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In his preface to Origins of the New South, 1877–1913 (1951), C. Vann Woodward quoted historian Arnold J. Toynbee’s boyish celebration of the British Empire. On the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, Toynbee thought, “Well, we are top of the world, and we have arrived at this peak to stay there—forever! There is, of course, a thing called history, but history is something unpleasant that happens to other people.” As for American history, Toynbee thought a New Yorker would have felt the same way. But “if I had been a small boy in 1897 in the Southern part of the United States, I should not have felt the same; I should have known from my parents that history had happened in my part of the world.” Both Toynbee’s observation and Woodward’s use of it reflect the belief that perspective matters in history.

Taking Toynbee and Woodward’s cue, this article focuses on the construction of history by North Carolina historians. The approach is not typical historiography. Instead, it describes historians’ lives, values, personal correspondence, and working careers to better understand the process of twentieth-century historical writing. The creation of North Carolina Populism between 1900 and 1960 provides the vantage point. During these decades and beyond, historians’ characterization of North Carolina Populism demonstrated that Populist histories only pretended to describe events during the 1890s. They were really about the present and also a future desired by the historians. In an initial Progressive Era, which lasted from the end of Populism into the 1930s, the historians offered an account they hoped would appeal to and influence behavior during their own generation. Perhaps more importantly, these Progressives inaugurated a tradition of politicized purpose in academic history that continued long after they departed from the scene. The next generation of Populist historians, writing between the 1930s and the 1960s, challenged the Progressive vision and offered a different meaning to Populism. Both the Progressives and their critics, however, agreed that history was a tool for providing moral, economic, and political foundations for contemporary politics. This result is not in itself surprising. More pertinent to understanding the evolution of Populism is describing precisely how and through whom the process occurred.