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The Study of Man:
Reading the Constitution Anew

- Abstract

Every major turn in events seems to bring with it a turn in historical consciousness. The same mood which has recently brought upon us what we so loosely call the “New” Conservatism has also brought a new note into historical writing. Such recent assessments of the American past as those made by Daniel Boorstin and Louis Hartz rest upon conceptions very different from those inherited by this generation from such of their forebears as Charles A. Beard or Frederick Jackson Turner. The older tradition, shaped in good part by Populism and Progressivism and reinforced by the temper of the New Deal era, put political and social conflict in the foreground of history—conflict between radical democrats and property-minded conservatives, farmers and capitalists, debtors and creditors, West and East, small business and big business, workers and employers. The school of interpretation now emerging, which tends to forgo the dramatic possibilities that come from emphasis on conflict, derives its dialectical interest from the tension between its own views and the older ones, or sometimes from the historic contrast between American and European experience. American politics—so the argument runs—has been built socially upon a middle-class basis and ideologically upon a liberal consensus. With few notable exceptions, the extremes of left and right have been unable to make themselves felt; feudal arrogance and proletarian radicalism have been absent or remarkably feeble; antagonistic social groups have not veered far from a common center; political differences have been particular and pragmatic rather than general and fundamental; they have been formulated not in profoundly differing or violently clashing ideologies, but in moderate variations from certain generally accepted premises.

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