History as Study of Institutions

As the end of the 19th century came and went, historians began to focus on studying national identity through the lasting institutions that make states possible, including constitutions, laws, and regional organizations. European and American historians developed such analyses along different lines: Europeans focused on the development of history as the rise, fall, and sectionalism after the Holy Roman Empire, and the Americans around the domination of the American continent and all of the problems inherent within this dominance.

One debate among European historians at the turn of the 20th century was the role of the medieval German Empire in the development of revolutionary politics in Europe. George Waitz, the leader of German medievalists, aided a combination of institutional study and imperial study by claiming that feudalism developed entirely from Germanic people and therefore, the German Empire was the pre-eminent force in the development of Europe historically. However, many medievalists differed with Waitz in how important the German empire was in the grand scheme of things.

Heinrich von Sybel felt that the preoccupation with an empire prevented a German state from developing earlier in history. Prussian historians prior to the successes of the Franco-Prussian War bemoaned the German involvement in a scheme to achieve universal rule over the continent, getting involved in costly investments in Italian unification and foreign intrigue. This debate is particularly interesting because it follows a similar line of logic as the American historical debate over the development of the American nation.

George Bancroft and other literary historians talked about the post-Civil War nation as one whole, united state in every sense of union, including a shared sense of morals. However, new problems of unity were coming out of the ashes of the war, as the nation looked to develop westward and determine their economic future. Alfred Thayer Mahan, in his seminal “The Influence of Sea Power upon History,” combined scientific historical thought and nationalistic thought by discussing the interdependence of trade and naval supremacy in American preeminence. This reliance on scientific methods in historical study causes a divergence between Americans and Europeans because American democratic institutions developed differently than European democratic institutions.

Instead of working from geographical confines and historical boundaries, the Americans had room to spread out and develop unique institutions to deal with their problems. Charles Maclean Andrews “Colonial Background of the American Revolution,” for example, uses as his central thesis the growing divergence between the colonies and the British Empire. The characteristics of the American colonies were individualism and flexibility while the British were aristocratic and staid. These same characteristics defined institutional history after revolution and independence in America and Europe.

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