Three Temperaments

Half a century or so ago, when historians of early America turned from the pursuit of past politics, they devised a category known in the academy as “social and intellectual history.” In it they stuffed nearly everything except politics, on the assumption, which the anthropologists assured them was correct, that it would all fit together. Somehow it did not.

At first it seemed that the whole business, along with politics too, might be strung together on economics. But the initial success of Charles Beard in this enterprise and his subsequent rout left the economic interpretation of American history under a cloud which Marxist historians have only recently begun to dispel. American economic history gradually separated itself from economic interpretation and now concerns itself mainly with the historical operation of economic theorems (I believe the currently preferred term is “models”) too refined for the lay historian to comprehend.

American intellectual history too extricated itself from the mass. Under the aegis of Perry Miller it achieved an independence and sophistication that enabled its practitioners to make new sense out of the extraordinary succession of ideas that began with the founding of Puritan New England. So beguiling was Miller’s analysis that it has been tempting to extrapolate nearly every other aspect of history from the ideas that he revolved before his readers; for he continually doubled back on his exposition of Puritan concepts to discover implications that stretched far beyond Puritanism and the Puritans and scraped insistently against persisting social problems.

Left to itself, American social history was in danger of becoming a history of the miscellaneous. Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, which might have furnished a spine, collapsed under scrutiny just as Beard’s economic interpretation had. But French and English historians came to the rescue with a new mode of looking at society, the demographic. Although the new mode requires extensive records of births, marriages, and deaths, which are available for early America only in fragments, it has been possible to piece together enough to build demographic histories of several early communities, for different stretches of time. The process is still under way, and through it American social history, especially of the early period, seems to be acquiring a life of its own, like economic history and intellectual history.

As each of these pursuits achieves its separate but equal status alongside political history, it begins to look as though they may eventually come together again and this time fit together. If so, the first point of intersection may lie in the relationship between religion and society, where the separation of intellectual and social history has most restricted our understanding of both. Since the time of Max Weber’s brilliant insights into the connections between Calvinism and capitalism (continually under attack but still compelling), we have had nothing but the most simplistic analyses of the complex ways in which religion in early America affected and was affected by social and economic developments.

A good example is the treatment by historians of the Great…

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