The role of a historian is to investigate and translate past events to uncover present day insights and meanings. Given that both individually and societally we tend to learn from past successes and mistakes, it is quite evident the value that historians have provided society throughout American history. To acknowledge and celebrate this profession, here are five famous American historians of the 20th century.
Frederick Jackson Turner
Born on November 14, 1861 to a history aficionado in the small town of Portage, Wisconsin, Frederick Jackson Turner’s interest in history was so developed that by the time he graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1884, he was certain about studying history full time. Within academia, Turner’s historical interests were varied, but he developed his “frontier thesis” on how America’s early frontier life served as the best representation of American history. In fact, one of Turner’s most well-known speeches, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” is praised by academics, and seen as one of the most influential pieces of writing in the history of American history. Turner’s thesis stemmed from his belief that the frontier and westward expansion were deeply influential on the American character, with his most groundbreaking idea being that the promotion of individualistic democracy was the greatest effect of the frontier.
Born on August 6, 1916, Richard Hofstadter’s career started gaining momentum in his late 30s, as his unique take on American history led to a series of bestselling books. Two of these books won Pulitzer Prizes -The Age of Reform (1955; 1956 Pulitzer Prize) & Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963; 1964 Pulitzer Prize). Influenced primarily by leftist political groups, Hofstadter sought to investigate the financial interests and goals of the elite and, in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, even went as far as to say that the masses have been trained to look down upon intellectuals, stating “intellect is resented as a form of power or privilege”. His controversial thesis questioned the democratization of education and its effect on the access to education, as well as claiming that this movement led to the foundations of anti-elite permeating America’s political and social fabric. The importance of this thesis was that it not only connected the origins of anti-intellectualism and utilitarianism with the democratization of education, but also postulated that these ideals were not intrinsically connected to democracy, but rather American culture. This thesis brought newfound clarity to our cultural understanding of democracy and American culture, and has inspired many scholars to further explore anti-intellectualism and its impact on America.
William Appleman Williams
William Appleman Williams was born on June 12, 1921, near the small town of Atlantic, Iowa. As one of America’s most important historians of the 20th century, Williams had a strong philosophical stance which caused him to consistently challenge the established study of American history. In particular, Williams’ The Tragedy of American Diplomacy is considered by many historians to be one of the most groundbreaking books on American historical conduct abroad. In his book, Williams identified the United States as an empire and examined the major contradictions between America’s ideals and its uses of power. In doing so, Williams became one of the first modern historians to incorporate economic realities into the study of America’s foreign policy.
Born on September 9, 1922, Bernard Bailyn grew up in Connecticut and stayed in the Northeast, earning his Ph. D. from Harvard University in 1953. Within American history, Bailyn specialized in the Colonial and Revolutionary eras with specific interests in the political and philosophical motivations of the Patriots. His work on this period earned him the Pulitzer Prize for History twice (The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution in 1968 & Voyages to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution in 1987). Through his work, Bailyn was able to shed light on the colonial period and its massive impact on today’s world. From the social basis of colonial politics to early American immigration, Bailyn was able to give context to our nation’s history and highlight the role of ideology in the thinking of the leaders of the American Revolution.
Gordon Wood, born on November 27, 1933, is one of the most praised historians in American history. Much of this praise is due to Wood taking an unbiased approach to his work, allowing it to resonate with critics and academics from all across the political spectrum. One of Wood’s most well-known works is his 1991 Pulitzer Prize winning take on the American Revolution, The Radicalism of the American Revolution. In it, Wood describes the American Revolution as an act to merge a divided nation and government into the democracy that it is today. Wood’s thesis reignited interest amongst scholars in both the causes and results of the American Revolution, a topic that prior was considered banal. As a result, The Radicalism of the American Revolution brought a new understanding of just how monumental the revolution was, leaving many agreeing with Wood that the American Revolution was one of the greatest in the entire world. Wood has written numerous other books to critical acclaim, particularly The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787, which earned a nomination for the National Book Award.
While some of these historians have passed away or retired, Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood are still at work influencing American History today. As of late, Bailyn has been researching the history of the Atlantic World, while Wood’s latest book, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815, was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize.
Norwich University is an important part of American history. Established in 1819, Norwich is a nationally recognized institution of higher education, the birthplace of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), and the first private military college in the United States.
With Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in History, you can enhance your awareness of differing historical viewpoints while developing the skills needed to refine your research, writing, analysis, and presentation skills. The program offers two tracks – American History and World History, allowing you to tailor your studies to your interests and goals.
Richard Hofstadter, Encyclopedia Britannica
Professor Gordon Wood, U.S. History
Gordon S. Wood, Historian of the American Revolution, New York Times
1893, National Humanities Center
Off Dead Center: William Appleman Williams, The Nation
Bernard Bailyn, National Endowment for the Humanities