Top 173 Things in History: #149. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s Cycles of American History

People can never be fulfilled for long either in the public or in the private sphere. We try one, then the other, and frustration compels a change in course. Moreover, however effective a particular course may be in meeting one set of troubles, it generally falters and fails when new troubles arise. And many new troubles are inherently insoluble. As political eras, whether dominated by public purpose or by private interests, run their course, they infallibly generate the desire for something different. It always becomes after a while “time for a change.”

The Cycles of American History

Before historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.—not to be confused with his father, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr.—published The Cycles of American History in 1986, few people recognized that history had a point. Most instead believed that history was composed of unconnected events in the past that had little to no effect on the present.

At the time, historians defended their practice with two famous quotations: 1. Dionysius’s “History is philosophy teaching by example” and 2. Hegel’s “The owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk.” There were, however, several problems with these quotes. First, Dionysius (of Halicarnassus) lived before Jesus and was more a rhetorician than a historian.* Second, Hegel is really, really hard to understand.

*And what forms of history did he really have access to? What could he study? I assume he did all his research in the Library of Alexandria.


Schlesinger, Jr., long tired of hearing philistines decry the needlessness of the family trade, set out to prove once and for all that history was worthwhile. He started with an idea from Karl Marx;* namely, that “history repeats itself.” This may sound like an apt defense of history as is; unfortunately, Marx tends to have a complicated reputation among human beings, and he was also credited with saying, “History does nothing.”

*Let’s hope our readership doesn’t have to Wikipedia Karl Marx.

Schlesinger’s goal, then, was to take Marx’s point out of the context of Marxism and put it into the context of simple American history. He analyzed American policy in the 20th century, essentially deducing that changes in policy were usually in reaction to prior policy and the general fickleness of the citizenry. That is, if a policy was conservative and it changed to being more liberal, the policy was made more liberal because it used to be conservative.

And then it shifts back! This creates a cycle, as shown here:

Policy A —> Policy B —> Policy that looks more less like Policy A —> Ad Infinitum

It’s groundbreaking stuff.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., then, is primarily responsible for the human understanding of cause-and-effect relationships. As a result, the ensuing 23 years since he published his influential book have been the best in American history.

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