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The meaning and interpretation of progressive historiography

The idea of progress figures regularly in the notions of history that the highest American officials disseminate to the public. In his Inaugural Address of 2009 President Barack Obama spoke of "the quiet force of progress throughout our history" which he attributed to the "hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism" of the American people.

As to the here and now, he added that: Calling for a general revival of values seems more like an appeal to a cyclical view of history.

Introduction

Bush, Second Inaugural Speech, Jan 20, 2005, in ibid. Bush embraced opinions about history that were even more clear-cut. According to him, "History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the author of liberty.

While some historians occasionally embrace these kinds of notions, others shy away from viewing history in progressive terms, let alone from saying that history's direction is set by liberty. Very few would claim that history has a discernible direction. The author of history is always a historian.

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President Kennedy famously spoke about looking forward rather than backward. If Bush and Obama share a belief in progressive history, how is it that they arrive at such different conclusions about the best policies of the future?

In fact, hard-core conservatives are just as "future-oriented" as any self-described progressive, since they yearn for the revival of the olden times tomorrow. The politician's progress is always an attempt to gain control over the future, and there may or may not be ideological determinism involved in this. However useful the idea of progressive history may be to political leaders seeking to enact specific political agendas under the guise of obeying unchanging ideals, the idea is unfit for a historical research.

All in all, the general commitment to human progress should be kept distinct from the discipline of history, which seeks knowledge of the past. In doing so I first focus on how a given idea may or may not be seen as developing in the course of time. I then show how fundamentally American political self-understanding evolves from Founding-era ideals. After that I point out some methodological problems inherent in the standard ideal of American Studies as an interdisciplinary field of study.

Finally I suggest that if we are to achieve a more articulate understanding of the distinction between politics and history we need to set aside unnecessarily demonized notions of power and politics in the field of cultural studies.

The thesis is simple: Let me emphasize at this early point that the scholars whom I attack—Joyce Appleby, Alan Trachtenberg, Gordon Wood, Michael Zuckert, and others—are also among those whom I appreciate most.

My disagreements with them are about certain specific points and not about the general value of their works. He called it "presentism" the meaning and interpretation of progressive historiography which he meant "interpreting the past in concepts applicable only to the present. Smith appeared to argue that Carlyle anticipated a post-Freudian alienation in his writings, leading Kuklick to ask whether it is plausible to think that this famous writer, sitting at his desk, could really have thought something like "in this piece of writing I want to anticipate a post-Freudian version of alienation.

Segal "Commentary" in Maddox ed. Let me add t. As for Leo Marx's Machine in the Garden 1964Kuklick finds the author making claims such as "The Tempest anticipates the moral geography of the American imagination. Segal himself managed to find a number of much later, the meaning and interpretation of progressive historiography applications of the idea.

This is the central problem in all historically oriented cultural studies. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. In a nutshell, the sacred notion of the founding consists of the founding generation first subscribing, by way of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, to the idea that all men are equal and endowed with the same natural rights and then incorporating that idea into the original Constitution of 1787 through its first ten amendments—ratified in 1791.

This American Bill of Rights provided the nation with the assurance that the federal government would never restrict freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, or religious freedom. Hence, we have arrived at the seminal idea of America as a constitutionally, rather than politically, secured free society. This apolitical nature of the founding is its most celebrated aspect, as one may conclude from the fact that politicians so different as Bush and Obama can talk about it in exactly the same way.

The political theorist Judith Shklar, for example, once argued that under the Constitution "bargaining replaces the tumult of popular assemblies, as order and freedom are reconciled pre-politically. Were his attempts perhaps post-political in character?

  1. According to him, "History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the author of liberty. While some historians occasionally embrace these kinds of notions, others shy away from viewing history in progressive terms, let alone from saying that history's direction is set by liberty.
  2. Ordinary politics simply vanishes from this ethically charged narrative of the political experience, because any merely political change cannot bring about an essentially postpolitical revolution.
  3. The Whig theorists ignore free choice and ignore the great moral problems, because free choice involves moral choices. Let me emphasize at this early point that the scholars whom I attack—Joyce Appleby, Alan Trachtenberg, Gordon Wood, Michael Zuckert, and others—are also among those whom I appreciate most.
  4. Genuinely innovative interpretations tend to arise when a scholar chooses to characterize the very context anew.
  5. This is why Zuckert's category of politics has nothing to do with what people actually do in politics. Even so, a historically oriented American Studies scholar may make valuable discoveries by crossing and revealing the apparently established categories of thought.

According to the historian Gordon Wood, the "Jeffersonian modern virtue" that "flowed from the citizen's participation in society, not in government" should be distinguished from "participation in politics.

The Republican Vision of the 1790s New York: Those advocates, contrary to their own vision, not only remained slaveholders, but also failed to foresee the problems that their laissez-faire economic beliefs were bound to cause with the meaning and interpretation of progressive historiography rise of monopoly capitalism by the end of the nineteenth century.

In the final analysis, as champions of "a white male vision" only, the originators failed to realize that women's political rights comprise a logical element of the vision. In sum, Appleby can join the team of Henry Nash Smith, Leo Marx, and others, who find their protagonists constantly anticipating a "coming fashion in thought and feeling. An illuminating example is Michael Zuckert's reading of the Declaration of Independence.

In his interpretation, the whole message of the Declaration is derivable from a Lockean, pre-political notion of the universal rights of man. In effect, Zurckert's reading marginalizes all earlier and later historical developments as irrelevant to the true character of the American social contract that this sacred document allegedly embodies. We are offered a scheme that speaks of political experience but serves mainly to prove how little political history matters.

Zuckert, The Natural Rights Republic: Studies in the Foundation of the American Politica. In delineating the "series of six truths" of the Declaration of Independence as a "kind of minihistorical narrative of the political experience of the human race," he offers us "three phases" of society and "the corresponding truths" in this form 18: Human beings, in other words, are not naturally political.

This is why all inequalities between them arise from artificial power structures. Instead, the key is the correct ordering of the three truths: This is why the third truth, about instituting a new government, is categorized not as a political but as a "postpolitical" act. In other words, meaningful change in the Zuckertian "moral history" entails a revolution.

Ordinary politics simply vanishes from this ethically charged narrative of the political experience, because any merely political change cannot bring about an essentially postpolitical revolution.

Since the original social contract was settled in 1776, the rest of American history automatically loses its significance as anything other than a manifestation of that contract.

  1. The author of history is always a historian.
  2. If pragmatism, as someone has said, provided American liberalism with its philosophical nerve, Progressive historiography gave it memory and myth, and naturalized it within the whole framework of American historical experience.
  3. In grouping these three as Progressive historians I do no more than follow the precedent of other recent writers on American historiography.
  4. Let it remain so.
  5. Men who have achieved any civic existence at all must, to sustain it, have some kind of history, though it may be history that is partly mythological or simply untrue.

In order to carry out his interpretation of the document Zuckert must criticize its wording. This is how he explicates the weak point: Another way to read the document is that governments were instituted to secure the equal rights of men, and that the problem lay in the revolutionaries' disagreement with the British about the means to preserve their rights.

The document begins with their expressed wish to explain to "the candid world" their reasons to dissolve the governmental bonds with the British and establish their state governments anew. One may argue, therefore, that the revolutionaries' claim for independence was not developed in an apolitical vacuum of extra-historical truths.

James Madison, for example, viewed the presumably pre-political state of nature as nothing but sheer anarchy, "where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger" and where "even the stronger individuals are prompted, by the uncertainty of their condition, to submit to government. Given that even the right to violent revolution is derivable from the Lockean pre-political phase, the middle category of the "political" cannot but represent a peaceful return to that same pre-political phase of unconditional human equality.

Political history—as a sequence of such events as elections, debates, corruption scandals, changes of governments, and the like—is utterly meaningless compared to this grand notion of return. This is why Zuckert's category of politics has nothing to do with what people actually do in politics.

It only reiterates their subscription to the first, pre-political Lockean truth.

The only genuinely meaningful event that people encounter in the Zuckertian universe of political experience is the Lockean revolution. In fact, President Bush looked back further than to Lo. He argues, for example, that "no person who understands property the meaning and interpretation of progressive historiography Jefferson does would accept a positive right to life.

In the final analysis, our fundamental moral obligation is that of non-interference, because "only a negative right to life can pass the test for becoming a right-in-the-proper-sense. The obvious historiographical problem in Zuckert's scheme is that all human history prior to the American Revolution is diminished to a mere prehistory of "political experience," because the pre-political truth had not yet been grasped.

Yet, any post-Revolutionary event appears equally dependent on this truth, and therefore equally insignificant. As implicated earlier, the "political" phase consists solely of the continuing manifestation of the first, pre-political truth. By the same token, everyday politics begins to seem as a pathetic struggle for nothing but governmental power, and politicians—who, as if by occupational hazard, tend to suggest new policies—begin to seem nothing but an alienated race of corrupt office seekers occupying the nation's capital.

There is no way out of the Zuckertian conception of the politics of return, because nothing else is important enough to rival it.

In sum, the fundamental flaw of this conception of politics is that one cannot discern any meaningful difference between the Bush and the Obama administrations' actual policies. Nevertheless, it is not regressive but "progressive" historians who tend to view the national grand narrative as an increasing manifestation of human equality. On may always construct that narrative upon such events as the emancipation of slaves, women's suffrage, the 1960s civil rights legislation, and Barack Obama's election to the presidency.

Or consider Joseph J. Ellis's statement that "it was Lincoln's expansive revision of the original Jeffersonian the meaning and interpretation of progressive historiography of natural rights philosophy that broadened the message to include blacks.

Rather, the principle of human equality became nationalized in the sense that all male Americans were, at least in principle, given equal political rights. The 150 years of racial segregation that followed the Civil War was merely another sad interim, until the 1960s Civil Rights Movement brought about the next return to Locke's pre-political truth about human equality. How could women's struggle for equal suffrage fail to add further proof to this apparently inevitable American progress in manifesting the Lockean truth?

In the historian Daniel Rodgers's apt summary, the Lockean-liberal school could nullify any other competing reading of American history by simply "raising the stakes of what counted as meaningful conflict, until every conceivable demonstration of conflict short of Jacobin or Bolshevist revolution vanished in the all-pervasive liberal consensus.

Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Hence one must also encounter the historically variable notion of progress itself. Neem sees the task of national history as "constitutive of one's identity. Neem also thinks it evident that the "Founding Fathers thought that the nation must embody universal values. For example, in the Presidential elections of 2000, Al Gore's running mate Joseph Lieberman still asserted that the first Amendment of the Constitution has nothing to do with "the freedom from religion.

First, it is interesting that for many historians the long-declared death of the grand narrative does not seem to have anything to do with their commitment to the grand idea of globalization. The problems in adopting globalization as a common denominator of good history writing are similar to those that accompany the American founding.

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Any such criterion as multiculturalism may have an impact on what appears worth remembering. Do America's founding principles manifest themselves more, say, in the 1950s efforts to desegregate public education than in the policy of Virginia's Prince Edward County of shutting down all public schools in order to stop that process?

Certainly, both sides of the controversy could rely on traditional notions of what it means to live up to the standards of the American founding. Is identity equally important to every individual's self-determination?

In theoretical literature the "primary identity" often appears alongside numerous "situational identities. The Language of American Nationhood Charlottesvill. The famous "Celadon" pamphlet, from 1785, has often been referred to as a summary of the Revolutionary generation's multicultural convictions. Rediscovering Nationalism, Re-viewing the Ame.