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Consensus Historians Essay, Research Paper


Consensus Historians

The consensus view of History emerged in the United States in 1950 until it’s eventual dismiss in 1965. Consensus historians emerged in a time period when there were not many consensuses in the United States (Novick pg.333). The historians of the era knew of the turmoil and felt that they needed to focus their attention on what united America and not what brought the country down. At this time there were three influential writers on consensus history. These three writers were Richard Hofstadter, Daniel Boorstin, and Louis Hartz. Each historical writer had a major influence on the respected subject of consensus history and the involvement they had made consensus history a subject still looked upon today (Sternsher pg.1).

From the year 1944 to 1970 Richard Hofstadter enriched the historical world with his writings. In 1948 Hofstadter joined the faculty at Columbia University. Here Hofstadter published The American Political Traditions and the Men who made it. Many regard this book as the start of the consensus school of historical writing. Much of this book was a look into brief political biographies on presidents, but the way that it was presented was very different. Hofstadter made some points in the introduction that points in the direction of consensus history. Hofstadter states that it is “of the need for a reinterpretation of our political traditions which emphasizes the common climate of American opinion,” the existences of which had been “much obscured by the tendency to place political conflict in the foreground” (Kraus & Joyce Pg.314)

After The American Political Tradition and the Men who made it, Hofstadter went on to publish a book on Turner, Beard, and Parrington. Hofstadter recognizes the personal contributions that Turner, Beard, and Parrington had to offer to the field of History, but Hofstadter felt that there was much controversy in their writings. As a consensus writer Hofstadter found that Turner, Beard, and Parrington spent more time writing on “economic and political conflict. But he shows they had no criteria for measuring the magnitude and intensity of conflict” (Potter pg. 186). Hofstadter then looks at this statement through a balanced position of consensus and conflict. He feels that we need both consensus and conflict because “conflict to activate ideals in an otherwise static simulation; consensus to set limits upon the hostilities generated by conflict” (Potter pg. 186-87). On the subject Hofstadter believes that we should be realistic about conflict and consensus because both are a major part of American History. Hofstadter feels that consensus and conflict can be reached when “those enlisted in society’s contending interests have a basic minimal regard for each other: one party or interest seeks the defeat of opposing interest on matter of policy, but at the same time seeks to avoid crushing the opposition or denying legitimacy of its existence or values” (Potter pg.188). Hofstadter believes when this is achieved, both consensus and conflict can work hand in hand to achieve the goal of Hofstadter “comity” (Potter pg. 188) This book for Hofstadter had a major impact on some of the ideas he had for this new consensus school of thought. The book also took historiography to a new level and many after reading the book feel that the book is also “a testimony to the possibilities of historiography in American historical scholarship” (Kraus & Joyce pg. 320). At a time when consensus was scarce, and conflict was on the people’s minds, Hofstadter gave the people hope in his writings that America was still the best and would always be that way. Eventually Richard Hofstadter dies in 1970 and his contributions to consensus history will never be forgotten.

Daniel J. Boorstin received his doctoral degree from Yale University, studied and taught in England and Italy, and eventually settled down in Chicago (Kraus & Joyce pg.322). Boorstin like Hofstadter and Hartz all moved during their careers from left to right in their political thinking. Boorstin eventually fell into a deeper conservative trend then Hofstadter and Hartz because of a Marxist influence (Sternsher pg.14-15). John P. Diggins goes on to say that, “consensus versus conflict” school of thought “flowered in large part as a response to Boorstin’s work” (Sternsher pg. 15). In Boorstin’s work he takes on many elements of anti-progressive and left to right course of development due to the cold war. In one of his book’s called, The Genius of American Politics, he points out how unique its past was. He wanted to stress that that American people, politics, and past are unlike any of the world and the people must cherish this and embrace it. In the words of J.R. Pole in the Pastmaster, “during the period when the international crisis of Cold War was compounded by the domestic crisis of McCarthyism, and part of the purpose was to give his countrymen some historical bearing by which they could help to steady themselves” (Kraus & Joyce pg. 322).

Boorstin then went on to publish a series of essays which were on subjects of the American Revolution, Civil War, and American Theory. His main points in these essays were to show that there was little conflict and change in American History ( Kraus & Joyce pg.323). He also introduces a theory known as giveness, which is Boorstin’s theme throughout much of his essays. Boorstin defines giveness as “the belief that values in America are in some way or other automatically defined: given by certain facts of geography or history peculiar to us” (Kraus & Joyce pg. 323). Boorstin believes that there are three parts to giveness, each dealing with aspects of past, present, and a combination of past and present. Boorstin goes on to explain these points in more detail: “First is the notion that we have received our values as a gift from the past; that the earliest settlers or Founding Fathers equipped our nation at its birth with a perfect and complete political theory adequate to all our future needs” (Kraus & Joyce pg. 323). Boorstin then goes on to describe the present in giveness as “in America we receive values as a gift from the present, that our theory is always implicit in our institution” (Kraus & Joyce pg. 323). Finally, when combined Boorstin feels that “It is the quality of our experience, which makes us see our national past as an uninterrupted continuum of similar events, so that our past merges indistinguishably into our present (Kraus & Joyce pg. 323). The major theme of giveness that Boorstin presents involves the overall theme of consensus history. It incorporates, in of despair and hardship, a theme of united and togetherness that the United States is looking for. In a time of pain, suffering, hardship, and fear Boorstin tries to focus the attention away from this and looks at what made America wonderful. “But whatever the later development in Boorstin’s thought his interpretation of consensus remains of lasting interest” (Sternsher pg19).

Louis Hartz was another great contributor for consensus history. Hartz, compared to Boorstin, had many differences. The major difference was that Hartz did not like the consensus in the American past. Hartz had one major contribution into the consensus field of study and that is in his book titled, The Liberal Tradition in America. The book focused on the American past never having a feudal system. Hartz says that the United States was “born free” and did not require a radical social revolution to become a liberal society, because it already was one ( Kraus & Joyce pg. 324). Hartz then went on to talk about conflict in his writings. His views on conflict also differ from Boorstin. Hartz goes on to tell us that “what we learn from the concept of a liberal society, lacking feudalism and therefore socialism and governed by an irrational Lochianism, is that the domestic struggles of such a society have all been protected with the setting of Western liberal alignment” (Kraus & Joyce pg.325). Hartz feels that with no feudal system in America’s past there was never much social uprising like in other countries. He realizes that there were conflicts in United States history such as the Civil War and the American Revolution, but they were not on a grade scale. For the most part they were quickly handled and a new government, religion, dictator, etc. were brought to power. This is why his “born free” phrase is so powerful. It shows that the system implemented in the United States is the best. Hartz’s writings at this time lifted the people’s spirits and made them think that this is the best country in the world.

Hartz’s writings also bashed the Progressive school. He claimed that they “went back to the origins of American history, splitting into two worrying camps, discovering a ’social revolution’ in the eighteenth century, and in general making it impossible to understand the American liberal community” (Kraus & Joyce pg.325). Like Hofstadter and Boorstin, Hartz also felt that the Progressive school of thought was outdated and that it did not show much conformity, which the people of the United States needed. Hartz finally notes that the “Progressive historians had many comforts . Which liberal society can never claim.” For on thing, they “always had an American villain they found, a Jefferson for every Hamilton. Which meant that in their demonology the nation never really sinned: only its inferior self did” (Kraus & Joyce pg.325).

In looking at Hofstadter, Boorstin, and Hartz it was time for a new historical view in America. From 1950 to 1965 these three writers contributed the consensus view of history into a new school of thinking. Hofstadter through the book, The American Political Tradition and the Men who made it and also his view point on the Progressive approach and the idea of the Comity. Boorstin contributed through his many great works of writing and also his thoughts on giveness. Hartz, on his contribution to consensus theory, through his book The Liberal Tradition in America and his feelings on the progressive historian. Each writer had a different take on consensus history, but what they wrote had one thing in common and that was to ease the pain and fear in the people of the United States and give them their hopes and dreams back.

Work Citied

Kraus, Michael & Joyce, Davis. The Writing of American History. University of Oklahoma press, New York: 1985.

Novick, Peter. That Noble Dream. Cambridge University Press, New York: 1988.

Potter, David. History and American Society. Oxford University Press, New York: 1973.

Sternsher, Bernard. Consensus, Conflict, and American historians. Indiana University Press, Bloomington & London: 1975.

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