Okay, but you and I know that historians still routinely use the term pretty uncarefully in historical narrative. So, even with Bannister's work on some of our shelves, we as a profession still do need a greater focus on being careful with"Social Darwinism". Likewise for the below: if I say we need a greater focus on x, I'm making an observation about the focus, not about the paucity of extant quanta of knowledge.

Also, to do this I want to talk about the area of history I know best, which is truly, as most historians will acknowledge, the area of history in which I'm best-attuned to how little I know. And for the sake of biasing the case against the inclusion of politics, I want to start by talking about, in a phrase that was already old when Robinson was writing,"history from below."

history from below -- and above, and below

Imagine we want to know about everyday life in Wyoming ca. 1892. We might, as social historians, immediately say"Everyday life for whom? For surely it was different for men than for women, for landowners than for tenants, for white than for black, for native born than for foreign, for ranchers than for homesteaders...."

But we would already have skipped over an important political history problem. What the heck was"Wyoming" ca. 1892? Because actually if we think about it we know there was something odd about that rectangular polity, something that was not only not trivial, but was actually dispositive in determining the meaning of all those social-history categories cited above. Wyoming was a state, from 1890, while its neighbor Utah was not. This had everything to do with politics, of the most traditional sort. Why did the states come into the Union in the order they did? Well, thereby hangs a tale -- to do with the timing of roll call votes, the delicacy with which party presidential platforms were worded, and the peculiarity of the lame-duck Congress and Presidency -- that's very much the stuff of Olde-Fashioned Politics, and yet Olde-Fashioned Politics we don't actually know much about or focus on very much in explaining what happened to the U.S. in the late 1890s.** Yet the ability of a state's inhabitants to govern themselves with a greater degree of autonomy than the inhabitants of a territory meant everything in terms of the character of everyday life: it determined property rights and property taxes, suffrage, and citizenship; limits on racial and immigrant rights in land ownership and legal standing; freedom to eat, work, vote, marry, and pass through.

So if we want to understand history from below, we have to understand history from above, too: but not so fast. Because of the peculiar character of American politics, the granting of statehood meant that history from below suddenly affected history from above in a way it had not before. Even if, as all the scholars cited in ** below think, the Republicans brought Wyoming and other Western states into the Union to shore them up against the Democratic threat represented by Cleveland's Presidency, it's also important to notice that the plan backfired: that Wyoming went for Bryan in 1896, and for Wilson in 1912 and 1916, much along the lines of other new states. Why? Well, you can't understand why if you stop your"history from above" with the intention behind a law and its enactment; you have to look at its effect on the locals, because that effect is going to get translated into a political opinion and bounced back to"above" right quick. So those people out there in State of Wyoming are in State of Wyoming because of certain Congressional intentions; likewise they're hard by the Union Pacific railroad because of certain other Congressional intentions; but those intentions were not borne out at the polls in quite the electoral gratitude the Congressmen hoped for. And you can't understand why not unless you go back to our first question -- what was everyday life like out there, how did politics shape everyday life, how did people know politics shaped everyday life, and how did that translate back into the ways they voted for national policies.

The literal, physical shaping of the country comprised a set of political acts; the reaction to that shaping comprised yet a further set of political acts. Bridging the two sets and explaining the relation between the two we should envision a lot of social and cultural history, without which we can't understand how they relate. I think it's fair to say, especially because of what I'll suggest immediately below, that we need to focus on all three sets of phenomena if we really want to understand the development of the U.S. into a more or less united continental nation.†

uniting the sections

There's a further problem that political history can help solve. There really isn't a"history of the United States" for the years between the Civil War and the world crisis of 1914-1945. There's Reconstruction history, and Western history, and Gilded Age history; there's a history of suffrage and also one of gender, one of disfranchisement and of the making of white supremacy / black liberation; history of the courts during the"due process revolution", imperial history, history of pragmatism and even history of"the confident years". Among others.

All these histories overlap in time, personnel, and subject matter, yet they're conceptually discrete and people specializing in one don't often get out into another. Who, apart from historians of the army, and not even many of them, thinks about the Indian Wars in the context of the exactly contemporary military task of Reconstruction? Who, since sometime in the early 1970s, has thought about Progressivism in the context of the exactly contemporary political project of imperialism? Talk about your perils of presentism: only to us are these so separate -- to people at the time these were part of the same lived experience (if not necessarily mentalité).

What rubric, if it does not necessarily describe this ideational family,‡ at least outlines the way it was channeled into action? Politics. The process of making an American nation, of bringing in the West and reconstructing the South and determining immigration law and enfranchising women and disfranchising African Americans -- the process that determined, again, the parameters of lived experience in America in those years -- was a political process, carried out by factions and parties, both responding to and creating new constituencies.

If we want to understand these things, then an increased focus on political history is necessary. But -- and I've avoided using this phrasing till now, because it's the kind of pat phrasing that makes people think they know what you mean when they don't -- it'll have to be a different kind of political history than many of us have recently done or read, one that's as interested in the consequences of legislation as in the circumstances of its enactment, interested in the way constituents and leaders mutually influence each other. A kind of political history, one hastens to add, that's sometimes already done. But not to the extent one would like to see: we haven't answered all the interesting questions yet.

*James Harvey Robinson,"The Newer Ways of Historians," The American Historical Review 35, no. 2 (January 1930): 245-255, 249-250.

**Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal,"Congress and the Territorial Expansion of the United States," in Party, Process, and Political Change in Congress: New Perspectives on the History of Congress, ed. David W. Brady and Mathew D. McCubbins, 392-451 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002); Charles Stewart, III, and Barry R. Weingast,"Stacking the Senate, Changing the Nation: Republican Rotten Boroughs, Statehood Politics, and American Political Development," Studies in American Political Development 6 (1992): 223-271.

†Which might sound a lot like doing what Turner and Beard and other progressive historians wanted to do, only with today's knowledge, the chastening of time, and modern methods. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

‡But see John Gerring, Party Ideologies in America, 1828-1996 (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

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Timothy James Burke - 2/2/2006

This is a seriously wonderful entry. I think it is precisely what I've been egging KC Johnson to supply, the necessary next step in a conversation about the place of political history.

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