Cyclical theory

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The cyclical theory refers to a model used by historians Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. to explain the fluctuations in politics throughout American history[1][2]. In this theory, the national mood alternates between liberalism and conservatism. Each phase has characteristic features, and each phase is self-limiting, generating the other phase. This alternation has repeated itself several times over the history of the United States.

The cycles[edit]

Schlesinger phases of American history[1][2][3]
From To Duration Type Name
1776 1788 12 Lib Liberal Movement to Create Constitution
1788 1800 12 Con Hamiltonian Federalism
1800 1812 12 Lib Liberal Period of Jeffersonianism
1812 1829 17 Con Conservative Retreat After War of 1812
1829 1841 12 Lib Jacksonian Democracy
1841 1861 20 Con Domination of National Government by Slaveowners
1861 1869 8 Lib Abolition of Slavery and Reconstruction
1869 1901 32 Con The Gilded Age
1901 1919 18 Lib Progressive Era
1919 1931 12 Con Republican Restoration
1931 1947 16 Lib The New Deal
1947 1962 15 Con
1962 1978 16 Lib
1978 Con

The features of each phase in the cycle can be summarized with a table.

Liberal Conservative
Wrongs of the Many Rights of the Few
Increase Democracy Contain Democracy
Public Purpose Private Interest

The Schlesingers proposed that their cycles are "self-generating", meaning that each kind of phase generates the other kind of phase. This process then repeats, causing cycles. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. speculated on possible reasons for these transitions.[2] He speculated that since liberal phases involve bursts of reform effort, such bursts can be exhausting, and the body politic thus needs the rest of a conservative phase. He also speculates that conservative phases accumulate unsolved social problems, problems that require the efforts of a liberal phase. He also speculated on generational effects, since most of the liberal-conservative phase pairs are roughly 30 years long, roughly the length of a human generation.

The Schlesingers' identified phases end in a conservative period, and in a foreword written in 1999, he speculated about why it has lasted unusually long, instead of ending in the early 1990's. One of his speculations was the continuing Computer Revolution, as disruptive as the earlier Industrial Revolution had been. Another of them was wanting a long rest after major national traumas. The 1860's Civil War and Reconstruction preceded the unusually-long Gilded Age, and the strife of the 1960's likewise preceded the recent unusually-long conservative period.

An alternative identification is due to Andrew S. McFarland[4]. He identifies the liberal phases as reform ones and conservative phases as business ones, and he additionally identifies transitions from the reform ones to the business ones. From his Figure 1,

Reform Trans. Business
1901-14 1915-18 1919-33
1933-39 1940-48 1949-61
1961-74 1974-80 1980-

Roughly agreeing with Schlesinger's identifications.

Modernity is the psychology behind the disenchantment of the people with their surroundings. As society modernizes, or advances, the external conditions around each individual evolves, therefore stimulating changes in the individual's attitude. Over a period of time, the attitude towards society and its goals will become negative, and whichever stage (public purpose/private interest), will cease to be ideal. Studies and surveys show that in the 20th century, this critical time period to develop discontent has decreased, implying that people are quickly dissatisfied with the ever-changing society.

Shifts are produced by changes in the mood of the majority. When more and more people shift from one end of the "balance" to the other, the balance itself begins to tilt to the other side. However, the change in mood must be reflected in a diversity of ethnic backgrounds and social classes to take effect. The cycle is not a permanent transition. Periods of stability in each stage of the cycle (public purpose/private interest), Schlesinger presents the concept the "accumulation of change". He stated that when certain changes near the end of a phase take effect, they become permanent, and are unaffected by later "swings of the pendulum". Therefore, the proper way to model the cycles of American history is by using a spiral, or single helix.


Public purpose and private interest do not correlate directly with liberal or conservative, or the ideals of specific political parties. These two systems of American values, albeit distinct, evolved from common ideals and fundamentals of American philosophy. They might be considered different paths to reach a common goal. For example, for the common purpose of attaining popular sovereignty, both systems can be used. In terms of Public Purpose, freedom may be expressed in welfare and protection of social rights, but not of other rights like gun rights or food choice rights in modern times. In terms of Private Interest, freedom may be defined in the practice of a laissez-faire economy, the protection of property, or even in aspects of Social Darwinism.

Some shared values of public purpose and private interest have been defined by theorists. They include anti-absolutism, limitations of government, popular sovereignty, and personal freedom.

Private interest[edit]

This value system stresses a non-interventionist government, especially in its economy. Resulting from the 18th century fears of tyranny and a strong federal power, the free society is where an individual controls his own actions. The government's only functions are to maintain order and structure. The values of Private Interest bear a strong resemblance to Adam Smith's theories of the laissez-faire economy (free market) and also the invisible hand. Smith proposed that the collective result of individuals with a variety of purposes is an economy that will profit the entire society.

Ideally in a Private Interest system, government must respect the "sanctity of private property". This means that individuals have the freedom to pursue their own interests, but also bear the responsibility for success or failure. One of the possible disadvantages of such Social Darwinism is that the wealthy rise to the top, leaving the poor to fend for themselves, although some poor and middle-class people become rich as well and some rich become poor. Another problem that may be present is political corruption. Overall, "survival of the fittest" may lead to "concentration of power", "evangelicalism", and "limited citizenship". In connection to history, periods of Private Interest are often associated with times of economic prosperity.

Public purpose[edit]

The values of Public Purpose assess the reality, often the consequences of a certain revolution. In times of complex social relations and economic and political confusion, the need for equality and opportunity arises. Due to certain, recurring causes in history such as division in wealth and social class distinctions, the majority begins to question the meaning of "liberalism". Schlesinger explains that in "modern liberalism", the government must intervene to ensure the protection of the common good. The concerns with "social responsibility" and "commonwealth" often involve the regulation and control of the government. Compared to the stages of Private Interest, times of Public Purpose are usually ephemeral "bursts of reform". The idealistic goals of this period are only to ensure that government intervention is possible in times of need. The ideals of Public Purpose might include a redistribution of wealth and power and the protection of civil rights.


These periods occur as the masses change its "mood". Results are often increased tension and division. From Public Purpose to Private Interest, the transition involves tensions, violence, and even war, due to the exhaustion from reformation. In the transition from Private Interest to Public Purpose, the people may suffer economic depression caused by divisions of wealth and power, leading to a renewed cause for social reform. The end of both cycles may be summarized by the term 'overreach'.


During the study of American history, no time period may be defined entirely as one stage or another of the Schlesinger cycle, nor can all the aspects of an era be generalized as to be proceeding in one direction. The cyclical theory is a tool to analyze political, social, and economic change with philosophy, identifying recurring trends and correlations. However, the cycle is not accurate in predicting the events of the future, because historians in the present do not have the benefit of hindsight and may lack crucial knowledge and understanding of certain trends.

Overall, the historian Schlesinger believed that the cycles may lead to the ideal society where certain emerging definitions of freedom may gain the support of greater and greater numbers of people, ultimately proceeding towards the form of freedom that is "inclusive of every American".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Schlesinger, Arthur Sr. (1949), Paths to the Present
  2. ^ a b c Schlesinger, Arthur Jr. (1999), The Cycles of American History
  4. ^ McFarland, Andrew (1991). "Interest Groups and Political Time: Cycles in America". British Journal of Political Science. 21 (3): 257–284. doi:10.1017/S0007123400006165. JSTOR 193728.
  • Sweeney, Nathan, An Introduction to Schlesinger's "Cyclical Theory" of U.S. History
  • Brown, Jerald (June 1992), The Wave Theory Of American Social Movements
  • Goertzel, Ted (2001-06-08), Generational Cycles in Mass Psychology