Consensus history

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Consensus history is a style of American historiography that emphasizes the basic unity of American values and downplays conflict as superficial and lacking in complexity. The movement was especially influential in the 1950s and 1960s. Prominent leaders included Richard Hofstadter, Louis Hartz, Daniel J. Boorstin and David M. Potter. Other prominent exemplars included Perry Miller, Clinton Rossiter, Henry Steele Commager, Allan Nevins and Edmund Morgan.[1] It rejected the "Progressive" historiography that had previously dominated, and which stressed the central importance of class conflict in American history. Charles A. Beard was the most prominent representative of the discredited progressive or "Beardian" approach.

Consensus history was rejected by New Left viewpoints that attracted younger more radical historians in the 1960s. These viewpoints stress conflict and emphasize the central roles of class, race and gender.[2][3]


In 1959 John Higham identified an emerging consensus among historians that was based on the search for "a placid, unexciting past" as part of "a massive grading operation to smooth over America's social convulsions." Higham called it the "Cult of the American Consensus."[4]

Richard Hofstadter[edit]

After 1945, Hofstadter philosophically broke with Beard and moved to the center in his leadership of the politically liberal "consensus historians". Hofstadter disliked the term, but it was widely applied to his rejection of the Beardian idea that there was a fundamental conflict running throughout American history that pitted economic classes against each other.[5] Eric Foner says that Hofstadter's book The American Political Tradition (1948) "propelled him to the very forefront of his profession." Millions of Americans, on and off campus, read it. Its format is a series of portraits of leading men from the Founding Fathers through Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and FDR. Foner argues:

Hofstadter's insight was that virtually all his subjects held essentially the same underlying beliefs. Instead of persistent conflict (whether between agrarians and industrialists, capital and labor, or Democrats and Republicans), American history was characterized by broad agreement on fundamentals, particularly the virtues of individual liberty, private property, and capitalist enterprise.[6]

Hofstadter in 1948 thus rejected black-and-white polarization between pro- and anti-business politicians.[7] Hofstadter made a statement of the consensus model of the American political tradition:

The fierceness of the political struggles has often been misleading: for the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise. However much at odds on specific issues, the major political traditions have shared a belief in the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, the value of competition; they have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture as necessary qualities of man.[8]

As a consensus historian, Hofstadter rejected Beard's interpretation of history as a succession of socio-economic group conflicts.[9] He thought that all historical periods could be understood as an implicit consensus, shared by antagonists, explaining that the generation of Beard and Vernon Louis Parrington had:

...put such an excessive emphasis on conflict, that an antidote was needed... It seems to me to be clear that a political society cannot hang together, at all, unless there is some kind of consensus running through it, and yet that no society has such a total consensus as to be devoid of significant conflict. It is all a matter of proportion and emphasis, which is terribly important in history. Of course, obviously, we have had one total failure of consensus, which led to the Civil War. One could use that as the extreme case in which consensus breaks down.[10]

New Deal[edit]

Consensus historians, argues Lary May:

believed that the prosperity and apparent class harmony of the post-World War II era reflected a return to the true Americanism rooted in liberal capitalism and the pursuit of individual opportunity that had made fundamental conflicts over resources a thing of the past. They argued that the New Deal was a conservative movement that built a welfare state, guided by experts, that saved rather than transformed liberal capitalism.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Neil Jumonville, Henry Steele Commager: Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the Present (1999) pp 232-39
  2. ^ Higham, 1989
  3. ^ Irwin Unger, "The 'New Left' and American History: Some Recent Trends in United States Historiography." American Historical Review (1967): 1237-1263. in JSTOR
  4. ^ John Higham, "The Cult of the American Consensus: Homogenizing Our History," Commentary (1959) 27#2 pp: 93-100.
  5. ^ David S. Brown, Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography(2006) p. 75
  6. ^ Eric Foner, "Introduction" to Richard Hofstadter (1944). Social Darwinism in American Thought. Beacon Press. p. xxi. 
  7. ^ Jumonville, Henry Steele Commager (1999) p 235
  8. ^ Richard Hofstadter (1948). The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made it. Knopf. pp. xxxvi–xxxvii. 
  9. ^ Michael Kazin et al. eds. (2011). The Concise Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History. Princeton UP. pp. 324–27. 
  10. ^ Jack Pole, "Richard Hofstadter" in Robert Allen Rutland, ed., Clio's Favorites: Leading Historians of the United States, 1945–200 (2000), pp. 73–74
  11. ^ Lary May, "Review," Journal of American History" (December 2010) 97#3 p 765

Further reading[edit]

  • Collins, Robert M. "David Potter's People of Plenty and the Recycling of Consensus History." Reviews in American History (1988) 16#2 pp. 321–335 in JSTOR
  • Higham, John. "The Cult of the American Consensus: Homogenizing Our History," Commentary (1959) 27#2 pp: 93-100.
  • Higham, John. "Beyond Consensus: The Historian as Moral Critic." American Historical Review (1962): 609-625. in JSTOR
  • Higham, John. "Changing paradigms: The collapse of consensus history." Journal of American History (1989): 460-466. in JSTOR; another copy
  • Hodgson, Godfrey. America in our time (1978), 67-98, on broad political consensus in the 1950s.
  • Hofstadter, Richard. The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (1968).
  • Hofstadter, Richard. "Beard and the Constitution: The History of an Idea," American Quarterly (1950) 2#3 pp. 195–213 JSTOR
  • Hoover, Dwight W. "Some Comments on Recent United States Historiography," American Quarterly (1965) 17#2 Part 2: Supplement pp. 299–318 in JSTOR
  • Novick, Peter. That noble dream: The 'objectivity question' and the American historical profession (Cambridge University Press, 1988) pp 320–60
  • Singal, Daniel Joseph. "Beyond Consensus: Richard Hofstadter and American Historiography." American Historical Review 89.4 (1984): 976-1004. online