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Historians Against History

Historians Against History: The Frontier Thesis and the National Covenant in American Historical Writing Since 1830

DAVID W. NOBLE
Copyright Date: 1965
Edition: NED - New edition
https://doi.org/10.5749/j.ctttt28q
Pages: 208
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttt28q
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  • Book Info
    Historians Against History
    Book Description:

    Professor Noble examines the basic philosophy and writing of six American historians, George Bancroft, Frederick Jacksion, Charles A. Beard, Carl Becker, Vernon Louis Parrington, and Daniel Boorstin, and finds in them a common tradition which he calls anit-historical. He argues that this viewpoint is founded in the frontier interpretation of American history, that American historians have served as the chief political theorists and theologians of this country since 1830, and that their writings can be interpreted as Jeremiads designed to preserve a national covenant with nature.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-6384-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. (pp. 3-17)

    In this book, I have attempted to define the central tradition of American historical writing from 1830 to the present. It is my thesis that the point of view of the modern American historian is directly related to the world view of the English Puritans who came to Massachusetts. These Englishmen believed that the community they established in the New World was sustained by a covenant with God which delivered them and their children from the vicissitudes of history as long as they did not fail in their responsibility to keep their society pure and simple. The concept of a...

  2. (pp. 18-36)

    Our cultural historians in the twentieth century have written again and again that George Bancroft symbolizes the liberation of the nineteenth-century American imagination from bondage to the colonial past. Russel Nye, for example, in his analysis of the earlier historian lays emphasis on Bancroft’s rejection of Puritan theology, which according to Nye linked New England to Europe until Bancroft’s generation revolutionized New England by establishing Unitarianism as the dominant religious outlook.¹

    This traditional approach to Bancroft begins his biography with his minister father, Aaron, who had broken from five generations of orthodox commitment to Congregationalism in leading his flock toward...

  3. (pp. 37-55)

    In 1865, George Bancroft promised Americans that they had witnessed their last historical crisis. He promised that now they would dwell in timeless simplicity and harmony forever. But before he died in 1891, Americans had experienced the greatest social and economic transformation in the history of mankind. An essentially rural society had suddenly become a fantastically complex urban-industrial community. Bancroft had promised that a democratic society of free and equal individuals, a classless society, would endure forever. By 1891, however, there were signs that the United States had a new class of the very rich and, equally disturbing, a class...

  4. (pp. 56-75)

    Between 1900 and 1917, Charles Beard brought the unresolved tensions of Turner’s historical imagination into an apparently successful synthesis. The major ideological problem that Turner was unable to overcome was his belief that an alien business aristocracy and an alien proletariat were being introduced into the nation by the economic force of industrialism. The business aristocracy of 1830 could be destroyed because it was opposed by the dominant natural force of the early nineteenth century, the frontier. Now, however, the business aristocracy of 1890 seemed to be supported by industrialism, the dominant natural force of the late nineteenth century. But...

  5. (pp. 76-97)

    The faith and philosophy which underlie the historical writings of Frederick Jackson Turner and Charles A. Beard are revealed in full clarity in the magnificently lucid prose of Carl Becker, Turner’s student and Beard’s contemporary as a spokesman for history as progress.

    This was an unusual destiny for a youth who had been born on an Iowa farm in 1873 and reared in Waterloo, Iowa, by a father who had come west to seek his fortune and had found it as a successful farmer and town builder. The elder Becker, a pillar of the Republican party and the Methodist Church,...

  6. (pp. 98-117)

    In 1927 appeared the single most important book written by a historian of the frontier tradition, Vernon Louis Parrington’sMain Currents in American Thought. It stands as the most impressive monument to the views of Turner, Beard, and Becker because it brings together within one cover all the complex and contradictory historical theories of these men. Even more, written during the 1920’s, it contains all the demoralizing questions which had occurred to Turner as he watched the physical frontier disappear and which had confronted Beard and Becker as they saw their concept of an industrial frontier shattered by World War...

  7. (pp. 118-138)

    Parrington’s Jeremiad offered no hope to the faithful because his historical analysis announced the destruction of the physical basis of the Jeffersonian covenant by the scientific, business, and industrial forces of the nineteenth century. He made the impossible request of Americans that they return to a way of life which no longer existed. If Parringtonian pessimism was to be overcome, a historian must persuade the people that the Jeffersonian absolute had withstood the perils of historical corruption during the nineteenth century and remained a living fact in the 1920’s. This was to be the self-conscious role of Charles Beard until...

  8. (pp. 139-156)

    By the end of the 1920’s Beard, Becker, and Parrington had reacted in different ways to the disintegration of the vision of a worldwide industrial millennium. Beard had salvaged the hope of national deliverance by rooting America’s industrial future in the history of the agrarian frontier. But Becker and Parrington were not able to accept the view that industrialism was a frontier force destroying historical complexity and leading to natural simplicity. Rather they shared the nightmarish theory of Henry Adams that industrialism was bringing a crushing complexity which must inevitably destroy the individual. Parrington died a hopeless rebel against this...

  9. (pp. 157-175)

    December 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, marks one of the great turning points in American history. From 1789 to 1940, the official diplomatic policy of the nation was one of no entangling alliances. It was a policy that found its philosophic support in the Jeffersonian covenant. From Bancroft to Beard, historians had justified the necessary isolation of the emerging nation on the grounds that the United States represented a new civilization. Ours was a fragile culture of infinite purity and perfection, the historians argued, and must not be endangered by contamination from abroad. Now in the years...

  10. (pp. 176-178)

    Even while Daniel Boorstin attempts to preserve the Jeffersonian covenant by weaving it into the existing traditions and institutions of our culture, we recognize that our nation’s traditional vision of its historical existence has reached an ideological impasse. The Puritans of the seventeenth century reacted to the disintegration of the medieval community by reaching out for a covenant with God that would provide them with earthly security. They came to believe that the collapse of the medieval social structure did not signify disaster for Europe but rather that it could be defined as progress. God, they argued, did not want...