"Cycles of American History"

The Great Depression experience of the American people from 1929 through 1941 is, in my opinion, one of the most important periods in the long saga of this country. The economic disaster and the efforts of the nation to deal with the despair and suffering it produced shaped and molded the attitudes of an entire generation of American citizens. Just as importantly, it produced governmental changes which continue to effect each and every one of us three-quarters of a century later. The Depression, however, cannot be adequately understood without reference to the broader sweep of American history with all its currents and eddies. Therefore, a brief overview is necessary.


Henry Adams' Pendulum Model

Historians have long talked about a seemingly cyclical nature to our countrys history - that trends, attitudes, and events tend to repeat themselves with marked regularity and that Americans tend to move back and forth between two different and competing impulses or motivations. One of the first to note this phenomenon was the nineteenth century historian Henry Adams. Writing shortly after the nation's inception, Adams postulated that the country seemed to swing back and forth like a pendulum between periods of centralization and diffusion of national energy every twelve years or so. According to Adams, Americans are motivated primarily by their fear of centralized power in periods of diffusion. At times such as these, they attempt to limit the national government in a variety of ways and tend to focus their attention on their individual area or state's needs. At other times, citizens recognize the need to have centralized direction of the nation; that there are needs which transcend state boundaries that only the national government can address. Americans tend to go in one direction for a period of years before becoming convinced they have gone too far and begin to swing back in the other direction.

Adams contends that there was a diffusion of national energy and power between the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the creation of a stronger federal government under the Constitution in 1788. We rebelled against Great Britain in large part because we felt that government under King George III and the British Parliament was too powerful, too arbitrary, and too far away. Once the decision to wage a war of national liberation was taken, Americans created an extremely weak government under the Articles of Confederation. The national government existed in name only; power was overwhelmingly reserved to the individual states which behaved almost as if they were independent nations. This produced near disaster. Americans began to understand that without a stronger national government looking out for the needs of all Americans, the new country might lose the independence it had just won on the battlefield. They, therefore, began moving in the opposite direction.

Between 1788 and the end of the century, power and swung to the national government under Presidents George Washington and John Adams. Their administrations launched a national currency and a national banking system. Steps were taken to guarantee the supremacy of federal law. The central government removed trade barriers between the various states and directed the nation's trading relationship with the rest of the world. However, Americans began to fear that they had gone too far in this direction as the century drew to a close.

Diffusion once again became the predominant mood between 1800 and 1812. Thomas Jefferson was elected president because the majority of Americans agreed with the Virginian that federal power had gotten out of hand and must be curtailed. The rights of individual states had to be protected and power returned to the local level. Adams argued that this trend continued through 1812.



Declaration of Independence to the Ratification of the Constitution


Launching the New Federal Government to Jefferson's Election



Jeffersonian Republicanism to the War of 1812


Arthur Schlesinger, Sr.'s Spiral Model

Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., a prominent twentieth century American historian, presented a rather different model of cyclicality in the late 1940s work entitled Paths to the Present. According to Schlesinger, Sr., the United States cycles back and forth between periods of liberalism and periods of conservatism with an average cycle length of sixteen and one-half years.

In this model a "liberal" period is one in which the national objective is to "increase democracy" while in a "conservative" period the objective is to "contain democracy." Schlesinger, Sr.'s use of the term "democracy" should be understood as being social and economic as well as political. A review of the periods he identifies as "liberal" shows them to be eras in which the nation moved to improve the status quo politically, socially, and economically. The effort is undertaken to include ever greater numbers of citizens in the mainstream of American life. "Conservative" periods, according to this model, are characterized by a defense and maintenance of the status quo in all three areas.

Schlesinger, Sr. also rejected the visual image of a pendulum "because it implied oscillation between two fixed points." The cycle, he pointed out, did not return the nation to the status quo ante. While retrenchments occurred in conservative periods, most of the reforms of the preceding liberal period survived. Therefore, the pendulum didn't swing back to the same fixed point. A more appropriate image, he maintained, was "the spiral, in which the alternation preceded at successfully higher levels and allowed the cumulation of change."

Notice in the graphic which follows the variable number of years in each cycle; sixteen and one-half years is only the average. The most glaring deviation from the sixteen and one-half year average is between 1861 and 1901. The liberal period which began with the onset of the Civil War lasted for only eight years until 1869. The conservative reaction which began in 1869, according to Schlesinger, Sr., lasted for thirty-two years until 1900, twice the sixteen year average. Why such a pronounced deviation from the normal cycle length?

The author's explanation was that the depth of change in the Civil War and early years of Reconstruction was so great that it couldn't last for the normal sixteen and one-half years. Further, the degree of democratization was so great in this brief period that the next conservative cycle would last much longer than normal. "...the prolongation of the counter movement in the next period was a form of compensation to restore the rhythm."



The New Deal


Republican Restoration


Progressive Era


The Gilded Age


Abolition of Slavery and Reconstruction


Domination of National Government by Slaveowners


Jacksonian Democracy


Conservative Retreat After War of 1812


Liberal Period of Jeffersonianism


Hamiltonian Federalism


Liberal Movement to Create Constitution

Schlesinger, Sr.'s model, if carried forward to the present, would include three more cycles: conservative from 1947 to 1962, liberal from 1962 through 1978, and conservative once again from 1978 through 1993. Events seemed to bear out the predictive accuracy of the model. 1947 through 1962 was indeed a conservative period in the United States featuring a Republican resurgence both in Congress and the executive branch during the Eisenhower administration. Further, the United States witnessed the end of the domestic revolution which had begun with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and the Second Red Scare, popularly known as McCarthyism, gripped America from the end of World War II through the middle 1950s. A liberal period followed from 1962 through 1978. This era featured tremendous advances in civil rights and efforts to eliminate poverty under the Great Society program of President Lyndon Johnson. This could also be characterized as a liberal era given the tremendous concern with removing all sorts of discrimination and injustice exhibited by the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the student movement, and efforts to preserve the environment. By 1978, however, liberalism had spent itself and was followed by the demise of the Carter administration, the emergence and political victory of the "New Right", and the Regean administration. In short, events since 1947 seem to bear out the predictions of the Schlesinger, Sr. model.


Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s Changes and Extensions to the Model

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a prominent contemporary historian most noted for his three volume study entitled The Age of Roosevelt, has in recent times published a book entitled The Cycles of American History in which he extends and supplements his father's study of the late 1940s.

Schlesinger, Jr. proposes different terms for the extremes of the cycles. Instead of "liberal" and "conservative," he proposes the terms "public purpose" and "private interest." The dynamic is between a willingness to sublimate private personal gain and interest to the greater national good and purpose and an unwillingness to do so. In some ways, this is not really significantly different from the earlier terms; it simply takes them out of the realm of political labels which are thrown around with such inprecision and condescension.

Schlesinger, Jr. also extends his father's writings. He points out, for instance, that for these cycles to be genuine, they must be self-generating. They are not determined by external events. "War, depression, inflation, might heighten or complicate moods, but the cycle itself rolls on, self-contained, self-sufficient, and autonomous." For instance, "The Depression ushered in the New Deal, but the Progressive Era began in a time of general prosperity, and two grinding depressions took place in the 1869-1901 period without reversing the ground swell of conservatism."

This raises a very important point. The 1930s featured an incredible change of government and our attitude about government's responsibilities. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, with the backing of the majority in the country, literally remade government in the United States during the Great Depression.

Here was a depression, indeed the worst and the longest depression ever in American history, coming just as the country was beginning to enter a liberal or public purpose cycle. The Depression didn't cause the liberal cycle but it greatly heightened the change that would occur during the New Deal years.

American history and government might be very different today had the Great Depression occurred at the end of a liberal cycle as the country was preparing to enter a conservative period. Given such an occurrence, the country could well have moved as far to the right or conservative end of the political spectrum as it actually did to the left or liberal end during the Depression decade.

Schlesinger, Jr. also attempts to identify the possible reasons why we shift back and forth as a country between these two competing impulses.

"Disappointment is the universal modern malady. It is also a basic spring of political change. People can never be fulfilled for long either in the public or private sphere. We try one, then the other, and frustration compels a change in course." "...however effective a particular course may be in meeting one set of problems, it generally falters and fails when new problems arise. And many troubles are inherently insoluble. As political eras, whether dominated by public purpose or by private interest, run their course, they infallibly generate the desire for something different." "Reform in the United States tends to come in bursts. Finally the rush of innovation begins to choke the body politic, which demands time for digestion." "Sustained public action, moreover, is emotionally exhausting. A nation's capacity for high-tension political commitment is limited. Nature insists on a respite. People can no longer gird themselves for heroic effort." "Worn out by the constant summons to battle, weary of ceaseless national activity, disillusioned by the results, they seek a new dispensation, an interlude of rest and recuperation." "Undercurrents of dissatisfaction, criticism, ferment, and discontent exist." Even in the "me first, devil take the hindmost" 1980s, for instance, there were persistent concerns with poverty, homelessness, hunger, influence peddling, etc. According to Schlesinger, Jr. "People grow bored with selfish motives" and "weary of materialism as the ultimate goal." "Each new generation when it attains power, tends to repudiate the work of the generation it has displaced and to reenact the ideals of its own formative days of thirty years before."

"Each generation (which Schlesinger, Jr. stipulates as thirty years) spends its first fifteen years after coming of political age in challenging the generation already entrenched in power. Then the new generation comes to power itself for another fifteen years, after which its policies pale and the generation coming up behind claims the succession." These "...fifteen year oscillations roughly match Henry Adams' twelve years in the early republic (when life expectancy was shorter) and my father's sixteen and one-half years."


All quotations are from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s The Cycles of American History, Houghton Mifflin Co. (New York, 1987)

© L. Patrick Hughes, 1999