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The Uses Of Local History

July 2024
3min read

For a good many years after the appearance of trained historians on the academic scene in the 1880’s and 1890’s—all of them sanctified with a doctoral degree and most of them openly disdainful of any upstart “amateur” who dared invade their sacred precincts—the study of local history was relegated to jobless spinsters, retired lawyers, and time - on - their hands parsons whose unimaginative works, blending irrelevant facts, lifeless anecdotes, and laudatory biographies of contemporaries willing to pay for immortality, still burden library shelves. “True” historians, who ill concealed their down-the-nose attitude toward these antiquarians, had weightier matters to consider, such as the development of stirring new techniques with which to analyze human behavior and universal “laws” to explain its complexities.

Such was the case until the 1960’s when the study of local history began a remarkable evolution, slowly at first, then with increasing momentum. The pages of state and local historical-society journals mirrored that change; their articles still focused on the local scene, but their authors were scholars of national importance, and their conclusions often were linked to broad developments that shaped American society. Local history was becoming not an end in itself but a device to illuminate national history. Why this change? And why is local history today attracting more attention among professionals and amateurs alike than it has for generations past?

One reason, I expect, is the need to question the broad generalizations that were popular among scholars in the immediate post-World War II generation. These magisterial pronouncements were inspired by the realization that the mores and ways of life bred of that cataclysm required historical expianations that traditional interpretations failed to supply. With neither the time nor the inclination to grub out answers, postwar historians contented themselves with proclamations that were based on logic rather than research. These, in turn, found their way into the textbooks and threatened to prevail, even though they had never been tested.

One example will suffice. Perhaps the most brilliant generalizer of that period, Professor Richard Hofstadter of Columbia University, concluded that the Populists of the 1890’s were the logical ancestors of the hated McCarthy ites of the 1950’s, and hence harbored the same nativistic prejudices. “It was,” he wrote in his influential The Age of Reform (1955), “chiefly Populist writers who expressed the identification of the Jew with the usurer and the ‘international gold ring’ with the central theme of the American anti-Semitism of the age.” Here was a ringing pronouncement that demanded testing, and testing at the local level. Over the next years a procession of articles and books began the dissection: “Oklahoma Populism and Historical Interpretation”; “California Populism at Grass Roots: The Case of Tulare County”; “The Populist Party in Seward County, Nebraska”; a half-dozen more. All used local records to prove conclusively that the Populists were no more anti-Semitic than their fellow countrymen.

The historians who ventured into the unfamiliar realm of local history to disprove the generalizers realized that they had discovered a new key to the past and hurried to use their find. They found ample opportunity to do so as the troubled social climate of the 1960’s and 1970’s shifted the historical spotlight from national leaders to the common people. How, they began to ask themselves, did the ordinary American ’live and work and play? As they sought to answer these questions, they discovered that the newfangled computers, then beginning their remarkable proliferation, could help supply the answers. Colonial historians were first in the field, largely because the data available to them were small enough to be manageable. Their investigations vastly altered our understanding of the social structure, child rearing, education, family life, and economy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

These revelations dawned just as interest was awakening in those people of the past who traditionally had been neglected: blacks, women, Mexican-Americans, Indians, and other groups that suddenly had been thrust into the mainstream of American thought by court decisions, legislation, and changing public opinion. Long assigned to a peripheral role, these peoples had left few of the traditional records used by past historians; they could be understood only as groups and studied only by quantitative techniques. To be understandable, these techniques had to be applied at the local level. Today historians are discovering the contributions made by women and ethnic minorities to American life, by analyzing local newspapers, local voting lists, local archives, local court briefs, local estate appraisals, local tax returns, local church and school documents.

The extent to which today’s historians depend on local studies becomes clear with a glance at the program of any of the professional meetings. For example, the papers read at the 1980 meeting of the Organization of American Historians included “Migration and Persistence in a Settled Rural Community: Chelsea, Vermont”; “The Creation of an Elite Ruling Tradition in the Eighteenth-Century Virginia Southside: Lunenburg County, Virginia”; “Agricultural Development and Economic Conditions in Pelham, Massachusetts, 1740–1800”; “Reconstructing the History of a Community”; “Black Families in Chatham, Ontario, 1850–1880”; “Ethnic Labor in San Jose”; “Integrationist and Accommodationist Protest in Topeka, Kansas”; and many more. These papers would never have been read at such a meeting a generation ago. They mirror the belief of today’s scholars that the people can best be studied from the ground up.

Those historians have discovered a basic truth. History does not lose its nobility when it focuses on the particular rather than the general. Charles Eliot Norton sensed the true significance of local studies when he said of his friend, Harvard historian John Fiske: “He began with the history of the Universe; went on to the history of the United States; and may yet advance to the history of Cambridge.” For good local history is not really local history at all; instead it views the universality of the human experience through the tiny lens of a single community.

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