Modernists and American Historiography

There are few things that I find more aggravating than listening to conservative liberals prattle on about the deracinated civic nationalism of the Founding Fathers.

Victorian America was a White, Anglo-Saxon (in culture), Protestant nation with liberal and republican principles. It was not a “Nation of Immigrants” or a “melting pot.” The conservative liberal vision of America which is liberal, modernist, cosmopolitan and antiracist and which is based only on something called the “American Creed” emerged between the late 1920s and the 1950s. Previously, European immigrants came here and were expected to assimilate to Anglo-conformity. They learned English and joined White America and adopted liberal and republican principles.

In Happy Indigenous Peoples Day, I brought up how modernist liberals started becoming historians in the late 1920s and 1930s and how they revised our national identity in history textbooks in this period to jettison our memory of its racial, ethnic, religious and cultural foundation.

The following excerpt comes from Eric P. Kaufmann’s book The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America:

“The nature of the American historical narrative changed somewhat between 1875 and 1925, but it was not until the 1930s that a new generation of historians began to interpret the United States as a truly cosmopolitan melting pot. Historiography during the 1875-1925 period therefore completely reflected the double-consciousness of liberal American ethnicity. As Edward Saveth notes, the American academy combined a belief that the United States was an Anglo-Saxon country which ought to defend its ethnic boundaries with the universalist idea of the United States as a refuge for the world’s oppressed and a composite melting pot (Saveth 1948: 13-14). …

American historians, though lagging some years behind their social science colleagues, also abandoned ethnocentric historiography with remarkable swiftness (Kennedy 1977: 94-96; Plumb 1969). The change actually began in the years after 1925, which witnessed a growing retreat from romantic history writing – the only remaining practitioners being the immigrant “filiopietist” ethnohistorians. Evidence of the emerging sensibility can be gleaned from the pages of contemporary professional history journals. “In the early twenties,” Kathy Scales observes, “there are, for the first time, a number of articles on particular ethnic groups among colonial immigrants, and from 1932 to 1935 the same kind of emphasis is seen on the contributions of particular ethnic groups to the Revolution” (Scales 1991: 285).

The fact that even defenders of the teaching of American mythic history abjured the privileging of “old Americans” in the nation’s historical narrative demonstrates the magnitude of the change that had already occurred by 1935. For instance, Howard Mumford Jones, after defending the need for a mythic history to inspire the nation, added: “‘Old Americans’ (hateful phrase!) tend to take the point of view that American history is their private possession because they were here first. Aside from the fact that the only persons entitled to the benefit of this silly argument are the Indians, the assumption is not even true'” (quoted in Scales 1991: 287-288).

The rise of fascism in the mid-1930s helped galvanize the more pluralistic worldview outlined above. “The confrontation with Nazism [had] induced a shift in liberal sensibilities,” argues Gary Gerstle, “that was, in the 1930s, subtle but would, in the 1940s, achieve seismic proportions. The magnitude of this shift can be discerned in the outpouring of books on racial problems and religious prejudice during the 1940s. Causes that had languished on the liberal agenda – civil rights … and immigration reform – were now embraced” (Gerstle 1994: 1070)

Gerstle correctly asserts that cultural issues pertaining to ethnicity and race became more prominent with the rise of fascism and war (Gleason 1992: 165-166). Yet the crucial shifts in consciousness that he describes were already in place by the early 1930s, providing a vital substratum that conditioned the American response to fascism. In the words of E. Digby Baltzell, “the central ideas of the New Social Science, largely developed before the First World War … finally came into their own as the dominant view of man and society, in the course of the thirties … they now shared John Dewey’s faith in the plasticity of human nature” (Baltzell 1964: 270-271).

As the 1930s progressed, Anglo-Saxon ancestralism came to be totally eclipsed within American academic historiography. Marcus Lee Hansen, a student of Frederick Jackson Turner, consummated this process with his immigrant-centered interpretation of American identity (Saveth 1948: 202, 204-208). Steeped in the new left-liberal thinking of his day, Hansen took issue with aspects of Turner’s thesis. Insisting that Turner had overemphasized the role of the frontier and underemphasized immigrant contributions, Hansen, described as “America’s first transethnic historian,” stated in 1938 that the American, though influenced by the British strain, was also a product of the world’s cultural diversity. No longer the province of Anglo-Protestant pioneers, the American story would increasingly revolve around the experience of urban immigrants, arriving by steamship to forge a new industrial civilization (Shenton 1990: 252). Hansen’s position was supported by fellow historian T.C. Blegen, who observed that scholarship post-Turner revealed “a new emphasis … an emphasis that took into account the varied background of the racial elements that lend color and richness to the epic of America (quoted in Saveth 1948: 219).

Hansen and Blegen, though pioneers in the field of American historiography, should not be accorded to much significance. Nor should American socialists. Rather, the rise of cosmopolitan Americanism must be traced to the turn-of-the-twentieth-century activity of the Liberal Progressives, who distilled anarchist and Social Gospel influences into a coherent and grounded program. Their egalitarian ethics, infused with a strong dose of secular liberalism, gave birth to the archetypal modern American vision: that of a universal, humanistic, melting pot nation, drawn from all corners of the world, in which the Anglo-Saxon was but one influence among many …

“The new doctrine rapidly established a foothold in the nation’s school history texts. “The notion that America was a ‘melting pot’ entered the majority of the texts during the forties,” writes Frances FitzGerald. “In the forties and fifties, it was the catch phrase for all discussions of the immigrants, and the Statue of Liberty was the illustration beside them (FitzGerald 1979: 80). I am not suggesting that Lazarus’s ideas , or the statue’s universalist interpretation, were entirely unacceptable prior to the 1930s. However, before this time, universalism had its place – a place it was forced to share with Anglo-Protestant symbolism.”

The Losters are the true Founding Fathers.

By that I mean they were the first Modern generation and that our culture is descended from them. They rejected the old culture of their parents and changed everything after World War I: manners and morals, art, music and culture, gender norms, relations between the sexes, national identity, racial attitudes, etc. 19th century American culture is not 20th century American culture.

Surely the two key figures in the process of importing to this country and giving it American roots were William James and John Dewey …

Indeed, one might rightly speak of two predominant “streams” of American Modernist culture, proceeding respectively from James and Dewey. The Jamesian stream centers its interest on the individual consciousness, celebrates spontaneity, authenticity, and the probing of new realms of personal experience, and flows mainly through the arts and humanities. The Deweyan stream, by contrast, tends to focus on society as a whole, emphasizes the elimination of social barriers (geographic, economic, ethnic, racial and gender), and tried to weld together reason and emotion in the service of programmatic social aims. …”

As I have previously noted, William James and John Dewey are the headwaters of this shift in American culture. They were the mentors of the generation that came after them. James and Dewey are so important that we will be spending a lot of time on them in the months ahead.

About Hunter Wallace 9599 Articles
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  1. You’ve got a lot of things confused. “Liberal Republicanism” is not a natural complement of “white anglo-saxon protestant culture.” (which was evidently not a very unified culture) “Liberal Republicanism” carries the whole baggage train of Sherman’s Army. In many respects, 19th Century America was possibly less culturally homogeneous than contemporary Weimarica.

    • By “liberal and republican principles,” I mean American identity was based on having a republican form of government that secured individual rights. The country was White, Anglo-Saxon (in culture) and Protestant and in addition to those things was liberal and republican in principles until this period we are talking about (1920s to 1950s) when everything changed. The idea that Catholics were fully American was hotly contested even in the late 1920s when Al Smith lost the 1928 election.

      • Hw,

        Your timeline is questionable. If “modernism” got a hold of the elites in the Roaring Twenties, how did women get the vote in some states in the late 19TH CENTURY and how was the Progressive Era able to occur BEFORE the ’20s? And how was human biodiversity teaching in the classroom and eugenics laws in most states able to continue well into the 1950s?
        Yes, the Roaring Twenties brought major changes, but I’m more inclined to believe the more mainstream historical analysis that the postwar period, especially the ’60s, had a more immediate effect on us?

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        • 1.) Modernism is not liberalism.

          The 19th century was very liberal in politics – the extension of individual rights – and economics – laissez-faire. The women’s suffrage movement is an example of liberalism like the extension of citizenship, civil rights and voting rights to blacks during Reconstruction.

          2.) In 1910, America was already liberal, but it wasn’t yet modernist, cosmopolitan and antiracist. It gradually became so in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.

          3.) Ask yourself: why did women’s suffrage triumph in the first place? Why did Victorian men give women the right to vote? The answer is that the suffragettes were Victorians. The issue was political rights, not cultural liberation. The reason that women’s suffrage triumphed is because the suffragettes had argued that giving women the right to vote would make society MORE moral. In Victorian era, women were widely considered to be more moral than men because female sexuality was repressed.

          4.) The mainstream of the Progressive movement was left-conservative, not left-liberal. Progressives were basically upper middle class urban Protestants who were immersed in Social Gospel Christianity. Back then, Progressivism was associated with causes like eugenics, segregation, immigration restriction and Prohibition.

          5.) Eugenics was discredited in the 1930s and became taboo because of World War II.

          6.) What happened in the 1920s on race? Race was discredited in the social sciences due to Boas’s influence. We haven’t gotten yet to how “antiracism” filtered through the liberal intelligentsia in the 1930s and 1940s.

          • John and Prestonia Martin wrote a book on Feminism in the teens, it’s evident that feminism was not just liberalism and that the Christian “progressive” veneer of feminism was covering the same left-wing feminism that existed in Britain and Europe. Women’s liberation, like abolitionism, could be dressed up to look like a quaint spinster in the US, but it was radical, “philosophical” and revolutionary in law and practice. The arguments that “women were more moral than men” were not traditional arguments, they were appeals to over-wrought sentimentality and “chivalry” – only a hair’s breadth away from Suffragettes in Britain presenting white feathers to men.

  2. The whole “immigration” thing was never really thought out when the country was founded. At the time it was assumed these were settlers from the British Isles and her near neighbors who would fortify the frontier to solidify the American claim against Britain, Spain, France, and Marauding Indians. They never envisioned millions coming from all over to become paupers in the cities.

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