U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The “American” in American Intellectual History (Guest Post)

Editor's Note

Jacob Hiserman is a second-year M.A. student in History at Baylor University. His scholarly interests are antebellum intellectual history, higher education, Christian benevolence, and Southern history. Jacob also enjoys reading Romantic and modern poetry and P.G. Wodehouse’s stories.

The “American” in American Intellectual History

by Jacob Hiserman

This seemingly inconspicuous book, Robert Allen Skotheim’s American Intellectual Histories and Historians (Princeton UP, 1966), would have left my library were it not for Lora Burnett’s intervention on a tweet I put out about it.  After reading this 1966 work, I’m glad I kept it because I more firmly grasped the strength of the progressive tradition in U.S. intellectual history and wondered more about the definition of “progressivism” and what the “American” in “American intellectual history” meant then and today.

    First, this post is about turning points.  I picked up American Intellectual Histories at a turning point in my graduate school career, the end of classes and full devotion to my masters thesis and Robert Skotheim, a higher education administrator, wrote this volume (his first book) at a turning point in American intellectual history: the move from sweeping historical narratives to specialized studies. Second, this book is about common-sense. The bulk of his book, two out of the five chapters, is a two-part exposition of the progressive tradition in American intellectual history that highlighted historians James Harvey Robinson, Charles Beard, Vernon Louis Parrington and Merle Curti, among others.  Skotheim wrote a chapter prior to those two that surveys intellectual historians prior to the 1920s and then two chapters after the progressives which delineate historiographical reactions to progressive intellectual history from 1930-1960 and junctures and novel approaches.  Besides the shift in intellectual history, Skotheim bookends the work with a large claim about American intellectual historians: they took the middle way, the common-sense path as opposed to non-American historians who took the analytical road.

The common sense that twentieth-century American intellectual historians drank deeply flowed from John Dewey’s instrumentalism and William James’s pragmatism, according to Skotheim. Then, he places the rest of the progressive historians under the wide umbrella of “reform sympathy” or a simple desire for social and political change.  Yet, this “reform sympathy” as a mode of common sense stretched beyond the ideological lines Skotheim drew in the text.  For instance, he labels Perry Miller as a historian who challenged progressive intellectual historians to analyze ideas in-depth instead of explaining environmental causes for ideas. Nevertheless, Skotheim writes of Miller’s treatment of Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards with a vocabulary of reform:

        “Instead of viewing Edwards as an anachronism or as a doctrinal theologian, Miller saw him as a figure whose ideas had special relevance for modern man. Miller described at length Edwards’ theology, theory of history, psychology, epistemology, and other aspects of his philosophy, and Miller consistently emphasized the perennial philosophical implications—rather than the specific doctrinal aspects—of Edwards’ thought.”

Miller’s emphasis on “special relevance” points to the usefulness of Edwards’ thought to the average modern mind and positive social change that Skotheim demonstrates progressive historian Carl Becker stressed.  Skotheim correctly realizes Miller’s challenge but failed to mention Miller also partakes of progressivism in his assertion of the utility of ideas for modernity. Therefore, Miller’s debt to progressivism undergirds Skotheim’s assumption of American history as a common-sense approach in contrast to the non-American analytical method.

Moreover, Skotheim’s unifying concept of common-sense opened my mind to a larger group of forbears in the intellectual history of religion than I had previously encountered. His cast of characters stretched back to the Puritan chroniclers such as William Hubbard, John Winthrop, and Cotton Mather in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  For Skotheim, religious ideas were important for them despite their lack of status as historians. He states:

           “To sketch these characteristics of the treatments of ideas by colonial historians is not to ridicule the primitive state of their scholarship.  On the contrary, the characteristics of colonial historians have been remarkably enduring.  There is no field of learning in the United States in which there are so many similarities between the colonial and modern as in written histories. Modern historians can and, compared with their fellow scholars in other disciplines, do read their predecessors with relative understanding and sympathy.  The traditional goal of a well-told story on a subject important to the community, interpreted with manly good sense, has largely survived the centuries.”

Here again, Skotheim maintains the common-sense thread tied together the early chroniclers, progressives, and the reactionaries.  Moreover, he mentions Moses Coit Tyler (1835-1900) as the religious part of that weave. Tyler was a Congregational and then Episcopalian pastor and a professor of English literature at the University of Michigan and Cornell who pioneered the study of autonomous ideas and took religious components of ideas seriously. Progressive and reactionary intellectual historians followed those two chief methods, united in the common-sense approach using those ideas. Tyler said of the Puritans:

“Above all, it was toward religion, as the one supreme thing in life and in this universe, that all this intellectual of theirs and all this earnestness, were directed.”

He clearly admired their religious outlook, which he shared in his vocation as a pastor.  Besides, Tyler’s analysis of independent ideas found a later proponent in progressive Vernon Louis Parrington and his Main Currents in American Thought though Parrington was an ideological opponent.  I found Skotheim’s focus on Tyler refreshing set against my own historiographical background on religion in American intellectual history.  I was taught that the likes of George Marsden and Mark Noll in the 1970s brought religion into dialogue with contemporary scholarship on ideas in history for the first time, especially Marsden in his 1970 The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.  For me, Skotheim’s insertion of Tyler and his chronicling predecessors into his common-sense narrative broadened the lineage of historians who took religion and historical scholarship seriously beyond a narrow cadre of academics.

Finally, Skotheim’s treatment of “re-embracement” of traditional American ideals by intellectual historians during and after World War II spawned the common-sense basis for American democracy and the consensus school. Today, we as academics are like Robinson, Beard, and Curti, who, in Skotheim’s narrative, questioned the foundations of America.  Theoretical relativism reigns supreme due to post-modernism and the pacifism of Curti and the progressives after World War I that Skotheim notes characterizes many persons across the current globalized American political spectrum. Yet, the current Presidential administration favors such a “re-embracement” of the American past and the unifying power of common-sense that the consensus historians championed.  Such a “re-embracement” constitutes a useable past in line with populist and conservative principles.  In parallel fashion, Skotheim stated historian Ralph Gabriel trumpeted a “democratic faith” of universal moral laws and values to combat twentieth-century totalitarianism and progressivism’s relativistic epistemology.  Most progressive intellectual historians joined Gabriel to one degree or another in intellectual combat with totalitarianism during and after the Second World War.  One stark contrast between Skotheim’s analysis of historians and historians in our contemporary situation lies in resistance.  In his final chapter, Skotheim avowed historians Henry Steel Commager and the Stow Persons blended the progressive tenet of influence of society and culture on ideas and the reactionary belief in the “greatness of traditional American thought and life.”  Donald Trump’s renegotiation of what is “traditional” for America meets with stout opposition by professional historians.  “Common sense” adjustment to recent conditions in “re-embracement” is resisted by historians today while Skotheim saw the opposite among historians in his day.

I believe that Skotheim’s unifying force for his historiographical survey, common-sense, puts the “American” in American intellectual history in a climate of national ideological solidarity, one that is impossible in our globalized world.  However, Skotheim’s framework does allow us to see what is “American” in American intellectual history through the late twentieth-century.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Jacob, I’m glad my intervention saved the book’s place in your library. As I said, “dated” historiography is incredibly important and illuminating, and is so easily dropped off the syllabus and even off of field exam reading lists — an oddly unhistorical quirk in the field. But I suppose the subset of historians who are deeply enamored of historiography is…not huge. We few, we happy few…

    It was interesting to me to see that Princeton University Press offers the book in both hardcover and paperback print-ond-demand as part of the “Princeton Legacy Library” — a very smart use of a publisher’s backlist. I’d be interested to know what sales figures are for this book since has been made available again, and I’d love to know in what courses/contexts it finds a home.

    I found a deaccessioned library copy online for $2, so I bought that when we were talking about the book. I haven’t read it yet, of course, so I can’t speak to your overview — though I’m intrigued by your conclusion.

    It seems to me that there are two routes of “resistance” that historians take today to the abuse of some simplistic version of the past for present political purposes, and one of those is, as you noted, to challenge the notion of American idealism greatness or exceptionalism. The end of the Cold War probably has a lot to do with that. As you point out above, scholars of divergent sensibilities found common cause in the fight against totalitarianism. It is perhaps the case that, while Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis is pretty roundly mocked, it has also in a way been embraced, allowing for a much more critical and skeptical approach to nationalist pieties.

    At the same time, I think many in our profession sometimes dismiss or too easily disregard both the utility, and, frankly, the legitimacy of the long, certainly flawed Liberal tradition in American life and thought as both a reservoir of resistance to homegrown authoritarianism and as a wellspring of principles that merit discussion and defense.

    There’s nothing more “common-sense” than being able to tell a good story (in the sense of capturing the listeners’ attention and affection for the narrative) that is also a thoroughly true story. There are some toxically false and dangerous narratives being peddled all over the place — the premises of the “Make America Great Again” mythos, among others. Rather than rejecting the idea of narratives around which people can rally, though, I feel like my own job (especially in teaching the survey) is to tell a better story — one that’s thoroughly true, as true as I can tell it, one that’s both more full and more fulfilling than the paltry story of Redemption (in the post-Civil War sense, certainly) currently being peddled by America’s dumbest demagogue.

    I know it sounds corny, but I think telling a story of “America” that’s thoroughly true and that offers people something to stand for, to stand on, to hope for and fight to bring into being — that is a second avenue of resistance that’s open to us, especially, as a profession.

    • Lora, I’m thankful for your in-depth response to my post. I also find great joy in historiography and I’m going to keep Skotheim’s book tucked away in the back of my head for inclusion on a future syllabus. Moreover, I’m starting to think that a historiography course (after taking three different ones at three separate institutions of higher education) might be more engaging for history majors and grad students if taught through books like Skotheim’s instead of a lengthy laundry-list of historians in a series of lectures. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts (and anyone else’s thoughts) on that matter.

      As for your second mode of resistance, I’m a newcomer to the study of the Liberal tradition of American thought and would like to know what exemplars you and other American intellectual historians consider fighters of “homegrown authoritarianism.” Can we use most or all of the thinkers in the Liberal tradition for such an end or just specific ones such as Dewey? (I’m especially thinking of Richard Hofstadter and Tim Lacy’s recent post on him at this blog.) Additionally, I’m curious about the usefulness of the Liberal tradition that you articulated so well. It brought me back to Beverley Southgate’s book, “What is History For?” that I read in my most recent historiography course. Southgate contended that history is now what Dewey used philosophy for: social betterment. How does this mesh with the contingency of a “common-sense” narrative you mentioned in your response to Louis? Also, how much of the “common-sense” and a narrative about “America” you speak of comes from teaching style instead of or in contrast to content?

    • Professor Burnett,

      For what it is worth, I, for one, would like to see you write a piece in defense of the liberal tradition of America. I think it would provoke an interesting and spirited discussion.

      • Jacob (and Brian) — this is a big question and a big job. Almost on a whim, I decided that I would see if I could make the shifting modes and meanings of liberalism in American thought and culture serve as a through-line tying the whole survey together. So I’m in the process of talking my way through this, but I probably won’t know what my argument is until after I’ve made it. As a structure for organizing the survey, I am not sure how well it’s going to work, but it won’t do the students any harm for me to try, certainly. Might be a weird semester for them, but at least it will be different. (I don’t think my New Metaphor worked very well, so I won’t be writing that up here.)

        This semester is different in a *lot* of ways so far. And it’s not my doing, nor really the students’ doing either. It’s that our current moment is pulling history along with it every whichaway.

        On the first day of class I asked my students if they had any questions, and in each one of my survey classes, a student raised their hand and said something along the lines of, “I need you to explain how Trump became president.” One student in another class said, “This is the first time I’ve taken a history class since the election, and I kinda wanna know, what do you think about it all?”


        “Yeah? What do you think about Trump?”

        I mean, it has been a long week for this keep-the-focus-on-the-past professor! And it has probably been a long week for my students too.

        As to writing out a more complete answer about liberalism — I need to do that. Honestly, Brian, I think my book is probably going to wind up as a brief for liberalism…if I ever get it written. Maybe in the meantime I could work on a blog post.

  2. Interesting post. I was going to say something about Skotheim as presented here, but b/c I haven’t read the book I won’t (at least not for now).

    Re L.D.’s comment above: I’m not sure exactly how I would teach a U.S. history survey course (which I’m not qualified to do and wouldn’t be called on to do), but I wonder how one balances the desire to tell a story — in the sense of a narrative with some thematic unity — with the need to convey to students that coming to grips with and being aware of conflicting interpretations — both of discrete events and of larger trends — is a big part of what makes the study of history interesting. Does one argue, implicitly or otherwise, that there is a long-term, albeit very halting, movement in a discernible direction (say, gradually increasing inclusion of once-and-still-discriminated-against groups in the population), or does one emphasize cycles and pendulum swings? Can one do both, if so inclined?

    I had a good, demanding AP U.S. history survey as a senior in high school (around the time Gerald Ford was President), but the emphasis was on details, facts, and conflicting interpretations, not on an overarching narrative. One got the point that there were thematic threads running through the national past — whether elites vs. ‘masses’, or populist ‘revolts’, or nativism versus ‘inclusion’, or the role of religion (not too much on that actually), or the enduring problem of race, or sectional differences, or capitalism and ‘business civilization’ (and the list could go on). However, if there was an overarching narrative it wasn’t near the surface but buried beneath all of the details. Was that a bad thing? I’m not entirely sure.

  3. Louis, thanks for pushing on my “call to narrative.”

    It would be a disservice to people to tell any story other than one of contingency — the danger of conceptualizing the past as some kind of emplotment is that this would hypostatize an implicit Author or Storyteller (beyond the historian). Plots are artificial things, made and not found, and they are made in such a way that they lead to a particular outcome. And to teach history that way wouldn’t be to teach it at all.

    I guess what I usually do is cast the work of emplotment into the future. The job of deciding on “the story” or “a story” is the students’ job. Given “the past(s),” there are many possible plot lines they could develop, many directions a narrative could take, depending on both choice and chance. Nothing is inevitable, nothing is foreordained.

    Last year around this time I came up with a pretty serviceable metaphor to explain to my students what we would be doing in the survey — thinking of American history as a still-unfinished musical score, with themes and countermelodies, major keys, minor keys, movements, repeat signs, caesurae, and an ending yet to be written. That seemed to work as a touchstone idea for my students, and for me.

    I didn’t use that metaphor this fall — I had so many students from the prior semester taking my class again last semester that I felt like I shouldn’t repeat the same old schtick. (I will have to put my metaphors on a three year cycle, like the Lectionary.) In fact, I don’t believe I used any metaphor at all — not even “history as a story whose ending is not determined and whose direction is up to you, the future.”

    But after having read over all my student evaluations as well as the responses to my optional essay question, I’ve decided that I need to come up with a metaphor again, a way of setting a marker for what we’ll be doing and what we can hope to accomplish. The music metaphor worked beautifully.

    But I’m going to try something new on Tuesday, because of a couple of student comments from last semester that struck me as needing a pedagogical response. I don’t think this new metaphor will work as well as the music metaphor, but I think that’s because of the tenor of the times. I’ll let you know how it goes.

    the alto of the times

  4. Jacob, thanks again for this post and for introducing us to Skotheim’s book. I’ve read it through now, and I have a couple of quick comments that might be the kernel of a longer blog post (or maybe it can all be said here in comments).

    First, I find it fascinating that a survey of American intellectual history/historians published in 1966, a survey that includes JH Robinson and Charles A. Beard and Merle Curti, does not mention Marx, Marxism, or Communism as either an interest, an influence, or a concern. “Totalitarianism” is an interesting umbrella term Skotheim uses to explain the shift in some historians’ work and the inflection of others’. But, given our recent discussions here of Marx & Hofstadter, I find his absence from this book all the more remarkable.

    Second, while Skotheim seems to want to favor the (roughly) WWII generation of historians who pushed back against the “environmentalism” of the New History and re-discovered “Americanism,” the very explanation for why they did so — the looming threat of totalitarianism — is utterly environmental.

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