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.