Americans were so impressed with their own achievements that figures of speech, of growth and rise and expansion came immediately to mind in any examination of their past. The future was always more promising than the present and the present seemed always superior to the past. And, indeed, evidence of this roseate view of development was abundantly available. It did not take much imagination to lend reality to the conception of a great nation emerging from the wilderness to world power as if propelled by some irresistible, natural, or providential force--only the adjectives varied through time. The belief in success hardened into a mythical faith. It colored the view of foreigners who visited and described the country; and it subtly influenced the successive generations of historians and social scientists who analyzed the character of the United States.
By extension, the concept of national destiny applied also to smaller communities. The local histories of the nineteenth century commonly made growth their central theme, often mingling pride of place with boosterism. The chronicle of every country and municipality demonstrated the benign influence of geography or popular character on growth. Scholars too unconsciously fell into the same pattern. The places of study were those which grew most rapidly and most impressively. The written record therefore added up to one colossal success story, whether on the urban, the state, or the national level.
Yet there has been another side to the history of American communal life, one which contained failure as well as success, stagnancy as well as growth, and decline as well as