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Star-Spangled History

The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 Woodward, general editor.)

(Volume II of the Oxford History of the United States, C. Vann, by Robert Middlekauff
Oxford University Press, 696 pp., $25.00

The call (or is it a cry?) is coming from many directions: the discipline of history is in trouble and the remedy lies in some sort of return to narrative history. Henry Steele Commager, Page Smith, Eric Foner, Lawrence Stone, and most recently Bernard Bailyn in his 1981 presidential address to the American Historical Association have all in different ways suggested that historians today are or ought to be doing more of what they have traditionally done—telling stories. This revival of narrative will not be easy. Indeed, writing narrative history under conditions that make it difficult if not well-nigh impossible, says Bailyn, is “the great challenge of modern historical scholarship.”

Narrative history has traditionally meant storytelling—laying out the events of the past in a chronological linear order, a sequential plotting of one thing-after-another with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Such narrative history has usually concentrated on human agency and human responsibility, on individual personalities and on unique public happenings—the great men, great decisions, and great events that, so to speak, made headlines in the past. Since politics tends to dominate the headlines, politics has traditionally formed the backbone of this narrative history.

Moreover, narrative history usually has dealt with whole societies—an entire nation or in diplomatic history even groups of nations—over long periods of time. Such histories have been big and sweeping, like Victorian novels. Narrative histories of the United States, for example, used to require many volumes: ten from George Bancroft, nine from Henry Adams, eight from James Ford Rhodes, nine from John Bach McMaster, and six from Edward Channing. Though never as popular as our own recent fictional saga by John Jakes, these grand multi-volumed histories were written not for other historians but for the educated public.

Historians, at least professional historians, are not much writing this kind of multi-volumed narrative any more. At present among historians of the United States only James MacGregor Burns and Page Smith are attempting anything resembling the old-fashioned narratives, and both of them are very conscious of being mavericks running against the herd of professional historians. Smith, for example, remarked at the outset of his multi-volumed history of the United States that “any effort to revive ‘old-fashioned’ narrative history on a large scale was sure to draw the concentrated fire of all those professional historians whose deity (as well as bread and butter) was monographic history.”

Monographic history is the kind of history that most professional historians now writ—technical, specialized analyses of particular events or problems in the past. The writing of such historical monographs grew out of the nineteenth-century dream that history might become an objective science—a science that would resemble, if not the natural sciences of physics or chemistry, then at least the social sciences—economics, sociology, anthropology, psychology—that were emerging at the same time as professionally written history. Monographic history is scientific history, and the present call for a revival of narrative is essentially a protest against the spread of science in history writing.

There is no denying the importance of the social sciences to the discipline of history, especially during the past twenty years or so. The theories, approaches, and methods of the social sciences have expanded our understanding of the past in a thousand different ways and have virtually revolutionized history writing. Many historians are no longer centrally concerned with the exploits of kings, presidents, or generals. Social science has forced historians to ask new questions of the past and even to create new kinds of evidence. It has opened up new fields of history, such as family and demographic history, and has refreshed old ones, such as economic and cultural history.

Nowadays there is scarcely an aspect of human behavior that historians do not write about—from bastardy to dying, from sports to department stores. Under the influence of social science, historians such as Lawrence Stone and Philip Greven have penetrated into the most private, subjective, and least accessible aspects of past life, including marriage, sexual relations, and child-rearing. Social science, especially anthropology, has enabled historians such as Natalie Davis and Rhys Isaac to reconstruct from festivals, rituals, and other kinds of popular nonverbal behavior in the past the beliefs and attitudes of the masses of ordinary men and women who left no written record. Other historians such as Keith Thomas, Alan Macfarlane, and John Demos have exploited social science to write sympathetically of religious zealotry, of magic, of witchcraft, and of many other subjects that used to be thought of as the irrationalities and superstitions of the past.

By diminishing the role of a few great leaders in determining political and social events, social science has helped to reorder our conception of the historical process. In books like Fernand Braudel’s The Structures of Everyday Life we have gained a fuller appreciation of the long-existing and deep-lying conditions that limited and circumscribed human behavior in the past. Most of these conditions—whether collective mentalities, demographic patterns, or economic circumstances—were the aggregate products of human action but not of human intention. Never before have historians been so ready to grasp the central insight of all social science—that society and culture transcend the particular aims and purposes of individuals, that people make their social and intellectual history but are at the same time bound by what they have made. Faced with such an insight, old-fashioned narrative history, which assigns personal responsibility for what happened in the past to particular people, loses much of its meaning.

Yet as enriching as social science has been to history the cost has been high. “Present-day historiography, with its preference for the quantifiable, the statistical and structural,” writes Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, one of the foremost French practitioners of social-science history, “has been obliged to suppress in order to survive. In the last decades it has virtually condemned to death the narrative history of events and individual biography.”

This new social-science history is not meant for storytelling but for problem solving. It is less interested in dynamic movement than in structural analysis. The new social historians tend to regard old-fashioned narrative history as superficial: it deals, they believe, only with events that are incidental and anecdotal and not the stuff of science. Only repetitive actions or events—so many births per thousand, so many dollars per bushel—can form the uniformities and regularities that underlie all science, which is why statistics and quantification are so important to the new social history.

History that is not quantifiable cannot claim to be scientific,” says Le Roy Ladurie. Yet because the scientific collecting of masses of data, even with the help of computers, is so difficult, many of the new social historians have confined themselves to the in-depth analyses of small, manageable areas—villages, towns, or parishes. And knowing so much about so little, none of them feels qualified any longer to generalize about society as a whole.

The results of all this for history have been little short of chaotic. The technical monographs pour from the presses in overwhelming numbers—books, articles, newsletters, research reports, working papers by the thousands. Historians are more and more specialized, experts on single decades or single subjects, and still they cannot keep up with the profusion of monographs. Most now make no pretense of writing for the educated public. They write for each other, and with all their scientific paraphernalia—the computer print outs, Guttman scales, Lorenz curves, and Pearson correlation coefficients—they can sometimes count their readers on their hands. Since the old political backbone of history has been broken, and nothing has been put in its place, the scientific monographs fly about in hopeless disarray. There is no coherence, there are no central organizing principles, no themes or stories—no narratives—to hold the pieces together. Like some vast protoplasm that divides and subdivides again and again, history at present seems to be in the process of self-destruction.

Against this background, we can perhaps better appreciate the challenge facing the authors of the new multivolumed Oxford History of the United States, launched under the general editorship of C. Vann Woodward. To provide “an interpretative synthesis of the findings of recent scholarship” in a readable narrative “that will be readily accessible to the educated general public”: this, says Woodward, is the aim of each of the volumes in the series. Nine chronological volumes are planned, running from the colonial period up to the recent past. At present two volumes on broad topics are also intended—one for American diplomatic history, another for American economic history. Since no historian today can command with authority anything but a tiny portion of the mass of available historical information, each volume is to be written by a separate specialist but always with the “unspecialized reader” in mind. In light of the present plight of the discipline of history, the aim of the series is a worthy one.

The Glorious Cause by Robert Middlekauff, professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, is the first to be published but the second chronologically in the series. It deals with the period 1763 to 1789, generally considered by historians to be the chronological boundaries of the era of the American Revolution. Its beginning and ending events are the Peace of Paris, concluding the Seven Years War between Britain and France, and the ratification of the federal Constitution. Middlekauff intends his account of these years to be a narrative. Although he has here and there analyzed events “with the intention of extracting meanings beyond those narration reveals,” he has “in the main…chosen to tell the story of the Revolution in the belief that the process of reconstructing what happened may be made to provide an explanation of events and their importance.”

Middlekauff believes that “the narrative form” has a special significance for this particular period of American history: it “allows one to recover much that is central to an understanding of the Revolution and to revive at least a part of the passions and commitments of the people who struggled and fought.” The result is not just narrative history but old-fashioned narrative history with a vengeance; it even has a warm patriotic glow. Indeed, so committed is Middlekauff to headline personalities and events, so integral is the narrative form to his interpretation of the Revolutionary era, that ultimately the value of his volume comes to rest on the validity of traditional narrative history itself.

Middlekauff’s opening description of the coming of the Revolution sets the tone for the book. There is very little scientific or new social history in his explanation of the Revolution. There are no data matrices or frequency distributions, no charts or graphs. There are not even entries in the index for “economy” or “commerce.” Whatever brief mention Middlekauff makes of deep-lying structures or large-scale developments—market growth or demographic expansion—is only incidental and prefatory to his main story, which focuses on the motives and decisions of prominent men—William Pitt, George Grenville, Samuel Adams, and so on—and on the chief events their actions brought about—the Sugar Act, Stamp Act, Tea Party, and so on. In other words, this is essentially a narrative history of surface events, what the French social historians disparagingly call l’histoire l’histoire événementielle.

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