What Shall We Do With History? by Thomas Martin Sobottke


A true grand historical theory of the story of the United States of America has long been absent from American historical studies. Grand historical theory is a way of explaining all of our history with one central, overarching idea. Syntheses of American history have been more recently offered by David Reynolds, Gordon S. Wood, and Eric Foner but none of these scholars has been ready to claim them as an all encompassing grand narrative that best explains the development of the American people and their past. The grand theories of George Bancroft, Frederick Jackson Turner and Charles Beard have all gone out of fashion. The quantitative approach to American history of the 1970’s, and the segmentation of historical studies by gender, class, race, and in so many other directions have worked to discourage scholars from even offering grand theory to bind them together. The cynicism and outright pessimism of postmodernist thought has done its work. This must change.

A people or nation have need of a common narrative story of their past. Without it, they are adrift at sea, without a moral compass. The historian practices what is principally an art and not a science. Everyday human beings are the true audience for history. It is their story we are attempting to tell. They are not there for us to be prodded or poked; to be scientifically studied like lab rats and their bones picked over. While scientific method is useful in helping us understand the past, it ought not to dominate it. When it does, something of our common humanity is lost. I recall an academic colleague engaged in a doctoral dissertation studying sixteenth century records in one southern French province and putting together statistical tables to measure shoe production and perhaps gain some insight into a developing middle or artisan class. Is this a narrative? Does it inspire or elevate human beings morally?

Historians are as elders seated by the fire telling each generation about the struggles and lessons to be learned from our shared past. It is a breathtaking responsibility.

It is one that has been increasingly dodged in the profession by a history that is written in dialogue between historians and not among the general public. This has been a matter of much complaint in the profession for a very long time. Gordon S. Wood has written that “The result of all this postmodern history . . . has been to make academic history writing almost as esoteric and inward directed as the writing of literary scholars.” Wood laments this trend noting that “history is an endeavor that needs a wide readership to justify itself.” History must be work that is intelligible to the broad mass of the people, and not the property of a select few, written for those who rule and who deny justice to others.

We live in a cynical and faithless age, where deeply felt religious belief, even an organized system of ethics, or any kind of drama in the story of our common past is discarded and treated with contempt. Primary historical sources of all kinds and all manner of artifacts are still the building blocks of solid academic history. History is still a profession. Credentials still do matter. But the wonder, excitement, and narrative of the common human experience must return to the work of those who interpret our past. It is time for the return of grand historical theory to American historiography and to a return to narrative as the controlling element in historical writing.

Every grand historical theory requires a cornerstone. For the people of the United States that cornerstone can be found in the words of the founding document of the Republic:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. This is the United States’ mission statement. It is the elemental touchstone of the American people.

Foreigners from no matter where they come always know George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and that in some fashion that this is the land where all are born free and equal. Jefferson and the rest of the Congress did not specify just who’s Creator they were talking about, but even in our secular age it can still be understood that there are things within the experience of our existence that are larger than ourselves—moral principals that speak to the moral center within each healthy human being. We do have knowledge of justice—what commonly passes for right and wrong. We know when we have done an injustice. It may not be admitted but we know. Social psychologists will probably agree that human beings have an enormous capacity for denial. Without being crass, my own dog knows when he has strayed from the path we have laid out for him. There will always be a place for this cornerstone to resonate with the people of America because it has so defined them over time and continues to do so.

For Abraham Lincoln this mission statement enlarged his own thinking. It must enlarge ours also. For him, this language of the Declaration was as a sign that in the United States he might rise, largely unfettered, and gain his share of the fruits of his labor. These were not merely economic rights, but human rights bestowed upon all of humanity as a birthright, but recognized concretely in the United States. Whether divine providence bestows these precious jewels of liberty, or that it is some sort of evolutionary survival strategy undertaken by our species, these rights are fundamental. For Lincoln, the Declaration provided a means by which to measure national progress and greatness:

They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all: constantly looked to, constantly labored for and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.

This great central idea of the Declaration can for historians, provide a yardstick to record, assess, and understand the state of American development. The progress toward or retreat from the perfect attainment of this maxim of liberty can be placed on a continuum. Here the development of the history of America can both be progressive or retrogressive relative to that goal at different periods. Charles Beard’s ruminations over the progressive nature of history and the American triumphalism of earlier grand narrative’s need not be proven.

When Lincoln suggested that it was something to be “constantly labored for” he was recognizing that adherence to this great moral principle was a recurring and ongoing theme. Howard Zinn’s great emphasis of history being the story of great mass social movements for justice assumes some importance here. The role of the historian becomes that of activist: “to keep people alive, to distribute equitably the resources of the earth, to widen the areas of human freedom, [italics mine] and therefore to direct their efforts toward these ends.” An even greater and more influential teacher proclaimed he had come to “bring good news to the poor . . . to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind . . . to let the oppressed go free.” The work of history becomes that of chronicling these struggles for the very people engaged in them.

Historians concerned over gender, race, ethnicity, the state of labor and corporate capitalism, foreign affairs, social and intellectual history can all take the measure of the state of each at any given period and render their verdicts. “All men are created equal” and the nebulous and elusive phrase “the pursuit of happiness” can be interpreted in various ways by national actors at diverse historical moments. It is the task of the historian to untangle and clarify these interpretations of the ideal.

Americans more commonly can come to understand how this great principle has animated the events and trials of our national story. They will then have their bearings. They will no longer be cast adrift on a sea of pessimism and doubt. This grand narrative does represent a recovery of a seemingly archaic nineteenth century approach but with a set of sensibilities and emphases that are distinctly a twenty-first century construction. Here the failures of our people to retain this sense of mission and our leaders to align their actions with our greatest national principle can be set side-by-side with the progressive nature of our history, where this idea has importance and what is labored for is in some measure achieved.

Self evident moral truths go beyond any efforts of mere mortal men to restrict or contain them to a government that was racially, by gender, and by economic status largely the province of white male property holders. The founders of the nation had crystallized an idea that had a power of its own. That idea transcends national boundaries. It was a moral fire they could not control. As our nation developed, these ideas jumped the boundary of any government of white men. After many state governments removed property restrictions regarding the elective franchise, the question arose as to whether or not the human rights of persons of color and of women would be recognized. The nation’s leaders were confronted with a huge contradiction in their moral principles that they could not evade. In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner stated that “Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.” A more expansive and inclusive view of American history offers us a different construct.

Human slavery and an omnipresent racial prejudice defined us as a people. United States history can best be expressed as the story of the momentous struggle of an ever increasing number of Americans to remove this glaring hypocrisy from the nation’s most cherished principle of human liberty. The continuing struggles over widening and enlarging the application of the “all men are created equal” principle explain American development.

Historians James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle have written regarding the great Declaration that “indeed, much of American history can be seen as an effort to work out the full meaning of “all men are created equal.”

This grand theory of American history as all grand theories is malleable; a crucible for pulling the threads of the American experience together in a way that has clarity and is intelligible to the public. It is a return to an earlier, more optimistic and progressive view of history. It rejects the obfuscation present in much of the criticisms of grand theory that are the product of a world where religious faith or yet a belief in something greater than ourselves have been undervalued for far too long. It is the theory of the inherent progress to be found in struggles for human justice. The great civil rights advocate Frederick Douglass once said that “without struggle there is no progress.” The ongoing struggles for human justice and dignity themselves become the story to be endlessly told, refashioned, and their ultimate meaning sought.

Slavery and the injustices of racial prejudice posed the greatest moral question over human freedom ever presented to the American people in their history. Would the nation adopt Thomas Jefferson’s more expansive interpretation of equality as a self evident truth, or the inequality of John C. Calhoun’s self evident lie? How the people of the United States resolved that question would determine just how wide the application of equality would become. Outside observers recognized that the true mission of America was human equality and the freedom to grasp it. W.E.B. Du Bois, in his landmark study of Reconstruction, writes of the British Chartist movement taking note with a comment on the situation in 1844. The main newspaper of the Chartists declared:

That damning stain upon the American escutcheon is one that has caused the Republicans of Europe to weep for very shame and mortification; and the people of the United States have much to answer for at the bar of humanity for this indecent, cruel, revolting and fiendish violation of their boasted principle—that ‘All men are born free and equal.’

The American Civil War resolved the great moral question over human freedom in America. African-Americans were freed and made citizens of the United States. The American Civil War was the defining event in the nation’s history, the pivot point on which all the historical development of later periods depended. American women waiting in the wings, intensified their fight for equality. This advance for liberty and equality energized the progressive tendencies in American development. A greater portion of the American polity pursued the “blessings of liberty” all the more strenuously. When black equality retrogressed after Reconstruction, via Jim Crow segregation and southern white terrorism, African-Americans bravely continued the freedom struggle. The American past is, after all, about the all men are born free and equal idea.

In the Gilded Age, the United States witnessed the further development of corporate capitalism and the struggles of wage laborers of all types to be able to have in a working environment, what they were supposed to have outside the workplace. It was the birth of a truly national labor movement. The populist movement attempted to do for American farmers, what the labor movement was trying to do for American workers. This too was an intensification of an economic struggle for equal economic opportunity that had been ongoing since the onset of national markets for goods and the industrial revolution in America.

In the remaining lands left to them, Native-Americans tried to hold together something of their culture and way of life which seemed so at odds with the greed and acquisitiveness intrinsic to Western culture. Ethnicity played a greater role than ever before as immigration patterns shifted from Northern and Western Europe as had been traditional, and toward a Diaspora from Asia, the Mediterranean world and the Slavic east. Native-born Americans resisted pressures from the new migrants to obtain their lawful rights as they pursued citizenship and sought employment. Multicultural studies too are tied to the aspirations of people to gain their measure of the free and equal principle, the manner in which diverse peoples who have migrated to America have adapted themselves and in turn changed the meaning of this idea.

In the twentieth-century, alongside the Progressive and New Deal reform eras, these struggles for justice continued. Alan Dawley highlights the growing incongruities in a modern, mass society where there was often a clear choice to be made between the liberty of traditional liberalism and the social equality and economic justice of the liberal state. Assessing the period between 1890 and 1940, Dawley writes affirmatively that there was social progress, where. . . “four decades of struggle humanized the harshest aspects of the competitive market, reaffirmed liberty against authoritarianism, and advanced the social goals of a truly human community.” The very best synthesis of our nation’s story to be had today is still Eric Foner’s The Story of American Freedom. Not only does Foner portray the successes of freedom in America over time, a progressive historiographic tendency, but the very real times of crisis for American free institutions, a retrogressive tendency. There is what contemporary political commentators would call push-back, or a countervailing and retrogressive tendency in the American “all men are created equal” saga. More conservative, establishment forces can retrogressively scale back the gains made under this cornerstone American principle.

Economic historians would be dying to point out that since 1980, the American middle class has seen the erosion of their ability to engage in the “pursuit of happiness” under what has conventionally been called the American dream. For the habitually impoverished, the situation has been even more dire. The labor movement has been turned back, civil rights groups are on the defensive, and corporate America triumphant. Foner himself writes that a 1996 Business Week story “reported that two thirds of all Americans believed ‘that equal opportunity, personal freedom, and social mobility’” had become increasingly elusive.”

Measured against this seeming wall standing against the progressive development of the great American principle identified here, are the progressive gains for freedom clearly won earlier by the modern Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s and the wave of Feminism that has changed the life of the nation since. One distinct benefit of the Second World War was to spur the civil rights of both blacks and women despite what appeared to be a quiet decade with the emergence of the early 1950’s. The McCarthyism of that decade involved the denial of justice and speech to those with what were perceived to be different views of the meaning of the rights claimed under the Declaration. These efforts aimed at social justice will be pushed further and repeated in history yet to be made. The historian must be in its wake to document it and tell the tale.

What Foner does so well and so properly in his synthesis, is to offer the reader a multitude of definitions of American freedom and liberty over time. All of the great social movements for justice come by us in cavalcade. The book provides an example of what this essay has been pressing for. Reynolds more recent synthesis also gives proper attention to figures and social movements for justice and places them in context with the leaders and governments who shaped policy.

Foreign policy and politics are part of any grand reconstruction of the story of American development. Presidents and their administrations, various Congresses and the courts can be assessed. Much of the turning away from the nineteenth century’s optimistic beliefs in progress in grand historical theory has been the result of the terrible events of this past century. Two great world wars, and the dictatorship and totalitarianism that came with them, a long bitter Cold War in which the world was often and still is poised on the brink of destroying humankind have done much to destroy it. Religious faith has steadily declined and with it an active ethical framework for those who have abandoned it. Twenty-first century Americans are left saying vaguely that they are “spiritual,” and not sure what that even means. Postmodernism and pessimism have come to us hand-in-hand. But human beings are enormously adaptive, and those favoring an evolutionary approach to human development can rejoice that there is hope.

A comprehensive history of the development of the democratic principle so much a part of the American national experience must be connected to the struggle for it worldwide. There is a yawning contradiction between the imperial America that came in with the Spanish-American War, and the “American Century,” and the very real struggles for freedom on the part of Americans in that period. Some discussion of this is offered in the synthesis of Reynolds. From 1898 until the present, the story of our people is one of failing to keep faith with the principles of the Declaration, particularly that of the fact that “governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The grand narrative would be a discussion of how American foreign policy has either supported the principles inherent in the Declaration of Independence or denied them to other peoples. It would be carried out in narratives of our past that highlight the contradictions between the ideal and what has actually been the national experience. The American Century’s effect on other peoples must become central to the story.

While skeptics could argue quite convincingly that it was all for capitalistic profit and United States hegemony around the world, in the First World War many Americans did believe they were fighting for a cause to “make the world safe for democracy.” In the second, Franklin Delano Roosevelt animated the fight with his Four Freedoms. We were the Arsenal of Democracy and the difference maker between a pre-eminence of dictatorship and authoritarianism; something very sinister and dark, and the worldwide push for democracy and freedom from colonialism that was preserved. There is much drama to share. Not all of the history of American foreign policy has been retrogressive of freedom and the consent of the governed. Americans have the choice of abandoning all hope or they can persevere for a brighter future, where the peoples of the world can join our efforts for freedom, or more properly we may join theirs. Much of what other peoples are struggling for arose from the seeds planted by our struggles for liberty and justice that are ongoing in our nation.

Contemporary questions revolve around whether or not the United States will end its long addiction to overseas empire or whether in our foreign policy we will rediscover what has made the United States the “last great hope of Earth.” Just what damage the fallout from the events of September 11, 2001 will have via the further enlargement of the national security state remains to be seen. Foner writes that “The Revolution gave birth to a definition of American nationhood and national mission that persists to this day, in which the new nation defined itself as a unique embodiment of liberty in a world overrun with oppression.”

There is potential for more conflict over the nature of American freedom. That of the future may come at Americans via the abortion question from the political right and the fight for the full acceptance of all sexual orientations from the left. It would be here that the historic envelope might be pressed. There is also the great effort for meaning in our lives within an alienating mass society, and the threat posed to the very existence of our species by climate change and nuclear proliferation. Yet all these future battles will be subsumed into the historic struggles the nation and our people have undertaken for human liberty and freedom. These struggles for justice most often are from the bottom up; from mass movements for social justice: labor, civil rights, women, indigenous peoples, and more. History must be a narrative story that makes the powerful and well connected uncomfortable and gives heart and hope and inspiration to those still striving for justice. Those that directly govern have always attempted to hijack the freedom struggle for their own purposes. That story must be told as well.

How might we explain the origins of this freedom story? Gordon S. Wood, has written so well about the way in which the American Revolution was not a conservative reaction to the loss of liberty but a truly revolutionary event that radicalized the country and transformed America from a monarchical state to a free democracy where Americans might reach for both freedom and economic opportunity. Wood explains that the equality of white males achieved by the American Revolution was something truly revolutionary. “I wanted to get that point clear;” he writes, “for once the claim of equality by all white males was established in the eighteenth century. . . then the other claims to equality could follow relative to the total span of Western history, although not to our brief American past, follow rather rapidly.”

Leaving the cornerstone of all men are created equal in place has a steep price. The future as the past is one of continual and unending struggle to remain true to that principle. For us it will have to be a grim but heroic acceptance of the throwing down of the gauntlet of liberty and equality.

There is undeniable nobility in the struggle for human justice, for it is an appeal to something rare; to the moral decency of humankind. Abraham Lincoln saw it as “the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time and will ever continue to struggle.”

In the great eternal battle for freedom that is human existence it really does not matter so much whether we have won the final victory but on which side we are on.

The proposition advanced here is among the most common themes of the national legacy. It suggests a return to true grand historical theory and one that brings us back to the great wellsprings of a liberal progressive thematic construction of American history but with the flexibility to see the contradictions present in that construction.

It might be useful to offer up the words of an American citizen who is the very definition of being out-of-step with our contemporary world of cynicism and despair. He put his very life in the balance in order to preserve an ideal.

Sometimes human beings will do the strangest things for abstract principles. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was speaking at what would customarily be a trite patriotic exercise. But he stood on the very same ground where he had stood in the American Civil War at one of its crucial moments twenty-five years earlier. As a professor of revealed religion and rhetoric, he could be expected to be eloquent. On that day in 1888, at the dedication of a monument his words rose far above the commonplace mutterings of politicians:

“We rose in soul above the things which even the Declaration of Independence pronounces the inalienable rights of human nature,” he said, “for the securing of which governments are instituted among men. Happiness, liberty, life, we laid on the altar of offering . . . We were beckoned on by the vision of destiny. We saw our Country moving forward, charged with the sacred trusts of man . . . Every man felt that he gave himself to, and belonged to, something beyond time and above place—something which could not die.”

Thomas Martin Sobottke is a writer and independent historian concentrating on Memory Studies of the American Civil War. He holds the Ph.D. degree in History from Marquette University. He has been concerned about issues of social justice and has been heavily influenced by the work and perspective of historian Howard Zinn.

David Reynolds, America, Empire of Liberty: A New History of the United States, (New York, 2009),Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, (New York, 1992), Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom, (New York, 1998)

Dorothy Ross, “Grand Narrative in American Historical Writing: From Romance to Uncertainty,” The American Historical Review, 100 (June, 1995): 651-677.

Jonathon Yardley, “A sage historian laments the present-mindedness of many of his colleagues,” The Washington Post, reviewing Gordon S. Wood, The Purpose of the Past; Reflections on the Uses of History, (New York, 2008), Archived Internet Copy, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/132/AR20080313303477.htm

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History (New York, 2008), A1.

Lincoln’s Reply at Alton, Illinois 15 October 1858, 379, in Paul M. Angle, ed., The Complete Lincoln Douglass Debates of 1858, (Chicago,, 1961).

Howard Zinn, “The Uses of Scholarship,” On History, (New York, 2001) 185.

Quoting Luke 4:18; Wayne A. Meeks, ed, The Harper Collins Study Bible, New Revised Standard Version, (New York, 1993), 1963.

Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1893 (Washington D.C. 1894), in John Mack Faragher, ed., Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner: The Significance of the Frontier in American History and Other Essays, (New Haven, 1994), 31.

James West Davidson & Lytle, Mark Hamilton, After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection, Chapter 4 “Declaring Independence,” (New York, 2010), 90.

W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, (New York, 1992), 24.

Alan Dawley, Struggles for Justice: Social Responsibility and the Liberal State, (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991), 416.

Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom, 326.

Eric Foner, “Rethinking American History in a Post-9-11 World,” History News Network, 6 September 2004, Internet Copy at http://www.ericfoner.com/articles/09064hnn.html

Dorothy Ross, “Grand Narrative in American Historical Writing.”, 672, citing “Forum: How Revolutionary Was the Revolution? A discussion of Gordon S. Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly, 11 (1994): 707.

Lincoln to Douglas at Alton, Illinois, in Paul M. Angle, The Complete Lincoln Douglas Debates, 393.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, “Dedication of Maine Monuments,” 3 October 1888, Archived Internet Copy, in the collection of the Pejepscot Historical Society, Brunswick,

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2 thoughts on “What Shall We Do With History? by Thomas Martin Sobottke

  1. How is that you have all this time to write these blogs, when you are working so hard as a teacher. OH that’s right you left MHS, for the childrens benefit

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