American History Periodization: Time for New Definitions?

I’m about to drop a bomb on you.  Ready?  History is everything.  When I first started studying history in college my professors liked to emphasize this. Apparently they thought that the general public thought of history in very limited terms, namely dates, great leaders and wars.  The process of studying everything from a historical viewpoint never really “started.”  It’s always been there, but it accelerated (here in America at least) in the 1950s and ’60s with the New Left and a focus on racial history, women’s history, environmental history and the like.  Now the study of history is a badly fractured field.  (Cue my Jerry Seinfeld impression) Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  But it does lead to super-specialization that hurts the field as a whole, perhaps more than specialized study helps.  One of the more traditional ways to study history as been periodization.  That is, the breaking up of history into digestible bits of time.  

Periodization is a very fuzzy thing.  Historians love to be revisionist, and to strength or shrink periodization forms the basis of several seminal works.  Historians have long argued over when the Roman Empire really collapsed.  Should we count the collapse of the western empire?  Or should we count the fall of the Byzantines centuries later?  You get the idea.  In American history these debates are less frequent and there seems to be a more general consensus about periodization. I’m not so sure that’s a good thing.

The general gist of American history periods goes like this:  

  • The Colonial Era (ca.1600-1776): Britain colonizes what will become the United States, up to the Revolution.
  • The Revolutionary Era (1776-1789): The war, followed by the Founders creating a modern republic up until the creation of the Constitution.
  • Constitutional Era (1789-1815): Creation of the Constitution through the War of 1812.  Admittedly, I’m not sure if this is an accepted term or not.  This seems to be another vague era.
  • Era of Good Feelings (1815-1829): An era defined mostly by politics.
  • Jacksonian Era (1829-1837): Indian Wars and the democratization of American politics.
  • The Civil War Era (1840ish-1865): Another vague definition encompassing the careers of the people involved in the Civil War and the antebellum south.
  • Reconstruction (1863-1876): Rebuilding the South after the Civil War.
  • Gilded Age (1870s): Lots of political corruption.
  • Indian Wars and Expansion (1870s-1890)

And so on and so forth.  It’s messy and there are a lot of deviations depending on what sort of history you’re studying.  But here is my concern:  We need a good definition for the era of 1898-1941.  It contains the Progressive Era, the “Imperialist” Era, the New Deal Era, the Jazz Age, etc.  On paper, these things seem like they are quite different, but I contend that there are enough similarities to consider them all part of one long age.  

The year 1898 seems like a good jumping off point, as it marked the emergence of America as a nation with world-wide interests.  But the main issues of the day stayed similar throughout this era.  War, international cooperation, immigration, the foundations of modern technology like the automobile and the airplane, race conflict, the Roosevelts and labor movements all stayed fairly consistent during these years.  Politics, which often lend a defining influence to a historical era, stayed more or less the same from the 1890s up to F.D.R.

So what should we say about this era? I find my interests gravitate toward here but I find it difficult to describe to people what exactly it is that I study. It’s like a pre-modern, yet still modern, age.  A strange hybrid of old and new ideas.  Maybe the Whirlwind Era? Faced with tremendous changes the U.S. struggled to maintain a national identity rooted in tradition without being totally conservative.  

The term most often used for the era is the Progressive Era, but I’m just not sure that encompasses everything as well as it could.  And it certainly doesn’t cover the entirety in terms of years.


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