Progressive Historiography of the American War for Independence

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This paper will focus on progressive historians of the American war for independence. The wording of the title foreshadows my conclusions, but please bear with me nonetheless; for I had to call this paper something...

Another word of introduction: this paper is written with a specific focus. That is, one must decide the meaning of "progressive historiography." It can mean either the history written by "progressive historians," or it can mean history written by historians of the Progressive era of American history and shortly after. I have chosen a focus more in keeping with the latter interpretation, if for no other reason than it provides a useful compare-and-contrast "control" literature. Moreover, it allows me to duck the knotty problem of defining exactly what a "progressive historian" is. (Unless, of course, one is satisfied with the explanation that the term is merely a handle by which to grasp a group of historians, and little else.)

The last caveat is this: the focus of this essay is on the predominant question of the historiographical period: was the war a revolution or a war for independence? One could choose many other questions to argue, questions that historians have for years disputed about the revolution, but there are a number of reasons why I have chosen this particular one; the two best follow. First, it is an old and time-honored question that professors and instructors have posed to their students for years; of pre-Civil War historiographical questions, it is perhaps second only in fashion during the last twenty to twenty-five years to the Jefferson-Hemmings paternity controversy. Second, the revolution-or-independence question is one of those which must be answered through interpretation. A case cannot be made that is so utterly conclusive as to exclude all others; it is that very fact that makes history at once so frustrating and so fascinating. What better way could there be to look at the writings of a specific school of historians? And so, in the pursuit of "personal truth," I proceed...

Perhaps the most famous of all progressive historians is Frederick Jackson Turner. His most famous argument is not devoted strictly to the American Revolution, but instead to the effects of the American frontier. In a sentence, his argument is that the frontier was the chief determinant in American history.

This is not to say that Turner did not write about the war; he did. Even in his seminal work, The Frontier in American History, there are discussions of the frontier''s effect on the coming of the revolution. It is worth noting, before exploring Turner's arguments, that the frontier in this period was only about one hundred miles from the Atlantic coast. Of course, as the period under scrutiny approaches the war chronologically, the frontier moves away from the ocean. But it is important to remember that Turner defines the Jamestown of Captain John Smith in 1607 as the frontier in its initial stage. So, in this context, it makes sense to the almost-twenty-first-century reader when Turner refers to the frontier as defined by the Proclamation of 1763 as the "Old West."

Turner gives an idea of his world-view near the end of the book:

The transformations through which the United States is passing in our own day are so profound, so far-reaching, that it is hardly an exaggeration to say that we are witnessing the birth of a new nation in America. The revolution in social and economic structure of this country during the past two decades is comparable to what occurred when independence was declared and the constitution was formed, or to the changes wrought by the era which began half a century ago, the era of Civil War and Reconstruction (Turner1920, 311).

This point bears further examination in the context of all the historians being compared in this paper, but in a later section. It is more important at this point to continue with the discussion of Turner's examination of the war as it relates...
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