George Washington
George Washington; drawing by David Levine

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 write—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.

In Middlekauff’s story people are not caught up in long-range forces. They are free-acting autonomous moral beings whose motives and actions have clearly defined consequences. Revolutions, writes Middlekauff at one point, often “take on the appearance of inevitable, even natural events.” But this was not true of the American Revolution. For Middlekauff contingency was everywhere; indeed, the crucial year of 1767, he writes, seems dominated by “accident and chance.” With everything so possible and with individual intention and will so responsible for what happened, Middlekauff finds it easy to lay personal blame for the coming of the Revolution. Much of that blame, he suggests, belongs to the officials of Great Britain.

In chapter after chapter Middlekauff criticizes the British for their ignorance and arrogance toward the colonies. They “did not know the people they were dealing with”; they had “an inability to see that they had a problem.” “Years of dominance over the colonies had deadened their sensitivities.” The British ministers seemed to have lost their “political senses.” “For political tacticians of considerable skill, these ministers made some surprising mistakes…. They forgot the need for accommodation and flexibility.” They never asked themselves about the colonists’ reactions and were never able to see the full extent of their “blundering.” Was it reasonable to expect the colonists to pay taxes? Would these taxes impair commerce? “These questions were not really broached in Parliament.”

No wonder then that the colonists, those “otherwise sober citizens,” became suspicious and fearful of a British conspiracy against their liberty. But it was not just British blundering that created American fears. Middlekauff suggests that the colonists might have been primed to see events in conspiratorial terms by their extreme Protestant heritage. In fact, however, most of the Revolutionary leaders were emotionally the least religious of any generation of leaders in our history—Washington, for example, hardly ever mentioned Christ and usually referred to God as “the great disposer of events.” Still, Middlekauff calls them “the Children of the Twice-Born” and uses “the moral dispositions of a passionate Protestantism” to explain not only the coming of the Revolution but also subsequent events. By 1774, he argues, the combination of this Protestant passion and British blundering made the Revolution at last seem inevitable. Only by that late date was there an “air of near hopelessness” and a feeling among Americans that “nothing would recall Britain to its senses.” With ignorance and a “ferocity of feeling toward America” on one side, and “a fear of tyranny” and “outrage” on the other, armed conflict was finally bound to come.

For Middlekauff it could not have come too soon. For all along the war is really what he yearns to write about: that is where the narrative action is. To be sure, Middlekauff’s account of the coming of the Revolution has its exciting moments, such as the seizure of John Hancock’s ship Liberty; but much of the story he tells in the early chapters is dense and labored. There are too many monographs to be dealt with, too much information to be conveyed, too many qualifications to be registered for Middlekauff to maintain a fast-paced narrative. Sentences crowd each other, and clauses pile upon clauses. He has to backtrack and repeat himself to get the narrative of events straight, and even then big events, like the Peace of 1763, are not fully described.

When Middlekauff gets to the events of the war, however, his narrative picks up and his story comes to life. It is almost as if Middlekauff is saying that here, in the marching and maneuvering of troops, the clash of arms, and the heroic actions of soldiers under fire is the real stuff of narrative history writing. From Lexington and Concord in 1775 to Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown in 1781, Middlekauff takes us through all the major battles in detailed and spirited prose. He tells us where the battles were fought, how the various regiments and companies of the respective armies were positioned, who performed well, and what the consequences of the several commanders’ decisions were. Here is a typical example of Middlekauff’s preparing us for a battle, in this case the British assault on Bunker Hill:

These thirty-seven companies composed the British right. Howe gave Pigot the left and thirty-eight companies, including three companies each of light infantry and grenadiers, the 38th, 43rd, and 47th Regiments, and the 1st Marines. These units on the left were deployed in three lines just as Howe’s division was. All together the attacking British had 2200 rank and file, six field pieces, two light 12-pounders, and two howitzers.

Middlekauff has many of these “battle pieces,” as John Keegan calls them. Formal pitched battles lend themselves naturally to narrative treatment: they are comprehensible episodes, each with identifiable leaders and decisions that can be judged, each with a plot line and consequences that can be assessed. At least ten of the twenty-six chapters in the book deal in part or in whole with military events and the waging of war. Rarely has a single volume purporting to be a general survey of the Revolutionary period 1763 to 1789 devoted so much attention and space to the war itself.

It is not, however, simply Middlekauff’s delight in writing traditional military history that accounts for his lopsided emphasis on the war. For the war is central to his overall interpretation of the Revolution. He believes that the Americans’ experience in the war, more than anything else, came to define for them what they called “the glorious cause.”

The war was everywhere in America. It went on for eight years, the longest war in our national history until the one in Vietnam. And it involved the entire society, “for the British spread their armies and their efforts from one end of the new nation to the other.” Although not every state or community was the scene of a battle, all states and communities knew what the war meant: some 200,000 men carried arms in the Continental armies and the state militias and “men from every part of America died.”

In fact, Americans suffered proportionally to their total population more casualties in the Revolutionary war than in any other war we have fought (always excepting the Civil War). The army and the society became entangled in unprecedented ways. The problems of procuring supplies, protecting property, identifying friends and enemies, and mobilizing support were common to both. “To an extraordinary extent for the eighteenth century,” writes Middlekauff, “the army was an extension of the society.” The army’s cause became the society’s cause. The honor, glory, and sacrifice of the war stimulated the imaginations of Americans and transformed them. The long struggle against British arms brought Americans together as a people and created their national feeling. The war was a searing and inspiring ordeal unlike any experienced by other generations in American history.

In his account of this “glorious cause” Middlekauff makes no pretense of writing detached objective history. He has a stake in the outcome of the Revolutionary war, and he writes about it with mounting, wistful passion. Seldom these days does a professional historian evoke so much patriotic feeling as Middlekauff does in this book. He is almost embarrassed by it. He is at pains to explain that his title is not ironic. He warns us and himself repeatedly that the American revolutionaries were not a perfect people, that we must not take a romantic view of them. Yet they believed that their cause was a “glorious” one, and Middlekauff says he agrees with them.

Because Middlekauff puts so much of himself into the war, he has very little left over for the rest of what happened during the Revolutionary era. He knows in his head that many historians have seen more in the Revolution than the war with Great Britain, but his heart is not in anything else. The result is a strangely skewed account of the period. Events that do not contribute to “the glorious cause” are neglected or omitted. Middlekauff has almost nothing to say about the original contributions to Western constitutionalism that Americans made during the Revolutionary era. The developments of constitutional conventions, written constitutions, separation of powers are all ignored.

Anyone who wanted to learn how and why Revolutionary Americans suddenly broke from English constitutional practice and effectively barred the subsequent emergence of parliamentary cabinet government in the United States will find no answer in this volume. Middlekauff treats the writing of the Revolutionary state constitutions of 1776—which Jefferson called “the whole object of the present controversy”—in an extraordinarily offhand manner, and then only after he has finished fighting the war. He never considers the Articles of Confederation in their own right, as American’s first central government; indeed, he manages to squeeze in a description of them only after he has issued the call in 1787 for the Philadelphia Convention.

Essentially Middlekauff shows no real appreciation of the revolutionary character of the Revolution; he never makes sense of why an English radical like Richard Price thought it was the most important event in the history of the world since the birth of Christ. He mentions Jefferson’s revolutionary achievements in Virginia—his abolition of entail, his bill for religious freedom, and his legal reforms—but he never succeeds in relating these to the Revolution as a whole. He sees little of the social and economic consequences of the Revolutionary paper money emissions. In the end Middlekauff’s Revolution remains pretty much a colonial war for independence, albeit an inspiring one.

Most conspicuously lamentable is the short shrift Middlekauff has given to the 1780s and the movement for the federal Constitution. To explain how Americans, ten years after declaring Independence from a far-removed and much-feared governmental authority were prepared to create another such distant and astonishingly powerful government is in many ways even more difficult than explaining the coming of the Revolution itself. A powerful super-intending national government like that embodied in the federal Constitution of 1787 was inconceivable to Americans in 1776. Yet Middlekauff makes it appear very natural, a mere matter of solving a few weaknesses that had shown up in the Confederation. Middlekauff’s account of the formation of the Constitution virtually sets back scholarship on the issue at least a century. It’s as if Charles Beard had never written.

In Middlekauff’s view all the anxiety of the 1780s grew out of the impotence of the central government, the Confederation Congress. “Indeed dissatisfaction with Congress and its works—or lack of works—shaped a movement for constitutional reform in the 1780s.” But Congress was only part of the problem. By 1787 all American leaders were willing to grant to the Confederation additional powers of taxation and trade regulation. Nationalists like Madison however, had more on their minds than Congress’s lack of power; they were worried as well about the problems of state politics. In fact, the vices flowing from the state legislatures, wrote Madison to Jefferson in 1787, “contributed more to that uneasiness which produced the Convention, and prepared the public mind for a general reform, than those which accrued…from the inadequacy of the confederation.” It was in the states that the Revolution was to be tested, and during the 1780s many leaders saw it failing there. Middlekauff misses all this; in fact he believes the states in the 1780s had solved their problems. “By 1787,” he writes, “the constitutional structure of most states seemed secure.” Not only is Middlekauff wrong in this, but this error prevents him from grasping the ways in which the federal Constitution was designed to remedy the evils of state politics.

In his brief analysis of the federal Constitution. Middlekauf’s misunderstandings build one upon another. He cannot fully comprehend the radical character of Madison’s Virginia Plan, and he has no insight whatsoever into the depth of Madison’s and other nationalists’ fears of lawmaking by the states during the 1780s. So that when he comes to consider Madison’s proposal for a congressional veto over all state legislation, he can only call it a “near-mad scheme.” No matter that the delegates voted for and maintained this “near-mad scheme” in the working plan until halfway through the Convention; no matter that Madison thought such a national veto over state laws was “absolutely necessary” to sound government and despaired of the Constitution when it was finally eliminated.

Because Middlekauff does not appreciate the nationalists’ fears of the states, he misinterprets the long acrimonious debate over representation in the Senate as simply a struggle between large and small states, and thus misses entirely the passionate desire Madison and other nationalists had to avoid any recognition of state sovereignty in the national government. In the end Middlekauff has the federal Constitution emerging so naturally that the arguments of its opponents, the Anti-Federalists, can scarcely appear credible, and he thus devotes almost no space to them. John Fiske, writing in 1888 in defense of the Federalists, would have been very pleased.

Does Middlekauff’s book fulfill the aim of the Oxford series? It certainly has some good narrative history writing, but it is by no means a summary of recent scholarship on the Revolutionary era. It is a very special story, stimulating in places, but much too idiosyncratic and oddly proportioned to be considered the most reliable general history of the period. Indeed, so peculiar and so personal is Middlekauff’s story of the era that it raises fundamental questions about the nature of narrative history writing. It is not simply that his narrative tends to focus on surface events; the problem is more serious than that. Precisely because Middlekauff has been so patently selective in the events he has stressed and neglected, his story of the Revolution plays into the hands of all those who like Hayden White argue that historical narrative is just another form of fiction.

Perhaps there is always a constructed character to all history writing, but this fabricated character seems particularly evident in narrative history. The past after all is not a series of stories waiting to be told, as has become more and more apparent in the twentieth century. Sartre in his novel Nausea had his character Roquentin, who is a historian, suddenly recognize that life is not a story. “Nothing happens while you live,” Roquentin realizes. “The scenery changes, people come in and go out, that’s all.” There are no beginnings and no endings. Events simply tack on to one another in

an interminable, monotonous addition…. But everything changes when you tell about life; it’s a change no one notices: the proof is that people talk about true stories. As if there could possibly be true stories; things happen one way and we tell about them in the opposite sense. You seem to start at the beginning…and in reality you have started at the end…. The end is there, transforming everything.

Incidents no longer just pile up one upon another; they are drawn together, connected, and given meaning by the ending of the story. The plots, the coherence, and the significance of narratives are always retrospective.

This recognition lies behind the contempt French social historians have for the unique, unconnected events of traditional narrative history. For a historian to emphasize one of these unique events and not another, writes François Furet, he has to assume some connecting plot in the events, that they are going somewhere; he has given them “a teleological meaning.” The ending has to be present in the historian’s mind, transforming everything. A historian selects one event over another because that event presumably “marks some stage in the advent of a political or philosophical ideal—republic, liberty, democracy, reason, and so forth.” Such teleological narrative history cannot be truly scientific; it is simply storytelling, not essentially different from fiction.

Most historians, especially in the English-speaking world, are by no means ready to accept such Gallic logic. They still hold to a traditional epistemology, still believe that the past is real and that the truth of it can be recovered through storytelling. The rest of the intellectual world may be falling over itself with excitement in discovering the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of representing reality in any form of language or writing. But not historians. While intellectuals everywhere are promoting “structuralist” and other forms of nonlinear thought, most historians cling innocently to their Newtonian belief that one thing follows another in a coherent and causally related narrative pattern. It may be that traditional narrative writing depends on historians’ remaining mentally in the nineteenth century.

Most American historians do not have much appreciation for the intellectual fashions of the late twentieth century. Perhaps nothing is more revealing of this than the fumbling historians go through trying to deal with the work of Michel Foucault seems to be writing about the issues historians like to write about, such as changes through time in European methods of disciplining and punishing criminals. And thus historians try to hold Foucault up to their traditional understanding of change and their traditional standards of verification and evidence without ever appreciating that it is precisely these traditions of history writing that Foucault is out to smash.

Even more disconcerting to historians are the ways in which imaginative writers have recently been questioning the distinction between history and fiction, more or less in the spirit of “it’s all made up anyhow.” Thus E.L. Doctorow in his novel Ragtime claims that his fabrication of the past is no less authentic than that of the historian. “There’s no fiction or nonfiction now,” he has said, “there’s only narrative.” Facts about the past are what the writer says they are. Asked whether Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit ever really met, Doctorow replied, “They have now.”

In an even grander manner the Latin American writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his One Hundred Years of Solitude plays upon all the ways historians have traditionally organized their understanding of reality. Garcia Marquez’s story is no ordinary narrative; it levels all barriers between the real and imaginary, the past and the present. His created world has no time, no causality, no regularity, no coherent orderly succession of one-thing-following-another, indeed no historical consciousness at all. The popularity of these novels and others like them testifies to the extent to which the traditional assumptions on which narrative history depends are now being challenged. No wonder the distinguished literary critic Frank Kermode can casually talk about “the recognition, now commonplace, that the writing of history involves the use of regulative fictions.”

Middlekauff like most other historians seems to have written his story of the Revolution in all innocence of these epistemological problems. It’s a good thing: narrative form as a representation of past reality, particularly as Middlekauff has used it, may not bear much looking into.

This Issue

August 12, 1982