Interpretations of American History Essay.
The world is full of rich culture, diversity and experiences unique to each individual. When determining the validity of historic accounts we must factor in that particular historian’s point of view, which should be characterized by ethnicity, idealogy, theoretical or methodological preference. With these factors views of the past often vary from person to person. In this essay I will be discussing the four different stages that shaped the writing of American history over the last 400 years. According to Couvares, the writing of American history has passed through four stages: the providential, the rationalist, the nationalist, and the professional.
The providential stage took place during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The puritans were among those who lived during the providential stage. They were strong practitioners of religion, and believed that their ancestry was that of a divine nature. They also believed that their misfortune was God reprimanding them, and that their successes were his rewards.
During the European enlightenment of the eighteenth century, educated men of the aristocracy began to shun the traditional Puritan mindset.
Instead they chose to reform society and advance knowledge through scientific discovery and natural laws of the physical universe instead of the spiritual universe. Among these educated men was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson had a rationalist mindset. He believed that men could control their own destiny, and natural law shaped society, as opposed to the spiritual view of the puritans. This view did not bode well with evangelical Protestants. In 1790 the federal party led by Washington and Adams openly opposed his views, stating that Jefferson was an “infidel, an apologist for slavery, and a lover of French revolutionary excess.” (Couvares 76-3) and in fact history had already become politicized. In the nineteenth century historians began to develop a new nationalist mindset.
They believed Anglo-Saxon’s to be the superior race, and every other race as inferior. George Bancroft was the most distinguished historian during the nineteenth century. Bancroft believed that Anglo-Saxons were racially destined to lead and spread freedom across the globe. With the establishment of John Hopkins University, college education became more common among middle-class Americans, however only wealthy white men still only had access to that kind of education. This new wave of historians insisted that knowledge of history and physics were of equal importance.
The final stage of American history and progression according to Couvares, was the professional stage. Professional scholars rose to prominence from 1910-1945. These historians believed that modernity, industrialization, urbanization, and class conflict had fundamentally changed society. Charles Beard argued that “the constitution was not the product of wise men intent on balancing liberty and order, but a clique of wealthy merchants and landowners who wanted a central government strong enough to defend their privileges against the unruly masses.” (Couvares 77-2). Beard also thought that many of the major conflicts in society were between economic interest groups.
Many critics found flaws in his idealogy, but at the same time it inspired them to find answers to questions that plagued the people. Over the past 400 years, these historians all had different stances on how they thought to improve society. With the mix of cultural backgrounds, and ethnicities no two viewpoints will ever be exactly the same. Couvares summed it up perfectly by stating that historians constantly criticize, correct, and supplement each other’s views, but only by arguing their different viewpoints would they be able to get closer to the truth. The quote still applies in today’s society.
Couvares, Francis G. “Interpretations of American History” (76-3) Couvares, Francis G. “Interpretations of American History” (77-2)