“Historical objectivity” is not a single idea, but rather a sprawling collection of assumptions, attitudes, aspirations, and antipathies. At best it is what the philosopher W. B. Gallie has called an “essentially contested concept,” like “social justice” or “leading a Christian life,” the exact meaning of which will always be in dispute.
The principal elements of the idea are well known and can be briefly recapitulated. The assumptions on which it rests include a commitment to the reality of the past, and to truth as correspondence to that reality; a sharp separation between knower and known, between fact and value and, above all, between history and fiction. Historical facts are seen as prior to and independent of interpretation: the value of an interpretation is judged by how well it accounts for the facts; if contradicted by the facts, it must be abandoned. Truth is one, not perspectival. Whatever patterns exist in history are “found,” not “made.” Though successive generations of historians might, as their perspectives shifted, attribute different significance to events in the past, the meaning of those events was unchanging.
The objective historian’s role is that of a neutral, or disinterested, judge; it must never degenerate into that of advocate or, even worse, propagandist. The historian’s conclusions are expected to display the standard judicial qualities of balance and evenhandedness. As with the judiciary, these qualities are guarded by the insulation of the historical profession from social pressure or political influence, and by the individual historian avoiding partisanship or bias—not having any investment in arriving at one conclusion rather than another. Objectivity is held to be at grave risk when history is written for utilitarian purposes. One corollary of all of this is that historians, as historians, must purge themselves of external loyalties: the historian’s primary allegiance is to “the objective historical truth,” and to professional colleagues who share a commitment to cooperative, cumulative efforts to advance toward that goal.
* “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights. . . . That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.”
Rarely have so many ambiguous terms and dubious propositions been compressed into such a brief passage. By rigorous philosophical criteria the passage is nonsense. But far from being, in the well-worn phrase, “pernicious nonsense,” it is salutary nonsense. Belief in these “self-evident truths” has for more than two hundred years provided one of the strongest bulwarks of liberty and equality in the United States. I don’t know what it would mean if someone asked me whether I was for or against the ideas expressed in the passage, and I would have no idea how to respond.
* Sir Isaiah Berlin, following Hegel, has described the history of thought and culture as “a changing pattern of great liberating ideas which inevitably turn into suffocating straightjackets.”
* When historians discuss the most deeply rooted beliefs of “ordinary people”—workers, generals, priests, businessmen—we hardly ever asssume that those beliefs are arrived at as a result of logical considerations. Out of understandable but misplaced tact and courtesy we apply a different standard when writing historically about historians—particularly, of
course, living historians.
* Those of us interested in the development of academic communities and of organized knowledge often emphasize the distinction between “disciplinary histories,” written by practitioners, and “histories of disciplines,” produced by historians. The former, so we say, are characteristically distorted by “presentism”: usually of the celebratory
(how we got so wonderful) variety; occasionally denunciatory (settling scores with a dominant school of thought, or even the discipline as a whole). “Histories of disciplines,” by (detached) outsider historians, are, in principle, free of these disfiguring characteristics. “A sociologist writing the history of sociology,” Laurence Veysey observes, “remains, from the historian’s point of view, an amateur, no different in principle from an untrained Mormon writing the history of Mormonism. Particularistic intellectual commitments inhibit balanced clarity of vision…”
* By 1884, the year of the founding of the American Historical Association, the United States had a favorable balance of trade: exports exceeded imports by over $100 million annually. The gap widened to over $500 million by the turn of the century, as more and more American cotton, wheat, machinery, and other products flowed abroad. But in these years, and for some time to come, the United States remained a net importer of ideas.
As American historians constructed their system of professional norms, and in particular the central norm of objectivity, they drew heavily on various European currents of thought. German historical scholarship was an unavoidable model—and had the advantage of borrowed prestige. Much the same was true of “scientific method,” in an age when scienticity was the hallmark of the modern and the authoritative. They opted for an austere style which would clearly distinguish professional historical work from the florid effusions of the amateur historians whom the professionals sought to displace.
* “That Germany possessed the sole secret of scholarship,” wrote Bliss Perry, “was no more doubted by us young fellows in the eighteen eighties than it had been doubted by George Ticknor and Edward Everett when they sailed from Boston, bound for Gottingen, in 1814.” During the course of the century, thousands of young Americans in search of advanced professional or academic training traveled to Gottingen, Heidelberg, Leipzig, Freibourg, Berlin, and the other German university centers. Graduate or professional training worthy of the name hardly existed in the United States until the century was well advanced. English universities were concerned with turning out gentlemen, not scholars—and until 1871 required degree candidates to sign the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican church. French universities offered no easily attainable advanced degree, and to contemplate study at the Sorbonne was to face perils of the flesh in the “vice dens” of the capital, while one’s soul would have to brave the twin risks of “infidelism” and “popery.” Also, study in Germany was inexpensive: in the late 1880s it was estimated that a year’s study there, including transportation, cost a third less than a year spent at one of the leading American universities.1
In Germany, young American students of history found institutions of higher education whose structure and values were totally unlike anything they had known at home. The colleges they had attended in America were still primarily moral academies for the inculcation of “discipline”— mental, behavioral, religious. Student life was strangled in meticulously arrayed and rigidly enforced regulations; classroom work consisted, for the most part, of mechanical recitation; intellectual innovation was viewed as a threat to Protestant piety. In Germany they found the models that were to inspire a revolution in American higher education: the creation of new universities, like Johns Hopkins, Clark, and Chicago; the transformation of older ones, like Columbia, Harvard, Michigan, and Wisconsin. A “proper” university was a community of investigators, concerned with pursuing their researches while training the next generation of Gelehrten; rigorous scholarship, rather than religious or philosophical orthodoxy, was the criterion of academic excellence. American students in Germany also found an intoxicating personal role model: the Herr Professor, who, unlike the shabby figure of fun they had known in the United States, was a personage of substantial wealth and even greater status.
* The experience of the scholarly university, and visions of it being replicated in America; the dream of becoming, in Kansas and Kentucky, a figure as favored as the German professor; scholarship as a technical, specialized, and rigorous pursuit, to be followed as a sacred vocation: all these were brought back to the United States in more or less recognizable form, and all played an important role in shaping the sensibility of American professional historians.
* For [Leopold] Ranke the historian’s greatest task was to penetrate to “essences.” …The young historian who in the 1970s proposed a “psychedelic” approach to history—altered states of consciousness as a means for historians to project themselves back into the past—was thus in some respects truer to the essence of Ranke’s approach than empiricists who never lifted their eyes from the documents.)12
* ” In his public presentation of his findings, Darwin dissimulated to win acceptance. The very first paragraph of On the Origin of Species was calculated to deceive: “When on board H.M.S. “Beagle,” as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species—that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers. On my return home, it occurred to me, in 1837, that something might perhaps be made out on this question by patiently accumulating and reflecting on all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing on it. After five years work I allowed myself to speculate on the subject.”
The deception was even more explicit in his Autobiography, where, describing his path to the theory of natural selection, he claimed to have “worked on true Baconian principles, and without any theory collected facts on a wholesale scale.”
* The professional historians of the late nineteenth century, in pursuit of the authority of science, consistently distanced themselves from, and disparaged, “history as literature,” “history as art.” Paradoxically, novelists and painters, equally intoxicated with science, were moving rapidly in the same direction—indeed, in many respects anticipated them. The eminent French historian Henri Houssaye, in the 1900 paean to “facts, facts, facts” quoted above, noted the transformation of the novel during the last quarter century. “Today the novel is constructed with careful notes, direct observations, ‘human documents’; invention, adventure, and romance are sacrificed to the study of the environment and the analysis of character; the novelist’s approach is coming more and more to resemble the historian’s.”29
Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857) and Sentimental Education (1869) introduced the objective, the omniscient, the impersonal, and the self-effacing narrator. For the literary realists, and their admirers, the direct appearance of the author was anathema. “The complex issues involved in this shift,” writes Wayne Booth, “have been reduced to a convenient distinction between ‘showing’ which is artistic, and ‘telling’ which is inartistic.” Flaubert insisted that impassibilite—flat affect—was the novelist’s appropriate stance. His model was the scientist. Once we have spent enough time, he said, in “treating the human soul with the impartiality which physical scientists show in studying matter, we will have taken an immense step forward.” Art had to achieve, “by a pitiless method, the precision of the physical sciences.” Sainte-Beuve said of Madame Bovary, “Flaubert wields the pen as others wield the scalpel.” He described the new style as the victory of the anatomist and physiologist in art.
* Flaubert thought that art had reached a scientific stage, and stressed the scientific, in particular the medical, nature of his observations, but saw science correcting and enriching art. Emile Zola went further. For him, art was the servant of science, and he considered himself a research worker. His rhetoric echoed many of the themes we have encountered among American scientists and historians: “Imagination has no longer place, plot matters little to the novelist, who bothers himself with neither development, mystery, nor denouement; I mean that he does not intervene to take away from or add to reality. . . . The work becomes a report, nothing more; it has but the merit of exact observation .. . of the logical connection of facts. . . . The novelist is but a recorder who is forbidden to judge and to conclude. The strict role of a savant is to expose the facts, to go to the end of analysis without venturing into synthesis; the facts are thus . . . and he stops there; for if he wishes to go beyond the phenomena he will enter into hypothesis; we shall have probabilities, not science.”
* The scientifism of European literature and painting was echoed on the other side of the Atlantic, as part of a general shift in the taste of post Civil War Americans toward the austere rather than the ornate…
* During the last decades of the century the scientistic cult of the “objective facts” also took hold in American newspapers, hitherto unabashedly partisan. Reportage, for the first time, was to exclude opinion and literary flourishes. The New York Times began its climb to its leading position by basing itself on an “information” rather than a “story” model. “Facts, facts piled up to the point of dry certitude,” recalled Ray Stannard Baker, “was what the American people really wanted.” Whether or not it was what they wanted, it was what editors insisted their reporters produce…
H. L. Mencken recalled the “immense stress upon accuracy” during his journalistic apprenticeship. The Baltimore Sun, he recalled, “fostered a sober, matter-of-fact style in its men.” Lincoln Steffens complained that on E. L. Godkin’s Evening Post, “Reporters were to report the news as it happened, like machines, without prejudice, color, and without style; all alike. Humor or any sign of personality in our reports was caught, rebuked, and, in time, suppressed. As a writer I was permanently hurt by my years on the Post.” The approved style at the New York Tribune was what one staff member called “The Grocer’s Bill”: “Facts; facts; nothing but facts. So many peas at so much a peck; so much molasses at so much a quart. .. . It was a rigid system, rigidly enforced.”35
What was distinctive about the late-nineteenth-century sensibility in literature, painting, journalism, and history was not simply the cult of the fact. Romanticism, which had underwritten the development of historical scholarship in Germany in the earlier part of the century, had rhapsodized over the individual, idiosyncratic fact and insisted on its primacy over what were denounced as “abstract, universalistic systems.” The change in the climate of taste was a change of tastes in climate. Whereas earlier in the century it was the warmth of the unique fact that was valued over the coldness of abstract systems, by the decades before 1900 it was the cold fact that was celebrated as instrument of liberation from the suffocating temperature and humidity of overarching systems. Whereas earlier the individual fact was fondled, celebrated, bejeweled, and dressed in layers of adjectives, by the 1880s and 1890s it was the plain and the unadorned fact which was a la mode. Thorstein Veblen and J. Franklin Jameson, both early members of the faculty at the University of Chicago, joined in declaring that the Gothic style with which they were surrounded was inappropriate to the austere modern sensibility.
* One cranky commentator in the 1880s observed that [George] Bancroft’s History of the United States “should be entitled ‘The Psychological Autobiography of George Bancroft, as Illustrated by Incidents and Characters in the Annals of the United States.'”40 They did not hesitate to “tell,” in an era that preferred the writer to “show”; to make their political and moral judgments explicit. Of Bancroft’s History it was said that “every page voted for Andrew Jackson.” Motley wrote of Philip II that if he “possessed a single virtue it has eluded the conscientious research of the writer of these pages. If there are vices—as possibly there are—from which he was exempt, it is because it is not permitted to human nature to attain perfection even in evil.” Prescott and Parkman regularly contrasted Protestant virtue and Catholic vice, Anglo-Saxon liberty with Latin absolutism. The combination of the “intrusive” authorial presence, the explicit moralizing, and overt partisanship, made their work unacceptable to the historical scientists. “The greatest price we have to pay for this ethical attitude toward history,” wrote Edward Cheyney, “is the intense subjectivity it gives to it.”
Everything comes to the reader as interpreted by the historian. Everything is seen through the medium of his personality. The facts of history when they are used to teach a moral lesson do not reach us in their entirety, nor grouped and generalized according to their internal relations, but selected and arranged according to the overmastering ideal in the mind of the historian. The reader is at the historian’s mercy. . . . The conflicts of the past are perpetuated by the very chroniclers who recount their history. Thus history sells its birthright of truth for a mess of the pottage of partisanship.
The irascible Charles McLean Andrews termed Bancroft’s work “nothing less than a crime against historical truth.” The more serene Jameson, in his characteristic Olympian style, wrote of Motley that his “warm heart and enthusiastic, ardent temper . . . laid him open to dangers of partiality which, it must be confessed, he was far from wholly escaping.” All of the new group of university-based historians agreed that as they came to constitute a “profession,” they would put behind them the crimes and vices of amateur history.
* Before the Civil War the ratio of professorial income to that of unskilled urban workers was 9:1; at the turn of the century it was 4:1 or 5:1; by the 1950s and 1960s it was about 2:1. If the relevant comparison is to another profession, rather than laborers, turn-of-the-century academics seem to have averaged at least as large an income as physicians, while better-paid professors might earn four or five times the medical average. Of course, for an individual, entry into the profession might be a highly successful, and in this period very rapid, mobility project. In Germany, unlike the United States, the Ph.D. was not the final academic degree. After that came the Habilitation, earned on the basis of a substantial Habilitationschrift. Only then might one begin the slow climb up the academic ladder from Privatdozent (paid by student fees), through Extraordinarius (associate professor) to Ordinarius (full professor).
* ” Standardized technique was the foundation of “transpersonal replicability”—one of the most important and perhaps the most coherent of all definitions of objectivity: it is objectively true that I am 5’11” tall because (and only because) all investigators agree that the technique of measuring height is to use a standardized yardstick, and anyone applying that yardstick to me will get the same result. By this criterion objectivity is a social phenomenon brought into existence by the establishment of methodological consensus. To the extent that it is professionalization which regularizes, promulgates, and enforces this consensus, objectivity cannot be said to exist before professionalization.9
A third way in which professionalization furthered objectivity was through a redefinition of the audience for historical work. Pre-professional work was directed outward, to the general reading public. Professional historical work was increasingly, though unlike other disciplines, never exclusively, directed to colleagues.
* Once historical work became institutionalized, and history became a full-time occupation rather than an avocation, anarchic criteria were no longer acceptable. Not the invisible hand of the market, but the visible and consensual judgment of the profession established the value of an historian and his work, and largely determined the course of his career. The profession was responsible for the award of fellowships, prizes, and honorific offices; the acceptance or rejection of submissions by journals; the evaluation of books in those journals; and, most crucially, though as yet far from autonomously, employment opportunities, promotion, and salaries.
* This conception of the historian’s task—the patient manufacture of four-square factualist bricks to be fitted together in the ultimate objective history—had enormous professional advantages. It offered an almost tangible image of steady, cumulative progress. Although creating a grand synthesis might require an architectonic vision, almost anyone, properly trained, could mold a brick…
* Perhaps the greatest appeal of objective knowledge was that it was incontrovertible and noncontroversial. At the same time an influential theory of objective knowledge held that controversy, the cut and thrust of debate and criticism, was indispensable to its production. This is, of course, not a logical contradiction. Indeed, it is a perfectly coherent and transparent dialectical process: icy-cold objectivity forged in the fires of disputation. But it suggests the possibility of a psychological contradiction: that those who prized what was objective precisely because it was noncontroversial might be at best ambivalent about participating in the processes of fierce controversy and sharp mutual criticism which, according to their theory, were necessary to generate it.
If there was a latent psychological contradiction in the idea of objectivity, there was a manifest behavioral contradiction in conflicting norms of professional behavior with respect to controversy and criticism. If the maxim of the free market is caveat emptor, the slogan of the profession is credat emptor: “the producer of these wares has been rigorously trained, and we vouch for both his competence and his ethics; the goods themselves have been subjected to the most rigorous testing and criticism; you may therefore take them on faith.” In “free” professions like law and medicine, the emphasis is on the training and the ethical standards of practitioners, and the alleged willingness of the professional community to expel instantly those who fail to meet its high standards. (It is well known that in practice, except in the most outrageous instances, this almost never happens.) In academic or scientific professions the emphasis is rather more on the ferocious mutual criticism of findings within the disciplinary community. The scholar has been defined as “a man who has a quarrelsome interest in his neighbor’s work.”
But the norm of ruthlessness toward errant brethren, and no-holds barred exposure of error, is in flat contradiction to equally important professional values: mutual respect and deference, preservation of the public fiction of the competence of all certified practitioners. One of the strongest of professional taboos is directed against criticizing a fellow professional in public, as evidenced by the frequent ostracizing of physicians who testify for the plaintiff in malpractice suits.
The nature of historical activity, of the early historical profession, and of contemporary norms of discourse, all worked to bring about the sacrifice of criticism to comity.
* there was, in the genteel culture of the turn of the century, a widespread distaste for sharp controversy and criticism. It was, in fact, “unprofessional.”
* Professionalization, in some respects, brought a decline in rigorous criticism and fruitful controversy.
* Social and political ideologies can be roughly categorized as “dominant,” “accommodationist,” and “oppositional.” Dominant ideology, which in modern Western societies is rarely encountered in its pure form, sees the relationship between the way the world is, and the way the world ought to be, as one of identity, or near identity. Existing social and political arrangements are as good as man can make them. It is the ideology of celebration, complacency, and conservatism.1 “Accommodationist” ideology acknowledges problems and deficiencies. There is at least a moderate gap between the way things are and the way they ought to be.
* Finally there is “oppositional” ideology, whose hallmark is not so much the discrepancy between the way things are and the way they ought to be, though the discrepancy is typically seen as great, as the belief that the gap is unlikely to be easily or peacefully closed. Defects are not isolated but patterned and interrelated. The pessimistic, or “tragic,” variety of oppositional ideology may see the gap as inexorably widening due to forces beyond our control.
* The consensus among historians in this period is in some ways surprising, for there was never another time in American history in which, overall, there was so little consensus.
* Whatever other attributes of a profession turn-of-the-century historians might claim, autonomy was not among them. The professionalization of history meant a change in the status of the historian from privileged, avocational, or entrepreneurial independence to that of salaried employee of a bureaucratic organization.
* “Philosophers,” Brooks Adams once remarked to Justice Holmes, “were hired by the comfortable classes to prove everything is all right.”
* “It is all very well to sympathize with the working man,” William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago remarked, “but we get our money from those on the other side, and we can’t afford to offend them.”
* Nicholas Murray Butler told the Columbia Board of Trustees in 1910 that “Men who feel that their personal convictions require them to treat the mature opinion of the civilized world without respect or with contempt may well be given an opportunity to do so from private station and without the added influence and prestige of a university’s name.” When in 1915 the Board of Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania fired the economist Scott Nearing, an editorial in the New York Times expressed the opinion that Men who through toil and ability have got together enough money to endow universities or professors’ chairs do not generally have it in mind that their money should be spent for the dissemination of the dogmas of Socialism or in the teaching of ingenuous youth how to live without work. Yet when Trustees conscientiously endeavor to carry out the purposes of the founder by taking proper measures to prevent misuse of the endowment, we always hear a loud howl about academic freedom. We see no reason why the upholders of academic freedom in this sense should not establish a university of their own. Let them provide the funds, erect the buildings, lay out the campus, and then make a requisition on the padded cells of Bedlam for their teaching staff. Nobody would interfere with the full freedom of professors; they could teach Socialism and shiftlessness until Doomsday without restraint.
* Of particular importance for the present inquiry was a marked contrast between American and German conceptions of the relationship between objectivity and academic freedom. The German professor was expected to profess—to present, passionately and persuasively, with aggressive finality, deeply held convictions. There were a few who took a more cautious view: the pathologist Rudolph Virchow, in the midst of the German Darwinian controversy, warned that unproved hypotheses should not be presented as truth, and that professors should “consult the consensus gentium before expressing possibly dangerous beliefs.” But the majority view among German academics was expressed by the biologist Ernst Haeckel, who in a famous reply to Virchow maintained that in practice it was impossible to draw a sharp line between knowledge and opinion, that science advances by the clash of correct and incorrect views, and that requiring professors to “stick to the facts” or defer to existing opinion would wind up subordinating education to religious dogmatist.
Whereas in Germany, Friedrich Paulsen had defended the role of the professor as advocate on the grounds of the student’s “complete freedom to accept or to reject,” American educators thought of students as being in constant danger of mental seduction; what had earlier been fear of the student’s exposure to heretical religious doctrine, became fear that students would succumb to “propaganda.” The American insistence on professorial neutrality and objectivity was clearly expressed by President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard: “Philosophical subjects should never be taught with authority. .. . It is not the function of the teacher to settle philosophical and political controversies for the pupil, or even to recommend to him any one set of opinions as better than any other. Exposition, not imposition, of opinions is the professor’s part. . . . The notion that education consists in the authoritative inculcation of what the teacher deems true may be logical and appropriate in a convent, but it is intolerable in universities.”
* there seem to have been no professional historians of recent immigrant background, none of working-class origin, and hardly any who were not Protestant.
* Racism increased in the United States in the course of the nineteenth century, particularly in educated circles, as it acquired the authority of science. Social Darwinists were racists, of course, but so were Darwin’s opponents: Louis Agassiz wrote of the “natural impossibility” of racial equality, since blacks were “in natural propensities and mental abilities . . . indolent, playful, sensual, imitative, subservient, good-natured, versatile, unsteady in their purpose, devoted and affectionate.” A physician who had undertaken a comparative study of black and white brains reported that “the one has a larger frontal region of the brain, the other a larger region behind; the one is subjective, the other objective.”17
“Scientific” historians could hardly ignore the scientific consensus that blacks were genetically inferior. Albert Bushnell Hart was proud of his abolitionist heritage; he was the teacher and patron of W. E. B. Du Bois and of other black students at Harvard; there was no historian more energetic in promotion of black advance. At first he wavered, and was inclined to explain black deficiencies environmentally. Reviewing the literature which purported to demonstrate black inferiority, he conceded that “if provable, it is an argument that not only justifies slavery, but now justifies any degree of political and social dependence.” Ultimately, he came down on the racist side: “The negroes as a people have less self-control, are less affected by ultimate advantages, are less controlled by family ties and standards of personal morality, than the average even of those poor white people, immigrants or natives, who have the poorest chance. . . . Race measured by race, the Negro is inferior, and his past history in Africa, and in America leads to the belief that he will remain inferior.”18
Hart’s conclusion was shared by other northern historians. James Ford Rhodes, citing Agassiz, said that “what the whole country has only learned through years of costly and bitter experience was known to this leader of scientific thought before we ventured on the policy of trying to make negroes intelligent by legislative acts.” John W. Burgess wrote that “a black skin means membership in a race of men which has never of itself succeeded in subjecting passion to reason.” For William A. Dunning, blacks “had no pride of race and no aspiration or ideals save to be like the whites.” Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer quoted approvingly the southern observation that Yankees didn’t understand the subject because they “had never seen a nigger except Fred Douglass.” Blacks were “as credulous as children, which in intellect they in many ways resembled.”
By the end of the century, American expansionism contributed its bit to the racist consensus. “Now that the United States has embarked in imperial enterprises,” Burgess wrote in his history of Reconstruction, the North is learning every day by valuable experiences that there are vast differences in political capacity between the races, and that it is the white man’s mission, his duty and his right, to hold the reins of political power in his own hands for the civilization of the world and the welfare of mankind. . . . The Republican party, in its work of imposing the sovereignty of the United States upon eight millions of Asiatics, has changed its views in regard to the political relations of races and has at last virtually accepted the ideas of the South upon that subject.20
The near unanimous racism of northern historians—not, of course, peculiar to them—made possible a negotiated settlement of sectional differences in the interpretation of the Civil War and Reconstruction. By the 1880s and 1890s many southerners were, in varying degrees, willing to concede that secession had been unconstitutional, and that slavery, while its evils had been exaggerated by bigoted northerners, had been wrong, and had held back southern development. Increasingly, somewhat grudgingly, former Confederates expressed satisfaction with the outcome of the war. After all, as Senator John W. Daniel of Virginia, a former Confederate officer said, “The instinct of race integrity is the most glorious, as it is the predominant characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon race, and the sections have it in common.” Insofar as the central contemporary issue was the continuation of white supremacy in the South, now accepted by all sections of northern opinion, the “lost cause” had perhaps not lost after all. Its supporters could afford to be gracious.21
Northern historians were more than willing to meet them halfway . . .and beyond. Most northern historians, especially of the older generation, were unbending on the constitutional issue. Von Hoist’s multivolume Constitutional History of the United States was one long legal barrage at the doctrine of states’ rights. Burgess wrote that on constitutional questions, American history should be written from the northern point of view because it was, “in the main, the correct view. . . . Not one scintilla of justification for secession and rebellion must be expected.” But as the century drew to a close—as a result of a racist downgrading of the Negro, the need for reconciliation of the sections, and the desire to strike a posture of impartiality, fairness, detachment, and objectivity—professional historians worked to revise previous northern views on several related questions. They became as harshly critical of the abolitionists as they were of “irresponsible agitators” in the contemporary world, they accepted a considerably softened picture of slavery, and they abandoned theories of the “slave power conspiracy.” Above all, they joined whole-heartedly with southerners in denouncing the “criminal outrages” of Reconstruction, and this could lead to a reevaluation of moral judgments on other aspects of the conflict. Burgess acknowledged that “slavery was a great wrong, and secession was an error and a terrible blunder, but Reconstruction was a punishment so far in excess of the crime that it extinguished every phase of culpability upon the part of those whom it was sought to convict and convert.” For his Columbia colleague William A. Dunning, Reconstruction was an unspeakable disaster, leading, among other atrocities, to “the hideous crime against white womanhood which now assumed new meaning in the annals of outrage.” Its lesson was that slavery, while undesirable, had been a useful and natural modus vivendi between a superior and an inferior race.22
Through some give-and-take, a nationalist and racist historiographical consensus, which demonstrated historians’ impartiality and objectivity, was achieved on the “middle period” of the nineteenth century. In fact, there was considerably more give on the northern side, more take on the southern. Carl Russell Fish, chairman of the AHA program committee in 1910, trying to persuade Andrew C. McLaughlin to deliver a paper, observed that “there is rather a disposition in the north at the present time to allow the southern view to go without any statement on the other side. This is a natural and commendable generosity, but it seems to me only fair that a sane conservative statement of the northern position should find some expression on the programme.”23
There were several reasons for the imbalance. Of greatest importance, of course, was the consensual racism, which tilted matters toward the southern side. But there were other asymmetries. There were, so far as I have been able to determine, no northern historians employed in the South, while there were many southerners in the North…
* In the extended negotiation of a consensus on slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, southerners managed to achieve a certain moral ascendancy. “Inflicting guilt,” writes Phyllis Rose in her study of Victorian marriage, “will always be a revenge of the less powerful, whether male or female.” And, indeed, there is something marital about the dynamics of the reconciliation. Southerners saw themselves, and did their best to get their northern colleagues to see them, as wounded victims of northern lies and calumnies, which they were valiantly trying to correct. Any excesses or exaggerations in the performance of that task were only attempts to redress the balance. For northern historians to resist these efforts would be “adding insult to injury,” and would show a want of understanding and sympathy. Reviewing a book by a young southern historian in the AHR, U. B. Phillips criticized its old-fashioned partisan tone, but said it was “one of the numerous protests from the thoughtful youth of the South against the injustice done their people by the general American historians.” What better way for northern historians to show their fairness and impartiality than by bending over backward to appease the southerners. In any case, the southerners cared so much more about the points at issue that in the interests of professional comity it seemed wise to let them have their way.2
* In turn-of-the-century America it was not only blacks who were regarded as inferior. Not all whites were the natural rulers of society. If blacks were, as one recent author has termed them, “outcasts from evolution,” popular evolutionary thought, and those troubled by mass immigration, distinguished between superior and inferior whites. The former were variously designated as “Teutons” or “Anglo-Saxons”; the latter were “Celts” (read “Irish”), “Latins” (the decadent French), and those from southern and eastern Europe. “They are beaten men from beaten races” said the amateur historian John Fiske, after he assumed the presidency of the Immigration Restriction League in 1894.28
“Anglo-Saxonism,” the doctrine of the unique virtues and mission of that “race,” had been circulating in the academic community since the 1870s. When Henry Adams was teaching at Harvard he taught himself Anglo-Saxon, and established, at his own expense, a special class of Ph.D. candidates to carry out research on Anglo-Saxon institutions. (Years later he ruefully observed: “Never did any man go blind on a career more virtuously than I did, when I threw myself so obediently into the arms of the Anglo-Saxons.”) It was zealously promoted by Edward A. Freeman, Regius Professor of History at Oxford, during an American lecture tour in 1881-82. With the authority of scientific racialism, support for Anglo-Saxoninism grew as the century came to a close.
* Anglo-Saxonism provided support for American imperialism and for immigration restriction—causes congenial to many if not most professional historians. But for our purposes what is relevant about Anglo-Saxonism is its contribution to the revision of the history of the American Revolution. This contribution was both direct, stimulating historians to regret a quarrel with “race brothers,” and indirect, insofar as it was a catalyst of the Anglo-American diplomatic rapprochement, which, in turn, led to revision of views on the Revolution for frankly pragmatic reasons.
The interpretation of the Revolution which began to emerge in the 1890s was the product of what has come to be referred to as the “Imperial school.” Its leading figures were Charles McLean Andrews, Herbert Levi Osgood, and George Louis Beer. In their studies of the background of the Revolution—they rarely dealt with the Revolution itself—they disparaged American grievances, and often found the colonists ungrateful to Britain for the protection and fair treatment they had received. For most members of the Imperial school, the best vantage point from which to view the history of colonial America was that of the imperial administrators, with whom they sympathized and identified. (They were also considerably friendlier to the Loyalists—who around this time also began to receive sympathetic treatment in works by Moses Coit Tyler and Claude
H. Van Tyne.) Some thought the Revolution avoidable, the result of misunderstanding and American selfishness. Others that it was the inevitable result of developments for which no one was to blame. All, in one way or another, regretted it.
* Concern with checking the declining social status of the historian almost certainly contributed to the widespread anti-Semitism within the profession in the interwar years. Academic anti-Semitism in interwar America was much stronger in geisteswissenschaftlich disciplines like history (particularly American history) and English than it was in the sciences, or in the newer social sciences. Selig Perlman, a professor of economics at Wisconsin, is said to have regularly summoned Jewish graduate students in history to his office and warned them, in a deep Yiddish accent, that “History belongs to the Anglo-Saxons. You belong in economics or sociology.” The academic patrons of Jewish graduate students often despaired of finding them jobs. Writing on behalf of J. H. Hexter, Crane Brinton said, “I’m afraid he is unemployable, but I’d like to make one last effort in his behalf.”8
It is impossible to disentangle, from fragmentary evidence, the components of academic anti-Semitism. Concern with lowering the status of the profession merged into concern with who should be entrusted with the guardianship of the Geist, and with reservations about the allegedly aggressive intellectual and personal style of Jews: a concern that discourse and social life within the profession would become less genteel if it became less gentile. Letters of recommendation repeatedly tried to reassure prospective employers on this point: Oscar Handlin “has none of the offensive traits which some people associate with his race,” and Bert J. Loewenberg “by temperament and spirit . . . measures up to the whitest Gentile I know” (Arthur Schlesinger); Daniel J. Boorstin “is a Jew, though not the kind to which one takes exception” and Richard Leopold was “of course a Jew, but since he is a Princeton graduate, you may be reasonably certain that he is not of the offensive type” (Roger B. Merriman); Solomon Katz was “quite un-Jewish, if one considers the undesirable side of the race” (Merrill Jensen); variations on the formula were endlessly repeated.9
The number of Jews within the profession who were discriminated against in this period was probably smaller than the number of those who, knowing what they were in for, stayed out of it.
* De jure or de facto monopoly is the aspiration of every professionalizing group, and historians were no exception. In the late nineteenth century newly professionalized historians had expected that they would, in short order, be able to establish their hegemony over the production and consumption of history at every level—in the schools, in the colleges, in the literary marketplace. In the interwar period it became clear that only the second of these professional aspirations was to be realized: control of history in the schools slipped through their fingers, and professional historians failed to displace amateurs with the book-buying public. From around the time of World War I professional historians’ influence on the precollegiate curriculum began a long period of decline.
* The numerous historians who relied on textbook writing to supplement their incomes sullenly acquiesced in the demands of ethnic and patriotic groups for additions, omissions, and alterations, a practice which went back to the early days of the profession, and did not at all improve during the interwar years.54 There was a surge of pressure on textbooks in the aftermath of World War I. In part this was a continuation of wartime superpatriotism, in part a reflection of the Red Scare. Another factor was reaction by Irish and German groups against the Anglophile version of the American Revolution promoted by historians during the war…
* Clearly, in practice, Barnes’s attack on Schmitt was offensive, wrong-headed, and ill-considered, but was it illegitimate in principle? Is the argumentum ad hominem as Becker and Smith held, a “fallacy” when applied to historical work? In twentieth-century usage, an ad hominem argument is a device intended to divert attention from the critical examination of the substance of an argument, and to discredit that argument by dragging in irrelevant
considerations having to do with the character or motives of its author. That this is a disreputable procedure is clear enough in cases where the argument itself is “followable”: in which those being addressed have the opportunity of addressing themselves systematically and exclusively to “relevant” considerations. The impersonal ethos of science is based on the proposition that what science offers is “public knowledge,” subject to critical examination by the scientific community. The “replicable experiment” is the prime example of this characteristic of science. Sir John Ziman, in an influential work, has argued that better than any other criterion, the public nature of the knowledge which science offers is its principal distinguishing feature. The assimilation of historical knowledge to this model was, as we have seen earlier, a key move in the establishment of objective, scientific history. On this assumption, ad hominem arguments are surely an irrelevancy, and should be scornfully
But are the characteristic products of historians like this? The historian has seen, at first hand, a great mass of evidence, often unpublished, and difficult of access. The historian develops an interpretation of this evidence based on years of immersion in the material—together, of course, with the perceptual apparatus and assumptions he or she brings to it. Historians employ devices, the footnote being the most obvious example, to attain for their work something resembling “replicability,” but the resemblance is not all that close.
Most historical writing is, at best, “semipublic” in Ziman’s sense. The historian is less like the author of a logical demonstration, though he or she is that in part; more like a witness to what has been found on a voyage
of discovery. And arguments which are illegitimate when addressed to the author of a transparently followable syllogism are quite appropriate in the case of a witness. A standard logic textbook, contemporaneous with the Barnes-Schmitt controversy, advanced the commonplace position that “the individual motives of a writer are altogether irrelevant in determining the logical force of his argument, that is, whether certain premises
are or are not sufficient to demonstrate a certain conclusion.” But the authors go on to acknowledge that “certain motives weaken our competence and our readiness to observe certain facts or to state them fairly.
* Relativists within the historical profession faced a continuing dilemma. They thought it axiomatic that every historical account, before it saw the light of day, inevitably passed through the filter of the preconceptions,
interests, and intentions of the historian. A clear corollary was that the evaluation of the historical account demanded the closest examination of these preconceptions, interests, and intentions. But the imperatives of
professional demeanor and comity, as exigent for relativists as for others, made such an examination intolerable—the more so, in this instance, as a result of the egregiously offensive content and tone of Barnes’s assertions.
It is a nice paradox that it was the antirelativist Barnes who, as a result of his fanatical faith in the objectivity of his conclusions, proposed a procedure which Becker’s relativist principles legitimated, but which Becker’s sense of professional decorum made him disparage.
In most lists of “fallacies,” the mirror image of the argumentum ad hominem is the argumentum ad verecundiam, or “argument from authority.” Whereas the former says, “Distrust this proposition—it is offered by a bad (unreliable) person,” the latter says, “Believe this proposition—it is offered by a good (reliable) person.” If professional exigencies led historians to reject the argumentum ad hominem, the argumentum ad verecundiam elicited an overwhelmingly positive response, as well it might, since most of what historians (as well as other people)
know, apart from a few things touching their personal lives, and a handful of phenomena they have investigated personally, they know because they rely on some authority.
* Even more disturbing to Schmitt than his book’s cool reception were the epistemological and professional implications of the disagreement between Fay and himself: “This has always troubled me. We had both taken advanced degrees at eminent universities. . . . We used the same documents and read the same biographies and memoirs in preparing our respective books—and came up with quite different interpretations. .. . Is there something wrong with our methods of historical study and training when two scholars draw such conflicting conclusions from the
* Fay accepted the difference with greater serenity: “Two travelers may approach a mountain from opposite sides. Each may describe very accurately and honestly what he sees, and yet the two pictures of the mountain—its outline, its wooded base and snow-capped peaks—may appear very different according to the point of view or the time of day at which each traveler makes his description. Mr. Schmitt seems to have looked at it from the west, from the Entente point of view, in the evening, when England and France appear in rosy colors and the deeds of Germany look dark. Some critics of the present reviewer believe that his approach was from the east in the morning, with a reversal of effects.”
* Northern-born historians whose intellectual formation had taken place during the era of scientific racism were firmly set in their attitudes. Milo M. Quaife, Iowa-born editor of the Mississippi Valley Historical Review published an editorial in that journal in 1926 which expressed alarm that “men eminent in American life and scholarship” had lent their support for the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, with its absurd doctrine of racial equality: “It is proper that the negro contribution to civilization (whatever it may consist in) should be accorded its due need of recognition, but the practical consequence of inculcating the rising generation with the idea that all the races of mankind occupy one common level of mediocrity seems to us as appalling as the teaching itself is unhistorical.”
* There is a casual, matter-of-fact racism in the writing of many interwar northern historians. Arthur M. Schlesinger, who served on the board of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History for more than twenty years, believed it likely that high achievement among blacks was the result of an “infusion of white
blood.” (Rise of the City, 385-86.) Paul H. Buck, in the concluding paragraph of The Road to Reunion: 1865-1900 (Boston, 1937) expressed satisfaction with the northern decision to accept white domination of blacks in the South: “The unchanging elements of the race problem had become apparent to most observers. . . . Once a people admits the fact that a major problem is basically insoluble they have taken the first step in learning how to live with it.”
* When William B. Hesseltine came up from Virginia to study at Ohio State in 1926, the thing he liked least, he wrote his mother, was “the damned Yankees all around on all sides. Another thing is the Negroes. I am beginning to get used to sitting in classes with them but have not gotten to the place where I welcome them. . . . One old negro is in my classes. . . . The other day he spoke to me. I was not thinking . . . and said unconsciously, “how do, uncle.” He has not spoken to me since. I really didn’t mean to offend the old fellow but he looks to me as tho he should be following a mule in Arkansas instead of following History in a university.”
* Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager, in a best-selling textbook of the period, wrote that Sambo, whose wrongs moved the abolitionists to wrath and tears . . . suffered less than any other class in the South from its “peculiar institution.” . . . The majority of slaves were . . . apparently happy. . . . There was much to be said for slavery as a transitional status between barbarism and civilization. The negro learned his master’s language, and accepted in some degree his moral and religious standards. In return he contributed much besides his labor—music and humor for instance—to American civilization.”
* The conservative Duke historian W. T. Laprade approvingly acknowledged that the function of history in
the schools was “the inculcation of a species of patriotic religion. Pupils learn reverence for certain saints and ikons which later facilitates the task of rulers who mobilize them in orderly array. . . . Nor need we condemn society for a disposition to perpetuate itself and a distrust of the ultra-critical or the revolutionary. It may not be prudent to tear down altars at which people bow until we know how to erect others in their stead. The Washington and Lincoln of the history books and the flag on the pole in the school yard are part of the ritual by
which the country regiments its growing citizens and accustoms them to obedience. Whatever may be the case with a social scientist, an historian is ill qualified to erect other altars should he succeed in tearing these down.”
* ” James Harvey Robinson laid down as “law” that “what passes for history in any generation is what Voltaire called une fable convenue—only one of the many, many stories which could be told of man’s doings.” Allen Johnson of Yale, in a widely used manual of historical method, was sharply critical of the empiricist certitude in the works of Bernheim and Langlois and Seignobos. Selection of facts was necessarily a value-laden process, and we
could only know history “as constructed in human consciousness under distinct limitations.” There was “an inevitable relativity” in historiography. Conyers Read had become convinced that as soon as one went beyond the narrowest monograph “every generation will have to make its interpretations of the past for itself in accordance with its own prepossessions.” An editorial in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review accepted Croce’s dictum that “all history is contemporary history,” and acknowledged that the historian “cannot step off his own shadow.”
* Most of the ideas men and women confront come in what might be called “wrapped packages.” They are not encountered in discrete, pristine form, but appear with the authority (or anti-authority) of those who present
them, couched in attractive or off-putting language, and in association with other ideas toward which we are well- or ill-disposed. Philosophers are professionally concerned with the careful “unpacking” and disaggregation of complex ideas, reducing them to purely denotative expression, and considering them in isolation from their surroundings. It is not thus with most of us in our daily lives (or even with philosophers when off duty). It was not thus with interwar historians confronting the critique of objectivity.”
* they [Charles Beard, Carl Becker]were convinced that the goal of a comprehensive, definitive, objective reconstruction of the past was not just unattainable in practice, but a vacuous ideal in principle. They mocked the notion that “the facts spoke for themselves,” and the old inductivist ideal of approaching the past “without preconceptions.” “Hoping to find something without looking for it,” wrote Becker, “expecting to obtain final answers to life’s riddle by resolutely refusing to ask questions—it was surely the most romantic species of realism yet invented, the oddest attempt ever made to get something for nothing!” They were both convinced of the conservatism inherent in unadorned factualism. “The mere ‘fact,'” Becker had written ten years before, “if you allow the wretched creature to open its mouth, will say only one thing: ‘I am, therefore I am right.'” And they were equally convinced that, historically, the Rankean program of objectivity and abstention from judgment had been designed for conservative purposes. As Beard said in his address, “Ranke, a German conservative, writing after the storm and stress of the French Revolution, was weary of history written for, or permeated by, the purposes of revolutionary propaganda. . . . Written history that was cold, factual, and apparently undisturbed by the passions of the time served best the cause of those who did not want to be disturbed.”
The very process of deciding what was a fact, apart from traditional technical procedures of verification, the importance of which they did not question, depended on values. Even less were there any neutral criteria
for selecting among the multitudes of facts, or interpreting them, for which one needed an “a priori,” and at least tacitly evaluative, frame of reference. “Every student of history knows,” said Beard, “that his colleagues have been influenced in their selection and ordering of materials by their biases, prejudices, beliefs, affections, general upbringing, and experience, particularly social and economic; and if he has a sense of propriety, to say nothing of humor, he applies the canon to himself, leaving no exceptions to the rule.” Definitions of truth, they maintained, were always social. One generation’s or society’s truth was not another’s.
* Becker, with his strong fatalist streak, though recognizing the role of deliberate purpose, emphasized the external constraints on the historian: “We are of that ancient and honorable company of wise men of the tribe, of bards and story-tellers and minstrels, of soothsayers and priests, to whom in successive ages has been entrusted the keeping of the useful myths. . . . Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are, and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities. . . . We do not impose our version of the human story on Mr. Everyman; in the end it is rather Mr. Everyman who imposes his version on us. We are surely under bond to be as honest and as intelligent as human frailty permits; but the secret of our success in the long run is in conforming to the temper of Mr. Everyman, which we seem to guide only because we are so sure, eventually, to follow it.
Becker accepted the relativity of historical knowledge serenely. By 1931 it was, for him, an old friend. He had learned to accept that the pasts which men created were “in part . . . true, in part false; as a whole perhaps
neither true nor false, but only the most convenient form of error.” “It should,” he thought, “be a relief to us to renounce omniscience, to recognize that every generation, our own included, will, must inevitably, understand the past and anticipate the future in the light of its own restricted experience, must inevitably play on the dead whatever tricks it finds necessary for its own peace of mind.”
* Beard sought in his version of relativism a justification for an activist stance, while Becker found in his a justification for abstention.
* And if it was treason against reason to suggest that historical interpretation rested, ultimately, on an act of faith, the notion of everyman his own historian was the ultimate treason against professionalism, received by many historians with the same dismay as those in other professions would greet the idea of everyman his own lawyer or everyman his own neurosurgeon.
* Whereas Becker had taken it for granted that “if we are interested in, let us say, the fact of the Magna Carta, we are interested in it for our own sake and not for its sake,” antirelativists elaborated the doctrine of “the past for its own sake.”
* The aftermath of World War I ushered in a period of negativity and doubt, the climate in which the relativist critique flourished. The coming of World War II saw American culture turn toward affirmation and the
search for certainty. American mobilization, intellectual as well as material, became permanent in what most saw as one continuous struggle of the “Free World” against “totalitarianism”—first in its Nazi, then its Soviet embodiments. “Totalitarianism” as a theoretical and rhetorical construct had been employed occasionally and casually throughout the 1930s. For obvious reasons it succeeded in capturing the imagination of academics and publicists during the years of the Nazi-Soviet pact. For equally obvious reasons, use of the term dropped off during the wartime alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union. Then, for a generation after 1945, the construct served both as the principal theoretical underpinning of scholarly studies of Nazism and Communism in the United States, and as the foundation of American counterideology in the cold war.
As a predictive theory, “totalitarianism” ultimately proved of limited value, and was progressively abandoned by historians and political scientists from the 1960s onward.
* Politically, the theory of totalitarianism was used to assimilate the Soviet strategic posture in the late 1940s to that of Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, and to extend to the Soviet case the alleged systemic necessity of the Nazi regime to expand militarily or collapse. In postwar discussions of foreign policy, it became a foundation stone of the “Munich analogy.” Ideologically, it divided the world up into permanently antagonistic “free” and “totalitarian” segments, with the later addition of the “Third World.” On the basis of the theory it was argued that the traditional taxonomy of regimes or movements along a left-right axis, based on attitudes toward private property, was obsolete. In the twentieth century, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. said, the more relevant axis was that
which placed libertarian and “gradualist” regimes at one end, authoritarian and “violent” regimes at the other. Moderate liberals and moderate conservatives had to join forces against the fundamentally similar totalitarians of the left and right. Most relevantly for our purposes, “totalitarianism” was a slogan which succeeded in justifying continuous mobilization of consciousness from the forties through the sixties: promoting currents of thought which furthered a militant posture and underwrote the belief in a dichotomized world.
* Relativism, in its different embodiments, was a prime target of the campaign for ideological mobilization. The attack on moral relativism was part of an effort to rearm the West spiritually for the battle with the totalitarians. The attack on cognitive relativism aimed at making a clear distinction between the scholarship and science of the Free World and the debased practices of its enemies.
* As Plato had charged the poets with corrupting the youth, a chorus of leading American intellectuals in the years before Pearl Harbor called for the repudiation of those modes of thought that had morally disarmed the
United States for the coming struggle. Leading writers and intellectuals—Archibald MacLeish, Lewis Mumford, Van Wyck Brooks, Bernard De Voto, Waldo Frank—were joined by Protestant and Catholic theologians, freed by national intellectual mobilization from the marginal position they had occupied in a secular age. Agreement on the need for faith and commitment encouraged attacks on the “objectively pro-fascist” disseminators of skepticism, pragmatism, and relativism. Philosophers were urged to “surrender the shallow indifference about ultimate truth of the
debased ‘liberalism’ of our recent past.” Relativism, it was claimed, led to cynicism and nihilism. All traditional values had been “debunked.” Just as, in the popular wisdom of the time, Marcel Proust was the real moral author of France’s defeat, so “America was endangered . . . because debilitating relativism had spread widely and robbed people of their convictions and their will to fight.”
* When the American Anthropological Association in 1947 produced a draft Statement on Human Rights for the United Nations, its ultrarelativist author, Melville Herskovits, felt constrained to hedge on the question of accepting the integrity of cultural practices that denied human rights. (Of course, the very notion of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights was inconsistent with a thoroughgoing cultural relativism.) Some years later Herskovits backed off even farther from cultural relativism; he wondered how tolerant one should be of cultural
practices which included Soviet slave-labor camps and the lynching of blacks in the American South.
* The great social danger of relativism is that, for good or for bad, men do not seem to be able to charge their actions with much emotion unless they believe that they are acting on the truth and the right. Before the war, liberal groups, especially groups of younger liberals, showed traces of the debilitating effects of relativism.
War increased the psychological difficulty a thousandfold, for war admits of no relativism.
* Claims that Becker and Beard’s relativism legitimized Nazi and Soviet historical practice multiplied from the late 1930s onward. In 1938 Allan Nevins, in his Gateway to History, denounced relativism as “the doctrine to which historical writing has bowed under state pressure in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.” Those asserting a relationship between relativism and Fascism often invoked the case of Croce. His relativism, according to one historian, had “in a sense . . . prepared the way for Fascism.” Another historian, writing in the American Historical Review after the war, charged that “American relativists have neglected to indicate the intimate relation that the new Continental historiography has borne to the origins of Fascism. . . . The adoption of subjectivist-relativism as the basic historical theory contributed to the rise of Fascism and Nazism and
their conquest of the universities.”
Throughout the postwar decades totalitarianism continued to be identified with relativism, and with disdain for “objective historical truth.” George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which more than any other work of the period established the popular conception of totalitarianism, was particularly important in furthering this association. Long before he wrote his classic novel, Orwell had been arguing that “The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits ‘atrocities’ but that it attacks the concept of objective truth: it claims to control the past as well as the future.” In Nineteen Eighty-Four the protagonist’s occupation, under the ideal-typical totalitarianism of the future, was rewriting history, turning unwanted historical actors into “unpersons,” stuffing truth down the “memory hole.”
* We have seen how, before World War I, inductivist conceptions of science helped to shape the consciousness of American historians, and, between the wars, the impact of physicists’ conceptions of relativity and complementarity on historians’ thinking. In the period now under discussion, images of science were not as directly reflected in historiographical thought as they were in these two cases. But in a larger sense, as an
important element in the political and cultural climate of the postwar years, conceptions of science had a background influence, overwhelmingly anti-relativist and objectivist…
* Scientists had long held to the principle that their work must be pursued “autonomously,” without subordination to external control or direction. The “lessons of history,” from Galileo’s confrontation with the Holy Office to the Scopes trial in Tennessee, were that science could only function effectively when nonscientists kept their hands off it. This article of faith came to be challenged during the 1930s, when several leading British scientists, impressed with Soviet direction of scientific work to social ends, and the lavish funding accorded Soviet scientific ventures, began to make invidious comparisons between these practices and the anarchic, poverty-stricken state of British science.
* “Laissez-faire” opposition to the coordination and mobilization of science was being rendered anachronistic at the very moment it was being voiced. During World War II, and permanently thereafter, “gangster science”—highly organized, mission-oriented research—became the dominant mode of scientific organization. The old mystique of the autonomous, individualistic scientist increasingly became an arcadian fantasy, though it continued to be invoked as an ideal, used rhetorically to bargain for greater scientific influence on the direction of government spending, and advanced as an argument for the greater long-run payoff of pure research. But if opposition to planning in science declined, the distinction between free and totalitarian science became a major theme in cultural politics.
* The denigration of ideology, one of the most characteristic features of American culture in the cold war era, was directly related to the celebration of objectivity as the hallmark of thought in the Free World. Indeed,
the two terms defined each other. “The essential criteria of an ideology,” wrote Talcott Parsons, “are deviations from scientific objectivity.” For another commentator, thought related to “the facts of reality” was “like a
pure stream, crystal-clear, transparent; ideological ideas [are] like a dirty river, muddied and polluted by the impurities that have flooded into it.”
* “Intellect has associated itself with power as perhaps never before in history,” Lionel Trilling observed in 1952. With the exceptions of physics, it would be difficult to think of any academic discipline which, during
World War II and the cold war, participated more wholeheartedly in that association than did history…
* The only activity the AHA undertook which was at all analogous to that of the World War I National Board for
Historical Service was the preparation of pamphlets for servicemen: “Can War Marriages Be Made to Work?” “Shall I Buy a Farm?” and “Do You Want Your Wife to Work After the War?”
* the most significant wartime occupation for historians was intelligence analysis for the Office of Strategic Services.
* Whereas in World War I the most “useful” history was that which was most outrageously slanted, in World War II it was the historian’s capacity for “detachment” and “objectivity,” a willingness to voice unpleasant truths, that was most serviceable. (Thus Carl Becker’s famed skeptical detachment was a positive contribution to the war effort, when, asked to advise the Pentagon, he cautioned against accepting grandiose Air Corps claims that their
bombing would break German morale.) National service in an analytic, rather than a propagandistic capacity, underwrote, rather than undermined, the ideal of objectivity. One of the many meanings of objectivity, more properly, one of the strategies which gives it meaning, is what Alvin Gouldner has called “normative objectification.” Thus the physician is not less objective because of his or her commitment to the patient and
against the germ. Medical objectivity could be said to rest on the explicitness of this value commitment, which constrains the physician to observe and report things about the patient’s condition that neither may want to
know. From the early forties through the early sixties the normative objectification implicit in the consensual acceptance of the Free World vs. Totalitarianism framework was the guarantor of the objectivity of scholarly labors against the totalitarian.
* There was, in fact, criticism within the CIA concerning what some considered the overrepresentation of historians within its ranks.
* Older notions of an adversarial posture between intellect and power were abandoned as “immature.” In 1967, twenty years after publishing his iconoclastic American Political Tradition, Richard Hofstadter, one of the few young historians not mobilized during World War II, apologized for the book’s being written “from the personal perspective of a young man who has only a limited capacity for identifying with those who exercise power.”
* the experience of government service produced a substantial shift in historians’ “capacity for identifying with those who exercise power”: a step forward for empathy; a step backward for critical distance.
* Diplomatic historians believed their most urgent task to be combating the vestiges of isolationism, a phenomenon they frequently discussed as a form of psychopathology. In particular, historians dedicated themselves to holding the line against “revisionism,” the carrier of the deadly isolationist virus.
* Historians were prepared to respond to appeals to render patriotic service in their writing so long as the contradiction between norms of detachment and objectivity on the one hand, and of mobilization and usefulness on the other, were not posed too sharply; so long as the requirement for doublethink was not made too manifest. When calls for the mobilization of historical consciousness made explicit the extent to which they entailed the abandonment of scholarly norms, they were angrily rejected.
* Total war, whether it be hot or cold, enlists everyone and calls upon everyone to assume his part. The historian is no freer from this obligation than the physicist. . . . We can never be altogether free agents, even with our tongue and our pen. The important thing is that we shall accept and endorse such controls as are essential for the preservation of our way of life.
* As we saw in our consideration of the period before World War I, consensual values within the historical profession, and an overwhelmingly affirmative stance toward the American experience, resulted in a convergent, celebratory historiography, which in turn promoted confidence in the objectivity of the work produced. Between the wars this pattern was reversed: a breakdown in consensus, and an undercurrent of “negativism,” contributed to a questioning of the norm of objectivity. After World War II the pattern was reversed once more, with an affirmative
and consensual historiography again contributing to confidence in the old ideal.
* There was a lively debate within academic circles in these years as to whether membership in the Communist Party was prima facie evidence of unfitness to hold an academic position. Both sides in the debate argued on objectivist grounds. Those who would automatically bar Communists did so on the grounds that, unlike other academics, they were incapable of impartiality or objectivity. They were enslaved in the straitjacket of party-line dogma in a way which, again, in implicit contrast to others, rendered them incapable of changing their minds.
* In the case of history, and, indeed, most other disciplines, debates about academic freedom for Communist Party members were truly “academic.” By the late forties scarcely any professional historians were still closely associated with the party. Herbert Aptheker and Philip S. Foner are the only two known to me. Neither ever succeeded in securing a regular academic position during the cold war years.
* Like the apocryphal small-town Nazis who petitioned Berlin to send them a Jewish shopkeeper so they could boycott him, there may have been the will within the university and the profession to repress dissident historians
and historiography, but there wasn’t much dissidence to repress.
* Daniel Boorstin, argued forcefully that rather than agreeing on an ideology, Americans were united by their rejection of the very notion of ideology, or indeed, of theorizing of any kind. “We do not need American philosophers,” Boorstin explained, “because we already have an American philosophy, implicit in the American Way of Life. . . . Why should we make a five-year plan for ourselves when God seems to have had a thousand-year plan ready-made for us?”
* By the early 1960s it was generally accepted within the historical profession that Becker and Beard’s Progressive version of the Revolution and the framing of the Constitution had been decisively refuted. American
historians came to see the Revolution as a conservative and traditionalist response to recent provocations by England—indeed, hardly a revolution at all, and certainly not a social revolution of any kind. The framers of the
Constitution, rather than having self-interested economic motives, were led by concern for political unity, national economic development, and diplomatic security.
* The approach which Hofstadter took to the Populists was the first important example of what became a common feature of cold war historical scholarship, the social-psychologizing of dissidence and insurgency. Taking up themes which received wide currency in The Authoritarian Personality, and the literature which grew up around that much discussed work, Europeanists discussed the irrational drives and longings which led people to embrace Nazism or Communism, while Americanists explored the unconscious forces which produced Populists, Progressives, and abolitionists. If those who wrote in this vein never went quite to the point of identifying protest per se with pathology, and acceptance of the status quo with mental health, they often came close to it.
* With minor exceptions (Parsons in the one camp, Pollack in the other), those critical of the Populists were Jews and from the Northeast; those defending them were gentiles, and from the South or Midwest. This feature of the controversy was well known to the participants and many contemporary observers, but was usually mentioned only obliquely, if at all. It tacitly raised issues of perspectivism and universalism which, for the moment, the profession preferred not to discuss openly.
In the early 1960s Carl Bridenbaugh outraged a good many historians with his AHA presidential address. In what was universally taken to be a reference to Jews, who were for the first time becoming a significant presence in the profession, Bridenbaugh deplored the fact that whereas once American historians had shared a common culture, and rural upbringing, the background of the present generation would “make it impossible for them to communicate to and reconstruct the past for future generations.” They suffered from an “environmental deficiency”: being “urban-bred” they lacked the “understanding . . . vouchsafed to historians who were raised in the countryside or in the small town.” They were “products of lower middle-class or foreign origins, and their emotions not infrequently get in the way of historical reconstructions. They find themselves in a very real sense outsiders on our past and feel themselves shut out. This is certainly not their fault, but it is true.”
* None, so far as I can tell, ever advanced what seems to me the most compelling reason why a group of the background of Hofstadter, Bell, Lipset, and their friends should have taken such a uniformly and exaggeratedly bleak view of the Populists: they were all only one generation removed from the Eastern European shtetl, where insurgent gentile peasants spelled pogrom.
* The decade of the 1950s saw an ever increasing commitment of historians to racial equality—and greater zeal in its pursuit. Inevitably, like everything else in this period, racial questions were caught up in the cold war. There was an ultimately successful effort in the Mississippi Valley Historical Association to cease holding meetings in cities where only segregated accommodations were available.
* Historical writing on [race] had often been characterized by highly emotive, and moralistic, language, generally regarded as an index of the sharpness of the differences which divided the contestants.
* [Kenneth] Stampp acknowledged that the very act of disapproving slavery was a “subjective bias,” but to assert
innate Negro inferiority went beyond this. Such an assertion demonstrated inexcusable “ignorance of, or disregard for, the overwhelming evidence to the contrary,” particularly that embodied in Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma. And he set forth the essential precondition of a “scientific and completely objective study”: “No historian of the institution can be taken seriously any longer unless he begins with the knowledge that there is no valid evidence that the Negro race is innately inferior to the white, and that there is growing evidence that both races have approximately the same potentialities.” Stampp’s 1956 The Peculiar Institution exemplified this outlook. In its most quoted sentence he made explicit his assumption that “the slaves were merely ordinary human
beings, that innately Negroes are, after all, only white men with black skins, nothing more, nothing less.”
* [Stanley Elkins had a certain ironic detachment from what he saw as Stampp’s uncritical acceptance of liberal pieties. In Elkins’s view these gave The Peculiar Institution an unacceptable moralistic tone, and an undeserved
reputation for objectivity.
“With the “proved assumptions” of the social sciences at his disposal . . . Stampp prepared to banish Phillips into full retirement and to produce the “objective study.” In short, “objectivity” and the discrediting of Phillips were assumed to be not only fully compatible but inseparable. .. . To challenge Phillips’ assumption
of racial inferiority, Stampp made use of the extensive Myrdal material, whose scientific legitimacy had been unimpeachably established. But he did so without making much distinction between what was clearly “scientific” in it and what was earnestly and animatedly normative. Since the Myrdal studies themselves crackled with moral electricity, Stampp, by adopting their attitude (his own pages similarly crackle), was returning to a long-familiar moral position through the back door.. . . Numerous “scientific” possibilities . . . were ignored in The Peculiar Institution. Whatever submissiveness, cheerfulness, and childishness could be observed among the ante-bellum plantation Negroes was automatically discredited; these features could not be accepted as typical and normal—not for a white man, and therefore not for anyone: “Negroes are, after all, only white men with black
skins, nothing more, nothing less.” . . . Professor Stampp, like his abolitionist forbears, is still as much concerned as they to prove slavery an abomination and to prove master and slave equal before their Maker.”
* John Higham, whose 1965 survey of the historical profession reflected contemporary mainstream opinion, wrote that “the depressing sense of a loss of status, which was so widespread in the first quarter of the twentieth century, has been dramatically reversed since World War II. Instead of looking backward to the esteem attached to “character” and “culture” among the genteel classes of the late nineteenth century, college professors have
become conscious of their rising importance as a relatively autonomous group on the national scene. The jibes that cultural critics of the 1920’s leveled at the ineffectuality of academic men have all but vanished; and the stock figure of the absentminded professor is gone from our folk humor. . . . Certainly the university has never before played so large a part in American intellectual activity as it does today. . . . The professor has emerged . . . not only as the visible possessor of intellectual authority but also as the gatekeeper at the citadel of all of the elites.. . . In place of the reputation once derived from association with a social class, the professor has acquired a new, occupational prestige from his entrenchment in a mighty institution.”
* Renewed professional self-confidence was in part a matter of sheer growth.
* Democratization of hiring meant that outrageously inappropriate appointments became rarer, but so, too, did adventurous ones, as the need to satisfy a consensus often favored the bland and uncontroversial.
* [Oscar] Handlin himself was a symbol of the most significant universalization of hiring criteria: the entry, for the first time, of a substantial number of Jews into the profession.
* After World War II anti-Semitism in the historical profession, as in society at large, was an embarrassing legacy to be exorcised. The selection of Louis Gottschalk as president of the American Historical Association
at the extraordinarily young age, for an AHA president, of fifty-two was in part an expiation of past sins. In these years, relatively few Jews undertook graduate work in history, compared with other disciplines. Of a large sample of the B. A. class of 1961, only 7 percent of those planning graduate work in history were Jews, fewer than in any other disciplines save geology, biology, botany, and zoology. By the end of that decade Jews constituted 9 percent of academic historians, but 22 percent of the membership of history departments at highly rated universities. Of works in American history deemed outstanding in polls of historians, none published before 1950 was by a Jewish historian; of those published in the 1950s three out of ten were by Jews; in the 1960s, four out of ten. Jews also figured prominently in modern European, especially German, history in these years, with a particularly noteworthy role being played by those who had emigrated in the 1930s as children.
Anti-Semitism by no means completely disappeared, and indeed for some the entry of Jews into positions of prominence was an added provocation. J. Fred Rippy of the University of Chicago History Department complained in the early 1950s that “Alfred Knopf does all he can to promote the Jews. . . . The Harris Foundation here is now largely Hebrew controlled. The Guggenheim Foundation favors the Jews in its awards. Saturday Review of Literature is now in the hands of Jews.. . . Jewish influence has been responsible for the choice of Louis Gottschalk as a
member of UNESCO’s committee to write a world history. . . . Enrollments have declined . . . the main cause . . . probably is the distaste for such an overwhelming number of Jewish refugees on the faculties.”
* When David Donald recommended six young Americanists to the University of Wisconsin in 1957, five of the six were Jews. By that point, the price of anti-Semitism was mediocrity.
* With a few noteworthy exceptions the Jews who rose to prominence within the profession did not venture into Jewish history; they certainly never attempted to define a “Jewish perspective”; it is probably not coincidental that the leading figures in developing the “consensus” interpretation of American history were all of Jewish background.
* The entry of large numbers of Jews into the upper reaches of the profession in the 1950s and early 1960s was widely seen as the fulfillment of universalist norms. It was otherwise with the arrival of blacks and women from the late sixties onward. For their rise to prominence within the profession coincided with a new, assertive, particularist consciousness which both directly and indirectly challenged universalist norms. They defined themselves not as “historians who happened to be Negroes,” with a consensually acceptable integrationist standpoint, but as black historians, committed to one or another form of cultural nationalism; not “historians who happened to be women,” seeking proportional representation in textbooks for members of their sex, hut feminist historians with an overriding loyalty to their sisters, and agendas which called for a thoroughgoing transformation of historical consciousness. Jews, upon entering the profession, had insisted that they were “just like everyone else, except more so,” committed to a sensibility which was not just integrationist but usually assimilationist as well.
* The chairman of Yale’s History Department, for one, found the social origins of postwar graduate students distressingly low, as compared with those in the English Department at that institution. “Apparently the subject of English still draws to a degree from the cultivated, professional, and well-to-do classes, hence more young men and women from able backgrounds. By contrast, the subject of history seems to appeal on the whole to a lower social stratum. . . . Far too few of our history candidates are sons of professional men; far too many list their parent’s occupation as janitor, watchman, salesman, grocer, pocketbook cutter, bookkeeper, railroad clerk, pharmacist, clothing cutter, cable tester, mechanic, general clerk, butter-and-egg jobber, and the like. One may be glad to see the sons of the lower occupations working upward. .. . It may be flattering to be regarded as an elevator. But even the strongest elevator will break down if asked to lift too much weight.”
* Occasionally a work of serious scholarship, like Garrett Mattingly’s The Armada, might achieve popular success, but for the most part best-sellerdom in history was reserved for amateurs like Walter Lord, Cornelius Ryan, William L. Shirer, John Toland, and Barbara Tuchman, whom most professional historians, justly or unjustly, regarded as the equivalent of chiropractors and naturopaths.
* The erosion of historians’ popular audience as well as of their relationship with the schools, produced a certain inward turn in the profession. Earlier the ethos of the historical profession, like other professions, had emphasized “service.” (Crudely—perhaps too crudely—put, professions offer society a service ideal in return for licensed monopoly.)
* From the standpoint of professional academic historians perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the interwar relativist critique had been its sometimes explicit, and always implicit, skepticism about “progress” in historiography. Since the beginning of the twentieth century professional historians had been divided about the extent to which their discipline should be modeled on the natural sciences, but it was nevertheless professional orthodoxy that, as in the sciences, historical scholarship was cumulative; later interpretations were, other things being equal, presumed to be better than earlier ones, in terms of the stated or unstated criterion of
“moving closer to the truth.” All of this the relativists had called into question, with their emphasis on the functional adaptation of historiography to changing social needs, and its dependence on culturally determined “frames of reference.” While the relativists had acknowledged that the store of reliable factual data was growing, that previous errors and misconceptions were continually being abandoned, and that fruitful new approaches were being developed, their general posture had cast doubt on the professionally satisfying assumption of cumulative disciplinary progress.
* After World War II agreement within the profession that historical scholarship was advancing rapidly made the
relativists’ skepticism about historiographical progress seem a timebound product of a temporary period of discouragement, and probably contributed as much as any other single factor to relativism’s eclipse.
* The desired autonomy of intellectual from social history was furthered by the development of the American Studies movement, which attempted, through the analysis of unifying myths and symbols, to define a national mind. With its talk of capturing “the spirit of an age” and penetrating to the central idea of an era, the American Studies program had a certain general affinity to the romantic, idealist agenda of Ranke, as well as some very particular connections to the cold war. John Higham expressed his preference for the phrase “spirit of an age” over “climate of opinion” for that which the intellectual historian sought to depict. The latter phrase, Higham thought, had unfortunate “relativistic” connotations. “I like the term ‘spirit,'” he wrote, “because it implies a
kind of energy, whereas ‘climate’ suggests merely a vaporous condition.”
* Robert A. Skotheim noted with satisfaction that postwar intellectual historians placed primary emphasis on “the power of thought and the responsibility of the individual for his beliefs,” and Higham was pleased that “the decline of a pragmatic approach to thought made for a greater interest in first principles, in values that have some ultimate claim and not a merely instrumental role.”
* History saw no across-the-board Methodenstreit, unlike adjacent disciplines, in which, in Hexter’s words, “the wars of method are fought to the finish. There every night becomes a night of the long knives, every day is St. Bartholomew’s Day; the massacres initiated in the academic capitals spread outward and are recapitulated on> a smaller scale, but sometimes with bloodier savagery, in the provinces, and the major holocausts are staged at the meetings of the professional associations where the halls and corridors are littered with slaughtered reputations of old and young alike, and made horrid by the screams of the maimed and the moribund.”
* But the postwar social science with which some historians sought to affiliate had moved beyond the classic figures like Weber, Durkheim, and their contemporaries. Postwar sociology and political science, not to mention economics, were in their most hyperempiricist period, heavily committed to mathematical model building, and speaking a language of arcane symbols. H. Stuart Hughes, who had regarded himself as one of those historians most open to the social sciences, ruefully reported being told by social science colleagues that he was “two generations out of date.”
* There were social scientists who believed, and were so ill advised as to give voice publicly to the belief, that historians would be most usefully employed in supplying them with reliable data.
* Concern about history being reduced to the role of “handmaid” to the social sciences was a recurring theme in the writing of those anxious that history be regarded as one of the humanities—or, more, generally, that its autonomy be preserved.
* For the many historians who had always thought of themselves as humanists, with all the richly evocative connotations of that term, the suggestion that history should not just use social science but be a social science violated their deepest sense of their identity.
* “Historians .. . are caught between their desire to count in the world and their desire to understand it. On one side their passion for understanding points back to the old interest in detachment, in neutrality, in critical history and the scientific ideal. But the terribly urgency of our political problems points in another direction, plays upon their pragmatic impulse. .. . In the end most historians will be persuaded less by the arguments than by the dictates of their temperaments. In the American temperament there is a powerful bias toward accepting the pragmatic demand upon history. . . . The urgency of our national problems seems to demand, more than ever, that the historian have something to say that will help us.”
* There were a few realms in which value-consensus was so nearly universal that it took on the aura of objective truth, and in which historians felt free to editorialize without compromising objectivity: “internationalism” and acceptance of “the responsibilities of world power” in the realm of foreign policy; racial egalitarianism on issues touching black-white relations. But these were the exceptions. If it was less frequently urged that historians approach their work totally purged of values, it was often demanded that these be kept under tight rein.
* Except for always permissible paeans to the liberal tradition, the overt acknowledgment that one’s history was written from a determinate overarching perspective was restricted to a handful of avowedly Christian historians, all of whom made clear that it was in their faith that they found the resolution of vexing problems of historical objectivity.
* When journalists came under attack by Vice-President Spiro Agnew and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley for not reporting “objectively,” what was most often at issue was their failure to accept official versions of the actions and fortunes of American troops in Vietnam; of the police in front of the Conrad Hilton. Tom Wicker of the New York Times saw many of the demands for journalistic objectivity as “serving the interests of those official sources with which the fetish of objectivity is primarily concerned.” His colleague David Halberstam seconded his observations on what he called “the basic rule of journalistic theology. Objectivity was prized and if objectivity in no way conformed to reality, then all the worse for reality. .. . In truth, despite all the fine talk of objectivity, the only thing that mildly approached objectivity was the form in which the reporter wrote
the news, a technical style which required the journalist to appear to be much dumber and more innocent than in fact he was. So he wrote in a bland, uncritical way which gave greater credence to the utterances of public officials, no matter how mindless these utterances.”
* It was quite otherwise with Wisconsin, which throughout the 1950s had been something of a “Progressive” holdout against more conservative historiographical currents. Its faculty contained a number of historians who in various ways served as models to graduate students, a significant portion of whom were New York Jews of leftist background, for whom Wisconsin served an “Americanizing” function. George Rawick, a student at Wisconsin in the mid-1950s, recalled in a letter to Merle Curti that Curti had served as an inspiration to him in becoming an American radical, “not just someone in the ‘internal emigration’ which has been the home of so many New York radicals.” Paul Breines, a graduate student at Madison a few years later, thought that “leftist Jews who identified with [William Appleman] Williams were trying to submerge their Jewishness in his very American socialism or even his socialist Americanism.”
* …Marxism had traditionally been, overwhelmingly objectivist. Marx and Engels, particularly the latter, and even more their subsequent interpreters, emphasized the objective and scientific character of Marxism. Trotsky was at one with his enemy Stalin when he declared history to be “a science no less objective than physiology.” Aptheker denounced “bourgeois academicians” for denying the existence of “real objectivity.” This was to remain the orthodox view. Some years later, when a writer close to the American CP had favorable things to say about Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions he was rebuked in the official party organ Political Affairs: “The reactionary aspect of Kuhnianism stems from his rejection of the objective content of the truth of scientific knowledge. For if physical science itself can be shown to be nothing more than a succession of subjective models, then…social science also would have no objective content. Those who say capitalist oppression is a reality are just as right (or wrong) as those who deny it. [Kuhn] is encouraging an ideological trend which has a paralyzing effect upon millions.”
* In the main, young radical historians were firmly committed to the realist, objectivist, and antirelativist tradition of the left. William A. Williams, something of a godfather to Studies on the Left, wrote Curti of his disagreement with Beard’s and Becker’s relativist theses. He insisted that with sufficient effort historians could wrench themselves free of background and values to “see things as they really were.” Staughton Lynd, writing to one of the editors of Studies, underlined his commitment to “objective truth,” his rejection of the idea that “there is one truth for radicals and another truth for other people.” Jesse Lemisch wrote of the radical historian’s obligation to “pursue truth, adhere to the most rigorous standards of evidence and proof, and try to make history a science.” When his contract at the University of Chicago was not renewed, he invited readers of the student newspaper to “ponder the irony in the judging of a scholar who believes very firmly in the pursuit of truth by men of more relativistic bent.”
* If the previous framework for interpreting American history was objectively true, the radicals’ perspective could not be; or, more threateningly, vice versa.
* In the United States in the twentieth century, liberal ascendancy has traditionally provided the climate in which left dissidence flourishes, from Progressivism, through the New Deal, to the Kennedy-Johnson years.
* Jeffrey Kaplow wrote one of the editors of Studies on the Left that his view of “Ivory tower universities” was such that “the mere thought of making a career in one of them sometimes prompts suicidal tendencies”; James Gilbert wrote a friend that he had “an open mind” on the question of destroying the university. In the case of younger militants, ambivalence could give way to “schizophrenia,” as in this account by Mark Naison of taking his Ph.D. orals during the 1968 Columbia strike, an account which also contains some interesting observations on faculty response to the events.
“Fayerweather Hall [was] occupied at the precise moment my exams began. . . . My orals board, composed of Richard Hofstadter and some equally uptight, but less renowned professors, began their questioning amidst the sounds of breaking furniture, shouts of rage and pride, fragments of falling plaster and chants of “shut it down.” . . . The behavior of the faculty members was curious. They were not, as I expected, unusually hostile to me, but absolutely tickled pink at the prospect of keeping the institutional ritual alive amidst the surrounding chaos. They regarded themselves as the carriers of the light of civilization among the depredations of the strange new barbarians who had somehow exploded into their lives. Every time plaster fell on their heads they felt a strange thrill; they alone stood between America and Totalitarianism. . . .
“I sensed, during the whole awful comedy, that they were more interested in their own performance than in mine. There was no question that I would pass; the issue was: could they retain the composure to ask good questions. They did. I gave the expected-unexpected answers. .. . I played the game by all the rules. Man, they knew that I was for everything happening in that bldg, from the breaking of the furniture to the slugging of professors, but I would express my values in measured tones, over a glass of sherry, and make a final chivalric gesture. I would escort them out of the building. And so the final act featured mark naison, in a suit & tie .. . leading rh, dwight miner, equally attired, out of the window of an occupied bldg in front of 2000 people, raising my fist dramatically when friends asked whether I passed, & feeling at once overjoyed at having the whole fucking mess over with, and guilty at deserting my brothers inside. SCHIZOPHRENIA! You better believe it.”
* Staughton Lynd: “Whatever our social origins, the university is a marvelously effective instrument for making us middle-class men. First it sets us in competition with one another. We become emotionally engaged in the upward scramble, and whatever our rhetoric, in fact let the university become the emotional center of our lives. .. . It
is a very peculiar sort of radicalism which permits one only to be arrested in summertime, or obliges one to hurry home from Hanoi to be on time for a seminar. But that is the kind of radical one has to be so long as one’s first
commitment is to university life. . . . We ourselves must have a foot solidly off the campus . . . alternate years of full-time intellectual work with years of full-time work for the Movement. . . . Nothing in the Communist Manifesto, or for that matter the New Testament, assures us that at age thirty-five or forty we should expect to achieve economic security for the rest of our lives. Disgorge the bait of tenure, and the problem of making a living can solve itself year-by-year.”
* In this constant struggle to advance, the history profession itself becomes the source of all values for those
who depend on its approbation for their employment.
* Terms with positive valence (“disinterested,” “evenhanded”) were claimed for one’s own camp; those with negative connotations (“present-minded,” “partisan”) were ascribed to one’s enemies. To be sure, alignments were frequently confusing, and pronouncements were sometimes Delphic. Reviewers of Howard Zinn’s Politics of History could not decide whether he was embracing or seeking to escape from relativism; Genovese repeatedly attacked ideological
scholarship (bad) and simultaneously urged that universities be arenas of ideological contention (good). Even with a scorecard it was often difficult to tell the players and their positions.
* Historically, the posture of objectivity had always been closely associated with values of civility, moderation, and order.
* Conservative social historians were about as numerous as Republican folk singers.
* In American thinking about international relations no theorem was more influential than that which asserted there was a close moral affinity between a nation’s foreign and domestic policies—benevolent democratic regimes which were pacific and defensive, brutal despotisms which were aggressive and expansionist. This proposition had been a staple of American thinking about diplomacy since the nineteenth century. The assertion that the domestic terror and messianic ideologies of “totalitarian” regimes found their inevitable counterpart in those regimes’ limitless drive for conquest was simply an updating and systematization of what had long been the conventional wisdom.
* Given the centrality of the cold war in American society since the 1940s, it is only a slight exaggeration to say that cold war revisionism threatened the myth which defined and justified the postwar American polity, as northern scholarship in the previous century had threatened white southerners’ self-image and confidence in their own righteousness. In that case, as we have seen, the key was consensual agreement on black inferiority. Once that was granted, one could acknowledge that slavery had been often cruel and had become anachronistic; even that secession was a mistake; that the Ku Klux Klan might have been guilty of excesses. But, on the premise of black inferiority, actions taken to preserve white supremacy were understandable, and, even if mistaken, to be judged charitably. As acknowledgment of black inferiority was the key to a history acceptable to white southerners a hundred years earlier, acknowledgment of Soviet depravity (and thus the moral superiority of Western society) was for defenders of American policy.
* Daniel Bell recalled for an interviewer discussions about anti-Semitism he had with Richard Hofstadter in the early 1940s. “What arose in our conversations has, I think, shaped a lot of subsequent work. I mean a fear of
mass action, a fear of passions let loose. A lot of this goes back in many ways to a particularly Jewish fear. In traditional Jewish life, going back particularly to the Assyrian and Babylonian episodes, the first creativity, there’s a fear of what happens when man is let loose. When man doesn’t have halacha, the law, he becomes chia, an animal.”
* A survey of diplomatic historians in the early 1980s reported that those who had moved to the right during the
last ten years were three times as numerous as those who had moved to the left.
* The designation “conservative evolutionist” probably applies to the great majority of American historians from the 1880s through the first decade of the twentieth century. “Progressive” historiography had strong support from the teens through the forties, and “consensus” interpretations thereafter.
* A striking feature of the American historical profession in the last twenty years has been its inability to move toward any overarching interpretation which could organize American, or for that matter, non-American, history.
* Schools of historical interpretation are never politically neutral. Overall views of the past are tied in countless ways to visions of the present and future. Which is to say that they are, in a broad sense, “ideological.” In Chapter 3,1 suggested that, broadly conceived, an ideology can be said to include (1) beliefs about the way things are, (2) beliefs about the way things ought to be, and (3) an ensemble of propositions about the relationship between the first two.
* Unlike that of blacks and women, whose identity is harder to shed, leftists’ political identification could gradually attenuate until it was little more than a sentimental memory.
* “Since everything in Marxism has turned out to be either wrong or trivial, maybe we should dump such a theoretical albatross. . . . Very few of us still believe in the falling rate of profit, the inherent revolutionary character of the proletariat, . . .materialism understood in any of the ordinary senses, .. . or the ridiculous claims of “scientificity” for Marxism. . . . We must stop blaming Kautsky, Engels, Lenin, or Stalin for “Marxism” in the effort to pump formaldehyde into a theoretical cadaver. . . . Looking back over the last eight years, it can be said that our historical function has been primarily to provide Marxism with a decent burial.”
* Historically, “conservatism” is as much a child of the French Revolution as are ideologies of the left. The values of conservatism—order, tradition, legitimacy—were defined against the revolution, and in practice the center of conservatism is often “counterrevolution.” Since revolution is rare, what passes for conservatism is often anachronistic, as when McCarthyites, in the 1950s, directed their fire against domestic Communists whose trivial influence had long since dissipated.
* America, “born liberal,” lacked a conservative tradition in the European sense: organicist, legitimist, antiliberal. The few representatives of this tradition in the American historical profession never had much influence before the 1960s, and had no more thereafter. While right-of-center academic journals proliferated in other disciplines, the only explicitly conservative historical venture was Continuity, which began publication in 1980.
* Michael Walzer in 1979: “For liberalism is above all a doctrine of liberation. It sets individuals loose from religious and ethnic communities, from guilds, parishes, neighborhoods. It abolishes all sorts of controls and agencies of control: ecclesiastical courts, cultural censorship, sumptuary laws, restraints on mobility, group pressure, family bonds. It creates free men and women, tied together only by their contracts—and ruled, when contracts fail, by a distant and powerful state. It generates a radical individualism and then a radical competition among self-seeking individuals. What made liberalism endurable for all these years was the fact that the individualism it generated was always imperfect, tempered by older restraints and loyalties, by stable patterns of local, ethnic, religious, or class relationships. An untempered liberalism would be unendurable. That is the crisis the neo-conservatives evoke: the triumph of liberalism over its historical restraints.”
* American historians, as compared with historians of other nationalities, had always been especially attached to universalist norms, and were proud that these norms had strengthened as the profession developed—a particularly urgent task in a country with strong regional loyalties, and a multiethnic population. The process of professionalization had seen the gradual victory of national over particularist interpretations, and increasingly universalistic patterns of recruitment to the profession.
* The entry of large numbers of Jews into the upper reaches of the profession in the 1950s and early 1960s was widely seen as the fulfillment of universalist norms. It was otherwise with the arrival of blacks and women from the late sixties onward. For their rise to prominence within the profession coincided with a new, assertive, particularist consciousness which both directly and indirectly challenged universalist norms. They defined themselves not as “historians who happened to be Negroes,” with a consensually acceptable integrationist standpoint, but as black historians, committed to one or another form of cultural nationalism; not “historians who happened to be women,” seeking proportional representation in textbooks for members of their sex, but feminist historians with an overriding loyalty to their sisters, and agendas which called for a thoroughgoing transformation of historical consciousness. Jews, upon entering the profession, had insisted that they were “just like everyone else, except more so,” committed to a sensibility which was not just integrationist but usually assimilationist as well. In a different cultural climate the new black and female entrants stressed the distinctiveness of their vision, and often were highly critical of central values of the profession. Assertive particularism had implications not just for academic universalism in the abstract, but for values as basic to academic life as a commitment to “telling the whole truth.”
* “Those who can, gloat; those who can’t, brood.” Englishmen are born gloaters; Irishmen born brooders. .. . A reformed gloater—an English liberal say, or a Swede—…identifies himself… with the master race. The brooder, making the opposite identification, feels no sense of guilt, only a sense of outrage.”
* those who have written the most influential studies of white attitudes and behavior toward blacks were almost all gentiles—David Brion Davis, George Frederickson, Winthrop Jordan, Morgan Kousser, James McPherson; those who wrote of blacks as subjects, were overwhelmingly Jewish—Ira Berlin, Herbert Gutman, Lawrence Levine, Leon Litwack,
George Rawick. Whatever the reason for the disproportionate number of Jews who wrote about blacks from the black point of view, what is important for our purposes is the profound identification of all members of this latter group of historians, Jewish and gentile, with blacks. Though white, they prided themselves on “thinking black”; of being the reverse of “oreos”—vanilla wafers with chocolate filling.
* If capitalism was as inhuman and destructive as socialists maintained, its victims must have been psychologically maimed and brutalized. On the other hand, if workers were as noble and stalwart as they were in socialist depictions, could the system within which they had developed really be all that oppressive?
* In a way which had many parallels to Jewish historians’ discussions of the behavior of Jews during World War II, resistance came to be equated with endurance and survival. Responding to criticism that in The Slave Community he had slighted resistance, John Blassingame made the analogy explicit: “The most apt characterization of the slave’s behavior is that Lucy Dawidowicz used . . . [in] The War Against the Jews: ‘They learned not only to invent, but to circumvent; not only to obey, but to evade; not only to submit, but to outwit. Their tradition of defiance was devious rather than direct, employing nerve instead of force.'”
* Nathan Glazer…assert[ed] that the black American “has no values and culture to guard and protect.”
* Most members of the generation of young white historians who wrote the history of blacks in the seventies had left-wing backgrounds or involvement in the civil rights movement. Insofar as they were disproportionately Jews, they were products of the years when Jews were, in O’Brien’s terms, brooders rather than gloaters