American Radicalism, 1865-1901, Essays and Documents

American Radicalism, 1865-1901, Essays and Documents

American Radicalism, 1865-1901, Essays and Documents

American Radicalism, 1865-1901, Essays and Documents

Excerpt

Radicalism has been one of the three great modes of cultural development in the United States, asserting "new meanings" and demanding "the acceptance of new forms of behavior." Throughout American history the radicals have combatted traditionalism with its staunch adherence to old forms. They have hastened the slow reorientation of "old meanings and forms to . . . new circumstances." Repeatedly the practitioners of the radical method have precipitated sharp breaks with the past through innovations that have contributed to the distinctive character of the American tradition.

For nearly two centuries in the United States, folk and sophisticated thought alike have regarded native, democratic radicalism as the peculiar product of the frontier. Such undoubtedly was the viewpoint of the Virginia gentry in 1775. Three and a half decades later Timothy Dwight of Yale College attributed the levelling influences of the day to the turbulent frontiersmen with their casual regard for property rights. Subsequent experience with Jacksonian Democracy and the agrarian movements of the late nineteenth century strengthened the conviction with which this thesis was entertained by conservative easterners. It was accepted gratefully by residents of the trans-Allegheny states as evidence of the important contribution made by their section to the nation's development. Caught up by Frederick Jackson Turner, this theory of democratic origins became a major corollary of the frontier hypothesis that has been such a factor in the development of a school of national history in the United States. Nationalist, radical democracy, Turner taught, was the creation of the moving frontier.

Under the influence of this thesis some half century of scholarship in western history has been focussed upon the regional background of the recurring periods of unrest and radical agitation. Assuming an exclusively local origin and the unique character of these movements, and stressing their direct, practical relation to specific western problems, historians have studied western radicalism almost without regard to ideological considerations or possible indebtedness to other regions.

Shortly before John D. Hicks completed his monumental study of Populism within the conceptual limits of the Turner frontier and sectional hypotheses, I undertook the study of western radicalism in terms . . .

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