Commentary Magazine


The Cult of the “American Consensus”:
Homogenizing Our History

Examining the recent work of historians who argue that the essence of America’s genius is its subordination of ideas to practical needs, John Higham enters a few caveats. 

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In retrospect, it is becoming apparent that the decade of the 1940’s marked a fundamental change of direction in the exploration of the American past. At the time nothing very unusual seemed to be happening in the minds of American historians, in spite of the clamor in the world around them. The usual outpouring of conventional monographs continued. Our endless fascination with the pageant of the Civil War produced a new but not a very different crop of narratives. There was, to be sure, a rising volume of criticism of the giants who had dominated American historical scholarship in the period between the wars: Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles A. Beard, and Vernon L. Parrington. But the image they had fixed on the screen of the American past had only begun to dissolve. As late as 1950, when Henry Steele Commager’s The American Mind carried our intellectual history down to date in the spirit of Parrington, the result sounded only a trifle old-fashioned.

In the last few years, however, the critical attacks of the 40’s have matured into a full-scale reappraisal of the main themes in American history. The great trio of yesteryear have gone into eclipse. Their vision of an America in which democracy, vaguely associated with the West, battled against entrenched economic privilege no longer seems basic enough to define the shape of our national development. On the whole, the distinctive interpretations of Turner, Beard, and Parrington no longer appear persuasive enough to evoke really lively controversy. They linger on, flattened and desiccated, in the pages of many a textbook, where they may occasionally inflame the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Daily News, and others who specialize in discovering the menace of dead issues. Meanwhile, our living historical awareness has moved so far from the interests of Turner, Beard, and Parrington that interpretive historians now feel less need to criticize or defend them than to supersede them.

Giants being notoriously oversized, no one has yet stepped into their shoes. The new books that are giving us an altered sense of who we are lack either the scale or the density or the architectural strength that history of the first order of importance must have. Still, some lively work is being done. Some important books that try to fit fragmentary research into a new pattern, plausible to contemporary sensibilities, are being written. The dominant image they project bears few resemblances to the turbulent picture that prevailed before the 1940’s.

An earlier generation of historians, inspired by Turner, Beard, and Parrington and nurtured in a restless atmosphere of reform, had painted America in the bold hues of conflict. Sometimes their interpretations pitted class against class, sometimes section against section; and increasingly they aligned both sections and classes behind the banners of clashing ideologies. It was East vs. West, with the South gravitating from one to the other; farmers vs. businessmen, with urban workers in the pivotal position; city vs. country; property rights vs. human rights; Hamiltonianism vs. Jeffersonianism. These lines of cleavage were charted continuously from the Colonial period to the present. They gave a sense of depth to the social struggles which historians in the early 20th century observed all around them.

The divisions between periods loomed as large as those between groups. Among scholars attuned to conflict, American history appeared jagged and discontinuous. Historians like Beard had an eye for the convulsive moments in history, and they dramatized vividly the turning points when one side or the other seemed to seize control. To them, America had had several revolutions, usually triumphant over formidable resistance, and always big with unfulfilled promise. They saw the revolution of 1776 not simply as a war for independence but as a drastic redistribution of power within the Colonies. They called the Civil War the “Second American Revolution,” and in between they acclaimed the “Revolution of 1800,” when Jefferson came to power, and the militant rise of the common man behind Andrew Jackson. There was, of course, the Industrial Revolution, followed by the heroic Populist Revolt; and similar social conflicts throughout the Colonial period caught their attention.

With some lapse of consistency these connoisseurs of change often played down the newness of the New Deal. The closer they looked to the present, the more clearly they observed the traditional elements in a movement of protest. The issues of their own day, they knew, were anchored in a long heritage, the changes no more than might be expected; the transitions of the past looked much more radical. Over all, however, the crises of American history stood out as the milestones of progress, when men shed outworn beliefs and remade their institutions in response to the demands of a changed environment.

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In contrast, the new look of American history is strikingly conservative. More than at any time before, historians are discovering a placid, unexciting past. To an impressive degree, the dominant interpretations have recaptured the spirit of Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America has emerged in recent years from a characteristic neglect during the early 20th century. As Tocqueville did more than a century ago, today’s historians are exhibiting a happy land, adventurous in manner but conservative in substance, and—above all—remarkably homogeneous.

For one thing, current scholarship is carrying out a massive grading operation to smooth over America’s social convulsions. The American Revolution has lost its revolutionary character, becoming again what genteel historians had always said it was: a reluctant resistance of sober Englishmen to infringements on English liberties. We have learned that the Jacksonians yearned nostalgically to restore the stable simplicity of a bygone age, and that the Populists were rural businessmen deluded by a similar pastoral mythology. Paradoxically, we have even grown conservative enough to recognize fairly radical changes in the recent past and so to probe, with Richard Hofstadter, for elements of social revolution in the New Deal. Hofstadter’s very influential book, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (1955) neatly reverses the older views. It presents Populism in the 1890’s and Progressivism in the early 20th century not as mighty upheavals but as archaic efforts to recapture the past. On the other hand, it shows the New Deal as an abrupt break with the past.

Among earlier crises, the Civil War alone has resisted somewhat the flattening process. Yet a significant decline has occurred in the number of important contributions to Civil War history from professional scholars. One is tempted to conclude that disturbances which cannot be minimized must be neglected. On the other hand, the growing attraction of the Civil War to journalists suggests that it provides a larger public with a kind of surrogate for all of the other dramatic moments that historians are deflating.

By reducing the importance of these turning points, the newer interpretations have enabled us to rediscover the continuity of American history, the stability of basic institutions, the toughness of the social fabric. The same result is also being attained by dissolving the persistent dualisms, which Parrington and Beard emphasized, and substituting a monistic pattern. Instead of two traditions or sections or classes deployed against one another all along the line of national development, we are told that America in the largest sense has had one unified culture. Classes have turned into myths, sections have lost their solidarity, ideologies have vaporized into climates of opinion. The phrase “the American experience” has become an incantation.

To fill in its meaning, historians have joined social scientists in a new fascination with the concept of national character. Since definitions of national character necessarily concern the pervasive, persistent features of a whole culture, progressive scholars distrusted them. Today, however, the study of national character brings out the unifying effects of forces that formerly impressed us as disruptive. Thus David Potter’s People of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the American Character (1954) advances an economic interpretation of our similarities instead of our differences. Whereas the generation of Parrington and Beard had explained basic cleavages on economic grounds, Potter shows our wealth shaping our common ways of life.

Of course, the new interpreters have to face a considerable amount of real strife at various times in the history of the nation. They must also recognize that many Americans at such times have thought their country cleft between “haves” and “have-nots.” But an emphasis on the belief can help to minimize the reality. A psychological approach to conflict enables historians to substitute a schism in the soul for a schism in society. Certainly present-day scholars tend to subjectivize the stresses in American life. Divisions, which the previous generation understood as basic opposition between distinct groups, turn into generalized psychological tensions running through the society as a whole. John Dos Passos’s bitter outburst in the 1930’s—“all right we are two nations”—becomes the record of a state of mind. An able synthesis of recent research on the age of the great tycoons explains the popular outcries against them as a projection upon one group of responsibility for the rapid industrial changes into which all were thrown.1

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Accordingly, when historians today write critically, they scrupulously avoid singling out any one segment of the population for blame. They either criticize the myths and stereotypes that have exaggerated the differences between competing groups; or they attack our uniformities and hanker for more variety. Louis Hartz, in what was perhaps the most outstanding of the new interpretive books, The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought Since the Revolution (1955), worried because we have no other tradition. A regime of freedom has had so unchallenged a sway in America, Hartz contended, that most American political debate has been shadow-boxing. “America must look to its contact with other nations to provide that spark of philosophy, that grain of relative insight that its own history has denied it.”

Hartz’s own sympathies lay with dissent and diversity. He was clearly disturbed by the soporific intellectual implications of the liberal consensus he described. To take full advantage of the new monolithic approach to American history would require a point of view much more complacent, much less internationally oriented, and much less respectful of the value of ideas. About the time when Hartz was first publishing the early chapters of his book in scholarly journals, Daniel J. Boorstin was making a similar but more drastic revision of American history in a conservative direction. Boorstin wrote in a mood thoroughly in tune with the unphilosophic harmony which he and Hartz were independently appraising.

A slim volume of lectures published in 1953, The Genius of American Politics, stated the essence of Boorstin’s thesis. Ostensibly, the book concerned a relatively limited problem: why has America produced almost no systematic, fundamental political theory? Boorstin was not the first, of course, to brood over this question. Most American intellectual historians try pretty hard to deny the charge. Boorstin, however, had no apologies to make. He presented this supposed shortcoming as a triumphant demonstration of our success as a nation. With sour, sidelong glances at Europe, he argued that Americans did not need basic theories. Having no deep antagonisms, they could dispense with metaphysical defenses. Never having repudiated their past, they could discuss their problems as lawyers rather than political philosophers. American values had emerged from happy experience; here the “ought” derived from the “is.” In the 20th century, he admitted, Americans could no longer take themselves for granted; but let them not therefore try to acquire an ideology and become crusaders. American political thought need only consult the wisdom imbedded in our historic institutions. In spite of the author’s contempt for European theory, a bit of Edmund Burke proved useful in the end.

This celebration of the mindlessness of American life came from no provincial lowbrow. Boorstin is one of the very few native students of American history who possesses European culture, and participates in it with easy familiarity. A Rhodes Scholar, a student at various times of the humanities and the biological sciences, a barrister of the Inner Temple, author of a study in English intellectual history, he knows of what he scorns. Yet the view he advanced in The Genius of American Politics cannot be dismissed simply as an intellectual’s self-hatred—the perversity of a man somehow driven to revulsion from what he has cherished. The book was more than this. It crisply summarized and foreshadowed the new trend of American historiography: the appeal to homogeneity, continuity, and national character. Above all, it swept aside the characteristically progressive approach to American intellectual history as a dialectic of warring ideologies.

Louis Hartz was already doing the same thing in the articles later reprinted in his Liberal Tradition in America, though Hartz’s appraisal showed the intellectual deficiencies produced by the homogeneity and continuity of American society. Having no such qualms about our supposedly one-track culture, Boorstin went a step beyond Hartz. The latter at least conceded to America one system of ideas; Boorstin admitted none at all.

In their different but overlapping ways, the two books sketched the general outlines of an anti-progressive interpretation of American history. While other scholars were rewriting specific episodes in the story, Boorstin and Hartz revised the plot. Boorstin did not leave the matter there, however. He has now come forth with the first volume of a projected trilogy, ambitiously entitled The Americans,2 which brilliantly elaborates the thesis stated in his previous book. The new volume ranges lightly but learnedly across the Colonial period. Far from being confined to political forms, about which it says relatively little, it has sections on religion, science, the professions, styles of speech, the press, and the art of war. On each of these subjects Boorstin presses the central theme that America flourished by scrapping European blueprints, dissolving the social and intellectual distinctions of European life, and moving toward a homogeneous society of undifferentiated men. The whole work amounts to a running demonstration that a naive practicality enabled Americans from a very early date to unite in a stable way of life, undisturbed by divisive principles.

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Let it be said at once that this first volume seems to me a collection of sparkling fragments rather than an enduring monument, a fascinating miscellany rather than a grand achievement. Though clearly the most provocative book of the year in American history, it selects waywardly—even willfully—an assortment of topics for the illustration of a thesis which is both too simple and too elusive to embrace the complex experience of a nation. Since Boorstin’s book assumes the continuity of American history, it has none itself. Since it revels in the unsystematic character of American culture, it has little plan or system. It is a series of incisive, original improvisations, which never become a symphony. (From the author’s point of view the metaphor may be unfair: symphonies are European, he likes jazz.)

Boorstin’s ingenuity in turning intellectual limitations into social virtues never flags. Beginning with the Puritans, he promptly deflates the exaggerated claims recently made for their philosophic stature. Having done their creative thinking in Europe, they could concentrate in America on organizing a community. Having a wilderness at their doorstep, they could expel dissenters and so did not need to think out fine-spun theories of toleration. Having the Bible and the English common law to guide them, they could act on precedents instead of losing themselves in Utopian abstractions. Whereas other writers have liked the Puritans for their piety or disliked them for their fanaticism, Boorstin loves their sober practicality.

The one American group that is roughly handled in this generally indulgent book is the Quakers. They represent resistance to the American way of life: they refused to bend religious principle to social expediency. Focusing as always on men’s attitudes rather than their ideas, Boorstin presents the Quakers as self-righteous dogmatists in their mental habits in spite of the absence of dogma in their formal creed. As missionaries, they panted after martyrdom instead of seeking converts. As rulers of Pennsylvania, they sacrificed some humane legislation and otherwise abdicated responsibility in order to preserve their personal purity. Through these unworldly and un-American proclivities, the Quakers grew insular toward their neighbors and so failed to become “undifferentiated” Americans. To make matters worse, they remained cosmopolitan in spirit and so failed to achieve a “good” kind of insularity, i.e., from Europe. Nothing is said of Quaker leadership in the anti-slavery movement, and almost nothing of their religious toleration, doubtless because these activities were too deep-dyed in principle. Boorstin acclaims toleration in Virginia because it arose there from a practical compromising spirit, not from any theory; he tells us that intolerance in Massachusetts was “useful” in maintaining the unity of the community; but for either tolerance or intolerance as a principle his book has no place.

This is too thoughtful a book to ignore consistently the dangers of the opportunistic and parochial qualities it celebrates. Particularly in the final section, dealing with military institutions, the debits of a shortsighted amateurism are plainly entered. This is also too widely informed a book to rest entirely on the soundness of its general argument. Some of the topics treated here, such as the practice of medicine and of law in the Colonies, have hitherto received the attention of only a few specialists. Although the experts will undoubtedly pick at many of Boorstin’s statements, any reader who can control his exasperation at the anti-intellectual bias of the book will find arresting insights into phases of early American life that diverged significantly from English patterns. On the whole, I know of no other book that combines so effectively a grasp of large features of American culture with the intimate, functional detail that makes a social order come to life.

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Yet the deeper one goes in this book, the more perplexed one becomes about the criteria it applies in measuring American achievements. The notion that a “pragmatic temper” distinguishes American culture, setting it apart from the bookish and contemplative culture of Europe, is one of our commonest national stereotypes. In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner lyricized “that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends.” The same image of America was held by most of the progressive historians whose views Boorstin has clearly undertaken to revise. Is his perspective really much different from that of an old-fashioned liberal pragmatist, devoted to a tough-minded respect for experience?

Often the outlook seems very similar indeed. Like Parrington and Beard, Boorstin associates belles-lettres with an aristocratic society, an oppressive class system, and a stagnant regime of privilege. Like John Dewey’s philosophy, Boorstín’s history celebrates the empirical thinker-doer who is uninhibited by the formal learning of the past—the early American physician, for example, who was fortunately unschooled in the learned ignorance of European medicine. Like any good pragmatist, Boorstin identifies America with innovation, experiment, and a fluid response to the novelties of experience. His democratic rhetoric sometimes exceeds that of the pragmatists themselves: his image of the American as an “undifferentiated man” harks back to Whitman’s glorification of the “divine average.”

But the substance of this book bears no consistent relation to these rhetorical overtones. If we look at what Boorstin is really writing about, we find very little evidence of experimentation, no innovations except those which circumstances forced the colonists to make, and almost no interest on the author’s part in democracy in any positive sense. One of the best sections of the book discusses the extraordinary standardization that the English language underwent in America under the influence of English literary models. To describe this linguistic uniformity as “the vernacular for equality” helps along one part of the argument of the book, but hardly testifies to innovation or experiment. As for the theme of equality, another section of the book lovingly describes the Virginia aristocracy, whose special virtue according to Boorstin lay in maintaining an English aristocratic pattern in a businesslike and unreflective way. Or, to take another example, consider the section entitled “A Conservative Press.” It begins by saying that Colonial printers could serve the general public since they did not need to print good books; it ends by showing that the printers actually served the ruling groups who subsidized and controlled them.

Clearly, the pragmatism that informs this bland approval of American institutions resembles only superficially the fighting faith we used to know. For the true pragmatist—for James and Dewey and all their tribe—intellectuals played a creative role in history. Ideas were precious tools for attaining practical ends. Consequently, being “practical” meant continually and deliberately adapting existing institutions to changing problems. For Boorstin, however, thought does not guide behavior; behavior defines thought, or makes it unnecessary. To him, the practical is the traditional, but for Americans only. Experiment is our hallowed prejudice, our native American orthodoxy. It is our way of conforming to circumstances, and this way seems to Boorstin all the more agreeable because it does not, like European conservatism, enshrine an otiose set of principles. In this view, the pragmatic virtues lose what little consistency they once had and all connection with a larger universe of values. Instead of furnishing any sense of direction at all, they become fossilized exhibits in our national museum. Activity turns into possession, and our pragmatic habits supply a symbol of acquiescence to any circumstances that can be labeled as distinctively American.

How did this larcenous seizure of pragmatic attitudes for the sake of a conservative historiography come about? The author of The Americans did not always write with such affection for the expediential and such scorn for theories. In 1948 he published The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson, a searching examination of the structure and assumptions of Jeffersonian thought. In that book he took abstract principles very seriously indeed. There he explored the philosophical results of the American pragmatic temper—and found them dangerous. The main emphasis fell on Jefferson’s undervaluing of the reflective side of human nature: “the desire to get things done predominated over the need to be at peace with God and oneself.” This book maintained that Jefferson’s distrust of metaphysics mired him in intellectual confusion, and that his materialistic premises led ultimately to the moral obtuseness of modern American thought. Now, through an extraordinary reversal, the vices imputed to Jefferson have become the virtues of America. With incredible virtuosity, Boorstin has furnished a new map of American history with each spin of his own intellectual compass.

To understand this about-face, it may help to note that both books have a deeply conservative character, though in different ways. The Lost World rests on a philosophical conservatism. It might almost have been written by a neo-Thomist, for essentially it accuses the liberal tradition, which stretches from Jefferson to Dewey, of lacking humility in the face of God and history. The Americans, on the other hand, grows out of an empirical conservatism, which rejects all ideologies in the name of long-established institutions. The earlier book implies that we need a conservative philosophy. The recent one tells us that we have something much better: a conservative way of life.

The shift from one position to the other reflects, I think, a change of fashion in conservative thinking. During the late 1940’s and early 1950’s a good many intellectuals with historical interests were trying to define a tradition of conservative thought in America. Historians had for so long canonized a succession of liberal heroes that the first reaction to the new postwar mood was to create a competing pantheon of conservative luminaries. Books by Russell Kirk, Clinton Rossiter,3 and other intellectual historians revealed that a number of American thinkers had respected original sin and had opposed the official cult of progress. Boorstin’s Lost World fell in with this effort, though it contributed negatively by exposing the alleged failure of the liberal tradition.

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Before long, however, the attempt to establish the value of a European type of conservatism in the American environment petered out; we hear very little of it today. The campaign had too obviously polemical a flavor and too unreal a taste: a tempest in an academic teapot. Great faith was required to believe that men like George Fitzhugh, Orestes Brownson, and Irving Babbitt ever had much profundity or any considerable impact. The really massive conservatism of American businessmen, politicians, and even most intellectuals, as we were discovering, spoke in the common language of the Enlightenment. Liberals and conservatives no longer seemed clearly distinguishable. As the ideological gap between them appeared to shrink, and as a mood of acquiescence spread in all quarters, the need to vindicate a conservative intellectual tradition disappeared. When the liberal ideology lost its cutting edge, conservatives ceased to require an ideological shield.

At this point a historiography that was conservative, without passing as such, won out. Instead of upholding the role of the right in America, it merges the left with the right. It argues that America has ordinarily fused a conservative temper with a liberal state of mind. It displays, therefore, the homogeneity and the continuity of American culture. Writing sympathetically about the intellectual conservatism of today, Eric McKitrick has recently pointed out that it stresses the power of institutions; it has no ideological case to make—except, one might add, a case against ideologies. Boorstin, in his last two books, has joined this school, and, in a sense, has taken the lead.

The advantages of this point of view for American historians have not been slight. It has enabled them to cut through the too easy dualisms of progressive historiography. It is inspiring them to do important and original work in understanding American institutions. They should continue to do so. The conservative frame of reference, however, creates a paralyzing incapacity to deal with the elements of spontaneity, effervescence, and violence in American history. Richard Chase, one of the few literary critics who has successfully defied the current mood, has recently called attention to the wildness and extravagance that characterized the outstanding American novels. Similar qualities have shaken our society, from the Great Awakening of the 18th century to the Great Red Scares of the 20th, in spite of its sturdy institutional structure. They deserve more than patronizing attention.

Moreover, contemporary conservatism has a deadening effect on the historian’s ability to take a conflict of ideas seriously. Either he disbelieves in the conflict itself (Americans having been pretty much of one mind), or he trivializes it into a set of psychological adjustments to institutional change. In either case, the current fog of complacency, flecked with anxiety, spreads backward over the American past.

It is not likely in the near future that many critical scholars will emphasize the polarities that fascinated the great progressive historians, nor is it desirable that they should. Certainly no one contends today that the debate between Jefferson and Hamilton, or between human rights and property rights, frames our intellectual history. But to stand Parrington and Beard on their heads does not solve the problem. American thought has had other dialectical patterns, which the present cult of consensus hides. Above all, perhaps, that cult neutralizes some moral issues that have played a not entirely petty or ignoble part in the history of the United States. To rediscover their grandeur and urgency, historians do not need the categories of Beard and Parrington, and can probably do without their now debased pragmatic philosophy. But we pay a cruel price in dispensing with their deeper values: an appreciation of the crusading spirit, a responsiveness to indignation, a sense of injustice.

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Footnotes

1 Samuel Hays, The Response to Industrialism, 1885-1914 (1957).

2 The Americans: The Colonial Experience, Random House, 434 pp., $6.00. An excerpt from this volume appeared in COMMENTARY, October 1958.

3 Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, from Burke to Santayana (1953); Clinton Rossiter, Conservatism in America (1955).

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