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Environmental Interpretations of Ideas by Beard, Parrington, and Curti Author(s): Robert Allen Skotheim Source: The Pacific Historical

Review, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Feb., 1964), pp. 35-44 Published by: University of California Press Stable URL: Accessed: 16/10/2009 02:39 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, noncommercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at publisherCode=ucal. Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact University of California Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The Pacific Historical Review.

Environmental Interpretations of Ideas by Beard, Parrington, and Curt ROBERT ALLEN SKOTHEIM Robert Alien Skotheim, formerly of the University of Washington, now teaches at Wayne State University.

A MERICAN HISTORIANS in the twentieth cen- tury who have emphasized the environmental influences upon human thought have stimulated readers to look behind the word to the unseen determinants. Ideas are creatures rather than creators, occording to the environmental interpretations which have deepened our appreciation for the fact that beliefs or values or opinions do not exist alone in space. An Economic Interpretation of the Consti- tution of the United States (1913) was written, said Charles A. Beard, as a corrective to traditional historical accounts lacking "analysis of determining forces" in the environment which were responsible for the ideas appearing in the Constitution. He argued that since "the primary object" of any government was "the making of the rules which determine the property relations of members of society, the dominant classes whose rights are thus to be determined must per- force obtain from the government such rules as are consonant with the larger interests necessary to the continuance of their economic processes." Thus, wrote Beard at the outset of his examination of economic factors behind the ideas which went into the Constitution, it followed that: "The social structure by which one type of legislation is secured 35

36 PACIFIC HISTORICAL REVIEW and another prevented-that is, the constitution-is a secondary or derivative feature arising from the nature of the economic groups seeking positive action and negative restraint."' He then attempted to show a correlation between property holding and political beliefs, or more precisely, certain types of property holding and certain kinds of political beliefs. One chapter out of eleven, roughly 8 per cent of the total pages, was devoted to "The Political Doctrines of the Members of the Convention," and the purpose of the entire volume was to "explain" the brief chapter on political beliefs. Beard's conclusion, as he later expressed it, was that "the contest over the Con- stitution was not primarily a war over abstract political ideals," but was "a struggle between capitalistic and agrarian interests."2 After pushing his economic interpretation of the Constitution's formation into the period culminating with the Jeffersonian election victory of 1800, in Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy (1915), Beard applied social and economic interpretations to the entire sweep of American history in The Rise of American Civiliza- tion (1927). While discussing the Glorious Revolution of 1688, for example, he wrote that religious ideas were brought into the seven- teenth-century controversy as a "defense mechanism" by "men who were engaged in resisting taxes." "All that was reasonable enough," he added, "but the historian need not tarry long with the logical devices of men in action."8 Again, describing an argument defending the economic status quo during the late 1800's, Beard interpreted the argument as little more than rationalizing environmental economic pressures: "The capitalist system, in which the plutocracy flourished, like every other social organism, had to evolve a scheme of defense and, as things turned out, the task of justifying to man his own handiwork fell mainly to the economist in the universities that sprang up like mushrooms as the gilded age advanced."' These familiar interpretations by Beard illustrate why he is re- garded as a leading spokesman for an environmental explanation of the development of thought. What has not received sufficient atten- tion, however, is that Beard did not interpret all ideas as creatures 1Charles A. Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (New York, 1913, 1935), 10, 13. Citations refer to 1935 edition. Beard, Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy (New York, 1915, 1943), p. 3 in 1943 edition. 8Beard, The Rise of American

Civilization (New York, 1927, 1930), I, 31. Citations refer to 1930 one-volume edition. 'Ibid., II, 429.

Beard, Parrington, and Curti of their environments. When he discussed the reformist arguments which assailed the economic status quo of the late nineteenth cen- tury, for instance, no reference was made to environmental factors; rather these reform ideas were simply signs that "social criticism had crept into scholarship. Indeed, university teachers were openly proclaiming that science had nothing to do with bolstering up or assail- ing any social order; its business, they said, was the search for truth."6 The "abstract" idea of truth was the determinant behind these re- form beliefs, according to Beard, rather than environmental pres- sures. Similarly, the one idea to which he gave extended treatment (over seven pages) in The Rise was the belief in progress, and to it he attributed great causal power. Synthesizing modern scientific thought and democratic reform belief, the idea of progress was called by Beard "the most dynamic social theory ever shaped in the history of thought."6 Beard's occasional celebration, in The Rise, of the creative causal force of reform ideas and modern scientific thought, was joined dur- ing the 1930's by a more general emphasis upon ideas. Accompanying the emergence of totalitarianism in Europe, ideas came to be given greater causal power in Beard's writings. "Interests, both psychologi- cal and material, change under the impacts of ideas," he wrote in 1937: "To employ a figure, ideas march, divide, and come into conflict with themselves, with or without relation to the world of external events."7 Introducing J. B. Bury's The Idea of Progress, Beard said that the "world is largely ruled by ideas, true and false." An "idea contains within itself a dynamic power to move individuals and nations, to drive them in the direction of effecting the ends and institutions implicit in it."8 One reason why ideas had to be accorded an importance, continued Beard, was because of the necessity for preserving constitutional government: Constitutional and democratic government is impossible unless the significance of ideas is recognized. It is founded on the assumption that all social conflicts will be fought out within the framework set by the fundamental law through the exchange of ideas. To government by 6 bid., II, 430-431. 6 Ibid., I, 443. 7Beard and Alfred Vagts, "Currents of Thought in Historiography," American Historical Review, XLII (1937), 479, 461. 8 "Introduction," to J. B. Bury, The Idea of Progress (New York, 1932), pp. ix and x. 37

38 PACIFIC HISTORICAL REVIEW opinion there is no other alternative except government by violence.' In addition to explicitly arguing here that ideas are important be- cause they are the means by which differences are resolved constitutionally, Beard was also celebrating thought by his implicit commit- ment to an idea or value-that of constitutional and democratic gov- ernment. This emphasis in 1932 contrasted dramatically with his statement in 1913 that "the rules of fundamental law" embodied in the Constitution were designed simply "to secure the property of one group against the assaults of another," even if the contrast of emphasis does not amount to an explicit contradiction. At least to some extent, then, Charles Beard qualified his environ- mental interpretation of thought. His celebration of the idea of progress in the 1920's, as well as his championing of non-totalitarian beliefs during the era of totalitarianism, suggest that he had a dual interpretation of ideas, and this dualism continued during and after the 1930's. Beard's two major histories of ideas, published in the 1930's and 1940's, expressed his view of the role of ideas. The Idea of National Interest (1934) investigated one concept in the history of American foreign relations, Beard presented two conflicting policies of na- tional interest, one an agrarian Jeffersonian belief, and the other a commercial Hamiltonian concept. It was clear, to Beard, that this conflict of interest (mainly economic) provoked the conflict of poli- cies. "Public policies," he wrote, "are not abstractions": "They are the products of concrete experiences with concrete economic phe- nomena, such as the production and exchange of American com- modities, the acquisition of material sources and markets abroad."10 By contrast, The American Spirit: A Study of the Idea of Civiliza- tion in the United States (1942) was essentially a celebration of do- mestic reform thought: This idea of civilization . . . embraces a conception of history as a struggle of human beings in the world for individual and social perfec- tion-for the good, the true, the beautifulagainst ignorance, disease, the harshness of physical nature, the forces of barbarism in individuals and in society." 9 Ibid., p. x. 10 Beard, The Idea of National Interest (New York, 1934), 112. u Beard, The American Spirit: A Study of the Idea of Civilization in the United States (New York, 1942), 672.

Beard, Parrington, and Curti To this idea of civilization Beard attributed significant causal influ- ence. One component of the idea of civilization, for example, the belief in individual freedom, "was a creed of seasoned strength," which "had been one of the major forces in American civilization as fact."" In this volume, when Beard applied environmental inter- pretations to specific beliefs, the ideas were usually ones for which he had little sympathy. So Beard's famous environmental explanations of human thought were joined with his willingness to attribute great force to certain ideas. Further, one cannot fail to notice that Beard's powerful ideas were invariably ideas for which he had particular sympathy. Beard's two-sided view of the role of ideas in history was revealed also in the writings of Vernon Louis Parrington. The author of Main Currents in American Thought (two volumes in 1927; incom- plete, posthumously published third volume in 1930) ordinarily phrased his concept of human thought in terms of environmental pressure. Explaining his theory of the "origin and significance" of ideas, in a little-known essay of 1917, Parrington wrote that "ideas are not godlings that spring perfect-winged from the head of Jove." "To love ideas is excellent," he said, "but to understand how ideas are conditioned by social forces, is better still." Men "fashion them- selves ideas for swords to fight with. To consider the sword apart from the struggle is to turn dilettante and a frequenter of museums." The most important aspects of what "we call vaguely social forces" were, according to Parrington, the economic: "To understand those forces is the economist's first business; for such knowledge, he is con- fident, will explain many things which have gone too long unchal- lenged."" The economist was not the only one who could profit from such investigations, in Parrington's mind, for he wrote in 1918 to his former Harvard classmates that: "The past five years I have spent in study and writing, up to my ears in the economic interpretation of American history and literature, getting the last lingering Har- vard prejudices out of my system."' A decade later, in the "Introduction" to Main Currents of Ameri- " Ibid., 333. Written in 1917, this essay was not published until 1953 by his son. See "Vernon Parrington's View: Economics and Criticism," Vernon Louis Parrington, Jr., ed., Pacific Northwest Quarterly, XLIV (1953), 99. 1 Quoted by Thomas J. Pressly, "Vernon L. Parrington and the Writing of American Literary History," MS (Widener Library, Harvard University, 1946), 1, from

Secretary's Sixth Report Harvard (Cambridge, 1918), 220. 39





40 PACIFIC HISTORICAL REVIEW can Thought, he repeated the view that the "political, economic and social development of the country" comprised the determining en- vironment from which ideas were formed." Many of Parrington's famous biographical sketches, through which he traced intellectual currents, expressed this environmental interpretation of ideas. Samuel Sewall's beliefs, for instance, "were little more than preju- dices" because he merely rationalized the economic and political status quo, being "content with a world that justified itself by the prosperity which it brought him.""' Increase Mather's ideas, too, were shaped by "personal loyalties and interests," according to Parrington: As a beneficiary of things as they were, certain to lose in prestige and power with any relaxing of the theocracy, it would be asking too much of human nature to expect him to question the sufficiency of the estab- lished system ... as well demand that pig iron turn molten again after it comes from the matrix.7 Similarly, the later development of "the optimistic, speculative psy- chology of the new West" was due to "the determining factors . . . of abundant wild lands, rapid increase in population, and an elastic credit."' But Parrington did not always describe the origin and development of ideas in terms of social and economic environmental influences. He treated some beliefs as virtually autonomous agents. Roger Williams' thought, for example, was described without reference to environ- mental origins. Williams "lived in the realm of ideas, of inquiry and discussion; and his actions were creatively determined by principles the bases of which he examined with critical insight."19 Benjamin Franklin, despite origins which "were narrowly provincial," had an "open and free mind," with the result that he freed himself from "the prejudice of custom" and displayed "unbiased intelligence."' Similarly, Wendell Phillips resisted "the diverse Toryisms from which he and his class had hitherto prospered," because "an instinc- tive love of justice held him back."" These few examples suggest that "'Vernon L. Parrington, Main Currents of American Thought (New York, 1927, 1930), I, p. iii. Citations refer to 1930 one-volume edition. 16 Ibid., 92,94. 7 Ibid., 99-100. "8 Ibid., II, 140. " Ibid., I, 64. 0o Ibid., 165. n Ibid., III, 141.

Beard, Parrington, and Curti Parrington, as Beard, sometimes failed to apply environmental in- terpretations to ideas which were particularly attractive to the historian." Merle Curti's histories have revealed interpretations of ideas simi- lar to those of Beard and Parrington. Curti's early scholarship con- cerned the history of pacifist beliefs and peace movements in the United States, the failure of which he attributed to environmental conditions. By 1936, he came to place stress upon the economic factor in particular: peacemakers have not adequately fought the economic forces that make for war. Some aspects of the capitalistic order have undoubtedly pro- moted peace. But by its very structure this system, based on a profit- making economy, has also favored the forces of war.... In short, while individual capitalists have sincerely desired peace, war has been functional to the capitalistic system itself." Referring specifically to World War I, Curti concluded that "by and large friends of peace failed to appreciate the importance of eco- nomic interests in committing nations to war."" In other words, economic conditions created the dominant non-pacifist beliefs. Curti's environmental explanation of the non-pacifist opinion was not extended to pacifist ideas, however. "The vision of the time when swords shall be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks has remained since Biblical times vividly in the minds of lovers of humanity," he wrote. The peace movement developed "a body of brilliant arguments against war," and "the most logical arguments."' Pacifist ideas were thus described not as functions of environmental conditions, but as independent "waking dreams . . . likely to stimulate the dreamers to action."' The independent paci- fist beliefs were potentially causally significant, but were unsuccessful due to environmental factors. The characteristic trademark of Curti's writings nevertheless has s2 For a fuller treatment of Parrington, including a discussion of the literary style by which he implemented his view of the role of ideas, see R. A. Skotheim and Kermit Vanderbilt, "Vernon Louis Parrington: The Mind and Art of a Historian of Ideas," Pacific Northwest Quarterly, LIII (1962), 100-113. 2 Merle Curti, Peace or War: The American Struggle (New York, 1936), 307-308. Curti's other early work included The American Peace Crusade, 18151860 (Durham, N.C., 1929), and Bryan and World Peace (Northampton, Mass., 1931). "Peace or War, 231. 2 The American Peace Crusade, 3, 225, 227. a Ibid., 3. 41

42 PACIFIC HISTORICAL REVIEW been an environmental interpretation of thought. "The doctrine that men seek ideas to justify their activities and to promote their inter- ests," Curti wrote in 1937, "is hardly startling. ... If this is true," he continued, "it should follow that the vitality of ideas depends at least in part upon the effectiveness with which they function, on their usefulness to the interests which they serve."' Curti's The Growth of American Thought (1943) emphasized environmental influences upon thought more consistently than had the writings of Beard or Parrington. Curti's treatment of the colonists' idea of the Indian, or the belief in white supremacy and Indian inferiority, exemplified his view of the formation of thought in response to environmental pressures: The fact that the Atlantic seaboard settlers pushed westward in search of farms jeopardized the Indians' hunting grounds and made conflict inevitable. When the conflict became particularly bloody, when the white men, hysterically fearful for their lives and for those of their women and chil- dren, indulged in brutal recriminations and even in massacres, they found it necessary to justify their actions on moral and rational grounds. In their efforts to enslave the Indians the whites had already elaborated a rationale of white superiority. This rationale was now extended: the Indian was condemned as a savage incapable of becoming civilized and Christianized.' Similarly, Curti explained the functional nature of the Puritan idea of children. Puritans "imbued the child with all the qualities of mature adults," a conception of the child which "favored appeals to emulation in the training of youth": "In a society that was marked by a hard struggle for existence if not by an increasing competitive- ness, emulation in character training was useful in promoting a suc- cessful adjustment to social environment."' In the same way, Curti told how "virtually all conservatives" sup- ported the common law during the early 1800's, because "it met so well the needs of the directors of an expanding commercial and industrial society."30 The late nineteenth-century "conservatives" 27Curti, "The Great Mr. Locke, America's Philosopher, 1783-1861," reprinted from Huntington Library Quarterly (1937), in Curti, Probing Our Past (New York, 1955), 72. 2 Curti, The Growth of American Thought (New York, 1943, 1951), 20. Citations refer to 1951 edition. a Ibid., 61-62. so Ibid., 237.

Beard, Parrington, and Curti opposed reform in part because, as Curti approvingly quoted E. A. Ross, "Those who have the sunny rooms in the social edifice have ... a powerful ally in the suggestion of Things-as-they-are."' "Gradu- ally," Curti wrote of the spokesmen for the status quo, "they came to use the slogans, symbols, and ideas in the general cultural heritage which promised to be the most suitable to their needs."8 It was not only these ideas to which he was not especially attracted that Curti explained environmentally, however. He was more apt than Beard or Parrington to press an environmental explanation of ideas he admired as well as those to which he was unsympathetic or indiffer- ent. "The ideas of the Enlightenment answered new needs resulting from new ways of life," wrote Curti: The rising middle classes needed ideas quite different from those that had served the priestly and feudal classes. Natural science was a more useful instrument in guiding them in their mercantile enterprise than the revealed word. The pursuit of commerce called for religious tolera- tion, the civil liberties, respect for property, and security of property from arbitrary taxation .... Thus the doctrines of the Enlightenment provided these classes, especially the trading folk, with ideas congenial to their interests." Even the rise of modem learning was due to environmental factors, according to Curti: Scholars would not have organized and zealously attended their annual meetings of their learned societies or published their technical mono- graphs had not the new urban and industrial civilization made all this specialization and professionalization possible. Money would not have poured into institutions for the advancement of knowledge had not the economy of the nation developed to the point which permitted it and made it seem necessary and good." Curti's environmental interpretation of ideas was remarkably thoroughgoing, but he did at times attribute independent causal forces to ideas in The Growth of American Thought. While not ignoring the environmental factors supporting the development of modern science, for example, Curti also placed great stress upon the autonomy of the detached intellect. In the nineteenth century, 1 Ibid., 633. 2 Ibid., 634. S8 Ibid., 104. 84 Ibid., 581. 43 44 PACIFIC HISTORICAL REVIEW he wrote, "sheer curiosity and disinterested love of truth for the sake of truth exerted a powerful sway over scientific investigators."" Similarly, the eighteenthcentury humanitarian beliefs opposed to slavery received some impetus from environmental conditions, but "there was also a

widespread conviction that slavery was uncongenial if not contradictory to republican principles, that it stood in the way of realizing the rights of man."" Again, Curti made no environmental explanation of early nineteenth-century "radicals" who, appealing to the "eighteenth-century concept of rationally made legal codes corresponding to natural rights, favored the rejection of common law and the establishment of an American law based on natural rights."' In these instances, ideas were traced not to origins in social and economic conditions, but in a quest for truth or morality-in ideas, or values. It would seem that the writings of these three important American historians express an environmental interpretation of ideas, as is generally recognized, but they also reveal a celebration of certain ideas whose causal power does not derive solely from environmental factors. Further, in the works of Beard, Parrington, and Curti, the ideas to which independent causal power is attributed are those ideas particularly favored by these historians. Ibid., 322. m Ibid., 170. 37Ibid., 237.