In 1,000 words, write a comparative essay discussing how two history books written by different authors can fit within historiographical categories. Define these categories, discuss any overlaps and uncertainties and reflect on what we can learn from locating books in their historiographical context.

This is a draft version of a recent essay. I have no idea where the completed one is… Probably lost in the university computer system. This is an unedited version, therefore, and may be a little waffley or mistake-ridden.

History is a vast subject, spanning thousands of years of wars and conflicts, the lives of billions of citizens and rulers and hundreds of countries and colonies. Therefore, there exist many different ways in which History can be studied ranging from the study of history by statistics to the analysis of changing gender roles and the evolution of religious histories. The subject is so diverse and all-encompassing that by taking two authors discussing similar time periods in similar geographical areas, we can uncover two entirely different historical truths. To understand the method of the historian, it is essential that one comprehends and identifies which historiographical categories an author defines their work by and, in doing this, one can begin to appreciate historical truth.

Through the lens of a more traditional frame of historical study, From Colony to Superpower describes and analyses the path that the United States followed through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through the eyes of the presidents, governments and foreign powers of the time. In a comprehensive account of America’s rise to world superpower, George Herring documents economic and military statistics and legislation that drove the United States’ foreign policy and diplomacy. This type of political and military history account is well suited to the empirical and quantitative history style made use of by Herring. Contrastingly, Kidada Williams’ book, They Left Great Marks on Me, follows the history of African Americans post-slavery, focussing on print culture and oral testimonies to uncover the legacy of racial violence. Whilst covering a very similar period to Herring, William’s account of race studies offers a very different perspective on the history of the United States allowing the reader a greater insight into popular imagination and collective thought.

With chapters entitled ‘Depression Isolationism and War 1931 – 1941’ and ‘The United States in World Affairs’ it is evident that, along with elements of military and international history, Herring’s account of the United States is largely an ambitious account of traditional politics.[1] J.R. Seeley best describes the concept of traditional political history when he proposed in 1883 that any divorce between History and Politics was simply unnatural since the greatest use of History is that it can and should be used to establish and understanding of the present and to form predictions of the future.[2] Traditional political history, therefore, developed primarily as a means to educate and advise the future rulers of nations and empires, such as described by Steven Fielding.[3] Consequently, this style of history often focusses on sweeping histories of military tactics, government legislation and foreign policy in the manner of empiricist and quantitative histories; this is evidenced in Herring’s work.

Holding origins in the ‘scientific revolution’ beginning in the sixteenth century, empiricism in historical approach encourages methodical archival exploration and heavy reliance on facts to uncover historical truth.[4] Herring frequently uses data and statistics to emphasise and substantiate his arguments, such as demonstrating the development of entangling alliances between the United States and Britain at the precipice of the First World War by offering that the United States’ government extended over $80,000,000 credit to the Allies within a period of six months. This is typical of empirical histories and, also, quantitative histories. In an extension of empirical methodology, quantitative history is a study focussed and reliant upon numerical data.[5] This style of historical research encourages the historian to explore a vast array of data through primary sources, which may be presented as providing a more historically accurate version of the ‘truth’. However, such methods can be criticised for unreliability and inaccuracy in the records or an attempt to, intentionally or not, misrepresent statistical data.[6]

They Left Great Marks on Me is written in a very different manner. Whilst Williams’ book features elements of political history, it holds more closely to what Fielding explains should be referred to as ‘new’ political history; this being the development of the field of social history which ‘stressed the importance of popular experience and highlighted the oppressed groups’ struggles against the ruling elite’.[7] In this case, oppressed sufferers of racially-motivated violence, African Americans, are given the opportunity to form a personal and social account of the history of the United States. This is a clear step away from the traditional political history promoted by Seeley, demonstrating a transformation and development within the discipline.

Featuring many narratives of individual occurrences of racial violence, such as an account of the Barnwell Massacre of December 1889, Williams’ work, unlike that of many other race studies scholars, inherently avoids concentration on leaders of the Civil Rights Movement or those holding high positions in government.[8] This enables her to focus on the average black citizen, a valuable attribute of a piece that puts oral testimonies at its heart; testimonies from civilians are often rare, however, they are significantly valuable to studies since these are more likely to be delivered lacking political bias or any form of agenda. They will also enable us to discover the ‘truth’ in terms of popular imagination and collective memory. This methodology is common in social histories. Commonly known as ‘history from below’, Donnelly and Norton, illuminate the fact that this type of history developed as a response to the criticism of traditional histories that the source base was too narrow and often excluded the social context of historical development.[9]

It is certainly of great utility for readers of history to be able to place books within their historical context. Westhoff asserts that ‘we cannot fully articulate research questions or contextualise primary sources without referring to our historiographical knowledge’.[10] Westhoff continues, arguing that without knowledge of where a work fits within a ‘map’ of existing scholarship, it is impossible to fully comprehend its complexity or importance within that history.[11] Additionally, Michael Bentley purports that the ability to place works into their historiographical context has ‘produced instances of deep structural enquiry’ whereby by History has been able to progress and develop by consistently questioning and refining itself.[12] In doing this, we not only can gain a greater understanding of a topic and its historiography, but we also gain the ability to perform critical analysis and provide a new perspective on old works.

To conclude, in order to fully comprehend history, it is essential that one must first understand historiography. By gaining the ability to locate books in their historiographical context, we are able to understand how and why authors come to different conclusions and we learn how to progress and develop these conclusions. Despite both reporting the history of the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Williams and Herring offer two entirely different yet equally useful perspectives on the past. Herring offers a traditional political history of the United States’ presidents and foreign policy in an empirical and quantitative style, which proves greatly useful in terms of providing an ambitious sweeping account of the United States’ relationships with great powers in this period illustrated through the use of statistical data. On the other hand, Williams provides a fascinating ‘people’s history’ of African Americans in the same period, which valuably emphasises oral testimonies as sources to enable her account of the period to emphasise the social context of historical development.

[1] G. C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p.337.

Ibid. p.484.

[2] J. R. Seeley, The Expansion of England: Two Courses of Lectures, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp.166-168.

[3] S. Fielding, ‘Political History’, Making History, <; [accessed 1st December 2014].

[4] A. Green and K. Troup, The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), pp.1-3.

[5] Ibid, pp.141-148.

[6] Ibid.

[7] S. Fielding, ‘Political History’, Making History, <; [accessed 1st December 2014].

[8] K. E. Williams, They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I, (New York: New York University Press, 2012), pp. 101-103.

[9] M. Donnelly and C. Norton, Doing History, (Oxon: Routledge, 2011), pp.40-41.

[10] L. M. Westhoff, ‘Historiographic Mapping: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the Methods Course’, Journal or American History, 98.4 (2012), pp.1114-1126.

[11] Ibid.

[12] M. Bentley, Modern Historiography: An Introduction, (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp.v-vii.


Why did the United States stay neutral in 1914 but decide to enter the First World War in 1917?

After maintaining neutrality for the first three years of the war, the United States decided to formally enter the First World War on 6th April 1917. Beginning their position with predictable, traditional neutrality when the war broke out in 1914, the United States evaded war in accordance with their long-running central theme in foreign policy, avoiding ‘entangling alliances’. The complex set of circumstances that eventually led to the involvement of America in the First World War, results in there being no singular culprit or simple explanation for their original non-involvement transforming into a fairly unprecedented attack on the German forces. However, as a result of a long battle of Woodrow Wilson’s conscience concerning peace ideals, developing sympathies with Britain and a growing intolerance for increasingly belligerent German military tactics as the war progressed, an association with the Allied forces became ever more likely. On 2nd April 1917, President Wilson finally made an address to a joint session of Congress requesting a declaration of war against Germany, and that the United States should shed their neutrality and enter world war.

In terms of American idealism, it was inevitable that the United States should see the war from the perspective of a neutral base; ever since Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address in March 1801, American foreign policy has enjoyed ‘entangling alliances with none’ as a key feature.[1] Historian Ronald Powaski asserted that in avoiding such alliances, it was paramount that the United States should not concern itself with issues of countries afar, especially European wars – an issue President Wilson recognised swiftly upon the outbreak of war.[2] Wilson was a dedicated progressive internationalist at the outbreak of war, resulting in his assertion of isolationist policies in the beginning in order to preserve these ideals of opposition to war through asserting and maintaining peace; his ultimate goal for war time was to become an external mediator between the two sides.[3] This being a position that required complete objectivity, Wilson ensured the country’s neutrality upon the war’s commencement. The President’s handling of the war in his first term in office won him the admiration of popular progressive internationalist groups, such as the Woman’s Peace party, who believed that Wilson was at least in part avoiding war in recognition and respect of the sacredness of human life.[4]

Regardless of American ideals of an association of peaceful nations by way of disarmament and international friendship, the war in Europe raged on. In accordance with Thomas Knock’s description of the impact of internationalism on Wilson’s perspective on war, with the increasing loss of life and the determined belligerence of the German forces, all progressive internationalists accepted that eventual United States involvement in the First World War was inevitable, and that the best way for Wilson to move forward would be to intervene in an attempted arrangement of peaceful agreement, thus Wilson proposed the ending of war without a victor.[5] However, Knock continues, with Germany’s violent rejection of ‘peace without victory’ being illustrated by the sinking of a further three American ships, Wilson had no choice but to meet the German forces with strength in an attempt to prevent further unjustified killing; though Wilson’s goal of ensuring the world was a safe and peaceful place for the development of democracy and internationalism did not change, by April 1917 Wilson realised that he now had to join the war to end it. [6]

On the other hand, Wilson’s personal perspective of the value of war and his goals for world democracy are, understandably, not the sole reason for Congress to agree to wage war on another country. One of the main points to consider when studying why the United States entered the war in 1917 as opposed to 1914, has to be the economic implications of such a conflict; being such a significant economic power, the financial and industrial effects of any political judgement – particularly going to war – would have certainly had a huge impact. George Herring emphasises the fact that ‘trade was so important to Europe and the United States itself that whatever Americans did or did not do would have an important impact of the war and the domestic economy’; the reality was that it was almost implausible that the United States could remain unaffected by the war as it progressed.[7] The United States aimed to protect shipping and trading rights by remaining neutral, in an attempt to retain the ability to trade to both sides of the war effort since it was assumed that their own economy would suffer if cut off from either the German or British markets, as it was permitted to do under the Hague Convention of 1907. By maintaining their neutrality from the onset of the war, they hoped to profit from all belligerents by manufacturing munitions, hence promoting their own economic growth and industrial prosperity.

However, German-American trading was blockaded by the British with an ever-growing list of contraband items; this meant that despite theoretical neutrality, the United States were, in practice, supporting the Allies by only supplying and arming their forces.[8] Upon the dramatic increase of the purchasing of war materials by the Allies from the United States between 1914 and 1916, with total exports swelling from $40,000,000 to $1,290,000,000, the economic interests of the United States were now focussed on industrial growth through trading with the Allies as opposed to fighting for free trade with German forces.[9] This also developed an interdependency between the Allied forces and the United States – a dependency for war materials from the British and French especially and an economic reliance on the part of the Americans. Such an interdependency furthered the emerging political alliances between the two, which H.C. Engelbrecht and F.C. Hanighen suggest explains in part the late entrance of the United States into the First World War.[10]

Alongside acceptance of the British blockade binding the United States and British forces, JP Morgan’s subsidising the Allies’ financial issues by assuming the role of an Allied purchasing agent in the United States as well as government-approved credit was a step towards losing objectivity in the war, which ultimately took the United States a step closer to joining the war effort.[11] With the distinction between a loan and credit being so clearly determined, the United States was finally allowed to extend credit to the Allies – an allowance which they took advantage of to the sum of $80,000,000 over the next six months.[12] It is clear that as the war progressed America became more deeply entwined in ‘entangling alliances’ that drew them ever closer to the precipice of war.

Also influencing the timing of the United States’ entrance into the First World War, was their turbulent relationship with Britain. The United States took issue with the increasing belligerence of Allied forces, particularly the British. In part, it was the imposition of strict contraband lists which offended American ideals of free trade that alienated the United States from joining arms with the Allies. Since the British held such tremendous sea power, they had the resources and standing to use sheer force and aggressive tactics. However, this soon proved to be profitable to the United States as the British fell short of resources and desperately needed to tap into American industrial power, providing a suddenly less offensive strategy. Another significant friction between Britain and the United States was the disagreement caused by Britain’s ruthless suppression of the 1916 Irish rebellion and the violent condemnation of its leaders.[13] Though, as the war progressed, Wilson became increasingly sympathetic with Britain, proclaiming in May 1915 that despite their disagreements over blockades and freedom of the seas ‘England is fighting our fight’.[14] Wilson and the whole of the United States began to realise that at this point it was inevitable that they would join the war on the side of the Allies. Michael Lind elaborates on Walter Lippmann’s assertion that the United States would have to fight with Britain now or face a separate war against an expansionist German empire in the near future; in declaring that England was fighting the fight of the United States, Lind argues, Wilson was coming to recognise the power of Germany and its very real threat to global democracy.[15] If Germany were to win the war, the United States would have to quickly develop its military and naval resources to prepare for the new state of political instability that would be aroused by a successful German imperialist conquest.[16] By 1917, it was simply a case of questioning the United States’ preparedness in terms of national security.[17] The progressively aggressive German forces required a marriage of both the powers of the United States and the Allies to finally bring to an end the First World War.

Whilst President Wilson embraced German ideals of authoritarianism and expansionism, with some historians, such as Jonah Goldberg, going as far as to say he was fascist by nature, the way in which the Central Powers sought to gain victory in the First World War offended both Wilson and his country.[18] Almost certainly, it was the actions of the German forces growing intolerable that caused the United States to enter war when they did. Wilson was enraged when the British Isles were declared a war zone by Germany in February 1915, effectively justifying any loss of life that should occur in the area, neutral or not. Herring offers that upon the death of an American citizen one month later in the sinking of the Falaba, we see a ‘hint of future crises’ since Wilson swore to hold Germany fully accountable for its movements.[19] Continuing, Herring illuminates the bombardment of attacks that take the lives of theoretically neutral United States citizens over the next few years, including the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 taking 128 American lives.[20] Additionally, the sinking of the Sussex in March 1916, the sinking of the Laconia in February 1917 and the attack on three American merchant ships in March 1917 all represent Germany’s relentlessly violent offense strategies. Having attempted to remain a neutral party in order to promote Wilson’s ideals of progressive internationalism and peaceful international unity, it became clear that the crisis in Europe had to be countered from an offensive standpoint – Wilson could no longer play his desired role of an external mediator.

Though the US-British relationship was under immense strain following blockade strategies and the brutal suppression of the Easter Rebellion of 1916, aggressive German war tactics and the loss of American lives eventually proved to be too severe. It is certain that the United States’ timing with regards to entering the war effort was affected significantly by economic profitability; H.C. Engelbrecht and F.C. Hanighen prompt that ‘when the armistice was signed in 1918, there were 21,000 new American millionaires’ that had been created by the United States taking advantage of the need of both sides of the war effort to purchase war materials.[21] In effect, the United States used the First World War to first and foremost stabilise and grow their own economy before allowing themselves to become entangled in an alliance with a single side. Additionally, Wilson’s peace ideals and the United States’ penchant for neutrality also played a part in the delayed war entry. It is evident that despite Wilson’s attempts to keep the United States out of war in the opening years, his decision to request entry was a reaction to increasingly difficult circumstances in Europe that required his address.

[1] ‘Thomas Jefferson First Inaugural Address’, The Avalon Project at Yale Law School, <; [accessed 11 October 2014].

[2] R. Powaski, Toward an Entangling Alliance: American Isolationism, Internationalism and Europe, 1901 – 1950 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1991), p.7.

[3] Ibid.

[4] T. Knock, ‘Wilson’s Battle for the League: Progressive Internationalists Confront the Forces of Reaction’, in D. Merrill and T. Paterson (eds.), Major Problems in American Foreign Relations: Documents and Essays, Volume 1 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), pp. 523-525.

[5] Knock, ‘Wilson’s Battle for the League: Progressive Internationalists Confront the Forces of Reaction’, pp.525-528.

[6] Ibid.

[7] G. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp.400-401.

[8] H.C. Engelbrecht and F.C. Hanighen, The Merchants of Death (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1934), pp.173-175.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776, pp.400-401.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776, p.404.

[14] A. Rice Pierce, Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman: Mission and Power in American Foreign Policy (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003), p.25.

[15] M. Lind, The American Way of Strategy: U.S. Foreign Policy and the American Way of Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p.94.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776, p.405.

[18] J. Goldberg, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning (New York: Doubleday, 2007), pp.78-87.

[19] Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776, p.402.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Engelbrecht and Hanighen, The Merchants of Death, p.173.