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Cyclical theory (American history)

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The cyclical theory refers to a model used by historians Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. to explain the fluctuations in politics throughout American history.[1][2] In this theory, the United States's national mood alternates between liberalism and conservatism. Each phase has characteristic features, and each phase is self-limiting, generating the other phase. This alternation has repeated itself several times over the history of the United States.

A similar theory for American foreign policy was proposed by historian Frank J. Klingberg.[3] He proposed that the United States has repeatedly alternated between foreign-policy extroversion and introversion, willingness to go on international adventures and unwillingness to do so.

The liberal-conservative cycleEdit

Schlesinger phases of American history[1][2][4]
From To Duration Type Name
1776 1788 12 Lib Liberal Movement to Create Constitution
1788 1800 12 Con Hamiltonian Federalism
1800 1812 12 Lib Liberal Period of Jeffersonianism
1812 1829 17 Con Conservative Retreat After War of 1812
1829 1841 12 Lib Jacksonian Democracy
1841 1861 20 Con Domination of National Government by Slaveowners
1861 1869 8 Lib Abolition of Slavery and Reconstruction
1869 1901 32 Con The Gilded Age
1901 1919 18 Lib Progressive Era
1919 1931 12 Con Republican Restoration
1931 1947 16 Lib The New Deal
1947 1962 15 Con
1962 1978 16 Lib
1978 Con
  • Lib: Liberal
  • Con: Conservative

The features of each phase in the cycle can be summarized with a table.[1][2][5]

Liberal Conservative
Wrongs of the Many Rights of the Few
Increase Democracy Contain Democracy
Public Purpose Private Interest
Human Rights Property Rights

The Schlesingers proposed that their cycles are "self-generating", meaning that each kind of phase generates the other kind of phase. This process then repeats, causing cycles. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. speculated on possible reasons for these transitions.[2] He speculated that since liberal phases involve bursts of reform effort, such bursts can be exhausting, and the body politic thus needs the rest of a conservative phase. He also speculates that conservative phases accumulate unsolved social problems, problems that require the efforts of a liberal phase. He also speculated on generational effects, since most of the liberal-conservative phase pairs are roughly 30 years long, roughly the length of a human generation.

The Schlesingers' identified phases end in a conservative period, and in a foreword written in 1999, Schlesinger Jr. speculated about why it has lasted unusually long, instead of ending in the early 1990s. One of his speculations was the continuing Computer Revolution, as disruptive as the earlier Industrial Revolution had been. Another of them was wanting a long rest after major national traumas. The 1860s Civil War and Reconstruction preceded the unusually-long Gilded Age, and the strife of the 1960s likewise preceded the recent unusually-long conservative period.

An alternative identification is due to Andrew S. McFarland.[6] He identifies the liberal phases as reform ones and conservative phases as business ones, and he additionally identifies transitions from the reform ones to the business ones. From his Figure 1,

Reform Trans. Business
1901-14 1915-18 1919-33
1933-39 1940-48 1949-61
1961-74 1974-80 1980-

Roughly agreeing with Schlesinger's identifications.

The foreign-policy cycleEdit

Klingberg phases of American foreign policy[2][3][7][8][9]
From To Duration Type Events
1776 1798 22 Int Revolution, establishment of government
1798 1824 26 Ext French naval war, Louisiana Purchase, War of 1812
1824 1844 20 Int Nullification Crisis, Texas question
1844 1871 27 Ext Texas and Oregon annexations, Mexican War, Civil War
1871 1891 20 Int
1891 1919 18 Ext Spanish-American War, World War I
1919 1940 21 Int League of Nations rejections, Neutrality Acts
1940 1967 27 Ext World War II, Cold War, Korean and Vietnam Wars
1967 1987 20 Int Vietnamization, détente, dissolution of Soviet Union
1987 Ext Post-Cold-War assertion, Gulf War, War on Terror
  • Ext: Extroversion
  • Int: Introversion

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. concluded that this cycle is not synchronized with the liberal-conservative cycle, and therefore that these two cycles have separate causes.[2]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c Schlesinger, Arthur Sr. (1949). Paths to the Present. Macmillan.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Schlesinger, Arthur Jr. (1999). The Cycles of American History. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  3. ^ a b Klingberg, Frank J. (January 1952). "The Historical Alternation of Moods in American Foreign Policy". World Politics. 4 (2): 239–273. doi:10.2307/2009047.
  5. ^ Brown, Jerald B. (June 1992). "The Wave Theory of American Social Movements". City & Society. 6 (1): 26–45. doi:10.1525/city.1992.6.1.26.
  6. ^ McFarland, Andrew (1991). "Interest Groups and Political Time: Cycles in America". British Journal of Political Science. 21 (3): 257–284. doi:10.1017/S0007123400006165. JSTOR 193728.
  7. ^ Holmes, Jack E. (1985). The Mood/Interest Theory of American Foreign Policy. The University Press of Kentucky.
  8. ^ Pollins, Brian M.; Schweller, Randall L. (April 1999). "Linking the Levels: The Long Wave and Shifts in U.S. Foreign Policy, 1790-1993" (PDF). American Journal of Political Science. 43 (2): 431–464.
  9. ^ (Page 7 of 56) - Long-Term US Foreign Policy Moods and Involvement in System Wars: Is There Any Way to Reduce the Odds? authored by Lawrence, Colin., Holmes, Jack., Johnson, Lauren. and Aardema, Sara.

Further readingEdit