Commentary Magazine

The Americans, by Oscar Handlin; and The First New Nation, by Seymour Martin Lipset

The American Way

The Americans: A New History of the People of the United States.
by Oscar Handlin.
Little, Brown. 434 pp. $6.95.

The First New Nation: the United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective.
by Seymour Martin Lipset.
Basic Books. 366 pp. $5.95.

In the 1950's American social science directed attention to the outward form of social events rather than to their inner structure. Eschewing the rival depths of Freud and Marx, it took its stand an the visible, if sandy, middle ground between them. The key terms of this style of social thought were “character structure” and “value.” An economy of abundance was taken for granted, and no startling changes were expected in the general scheme of things. If the word were not pejorative, the social science of the Eisenhower years might be called superficial, in the sense that it concentrated on surfaces. Less controversially, the approach might be called “phenotypical” social science, as opposed to the “genotypical” of the 1930's.

The Americans and The First New Nation are major syntheses of this way of looking at the national experience. Altogether different in form—the one a narrative history, the other a complex series of interlocking questions and answers—the two big books are fundamentally congruent in content. The tone of each is firmly positive about America, though Professor Handlin states that his prevailing attitude has left room “for the failures as well as the victories and for the heavy human costs even victory entailed.” One of Professor Lipset's goals is to explore “the conditions for stable democracy”—having taken it for granted that America is one. In this optimistic vein, both books proceed to locate and explain what is different about the American experience. Lipset is concerned with “the problem of what was once known in the Marxist literature as ‘American exceptionalism,’ ” Handlin, with the “new type of man” produced by the American environment. Both authors mistakenly, I believe, consider what is different about America to be what is essential.

Handlin and Lipset alike find that the core of American experience is a dialogue of contrasting attitudes and values. For Handlin, the question that has “all along troubled” us is: “Could man risk the freedom of faith in his own impulses or did he require the security, discipline and confinement of the group?” Lipset sets the national story in the framework of the “related [but] not entirely compatible” values of equality and achievement. Both historians wish to understand how “order” (Handlin's phrase) and “authority” (Lipset's comparable term) came into being in a society so anarchically competitive and experimental. And both discover that the process whereby this happened is psychological: not (Lipset insists) psychological in the sense of largely deriving from child-rearing, nor in the sense that only one set of values is compatible with a democratic social structure, but for all that, psychological.

Now to say that a social process is psychological is from one point of view platitudinous, since human beings are involved. What I mean by the word is that the analyst deliberately refrains from going beyond the description of public moods and attitudes to reach their causes. Handlin describes his procedure as follows:

It is not his task to subject the complex drama . . . to enfolding figures [of causal explanation]. If he can explain how, let others believe each their own why. There is meaning enough in the story itself.

Lipset characterizes his attempt at a comparative value analysis as an effort “to analyze systematically variations within major historical epochs,” thus deliberately sidestepping the more fundamental problem of how a society makes the transition from one epoch to another, and tacitly assuming that the United States is not on the verge of such a transition. Again, Lipset states:

Basic alterations of social character or values are rarely produced by change in the means of production, distribution, and exchange alone. Rather, as a society becomes more complex, its institutional arrangements make adjustments to new conditions within the framework of a dominant value system. . . . There are constant efforts to fit the “new” technological world into the social patterns of the old, familiar world.

Thus, the thrust of underlying technological change is taken for granted and left unexplained.


This phenomenological approach is beyond doubt rich and rewarding. Just as the here-and-now therapy of Adler may seem to open new vistas after an immersion in Freud, so an examination of the surface of historical experience, in the hands of two such skillful practitioners, abounds in new insights. For example, in a single sentence Professor Handlin illuminates the link between the Southern planter's chronic indebtedness and his failure to face up practically to abolition: “Long reliance upon the faith that the future would solve the unsolved problems of the present had permitted the planters to evade responsibility for the Negro's bondage while the plantation fastened slavery permanently into the life of the region.” Professor Lipset uses that prototype of historical strip-mining, the traveler's report, to challenge David Riesman's thesis that American character structure is decisively more “other-directed” than in the 19th century. Lipset suggests that European travelers have always found Americans to be other-directed. Similarly, he argues that there has been little basic change in the extent and character of American religiosity.

However, the psychological approach has a critical weakness. Because psychological data are not systematically related to non-psychological data, but only to still other psychological facts, explanation tends to be tautological. Here is Handlin's description of the religious revivals around 1800:

They fed on the pent-up tensions of people constantly forced by their struggles to doubt their own adequacy. . . . [These people] were nagged with the responsibility for decisions—even their staying or leaving was a choice frequently to be made. There were limits to what they could take. Strong though they were, hardened to risk and self-reliant, they could not forever put off the questions that crowded upon them in the loneliness and isolation. Had they been right to break away, to abandon the certainties of the past, to stake all on themselves in the great separation? They cried, Sin, Sin, Sin! as emotion broke down reserves. Was it the sin of pride to have believed too much in themselves?

Stimulating, yes; true? Who knows. What happens in such a paragraph is that a fundamental perception, in this case of ambivalence between separateness and communal order, is passed through a cluster of facts and emerges unchanged.

In the absence of an explicit hypothesis of social causation, Lipset gives us comparative description rather than comparative analysis. The first eighty pages of his book, on the early national period, lead to conclusions such as: “all new nations face the problem of incorporating their intellectuals into their politics” (which I think I knew); “the defeat of the Federalists in the elections of 1800 represented the first occasion in modern politics in which an incumbent political party suffered an electoral defeat and simply turned over power to its opponents” (which ignores the history of 18th-century England); and “the pressures in new nations to outlaw opposition movements were reduced in America by the rapid decline of the conservative opposition” (which, if not exactly tautological, appears to lack predictive utility).

Both The Americans and The First New Nation make implicit use of economic causes while projecting a type of theory which tends to exclude them. Thus in grappling with the problem of why France has not been more successful in creating a stable democracy, Lipset observes that “these internal cleavages result from the fact that the French Revolution succeeded in eliminating neither the old set of ascriptive-particularistic values nor some of their key institutional supports.” More specifically, he finds that “the most disruptive element in French culture has been the cleavage between pre-industrial values, supported by the upper classes and the church, which have continued to affect the economic sector, and the legitimacy of the Revolution, which has formally dominated the political structure.” All of which seems to me an involuted way of rephrasing what Lipset quotes Engels as saying many pages earlier:

It seems a law of historical development that the bourgeoisie can in no European country get hold of political power—at least for any length of time—in the same exclusive way in which the feudal aristocracy kept hold of it during the Middle Ages. Even in France, where feudalism was completely extinguished, the bourgeoisie as a whole has held full possession of the Government for very short periods only.

By using his new language of value analysis, Lipset does not explain this phenomenon any more than Engels did. And when he turns to contemporary France, Lipset in fact falls back on an economically based analysis: “In a real sense, the Gaullist Fifth Republic is engaged in an effort to bring France's polity and values into line with the changing reality of its class and economic structures.”

A similar problem arises in Lipset's treatment of the origin of those values he believes to be characteristically American. He says that “America's key values—equality and achievement—stem from our revolutionary origins.” But most historians, including Professor Handlin, believe that these characteristic values antedated the American Revolution. Where then did they come from? Out of the very experience of migration, Handlin says. And what caused the migration? “Their migration was largely the product of their helplessness, of social forces they could not control—persecution by the Established Church, changes in agriculture and the unavailability of land, the disruption of the wool trade and the growth in the number of men without employment. . . . [The migrants] might thus be compared to legates dispatched on a mission by a potentate; the errand was given them, but they accepted it voluntarily.” Obviously here again the bark of psychologism has drifted perilously close to the Marxist whirlpool.


The patron saint of the method and emphasis exemplified by these two books is, as Professor Lipset makes clear, Max Weber. And in view of the degree to which both Lipset and Handlin neglect things economic, and tend to assume an egalitarian future when they look ahead, it is interesting to go back to what Weber himself predicted for America when he came here in 1904.

While it is correct to say that the burden of historical tradition does not overwhelm the United States, and that the problems originating from the power of tradition do not exist here yet the effects of the power of capitalism are the stronger . . . When the accumulation of large fortunes has reached a still-higher point than today, when, at the same time, the possibility of gaining proportionate profits by constant new investments in trade and industry has been diminished so far that the “captains of industry,” as has occurred everywhere in the world, begin to strive for hereditary preservation of their possessions instead of new investments that bring both gain and danger, then, indeed, the desire of the capitalistic families to form a “nobility” will arise. . . .

One could read right through both The Americans and The First New Nation without becoming aware of these realities which Weber saw sixty years ago. It may not be true that to psychologize all is to forgive all—but it usually works out that way.

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