It is not often that historiographical essays have a hero. But, in Al Young’s essay, “American Historians Confront ‘The Transforming Hand of Revolution’,” it’s hard not to see J. Franklin Jameson that way. Jameson was a New Englander by birth and character who helped found the American Historical Association in 1884. Never a prolific historian (or teacher, for that matter), Jameson’s greatest impact—beyond the important structural role he played in the emergence of History as a modern academic and professional discipline in the United States—came in the form of a small collection of four lectures originally written in 1895 but published largely in the form they were given at Princeton 30 years later. That small book, The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement, is not just the starting point for Young’s assessment of the historiography of the American Revolution in the twentieth century, it is quite literally its genesis. Continue reading
Recently, the USIH blog has been debating what historians mean by “a usable past,” and whether that concept is, well, useful. It reminded me of a clash of views from fifty years ago, which has always struck me as a defining expression of the tension at the heart of the New Left, and perhaps the historical enterprise itself: Eugene Genovese’s argument with Staughton Lynd.
In Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, Lynd gave a provocative summary of his goals. “I am less interested in eighteenth-century radicalism than in twentieth-century radicalism. […] The characteristic concepts of the existential radicalism of today have a long and honourable history. Acquaintance with that history may help in sharpening intellectual tools for the work of tomorrow.” He was, in other words, presenting a usable past; not a false one, but one constructed for the purpose of the present. Continue reading