John Fiske and the Dogma of Evolutionary History
John Fiske was among the first Americans to embrace evolutionary science. Fiske first read Darwin and Herbert Spencer, another English evolutionary thinker, as a student at Harvard College in 1860. He was more impressed with Spencer, and for the rest of his life Fiske was a loyal disciple of Spencer, treating his writings as gospel. And Fiske, unlike most of his contemporaries, found that evolutionary science did not menace his faith. In fact, Fiske argued that the idea of evolution allowed for the perfection of mankind according to God's plan, which brought the human and the divine closer together. Thus, for Fiske, the concept of evolution served to satisfy rather than to alienate. As a writer, Fiske began as a scientific philosopher, clarifying and defending Herbert Spencer's "synthetic philosophy." While defending Spencer, however, Fiske included his own interpretation of the meaning of evolution, although he never would admit that he differed with Spencer. In effect, Fiske "Americanized" the mechanistic concepts of the Englishmen by including the familiar deity in his discussion of evolutionism. Thus, by tempering the new science with traditional religion, Fiske made the whole system seem less dangerous. Furthermore, in his philosophical writings, Fiske tried to free man from a religion dominated by myths and dogma; but in the process he subjected man to a new and modern and "progressive" dogma: evolution. And when Fiske turned to historical writing in the second half of his life, he applied his philosophical system to American history. In this presentation, I am most concerned with Fiske as a historian. Fiske began to write American history around 1876, when the centennial celebration of American independence sparked an interest in the beginnings of the nation. Fiske's historical writings cover the history of America from Columbus to the close of the nineteenth century, but, although I will refer to nearly all of his work, I will concentrate on two of his principal publications: The American Revolution and The Critical Period of American History, 1783-1789. These two volumes are among the best of Fiske's scholarship, and in them we can find all of the ingredients of his "philosophy of history." It is impossible, however, to understand John Fiske as a historian without understanding him as a philosopher and as an American in the Gilded Age. I will, therefore, begin by examining John Fiske the philosopher and John Fiske the person. This will lead us into an analysis of Fiske's writings on American history, and through his historical writings, we will see how Fiske fit into the Gilded Age and represented many of its most basic tenets. In addition, an understanding of how Americans in this period viewed their past will help to reveal how they viewed themselves and how they perceived the Gilded Age. Thus, it is my purpose to show how John Fiske's philosophical and religious beliefs governed his writing of American history and how Fiske reflected many of the leading attitudes and values of his time.