American Collections blog

29 September 2010

Guest Post: In Search of Meaning

Following Prof. Miles Ogborn's guest post, we are pleased to have another guest piece, this time from graduate student, Richard Roberts:

The British Library is a rather daunting place to come to as a young post-graduate student. Arriving for the first time in mid-August to do some preparation for the year ahead, I was at once over-awed by the sheer volume of people inhabiting the reading rooms, heads buried in this or that manuscript or monograph. After an abortive attempt to make myself at home in Humanities 1, which was, perhaps predictably, full, I finally found myself a seat in the rather more tranquil environment of Business & IP 2, where for the next six weeks I set about reading everything relevant to my chosen research topic that I could lay my hands on. There have been some deeply frustrating moments – ordering a copy of a journal published in 1895 only to discover that the volume I was handed by the staff in the Rare books reading room only contained the cover page being a particular lowlight – but overall my experience of using the BL has been a very positive one.

About a year ago I was struck by the extraordinary spectacle of all three main UK political parties squabbling over the strength of their respective claims to use one particular label to describe themselves: progressive. This display made me wonder why this label had suddenly become so universally popular and what, if anything, it actually meant. By looking at the history of the progressive label in both UK and US politics since it first appeared in the final decades of the 19th century, I hoped I might be able to shed some light on the answers to these questions. After six weeks of research at the BL, I am still a long way from being ready to offer an authoritative answer to either question but I am greatly encouraged by the kind of company I have discovered myself to be in, in wondering about the abstract and ever-changing nature of political labels.

As long ago as the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, in the second volume of his seminal work, Democracy in America (available in countless different editions and translations at the BL), noted that 'democracies have a taste, and often a passion, for general ideas … The form this love of general ideas takes in language is a continual use of generic terms and abstract words.' Tocqueville went on to point out that democratic writers used these abstract words in a 'more and more abstract sense.' This made Tocqueville rightly sceptical about the possibility of pinning down the meaning of such abstract terms, which he caustically likened to 'a box with a false bottom; you may put in it what ideas you please and take them out again unobserved.'

Tocqueville of course was commenting on a democratic political discourse that was still very much in its infancy. As that discourse has matured, and language has become increasingly codified, the meaning of abstract labels has perhaps become less malleable. “Progressive” however remains something of an enigma. It has been used as a self-designation by so-called “conservatives”, as much as by “liberals”. Indeed the list of historical figures to have labelled themselves “progressive” contains alongside the familiar favourites – the two Roosevelts, Woodrow Wilson, Robert La Follette Jr., Henry Wallace, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair – some perhaps rather unexpected names – William McKinley, Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge, Harold Macmillan, David Cameron and John McCain.

Perhaps the lesson from all this is that we should stop using words whose meaning is so difficult to pin down, but the chances of that happening, at least while those words continue to poll well, seem rather slim. So the debate over what words like “progressive” mean must go on. What is rather exciting though for historians today is that that debate increasingly includes them. Words have histories of their own and those histories can and should influence the way we use and understand those words today.

Richard Roberts is currently studying for an M.St in US History at the University of Oxford. He can be contacted via richard.roberts@spc.ox.ac.uk

 

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