In politics, the current party system took shape, after several decades of experimentation. From the ratification of the constitution through the civil war, hardly twenty years ever went by without major restructuring of party institutions. That was the U.S.' period of experimentation, for since then, party change has occurred only gradually, within existing party institutions.
A major subtext was that there were always some people fighting to abolish slavery and others fighting to retain it (or put off ending slavery until some distant day when it would be "safe" to do so). One reason it was a "subtext", as opposed to being in the foreground, throughout most of the period was that southern slaveholders came to view public criticism of slavery as a major cause of slave revolts (which they viewed with the utmost horror), so they strenously sought to suppress all discussion of the subject, especially within Congress. I believe, though this is no doubt very controversial, that all it took to drive the South out of the union was to have a party in power which contended that slavery was wrong. No concession to the legal unassailability of slavery could overcome their objection to having a vocal critic of slavery in the White House.
There was much ideological conflict over the bigness or smallness, and the style, of government. A new economic framework was established, especially in the north-east -- of specialized work, to get money, to use in getting goods produced by other specialists; in which work and domestic life were thoroughly disengaged for the first time. Money became central to life, and everyone, whether they realized it or not, had a big stake in stabilizing the supply and value of money, and making its institutional forms more fair.
Another big transformation of this period was that the "artificial person" of the modern corporation largely assumed its present shape, as did the style of co-action between government and business.
In this period, sociologically, some would say that modern American emerged. Basic ways of behaving in society, of educating the young, and of just thinking about the world changed radically to the point where few people can imagine where we came from, and one of the major enterprises of history today is to somehow bring us in contact with ancestors whose ways of thinking are profoundly foreign to us, and to trace, largely through this period, how we went from that to what we are now.
On the surface, illegitimate births declined early in the period, while later in the period, drunkenness was greatly reduced by the temporance movement. On the other hand, entertainments once thought to be sinful, like "frivolous" reading, playgoing, and dancing, surged in popularity.
In the religious arena, enlightenment skepticism or deism or "natural religion" had mostly seen its day in the United States (or at least the day was passed when a president could publically espouse such views). Religion was on the upswing, and becoming a much more emotional affair. At the same time, certain ideas, rooted in reform protestantism for 300 years, almost totally lost their grip; particularly the idea that people had no agency in saving themselves.
One should be careful of generalizations, however, because religious and spiritual beliefs went in so many different directions, with some very strict sects arising, and some of the older denominations becoming more formal, social, and liturgical.
Those who would, for example, make Thomas Jefferson a symbol of their ideology may take umbrage at any apparent historical facts, put forth for whatever reason, that reflect badly on his character.
The apparent fact of living at a climax in history was interpreted in many conflicting ways; interpretations were, more often than not, tightly connected to religious ideas, and reflected belief in a special time called the millennium, as predicted in the book of Revelations.
Where did Americans get their "Big Ideas" of freedom and democracy? They were continuing a ferment of ideas that had been brewing for the last couple of centuries or so. English history of the century and a half prior to the United States' founding is amazingly rich in revolutions, and in religious and political and politico-philosophical movements, all with articulate spokesmen who were still being read by nineteenth century Americans (and are still read today).
Protestantism, starting about 200 years before the Enlightenment, helped clear the way for a revolution of ideas by making the Bible its uncontested supreme authority, and asserting that no one person's interpretation of its contents was privileged (at least in theory). This ushered in an era of intense reason and disputation aimed at uncovering the all-important truth that could be gotten from interpreting this book.
England's "Protestant Reformation", based at first on political expediency, destroyed the English Catholic church without satisfying the longings of many of the people who, like Christian in Pilgrim's Progress, sought the all-important truth that would make the difference between Heaven and Hell. This partial vacuum existed at one of the greatest times ever for the development of religious ideas throughout Europe as a whole, and may largely account for the unusual profusion of sects in the England of the next century.
Many members of the new sects, such as "Quakers" and "Puritans" came to America to escape religious persecution (or rather to escape persecution in a world ruled by people who had terribly erroneous ideas; "religious persecution" too readily suggests that the Puritans embraced its opposite: "religious tolerance", a great anachronism) and to set up a new world on their own terms. In the "new world", these sects mixed uneasily with each other, with orthodox Anglicans, and with followers of new Protestant faiths, such as the Methodists and Baptists.
Meanwhile, European Enlightenment writers like John Locke, and especially a number of Scottish philosophers, helped inspire the political thinking of the American Revolution, and meanwhile inspired a liberal drift in American religion, especially among New England Congregationalists, in the general direction of Unitarianism.
I think it is fair to say that the deepest scholarship on the history of American political ideas seems to leave off somewhere in the 1790s, if they get that far, or even get as far as America (Murrin, Pocock, Henretta, Jack P. Green). After that, we seem to be studying political behavior. [Exceptions: Daniel Walker Howe....?]
For large transformations of thinking that do occur in
our period, one might look at ideas of race and gender, and the movement
away from ideas of predestination, of an angry and/or inscrutable God,
and of religious conversion as a total transformation of the soul.
Also, there is a turning away from a deep sense of hierarchy in society,
and towards an orthodoxy, at least, of "universal equality", but a universal
equality with some people left out. In the last very
few years, there has been an academic exploration of race that no longer
asks "How did white people get those ideas about black (and other minority)
people?" Instead it asks "How and why did this group of people come
to construct the idea of 'whiteness' and endow it with such importance"?
Historiographic questions often concern how to make the world better through history, and what "better" means, and whether history ought to be about any such thing. Other questions involve what aspects of history are most important, how to write about them, who to write for, and what constitutes valid and respectable historical work.
Regarding what to write about: much of historical writing consists, at least on the surface, of fairly straightforward descriptions of what happened in the past. Can we get by with saying we're "just describing what happened"? Actually, it is much in vogue to question anyone's claim that they are "just describing what was, or what is", even in the present, to say nothing of the past. One can argue that the very selection of what to describe, inevitably reflects a value bias. Just surveying a list of titles in history journals will, I think, give a sense of certain values being associated with certain objects of study.
See the essay "Ways of Thinking About History".
The "Republican Synthesis"
Race, "agency" of the oppressed, "whiteness studies".
fatedness vs contingency
Focus on the elite; narrative vs analysis
statistics and tables; population distribution maps
Reasoning like an economist (in economic history) or a lawyer (in legal history) vs reasoning like a historian.
History of ideas
The new social history
The new institutional history
The birth of the United States coincided almost exactly with Adam Smith's
popularization of the virtues of a free market; the idea that such a system
produces more general happiness and prosperity than any system in which
some group of men are supposed to consciously nurture happiness
and prosperity. During the early republic, much criticism of slavery
dwelt on its "inefficiency" due to its command driven, as opposed to market
driven economy (examples H.R. Helper, ...) In the twentieth century, many
historians and political thinkers have turned the argument around, saying
that the attempt to base an economy on anything but a free market (particularly
on socialism) can only lead to some form of slavery.
Books (a very limited, and dated, selection so far):
Since any given aspect of history seems to get revised at least every couple of decades, it seems to me we are all revisionists (at least since Moses). I heard somebody -- Howard Rock? -- make a quip about history of artisanry in the early republic being rewritten every two years, so perhaps that study gets the prize for perpetual revisionism.
Recently, for example, Richard John, who wrote Spreading the News: the American Postal System from Franklin to Morse, also wrote a piece in support of his approach to history: "Governmental Institutions as Agents of Change: Rethinking American Political Development in the Early Republic, 1787-1835", in Studies in American Political Development, 11 (Fall 1997). It can be taken as a statement of the "New Institutionalist" school of thought. He argues that a too dominant trend in history has been to view "the whole society" or some combination of global pressures on "the whole society" such as economic factors, ethnicity, changing gender roles, etc. as the be-all and end-all of historic change, and consequently view institutional behavior as an "epiphenomenon".
This debate, like the debate over whether the founders were "liberal" or "republican" gets caught up in the libertarian- communitarian axis. John points to a massive early project of the (almost inert, as some would have it) early Federal government, namely the postal system, and the legislative and executive energy and creativity that went into it, and argues that it did much (and did it by design) to cultivate a vigilant, aware, and active voting public, with, presumably a positive effect on the country.
The question of causation, or of how to cause change in the social world, when this question is examined deeply, may lead into thickets of bewildering philosophical jargon (also thickets of disturbing moral choices -- see "Ways of Thinking About History".
It may be useful to start with opposite poles of some axis, if we can find such a thing, so I will consider two extreme views, though they hardly enter into modern historic debate.
Here we revisit the "splitter/lumper" dichotomy, but as an argument
about the "essence of the Universe" rather than "which approach is more
fruitful [for studying the universe?]".
Is any insight gained from considering these most extreme positions on causation? In my opinion, a serious belief in either approach almost certainly comes from some kind of inborn construct in our mind that is born into the world looking for the "key to understanding the universe".
Both approaches, especially the latter, are related to what Richard
John criticizes -- approaches in which history is made by everybody, and
no one in particular. This is a kind of atomism with people as the atoms.
Or else, without necessarily having a worked-out atomistic theory, one
views the universe as a whole, determined by "economic forces" (an approach
which any flavor of atomist might deride as "reification").
Extreme environmentalists, like Robert Owen and Jeremy Bentham, take the position that what a person is and does is a function of environment. So has one revolutionary movement after another that believed in "making a new man" or "re-education". The pure behaviorists of the 1960s(?) took, again, an extreme position on this, while Soviet scientists under Stalin were ordered to believe in Lamarkian evolution - the claim that organisms acquire new traits directly from the pressures of environment (true to a certain extent - house cats get fatter than outdoor cats), and their offspring inherit those traits (denied by the Darwinian theory).
Perhaps what we see here is a kind of naivety of one brought up in a culture of instrumental reason, who has no tools with which to grasp the realities of social action: assigning or taking responsibility, exhorting to action, negotiating, compromising. The result can be twofold. Some unconsciously take (and demand) all of the responsibility, and cannot see that there are other responsible beings with whom one must come to terms. Others, used to hearing themselves spoken of as being affected by this or that, stop seeing themselves as autonomous beings, and if they envision change, envision it as coming from outside themselves; this attitude is a terrible handicap.
Social welfare advocates of today tilt toward environmentalism (I am not attacking it, or them). Environmentalist and/or behaviorist historians are apt to use the passive voice often, and write about people to whom things are done. Unfortunately, to the extent that we study people to whom things are done, our studies will not tell us how to produce action. This is virtually a syllogism.
At the opposite pole, "personal responsibility" advocates are apt to say that you can't change people, except maybe through their families and communities, and/or that the attempt to "help" them is invariably disempowering. They are apt to believe that, if we can affect others at all, it is by exhorting people who are not doing well in society, telling them they have to do it themselves, and somehow "inspiring" them (see "The Predictive, the Normative, the Volitional, the Promissory"; also "Speech Acts and Self Creation").
Now I think that both positions are radically wrong; that both, in effect, treat responsibility as belonging to the realm of "things and their properties", and that it doesn't belong there. This is only saying what I don't think; what I do think is a real challenge to try to say, and I'll defer it for now.