A Golden Age for American History Scholarship? It Was the Mid-1950s.Historians/History
tags: John Hope Franklin, Hofstadter, American History Scholarship
Vaughn Davis Bornet’s Ph.D. is from Stanford University (1951), the B.A. and M.A. (1939, 1940) are from Emory University, the year 1941 was at University of Georgia. Author of over a dozen books and scores of articles and essays, he has been writing articles frequently in recent years on the internet’s History News Network. He holds “Distinguished” awards from American Heart Association and Freedoms Foundation. He taught at University of Miami, 1946-48, and Southern Oregon College, 1963-80. He was a staff member of The RAND Corporation in the 1960s. A Commander in the Naval Reserves, his active duty was 1941 to 1946. His 2016 books Lovers in Wartime, 1944 to 1945 and another, Happy Travel Diaries, 1925 to 1933 (both Amazon) are recent. Coming out in early October, 2017 is, "Seeking New Knowledge: A Research Historian’s Rewarding Career" (Bornet Books). He lives, apparently only semi-retired, in Ashland, Oregon.
“The profession of history is thriving, the professors are vigorous,” exclaimed the executive secretary of the American Historical Association as New Year’s Day, 1957 approached. Historians were said to be on the move; they were writing and publishing quantities of books and articles. Professional meetings were well attended. American history seemed to be enjoying increasing interest from the public. Asking from the Far West, “What is Right With the Historical Profession?” textbook master John D. Hicks found the current scene much to his liking; in short, historians could be proud of themselves. Yet there had been dissenting voices in the 1950’s, such as that of Howard K. Beale in the Pacific Historical Review. University historians, he thought, had many failings both as teachers and researchers. Other critics intimated that closer relationships between secondary school history teachers and scholars on the campus would be fruitful. Meanwhile there were new ideas aplenty expressed from platforms and in writing.
The present account of new viewpoints and new productivity in American history covers the middle years of the 1950’s. Most of the books cited were published in the years between the inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the middle of his second term. Summarized are attitudes that highly placed historians voiced on the teaching of history, and there is assessment of the innumerable book publications in American history of these years. New interests like military history, labor history, and even history built around topographical features of the landscape are indicated here, while some controversies and a few new research techniques are duly noted. It was a great time for a venerable profession to rejoice.
TEACHING AND STUDYING HISTORY
In the seventy-odd years since the founding of the American Historical Association, no presidential address had dealt exclusively with the teaching of history until respected historian of the Monroe Doctrine, Dexter Perkins, then president of the A. H. A., chose in 1956 the theme “We Shall Gladly Teach” for colleagues meeting in St. Louis. He asked if the true function of the teacher of history was to arouse doubt and foster the critical attitude—or to set some positive standards of thought and action--and he urged,
“We must make the past more vivid and the quality of men’s adventure more deeply understood; we must interpret the past broadly; in the spirit of a man to whom nothing human is alien: we need not be afraid to speak of moral values, to be sensitive and compassionate, or to exalt wisdom and goodness; we must set the example of a sound intellectual and moral balance, of a broad view of human values; we must make the process of the mind in seeking truth so fair, so understanding of various opinions, and yet so clear that they will command respect and deserve imitation.”
Perkins suggested that teachers retain a familiarity with source materials, a point once advanced by Thomas A. Bailey in his “The Obligation of the Teacher to Be a Scholar,” Social Education (Dec., 1949). Meanwhile a high school teacher from Peoria, Illinois, Hazel C. Wolf, told a national audience in 1956 that the burden for training teachers could not be shirked by university professors of history in favor of other things.
Hopeful of improving the teaching of history, the American Historical Association inaugurated in 1956 a Service Center for Teachers of History (400 A. Street, S.E., Washington, D.C.). It hoped to bridge the “growing gap” between school history teachers and university scholars. There would be a new AHA publications program. A job Register for the mutual benefit of colleges and those seeking positions was staffed.
In this connection, the appearance of the third edition of the Directory of American Scholars in 1957 was of unusual importance to teachers of history since, with removal of sketches of other social scientists to volume III of American Men of Science (1956), many more historians than ever before were included in the Directory’s 836 double columned pages. A 1952 survey of historians at the hands of J.F. Wellemeyer, Jr. in A.H.R. (Jan., 1956) revealed that of 2, 979 members of the American Historical Association who replied to a letter of inquiry, sixty-three per cent had the doctorate and another thirty-one per cent had a master’s degree. Harvard, Columbia, Chicago, and University of California (Berkeley and U.C.L.A.) led at the time in quantity of doctoral graduates.
Active, with journals and conventions, were state and national associations, too many to list here. Truly national was the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, while the Southern Historical Association remained regional in focus but with a national membership. The A.H.A. maintained a branch in the Far West. Meetings could be at Christmas-New Year time, in the spring, or the autumn, depending…. Those who found it possible and desirable to attend the two or three day meetings now and then were rewarded by familiarity with authors, textbooks and their writers, and those who were rising to leadership. Exhibits of new books, panels, presidential speeches—all vied with “mingling” at meetings, while former classmates rejoiced at getting together once again.
A striking and influential development of the 1950’s was the increased granting of research, travel, and teaching fellowships to historians, even though in this respect they lagged far behind that day’s research grants to natural scientists. Some universities had trouble keeping a quorum of big names in residence, as Israel, Austria, and other distant parts of the world listened to lectures that were delivered, quite often, in English. Daniel J. Boorstin, The Genius of American Politics (1953) was a direct outgrowth of such a period of overseas residence, and there were indications that the United States gained in stature from upward mobility of most historians who enjoyed the overseas experience. Shepard B. Clough, The American Way (1953) consisted of discerning lectures delivered by the Columbia professor in Europe.
At home, there was preliminary effort to utilize TV for adult education in history. Some program series, like that by James C. Olson of Nebraska State Historical Society on the “Sodhouse Frontier,” were filmed for repeat broadcasts on educational radio stations in coming years. Long accustomed to microphone lecturing at giant universities, some historians wondered if the future would see them lecturing at giant universities; others wondered if the future would see them lecturing into cameras for students lounging at home in bed or in fraternity houses. The emerging medium of TV was viewed with suspicion for the most part, although many granted grudgingly that it must have a future.
As has been said, conventions of historical associations were well attended in the 1950’s. After balloting by mail, the Mississippi Valley Historical Association refused to change its name to something more likely to acquaint the public with its true function as an association of specialists in American history. Tradition triumphed. The Association for State and Local History was immensely invigorated by sponsorship of its new publication American Heritage. In the pages of that beautiful magazine the elusive “layman” and his children were eagerly courted. Indeed, state society, archival and museum specialists in the nation may have no longer worried about drifting into sterile antiquarianism.
In the 1950’s there were moves away from that sort of thing, and James Parton, publisher of American Heritage, rejoiced that “There is today in America a great reawakening interest in history…, how we got to where we are and how that rediscovery can help us through the difficult problems of the present and the future.” His hard cover periodical, edited by Bruce Catton with heavy emphasis on human interest and social history and illustrated in full color, came to have a vast circulation among laymen (an unheard of development for a history magazine). Meanwhile, The Directory of Historical Societies and Agencies in the United States and Canada (1956) rose to 48 pages.
Several networks on historical method interested historians in these years. James C. Malin, The Contriving Brain and the Skillful Hand in the United States (1955) rejected entrenched interpretations in its concern with the philosophy of history. Homer C. Hockett, The Critical Method in Historical Research and Writing (1955) was a thoroughly revised edition. Wendell H. Stephenson, The South Lives in History (1955) discussed famous Southern historians appreciatively and otherwise. Mirra Komarovsky edited Common Frontiers of the Social Sciences (1957), among whose seventeen essays was the 70 page “Research Problems in American Political Historiography.”
A British scholar, H. Hale Bellot, American History and American Historians, had in 1952 discerned weak spots in American historical productivity in a thoughtful survey of leading books. Historians were also concerned about the factual basis of more than a few major interpretations. The Social Science Research Council appointed a committee of five in 1957 “to encourage the development of better methods for assessing the evidence underlying selected historical prepositions or generalizations.” Both style and content were thus matters for concern in the years 1953 to 1957.
The 1,711 would-be Ph. D’s who had doctoral dissertations in history in progress in 1955 were the recipients of much advice on such matters. In a humorous vein, Walter Prescott Webb spoke (from Texas) of the young men, chiefly in the larger universities, “who are driven to write when they have nothing to say and are fired if they do not say it with documentation.” Boyd C. Shafer, the new editor of the American Historical Review thought “We should examine more closely the problems involved in winning a wider audience—more buyers of our books—and we should continue to explore how we can publish less expensively.” Later he urged paying more attention to style than to what he termed the apparatus of scholarship, seeking out really significant subjects, not just those for which source materials happened to be convenient. All work should be related to the full history of the time and to writing already in print, he thought. (His journal had received 157 essays for consideration during one recent year.) His opinion:
“In American history…we saw too few top-notch studies and almost none which tried to interpret American history in the venture- some fashion of Tyler, Turner, and Beard. The bold new views that these giants have led us to expect of American historians seem strangely lacking, as least insofar as submitted articles indicate.”
A disgruntled reviewer, irritated by a reading of a newly published dissertation, wrote in June, 1957, “University presses would do well to leave the business of publishing doctoral dissertations to University Microfilms.” None of these complaints were new. It was left for a British scholar to tell American historians what he felt about 1,300 footnotes contained in a monograph on an obscure topic:
“…my blood ran cold. I am all for historical research work at the grass roots but boggle at being asked to look at each blade of grass. American history being by the nature of events a somewhat recent development in human affairs, American scholars, aided by the bounty of many foundations, are inclined to blow up a subject for the sake of research rather than research into the subject on a scale commensurate with its importance.”
Highly placed historians surveyed in their presidential addresses such matters as bias and passing of judgment on men and events. President Edward C. Kirkland of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association said, for example,
“… it is essential to apply the same standards of judgment and appraisal to all groups and to all individuals: to realize, for instance that success is no more a reason for denying a man or a cause a hearing than failure is a reason for granting it; to discard the sentimentalism that associates truth with one social class and error with another; to acknowledge that trade unions as well as corporations may use power arbitrarily. … Let us be on our guard lest, by dividing our standards, we ruin not only ourselves as practicing historians but also the heritage of American history which we are under obligation to honor, to explore, and to transmit.”
Kirkland, himself a frequent writer on controversial 19th century themes, passed on to colleagues, for what it might be worth, a free-wheeling translation of an old Latin phrase, namely, “Democrats and Republicans I treat alike.”
This gentle warning was particularly appropriate in the 1950’s because of a tendency in some historians to be increasingly discontented with merely telling the story of the past. The passing of judgment became common in books of history. Perhaps the reason for this was no more than natural desire to be influential. Yet behavioral scientists with their open door policy on all questions relating to the actions of mankind may have had its due effect. Gerald M. Capers wrote in March, 1956,
“We historians must speculate as to how and why things got like they are, though we should know when we are speculating and admit it. Why should we stick to the data and details of the Populist Revolt or the Missouri Compromise and leave the sixty-four-dollar questions to the anthropologist or the social scientist? Just because it is safer, and we know the exact answers cannot be found?”
SOME INFLUENTIAL BOOKS
Some books of history seemed more important than others in the years 1953 to 1957—as was natural. The Pulitzer Prize for History was awarded to George Dangerfield, The Era of Good Feelings, Bruce Catton, A Stillness at Appomattox, Paul Horgan, Great River: the Rio Grande in North American History, Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, and George M. Kennan, Russia Leaves the War: Soviet American Relations, 1917-1920. Biographies awarded the Pulitzer Prize covered the lives of John C. Calhoun, Charles Evans Hughes, Edmund Pendleton, Robert A. Taft, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Charles A. Lindbergh won with his autobiographical Spirit of St. Louis, and Senator John F. Kennedy won with a collective biography, Profiles in Courage. Professor Hofstadter’s book, subtitled “From Bryan to F.D.R.”, an account of populism, progressivism, and New Dealism pointed out contrasts and similarities discerned by the author, some of which were not necessarily concurred in by all readers.
Other books, while not prize winners, won attention. Randolph E. Paul, Taxation in the United States (1954) was an 830-page classic on the federal tax system—the political origins of the individual and corporation income taxes and the inheritance tax. In 1956 a sparkling survey of American history for textbook use, The American Pageant, which had been checked in manuscript by scores of experts (often, by this recent Ph.D.). Thomas A. Bailey showed once again, with a classic headed for innumerable editions and new editor-authors, that he had few equals in the preparation of highly readable history.
New textbooks by young historians began to invade the sales territories of standard treatments. A stimulating book was Oscar Handlin, Chance of Destiny (1955), which treated eight incidents that marked turning points in American history. Presidential Nominating Politics in 1952 (1954), a five-volume production by many political scientists, showed the complexity of the American electoral process with its variation from state to state.
David M. Potter, People of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the American Character (1954) brought to bear an interdisciplinary point of view of deep interest to teachers of social studies. The effect of plenty on our social and political institutions was the theme. Clinton Rossiter, Conservatism in America (1955) and Wesley Frank Craven, The Legend of the Founding Fathers (1956) aroused discussion. Leland D. Baldwin, The Meaning of America (1955) was an attempt to understand “the American spirit.” Readers of Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr.’s The Decline of American Liberalism (1955) found it easy to become mentally excited. War, nationalism, government intervention, and majoritarian democracy came to be considered historic evils, and major figures of our history were measured and evaluated in accordance with the extent to which they furthered these defined evils.
Books like these were likely to recharge the batteries of teachers bored with “the same old history” taught over and over. Yet it was abundantly clear that such new interpretations were not welcome in many places. Shouldn’t they stand on the firing line of scholarly criticism before entering the mainstream? Tradition! Several national History journals for historians were carrying new articles and innumerable book reviews, and most states, it appears, had state journals of history indebted to a state society. The Historian, prepared since 1938 by Phi Alpha Theta, a history group, was thriving.
Books that exposed large new portions of American history to view were John W. Oliver, History of American Technology (1956), A. Hunter Dupree, Science in the Federal Government (1957), and Mary M. Roberts, American Nursing: History and Interpretation (1954). Books on the patent system, petroleum pipelines, and the water supplies of municipalities were fresh treatments, for example Nelson W. Blake, Water for the Cities (1956). An unusual sectional history was D.G. Brinton Thompson, Gateway to a Nation (1956), the first Unitarian account of the Middle Atlantic States and their influence on the development of the nation. American Catholicism (1956) by John Tracy Ellis consisted of four lectures and was termed by an expert the best short history of its subject from a Catholic point of view. By the same author was Documents of American Catholic History (1956).
Historians showed an interest in presidents of the United States, living and dead, thereby disregarding protests once common against the “presidential synthesis.” An urging to give increased attention to less exalted figures of American history affected some writers, but publication proved difficult. The centennial of the birth of Woodrow Wilson brought new evaluations, among them a biography by Silas B. McKinley, a book of diplomacy by Edward H. Buehrig, and a psychological analysis.
The work of Arthur M. Link on Wilson (at Princeton) seemed to approach definition, but reviewer John M. Blum wisely reminded readers that books seldom meet the needs of all generations. He contrasted the Wilson portrayed by Link with the more restful figure of Ray Stannard Baker’s earlier work—which so well suited contemporaries. Authorities banded together to contribute to The Greatness of Woodrow Wilson (1956) to which President Eisenhower added an introduction. A Centennial Commission sponsored some memorials to the World War I president.
The Rutgers Press finished issuing its attractive set of Lincoln papers, and Elting E. Morison completed the editing of eight volumes of Theodore Roosevelt Letters. New books on T.R. quickly gained publication, John M. Blum’s The Republican Roosevelt (1954) among them. A 22-volume set of Madison papers was projected.
Books on Franklin D. Roosevelt continued to appear (see below); former President Herbert Hoover’s Memoirs reached three volumes (with help), but volume I’s readability dominated. Harry Truman’s effort stopped at two. There was a biography of Rutherford B. Hayes and a thoroughgoing one on James K. Polk through the governorship. Irving Brant’s Madison series attained five volumes, rejuvenating its central figure, but the mighty Henry Adams treatment of the era still appealed—as reprints showed. Douglas Southall Freeman’s study of Washington attained posthumous completion. There were also studies of Presidents Jackson and Tyler, while Samuel Flag Bemis released a large second volume on John Quincy Adams. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, published at a reasonable price by the Princeton University Press, continued regular appearance, rehabilitating his long era.
There was major activity on Alexander Hamilton. An edition of papers was projected; meanwhile, a well edited volume by Richard B. Morris was convenient. The Hamilton career attracted Broadus Mitchell, Louis M. Hacker, and others. Books of tribute and antiquarianism on Benjamin Franklin saw print; offering his papers was discussed. Teachers of history, buried in words of wisdom from the great men of America’s past, rejoiced--but may have postponed a reading of these immense multi-volume sets of papers for a later day.
A useful reference book was Encyclopedia of American History (Harper, 1953) edited by Richard B. Morris which offered essential facts about American life and institutions and a 5,000-entry index. A major publication replacing older versions was the Harvard Guide to American History, a topical and chronological guide to books, pictures, and other materials. Richard G. Lillard, American Life in Autobiography (1956) was a guide to 400 books on the personalities and character of great men and women. An index to the Writings on American History, 1902-1940 series was finished. The series reached 1952, skipping 1940-47. The New American Nation series, the Library of American Biography, and the Library of American Civilization were readable books.
WRITING A NEW AMERICAN HISTORY
At the conclusion of World War II there was published in School and Society (Feb. 2, 1946) an essay by Stanford’s venerable History chairman Edgar Eugene Robinson calling for “A New American History.” Soon available in an appropriate book, the call was to recognize a new era. Robinson wrote:
“We must be prepared to deal with (1) a tremendous increase in detailed subject matter; (2) a greater emphasis on the last half-century, when mankind has traveled as far as in the preceding thousand; (3) a wide dispersion of Americans throughout the world, making the American not a continental but a world civilization; and, finally most important, (4) a present necessity in emphasizing the political activities of men, here at home and in every corner of the globe. We must insist, as never before, that the one continuous, all-important theme in the new history is the story of man’s attempt to govern himself.”
By 1957 the tremendous increase in subject matter was overwhelming all who studied and wrote American history. Yearbooks, like those of Encyclopedia Britannica, Americana, Colliers, Worldbook, and others, told the present-day story for those who purchased the large sets, usually correcting any errors discovered during the year. Books of history flowed like wine from the presses; still, unpublished manuscripts existed in abundance. The emphasis on the 20th century, moreover, was increasing. Colonial historians became concerned about the future of their specialty. American history specialists were lecturing overseas to various parts of a world audience. Political history and biography, once on the run, made great gains as the history of man’s attempt at self-government acquired new advocates as the worldwide Soviet threat continued.
State and local history seemed to be gaining in favor. A state study of notable competence was Wyoming’s War Years, 1941-1945 (1954), in which T.A. Larson showed what quality could be reached by a researcher trained in medieval history, when turning to events of his own day on “the home front.” States were lucky to have scholars study their history. California became a fertile field for specialized studies, including books on farm organizations, politics, and social welfare. There was a book on Huey Long’s Louisiana, while five volumes of The Papers of Willie Person Mangum, (1956) edited by Henry T. Shanks amounted to an account of North Carolina history. That state, and Alabama, had new summary volumes of history similar to other University of North Carolina Press books on Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, and South Carolina. State narratives were discussed at the 1955 American Historical Association meeting, where some thought that regional history might be better.
The Rivers of America Series reached 40 volumes in 1955, while other series covered lakes, mountains, trails, cities, and regions. A series entitled “The Far West and Rockies” would one day reach 15 volumes. Texas history, almost regional in itself, saw new accounts of merit. Bessie Pierce continued to publish on Chicago, and Blake McKelvey completed three books on Rochester. Frederick Sha’s History of the New York City Legislature was local history with a punch; Bayrd Still traced traveler’s opinions of New York City in Mirror for Gotham (1956). There seemed room for books of this character about every major city.
“American Studies” programs blossomed at Yale, Stanford, and elsewhere as the result of financial assistance and the desire of some historians to produce for journals like the American Quarterly new insights in the cultural-literary social area. An American Studies Association was formed in 1951, and there was much interest in the image, the myth, the stereotype, and the symbol. At an institute of Behavioral Science in California a handful of historians united in a year of contact with social and natural scientists financed by the Ford Foundation. Results of such contact might appear with “interdisciplinary approaches”—an expression gaining in use.
Labor historians saw new vistas ahead when they were presented with an inventory of the American Federation of Labor archives by this writer in The Historian (Autumn, 1955) together with a call for a “New Labor History” to be based on labor manuscripts. Transfer of large portions of these archives from AFL/CIO to the Wisconsin State Historical Society after microfilming prevented destruction and could encourage research. Labor historians formed a small society at the New York School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Ithaca, N.Y. New books on Gompers and the AFL were published, and new treatments of the CIO appeared, one on political activities, while another focused on Communist penetration. Local in its focus was Grace Heilman Stimson, The History of the Labor Movement in Los Angeles (1955).
Historians and social work specialists organized a committee in 1957, the executive secretary being Ralph E. Pumphrey of New York University. Studies of importance on social welfare were also likely to result from a call for historical productivity contained in a Report of the Princeton Conference on the History of Philanthropy in the United States and an article by Merle Curti in A.H.R. (Jan., 1957). Reviews of From the Depths (1956) by Robert H. Bremner, a treatment of “the discovery of poverty in the United States” were favorable, and a study of Jewish charity in Boston was revealing. California Social Welfare (1956) by Vaughn Davis Bornet (this writer) dealt with the public and private current scene, especially in law, agencies, and programs; there were 108 tables. Unique archives assembled on the State’s voluntary and public agencies were organized and deposited in the Bancroft Library to be open for use. Social welfare archives at University of Minnesota were growing.
The 1950’s were a post-war world. More than forty courses in military history were being taught in American colleges and universities by 1957. Walter Millis, Arms and Men (1956) was a study in American military history, while American Military Policy (since 1775) was produced by C. Joseph Bernardo and Eugene H. Bacon (1955). Robert V. Bruce wrote an account of ordnance in Lincoln and the Tools of War (1956), and Wallace Evan Davies, Patriotism on Parade (1955) told the story of veterans and hereditary organizations, 1783 to 1900.
Books about World War II sponsored by the Air Force, the Navy, and the Army were produced in quantity in the dozen years following victory. The United States Army in World War II series reached 27 published volumes by 1958 with dozens yet to go. A magisterial The History of the United States Naval Operations in World War II by Samuel Eliot Morison came to eleven volumes in 1957.
Controversial was Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr., The Civilian and the Military (1956) whose theme was the decline of civil supremacy and of the American anti-militarist tradition. A memoir with military overtones was Arthur M. Compton, Atomic Quest; A Personal Narrative (1956), an account of the A-Bomb project chiefly from memories, official records, letters, and testimony. Books on older periods of our history, meanwhile, brought new ideas and new approaches. Late in the decade a score of scholars at The RAND Corporation researched a forward looking The Space Handbook (1959) at the special request of the Congress).
THE COLONIAL AND REVOLUTIONARY PERIOD
Constituting half of American history in point of time, the colonial and revolutionary years continued to be researched by specialists, their books finding appreciative review in journals like American Historical Review, Mississippi Valley Historical Review, William and Mary Quarterly and Pennsylvania History. A Conference on Early American History was placed on a permanent footing in 1955 with a Williamsburg, Virginia, address. Clifford K. Shipton of the American Antiquarian Society wrote perceptively that “the mass of knowledge now accumulated in the colonial field cannot be mastered by any scholar who devotes less than full time to it.”
Still, increasing interest in recent history was diverting attention from the older field, and some thought this entirely proper—at least in moderation. Merrill Jensen edited a long-needed American Colonial Documents to 1776 (1955), a book that really facilitated work in original sources. Perry Miller’s The New England Mind in 1953 moved along the road from colony to province. Alan Simpson also wrote on Puritanism, while William L. Sachse described the status and activities of Americans in Britain. Lawrence H. Gipson in 1956 reached volume IX of his minutely researched imperial study, bringing the story to 1766. Yet the old (once the new) “empire” approach was losing some ground.
Small but perceptible increases in conservatism and patriotism in the 1950’s affected the interpretation of the American Revolution. It was plain that, for whatever reason, many teachers and writers were oriented toward colonial-centered, not empire-centered history, and this was particularly true in the pages of books and articles prepared for the layman. The causes of the conflict, far from being settled, were discussed afresh by historians—for example at the Pittsburgh meeting of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association in 1956. Richard Pares, Yankee and Creoles (1956) was an explanation of the nature of trade between North America and the West Indies, and a new book on the Stamp Act crisis appeared. Louis B. Wright took all colonial culture for his subject in two books, Edmund S. Morgan wrote The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89 (1956), and crisp monographs came from many researchers. The Colonial Records of South Carolina was a major project.
Brooke Hindle, The Pursuit of Science in Revolutionary America, 1735-1789 (1956), John E. Pomfret, The Province of West New Jersey, 1609-1702 (1956), and John Duffy, Epidemics in Colonial America (1953) were new and important, as were books on Shays’ Rebellion and one on immigration from Scotland in the eighteenth century. The renewed interest in military history showed itself in the posthumous publication of two volumes by Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution (1952), made possible by the editing of John Richard Alden.
The revolutionary period attracted many scholars in the 1950’s, and publications were plentiful. Many of these were source materials with human interest value. Early political history was not neglected, as the nation reexamined its origins. Elisha P. Douglass, Rebels and Democrats (1955) studied equal political rights and majority rule, and Stuart Gerry Brown, The First Republicans (1954) contributed to early party history—as did Manning J. Dauer, The Adams Federalists (1953). Nathan Schachner’s book The Founding Fathers (1954) was large and soberly readable, causing Curtis P. Nettles to comment on the lack of agreement among historians on the relative importance of Washington, Hamilton, and Jefferson when compared with lesser-known figures who left fewer impressively written remains for posterity. Federalist Delaware was definitely described by John Munroe (of that state), and Anglo-American foreign relations were studied.
It was in reviewing Clinton Rossiter’s Seedtime of the Republic (1953), a development of the political ideas that sustained the rise of liberty in colonial and revolutionary America, that Benjamin F. Wright made a challenging comparison with Vernon Parrington’s stimulating but sometimes impressionistic Colonial Mind. Some colonial historians thought they were doing more thorough work than great scholars of the past. Yet publication in 1956 of A.S. Eisenstadt’s Charles McLean Andrews and of a thoughtful study on Carl Becker, plus a reading of many letters of historian John Franklin Jameson in journals was a reminder that earlier scholars like Van Tyne and Osgood had also plowed deeply in their chosen fields.
The publicly expressed views of the Founding Fathers on the weakness of the Confederation were in the 19th century those of historians as well. For John Fiske it had been “the critical period,” but Merrill Jensen and others, writing in and for a new generation, wondered if economic chaos, 1783-87, had been largely imaginary. In the 1950’s the pendulum moved back toward interpretations by those closer to the event, and Richard B. Morris wrote a historiographical essay on the controversy in William and Mary Quarterly. There was still disagreement on facts. What of the franchise in 1787? And what was the extent of real property ownership? The frontier elements and the urban dwellers of those years contended in the 1950s for the attention of serious researchers on the period of Confederation through Constitution.
Charles A. Beard in his lifetime was often an upsetting factor in American thought. Historians and political scientists ventured to read his trenchant prose and marveled at his originality. In death the master proved as important as ever, as obituaries and eulogies brought remembrance and return visits to his aging books on the shelves. Howard K. Beale edited Charles A. Beard: An Appraisal (1954). Articles on “Beard and…” began to appear. In 1913 Beard had begun his An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States with the words, “The following pages are frankly fragmentary.” Even so, the thesis of that penetrating book created great excitement among thoughtful persons then and later. In those pages the Founding Fathers seemed, at least, to be concerned with the adoption and ratification of the Constitution in proportion as they stood to gain financially by the imposition of a strong, centralized government. Emotions like patriotism and idealism seemed needlessly minimized to many readers of Beard, and critics like William Howard Taft had been incensed, early on.
The Beard thesis came to receive major acceptance at the college level, but far less heed was obtained at the high school level. Maurice Blinkoff revealed in The Influence of Charles A. Beard Upon American Historiography (Univ. of Buffalo Studies, Monographs in History, 1936) that of 42 college texts published, 1913-1935, 37 picked up on the Beard thesis. Fourteen of 19 revised editions did so. Just three of 47 secondary school texts followed Beard’s economic version of events, and no revisions picked it up. Here was a gap between the reading matter of high school and college graduates. When the former reached college they were likely to leave behind the selfless Fathers dedicated to order, unity, and destiny who lived (since Channing) in the high schools.
Questions were likely to be left unsettled. Were the Founding Fathers really economic men, chiefly interested in “money, public securities, manufactures, and trade and shipping”—as Beard had put it? Was the convention majority “a small and active group of men immediately interested through their personal possessions in the outcome of their labors”? (Beard, p. 324) Were the people back then really “a large propertyless mass” excluded from voting by property restrictions on the franchise? The Fathers, Beard said in summary, were “immediately, directly, and personally interested in, and derived economic advantages from, the establishment of the new system.” Favoring ratification were “substantial property interests;” while opposed were “small farming and debtor interests.”
A book that claimed to destroy most of Beard’s views on the matter was Robert E. Brown, Charles Beard and the Constitution (1956). Fresh from a study of middle-class democracy in Massachusetts, 1691-1780, Brown retraced Beard’s research path: his book even had Beard’s chapter titles. The historical method used by Beard had been faulty, said Brown, and he ripped into it with gusto. The thesis that the Constitution was put over undemocratically in an undemocratic society by holders of municipal shares of extensive personal property got flatly (and courageously) denied.
The “propertyless masses” of Beard were said by Brown to be largely a fiction. The Revolution had been fought for life, liberty, and property, he asserted, and all Americans were property-minded. An assumption of the Fathers had been that theirs was a democratic society. “The Constitution was created about as much by the whole people as any government could be which embraced a large area and depended on representation rather than on direct participation.” The Fathers had definitely not been self-seeking conspirators.
There could be little doubt that to the extent one followed Brown, the Founding Fathers emerged from all this scholarship much closer to the men of selfless integrity and wisdom conceptualized in grade school textbooks than to the more self-seeking politicians portrayed in some texts at the college level. Yet much research clearly remained to be done, particularly on voting and property ownership, before the division among scholars could begin to be minimized. Innumerable reviewers of the Brown book (many of them clearly devoted followers of Beard) did not give up entirely on the Economic Interpretation.
Another controversial book of the 1950’s was William W. Crosskey, Politics and the Constitution in the History of the United States (1953), an evangelical two volumes comprising a semantic analysis to prove that the key words in the Constitution were used with meanings, in 1767, far different from those presumed by certain later jurists. Here was a book to be absorbed and escorted clear up to the Supreme Court.
THE EARLY NATIONAL PERIOD
The Origins of the American Party System (1956) by Joseph Charles studied the years to 1800, while the pioneering administrative history of famed Leonard D. White came to three volumes with his new Jacksonians (1954). A book by Bray Hammond revaluated the subject of banks and politics for the nation’s first half century. John William Ward, Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age (1955) was one of several monographs treating themes with implications for the political minded of the present. Glover Moore, The Missouri Compromise, 1819-1821 (1953) would clearly stand the test of time, as would Henry Thompson Malone, Cherokees of the Old South (1956). Treatments of David Crockett were, in general, a different matter. Upsetting was a well-written book with a challenging thesis: Norman Graebner, Empire on the Pacific (1955), which saw in the westward expansion of the Polk era the calculated intention of that day’s administration to seize the Pacific Coast for commercial and maritime reasons!
Slavery found a thorough and daring researcher in Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution (1956), an author markedly unsympathetic to the U.B. Phillips school of books once popular. Wisconsin born and trained, Stampp wrote in a field long occupied by the Southern born and oriented. Meanwhile, John Hope Franklin, The Militant South, 1800-1861 (1956) presented evidence to suggest an unpleasant case. Its white Southern reviewers remained unpersuaded that violence was the same as militancy, or that the Old Northwest was much different or much better. [In any case, its handsome black author would rise to the A.H.A. presidency.] The vigorous battle over Reconstruction at the close of the 1940s, featuring attacks on E. Merton Coulter, who wrote some 30 books deep in Athens, Georgia, was not over by any means. Bibliographical volumes on travels in the Old South, on Texas history, and on the religious press in the Southeast portended future productivity in such neglected fields of interest.
The heated school segregation issue in the South as it emerged had its effect on historians of the Old South, Civil War, and Reconstruction, it appears. Two historians asked in 1956, “Can Differences in the Interpretations of the Causes of the American Civil War Be Resolved Objectively?’ There was little to suggest this would happen in the 1950s. As Howard K. Beale observed in 1946, “In the case of the Civil War, peculiarly persistent sectional feelings and traditions about that conflict have given the historian’s early environment a particularly telling influence.”
A flood of books on the Civil War appeared in the 1950’s, and a new periodical, Civil War History, began publication. Allan Nevins, The Ordeal of the Union, reached three solid volumes: he interpreted men and events in his slender The Statesmanship of the Civil War (1953). J.G. Randall did not live to see the publication of volume IV of his mighty study on Lincoln, but Richard N. Current finished his teacher’s Lincoln the President: Last Full Measure 1955). The handsomely bound multi-volume History of the South series passed the half way mark by 1957, its bibliographies alone offering impressive testimonies to Southern historiography in the 20th century. Coulter’s solid book on Reconstruction was first to appear, a work of scholarship but one that pleased some readers more than others.
Kenneth P. Williams was greeted by qualified reviewers as a fully professional historian and not like a “mathematics professor” when his Lincoln Finds a General, a military history of the war, reached four volumes in 1956 with three still projected. Clement Eaton, A History of the Southern Confederacy (1954) was a good treatment of a popular subject. Monographs dealt with the election of 1864, Confederate finance, Negro troops, loyalty tests, Mrs. Surratt, pardon and amnesty, and the martyr complex among abolitionists. Also Lincoln and Greeley, the Sanitary Commission, the Southern Claims Commission, and books of fiction written around the war theme. Books varying in quality on battles and generals abounded, General Sherman being a popular subject. Journalism in the war was covered minutely. A noticeable trend was the reprinting of contemporary diaries and venerable older accounts like F. L. Olmstead’s The Cotton Kingdom.
Reconstruction was represented by books on the 14th Amendment, Northern Methodism, and the Grand Army of the Republic. C. Vann Woodward contended in The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955) that the policies of prescription, segregation, and disfranchisement came later than the restoration of home rule, “and the belief that they are immutable and unchangeable is not supported by history.”
FROM HAYES TO THE 1920s
A considerable emphasis on immigration and on the role of racial groups in the building of the nation appeared in these years. Immigration historiography was studied as a field, resulting in many publications, and Oscar Handlin continued his impressive effort to treat immigration coming from continental Europe as a major theme in American History. There were new books on Dutch and Irish immigration, the German language press and culture, and repatriated Greek-Americans. The memoirs of American Jews were edited in three volumes by Jacob Rader Marcus. Immigrants, nativists, and agrarian radicals received book treatment, with John Higham, Strangers in the Land winning the Dunning Prize in 1956. The Socialist party received major attention in books rooted in the party press and in newly available manuscripts.
Was the history of education about to take on a new lease on life? The History Education Section of the National Society of College Teachers of Education held its first joint session with the A.H.A. in 1955, while histories of several universities and colleges, the lyceum, and civil liberties in the classroom displayed new interest in education. A book unifying American educational development around a large organization was Edgar B. Wesley, NEA: The First Hundred Years (1957). The book resulted from two years of research financed by the National Education Association. A pamphlet by five historians and educators, “The Role of Education in American History,” suggested that more books from historians on that subject would be desirable, and it hinted that foundation money might be available.
The West was not neglected in these years. Two works on the cowboy, and books on the Indian wars of Minnesota, Fort Griffin, Dakota Territory, and the Sioux were a few of many. Less exciting but possible more revealing of the lives of less adventuresome folks was Lewis E. Atherton, Main Street on the Middle Border (1954). Carl F. Kraenzel, The Great Plains in Transition (1955) was a book by “a sociologist with a historical conscience” as one reader put it. Three books in 1953 surveyed aspects of agricultural history: Carl C. Taylor, The Farmer’s Movement, 1620-1920; Grant McConnell, The Decline of Agrarian Democracy; and Murray R. Benedict, Farm Policies of the United States, 1790-1950. Distinctly original books based on hard research were these of John E. Caswell, Arctic Frontiers (1956) a treatment of pioneering explorations, and John J. Daly, The Use of History in the Decisions of the Supreme Court, 1900-1930 (1954).
Interesting studies of business history and businessmen appeared often in the 1950’s. Irving G. Wyllie, The Self-Made Man in America (1954) attacked a “myth of rags to riches.” The baking industry, a carpet company, the American Bankers Association, and many companies were described in books. (Sometimes they financed the research.) Although some 40 books on the petroleum industry had been published since 1937, the first two volumes of the History of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, financed by the company, contained much new information in the realm of administrative history. The rise of the Carpenter’s Union was traced in book form, while National Civil Federation manuscripts were used to show long years of close association earlier by leaders of labor and business. A book dissected National Association of Manufacturers and U.S. Chamber of Commerce positions of the 1920’s somewhat to their disadvantage.
The “robber barons” theme in American history came in for questioning in the years following 1950. The nation had been deep in the Depression when Matthew Josephson wrote The Robber Barons, a book concluding with an anticipation of class revolution. Books like this and the old History of the Great American Fortunes (1907) by Gustavas Myers were undermined by new books based on company manuscripts. Speaking in August, 1951, prolific journalist-historian Allan Nevins had called for a careful reassessment of the years from the Civil War to 1910, predicting that restudy would lead to greater appreciation of businessmen-industrialists, men he called true heroes of our industrial growth who had built “an indispensable might” in the nation. Historians, he thought, had been “apologetic about our dollars, our race to wealth, our materialism.” Too often, they had deprecated the American habit of worshiping size while deploring our boastfulness about steel tonnage and wheat production.
A brief article by the present writer on “Those ‘Robber Barons’” in Western Political Quarterly (June, 1953) listed new work in the field and suggested ground rules for the new revisionism to avoid excesses. Ford: the Times, the Man, the Company (1954) was the first Nevins volume on the controversial industrialist. Thirteen per cent of its footnotes were references to “oral history” interviews made by the author’s Dearborn staff. When volume II appeared in 1957 it proved to be an outspoken account of the years to 1933.
Time would show the full significance of W. Dean Burnham’s painstaking Presidential Ballots, 1836-1892, but its ultimate impact on research and writing in the political field would be great. Here was a worthy companion to the two pioneering books of Edgar Eugene Robinson which, featuring election statistics, covered the years 1892 to 1944. New volumes traced the rise of the Progressives in Wisconsin, the development of the federal anti-trust policy, and politics in the Middle West, 1865-1896. Sidney Fine, Laissez Faire and the General Welfare State (1956) was a lengthy survey of its topic. Other books traced the history of voting in New Jersey, the history of Senate confirmation of presidential appointments, and the conscientious objector. Sidney Hyman, The American President (1954) was well received.
The 1920’s became a popular period for research and some revaluation during the years of the first Eisenhower Administration. Henry F. May noted “Shifting Perspectives on the 1920’s” for Mississippi Valley Historical Review (Dec., 1956), while the Red Scare, the Washington Conference, and religion in the 1928 election campaign were subjects of monographs. George H. Knoles analyzed British opinion of strange American doings in the Jazz Age Revisited (1955). “The critics, impressed by prosperity, sought the secret of America’s success,” wrote Knoles. “They found it in the chief characteristics of the American economy: high wages, mass production, and mass consumption.” Here were factors insufficiently stressed by popular writers long blinded by the “flaming youth” and prohibition themes. (Knoles would live to 107.)
Remaining the focus of a host of writers who had researched at Hyde Park on the Hudson was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Articles and books appeared, but the 1950’s saw fewer memoirs. Frank Freidel won admiring reviews for the first three volumes of a projected six, which brought his biography to 1933. Daniel R. Fusfeld examined the economic thought of Roosevelt, and Bernard Bellush published a study of the governorship. A reviewer judged that the book by Edgar Eugene Robinson, The Roosevelt Leadership, 1933-1945 (1955) made “a real contribution to posterity’s understanding of Roosevelt’s foreign policy,” and some reviewers praised the long chronological bibliography drafted by the present writer. It was atypically critical of F.D.R. and often reviewed adversely by his admirers.
Dexter Perkins’s own book, The New Age of Franklin Roosevelt, 1932-45 (1957) rejected the idea of a Roosevelt Revolution, finding the age new because it emphasized the dynamic responsibility of the Federal government. The Robinson book, however, discerned a controversial “tragedy of leadership” which, in following popular desires, was destructive of resourcefulness in American life. James M. Burns cleverly interpreted the actions of F.D.R. during his first two terms, in The Lion and the Fox (1956), while the first volume of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Roosevelt, (1957) treated a “crisis of the older order, 1919 to 1933.” The latter book brought many partisan reactions—much as had been the case with Roosevelt literature created earlier. Rexford G. Tugwell wrote in detail on The Democratic Roosevelt (1957), aided by his memory of men and events.
The New Deal years were becoming popular among researchers seeking subjects for study. The coming of World War II invited so much attention that Wayne S. Cole, author of a book on the America First group, could draft “American Entry Into World War II: A Historiographical Appraisal,” M.V.H.R. (March, 1957). Despite the extensive coverage of two substantial volumes by Langer and Gleason on diplomacy in those years, therefore, there was still room for books by H. Bradford Westerfield, Donald F. Drummond, and others.
The years of Presidents Truman and Eisenhower were the subject of Eric F. Goldman, The Crucial Decade: America 1945-1955 (1956). With America at Mid-Century (1955), Andre Siegfried tried to repeat a much earlier success at interpretation. Norman Graebner, The Neo-Isolationists (1956) was a disapproving interpretation of foreign policy formulation during the Eisenhower first term. (Graebner had spent the first year after WWII in uniform in Japan, striving to inculcate democracy in future leaders.)
THE INDIVIDUAL IN HISTORY
The role of the individual in history seemed as important to historians in the 1950’s as before, judging from the number of biographies produced, even though in many historical works the presidents have been a focus. One of importance was Howard K. Beale, Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power (1956), a book rooted in manuscript research. Arthur S. Link completed Wilson: The New Freedom (1956), another in his long term Wilson series. “Biographical writing, as old as history, has never been more popular than it is today,” wrote one observer.
Evaluation of the staggering biographical productivity of American scholars in the 1950’s cannot even be attempted here. Consider some subjects of biographies: Billy Sunday, Charles Evans Hughes, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Jonathan Trumbull, Tecumseh, William Ellery Channing, Henry Adams, Samuel Gridley Howe, Henry Watterson, Elias Hicks, Booker T. Washington, Daniel Webster, Caleb Cushing, Brooks Adams, William B. Allison, Henry Varnum Poor, Joseph E. Johnston, Commodore Thomas Truxton, the Coker family of South Carolina, Edward Palmer the botanist, Robert Morris, P.G.T. Beauregard, Henry George, Sam Houston, Robert M. LaFollette, Eli Stanton, George Peek, Horace Greeley, Big Bill Thompson, Jefferson Davis, Joseph McCarthy, Schuyler Colfax, Bernard M. Baruch, and General James Longstreet.
The worth of all those books may be evaluated neither by their respective sizes nor the apparent importance of their central figures. The two volume study of Governor Frank Lowden of Illinois by William T. Hutchinson, for example, met standards of scholarship and significance with flying colors. There were some grounds for believing with Joe B. Frantz that “as generations move on and personal recollections fade the men whose reputations endure will be those with the best biographers.”
The present writer sat on a sofa for an hour once with Benjamin P. Thomas, chatting pleasantly. His passing in 1956 (at his own hand) reminded historians once again to admire his Abraham Lincoln: A Biography (1952), which was far more than just another addition to the 4,000 books and pamphlets on Lincoln. Some claimed it to be the best single volume study of its subject. Claudius O. Johnson summarized well:
“In this volume one gets a close-up view of Lincoln as a log-rolling member of the Illinois legislature, sees him, as he grapples with great issues, transforms the craft of a politician into the art of a statesman, and follows him as he, ever increasing in wisdom and understanding, in gentleness and charity, in humility and patience, saves the Union and joins the immortals.”
Another model book was Charles Page Smith, James Wilson: Founding Father, 1742-1798 (1956). Collective biographies that made good reading were Roy F. Nichols, Advance Agents of American Destiny (1956), Russel B. Nye, A Baker’s Dozen (1956), and Reinhard H. Luthin, American Demagogues: the 20th Century (1954). The memoirs of Admiral Ernest J. King, Bernard M. Baruch, and Nicholas Roosevelt were reminders of things past, and the diary of Harold L. Ickes recalled old battles in politics and conservation.
HISTORIANS AND MODERN MACHINES
The development of new machines for producing photocopies and for microfilming records had a noticeable impact on historical research and writing in the 1950’s. It no longer was a matter for comment at archives when men from universities across the continent appeared with typewriter in one hand and photographing device in other. Long periods of expensive residence in strange cities gradually gave way to quick trips by air to archival collections: photographic reproduction of selected documents by researcher or archive meant that pondering could be done more cheaply on home grounds. Increased use of the airplane for cross continental research trips at third class rates also facilitated research hitherto quite impractical.
Archivists were increasingly aware of the possibilities in modern techniques of document reproduction. The Wisconsin State Historical Society inaugurated a major program of exhaustive microfilming of all significant labor newspapers in the 48 states, work to be kept current and added to its AFL/CIO papers. Books printed in America before 1820 were systematically placed on microfilm by University Microfilms for purchase by libraries unable to afford rare volumes. Whole files of contemporary newspapers were kept on film in university and public libraries, with battered originals being thrown away.
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission reported in 1950 that it had been engaged in “an extensive program of microfilming and photostating, in order to gather together in Harrisburg the scattered resources for Pennsylvania history, wherever they might be found.” With new technology it had been possible to build an outstanding collection of facsimile copies of manuscripts, newspapers, and early maps. Similar reports were made by other state societies as genealogists shared historical society space with traditional scholars.
An important development in the dissemination of knowledge in the United States was the gradual acceptance of the idea of placing all doctoral dissertations on microfilm for easy purchase by interested scholars and libraries. Two journal articles by the present writer influenced that decision for permanent change, I was reliably told. A new monthly publication, Dissertation Abstracts, became a national reference tool, and there was hope that graduate students might come to feel a new usefulness in their thesis work as they gained a small but interested, and new, audience.
A technique to excite the interest of historians (and amateurs) was “oral history,” careful interviewing with a recording device to elicit biographical and historical data to be typed and filed in libraries as new source material. Initial successes were scored by the Oral History Project of Columbia University innovatively developed by Professor Allan Nevins, which interviewed several hundred diplomats, judges, politicians and leaders. Another elaborate project was that of the Ford Archives. Tape recorders in the hands of interviewers were part of “oral history” effort, so that many developments once forgotten would be remembered. The present writer early suggested Standards for the new activity, writing in American Archivist for July, 1955. The technique had possibilities for bringing the outer world into the classroom at several levels, at the same time adding to the historical record.
More than ever before, the opportunity to become scholars lay within the grasp of teaching historians at the secondary school level as well as in universities. Meanwhile, there were some signs that scholars were concerned over the reiterated obligation to teach routinely at a level worthy of admiration. The clear implication was that teachers and scholars should come to absorb some of each other’s better features, to the end that future decades could profit handsomely.
The striking developments of the mid-1950s in the teaching, research and writing, and publication of American history—as indicated here—seemed indeed to add up to permanent value. As demonstrated in the vast number of book titles offered here, the mid-1950s were full of worthwhile scholarship for that day and added up to a remarkable example for the Future.
comments powered by Disqus
- How the US Government Used Comics to Inform Americans About the Holocaust
- Virginia's Governor Took Away the Most Important Piece of Protest Art in the Country. What Should He Have Done?
- Congressional Commission Unveils Proposal to Rename Bases Honoring Confederates
- The Forgotten School Gun Massacre in Stockton, CA
- An Exclusive Look at the New WWI Memorial