Against the Consensus Approach to HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: historiography, Sean Wilentz, Edmund Morgan, 1619 Project, 1776 commission, Consensus history
William Hogeland is the author, most recently, of Autumn of the Black Snake. His next book, on conflicts over Alexander Hamilton’s national financial plan, is under contract to Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
In the mid-1940s, Edmund S. Morgan, a mild-mannered young historian, was teaching at Brown and making a name in the quiet field of early American studies. Having published a slim, well-received collection of essays on the New England Puritans, he might have seemed the very model of the unassuming scholar at the outset of a modest career, satisfied to refine the work of great forebears in a narrow field. That wasn’t Edmund Morgan. The Second World War was over. The United States was developing an energetic vision, which would come to fruition in 1960 with the election of John F. Kennedy, of its new global leadership role. In keeping with that vision, Morgan launched a bold new interpretation of the nation’s founding.
Throwing out elder historians’ prevailing focus on the founding generation’s self-interest (Clarence Alvord had said that George Washington became a patriot to defend speculations in Indian land) and on its class conflicts (Carl Becker had said that the Revolution was not only over British rule but also over the rule of elite Americans), Morgan sought to identify the grand principles that the revolutionary generation agreed on. “What the colonists had to say about Parliamentary power and about their own rights deserved to be taken seriously,” he explained later.
As the U.S. began to exercise new power around the world, Morgan set out to show that the protests in the 1760s and ’70s against the Stamp Act and other British policies offered slam-dunk evidence of a founding American consensus on principles of rights. Inherent to the American character, that consensus unified the colonists, he said, inspired the Revolution, and brought about the United States. In the larger context of his work, and the work of similarly minded colleagues, the lesson was that the founding American commitment to rights persisted in postwar U.S. commitments to modern liberal democracy.
The impact of this interpretation was by no means limited to the late 1940s and the 1950s. Historians who built out what Morgan largely began—what became known as the consensus approach—turned early American history into a booming field and made big names for themselves. Born about a century ago, in Morgan’s generation, were Douglass Adair, Daniel Boorstin, Richard Hofstadter, Forrest McDonald, and Bernard Bailyn. Born in succeeding decades were Pauline Maier, Gordon Wood, Carol Berkin, Sean Wilentz, and Akhil Reed Amar, among others. As dissertation advisers for scores of scholars, many of them have held great sway in their profession.
Even more striking is their success in shaping conceptions of the American founding widely held among the American public. That power and some of its complications were seen in recent controversies involving two of the younger members of the group (though not young anymore), Wood and Wilentz. In late 2019, Wilentz organized a letter, also signed by Wood and three other historians, criticizing The New York Times Magazine’s much-discussed 1619 Project, which frames slavery, racism, and Black Americans’ struggles for equality as the key drivers of American history. The signers said the 1619 Project ignored objective historical fact and was steeped in politically influenced bias. In early 2020, Wilentz followed up with an essay in The Atlantic whose title put the issue bluntly: “A Matter of Facts.” Because these objections to the 1619 Project were made not on the basis of a competing framework but on the basis of plain fact revealed by deep expertise, they struck many readers as insurmountable on their face.
That’s how consensus history works. Anyone hoping to explore the depths of America’s not-so-consensus-filled past will run into this presumption, on the part of widely respected scholars, of their superior objectivity as a basis for higher authority. The roots of that presumption can be found in the approach launched by Edmund Morgan about 70 years ago.
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