"Odd men out": Fiske and Hart

There is, as far as I am concerned, a single reason for mentioning the works of these two writers in this essay, and a single reason only: to demonstrate that American historiography in the Progressive Era was hardly unified in its interpretation. Just as "diversity" is a buzzword on today''s college and university campuses, so was genuine diversity a feature of American historiography. And, perhaps fittingly enough, this same diversity symbolizes one of the themes that progressive historians stress almost to a fault: that the views of the people during the war itself were far from universal. And so it was with historians as they wrote their books during the Progressive era.

John Fiske wrote a two-volume treatment of the American Revolution in 1891. To be sure, this was at the earliest stages of the Progressive movement in the United States, but it falls well within the boundaries. In that context, one can evaluate the contents of Fiske''s book, and in one other also: I encountered Fiske''s name in various places in Turner's writings.

Fiske writes much in the second volume of his history of "drums and trumpets." (Sadly, only the second volume is in my collection.) But there are still inklings of his views as to the nature of the war. He writes, for example, of the "absurd talk of John Adams," who proposed the annual election of general officers by Congress, and that "if some great men should be sent home as a result, [then the nation will not be ruined]" (Fiske, 31). Fiske sees this as a ludicrous notion to say the least, indicating his great-man orientation. (As an aside, Fiske writes of Benedict Arnold''s death-bed remorse at "ever having put on any other" uniform than that of the colonial forces, which story has found its way into American mythology; I wonder to this day if this death-bed regret actually happened.) In a sentence, Fiske writes of armies and leaders, of imperial nations and colonies, and of congresses and parliaments. He clearly does not write of rivers, mountains, and mass suffrage.

Albert Bushnell Hart wrote his story of the Formation of the Union in 1894. The publisher, Longman''s, offered other works by professors of history, including one progressive professor who would someday become famous the world over: Woodrow Wilson. At the time, Fiske was an assistant professor of history at Harvard University.

Hart asserted that the Constitution was more than a compact, the term he assigned to the Articles of Confederation. He defined a "compact" as little more than a treaty, calling it an agreement between states that lost its force when one of the parties ceased to observe it. Instead, Hart held that the Constitution was as Daniel Webster had defined it: "...the people''s Constitution, the people''s government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people. The people of the United States have declared that this Constitution shall be supreme law" (Hart, 134).

Of geography, Hart writes not of mountains and alluvial plains, but of man-made boundaries and political competition related to enlarging the entities of the competitors. Again, as in Fiske, whom Hart recommends along with George Bancroft and Henry Adams, the view is of and from the top, not of the common citizen.

Are these writers of interest other than for the reason already offered? The reader may allow me one other reason besides the one already claimed. It is important to mention these writers as a corollary of the question I posed at the outsetó--and sought at first "to duck": exactly what is a "progressive historian?" Again, spatial limitations require me to be brief: it is clear from examining the work of Fiske and Hart that if a "progressive historian" is defined as a writer of history during the Progressive Era, then the work one will encounter is diverse in its viewpoints and interpretations; if, however one defines a progressive historian as a member of a school of thought, then the events of the times in which they wrote take on a secondary value, supplanted by rivers, mountains, and the like. But then one must remind oneself of the example of Charles Beard, if for no other reason than to sully and sunder that grand generalization...