In 1953, the historian Daniel Boorstin testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Boorstin had been a Communist Party member in the late Thirties, and he proved to be an unusually cooperative witness, providing a full account of his own and others’ activities in the Party. Asked how he was working to combat communism today, he replied that his opposition took two forms: the first was his active involvement in religious organizations, the second his attempt to “discover and explain to students, in my teaching and in my writing, the unique virtues of American democracy.” He wanted to use history to show how Americans had avoided extreme ideologies like communism in the past—and how they might continue to avoid them in the future.
Two years earlier, while on a teaching fellowship in Rome, Boorstin had been struck by a profound difference between European and American politics. Europeans tended to have deep and irreconcilable conflicts over the ends of society, he observed, while Americans had an unspoken agreement about what society ought to look like and differed only on the practical means—how much taxation, how much regulation—by which that shared objective could be attained. The root cause of this distinction, Boorstin wrote in The Genius of American Politics (1953), was that Europeans tended to be susceptible to the “romantic illusion” that society could be remade following the blueprint of abstract political principles. Geography and history had saved Americans from that kind of idolatry, which led straight to tyrannies like “Nazism, fascism and communism.”
Boorstin’s work on American history and politics represented perhaps the most unequivocally celebratory expression of what was known as the “consensus school,” which dominated how a generation of historians after World War II thought about their country and its past. The consensus school’s major proponents were historians who had, like Boorstin and many other intellectuals, flirted briefly with communism in the Thirties before becoming disenchanted as they grew older and the Soviet regime’s brutality became clearer. Drawing on Burke and especially Tocqueville, whom consensus historians regarded as a prophet, Boorstin argued that Americans relied on the organic growth of institutions to fit circumstances and experience. The true “genius” of American politics, he said, was that Americans had no political philosophy. Instead, they shared the common assumption “that institutions are not and should not be the grand creations of men toward large ends and outspoken values; rather they are organisms which grow out of the soil in which they are rooted and out of the tradition from which they have sprung.” The American Revolution was simply an attempt to preserve political institutions and practices inherited from Britain and adapted to the circumstances of American life. Even the Civil War “did not represent a quest for a general redefinition of political values” because it was an essentially conservative struggle between differences of “constitutional emphasis,” not different political theories.
The living embodiment of Boorstin’s vision of American consensus was the new president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. As Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, Eisenhower had led the victory over fascism in World War II. As the first Supreme Commander of NATO, he had represented European and American cooperation against Soviet Communism in the early years of the Cold War. His political positions were sufficiently anodyne and indistinct that in 1948 he was courted as a presidential contender by both Democrats and Republicans. “Except for moral issues and exact sciences,” he once said, “extreme positions are always wrong.” Eisenhower preferred the “dynamic center.” Elected in 1952 as the first Republican president since the New Deal, he nevertheless helped ensure the survival of Roosevelt’s programs and reforms by expanding Social Security, extending the minimum wage and allowing social-welfare spending to grow despite his party’s emphasis on cutting the federal budget.
Other consensus historians, who had also come out of thirties-era dalliances with communism, found it harder to celebrate the conciliatory politics of the Eisenhower era. They agreed with Boorstin that a consensus about the virtues of individual liberty and economic freedom governed American life, but they approached that consensus with ambivalence or even resignation. If for Boorstin these shared commitments gave American politics its unique genius, for critics they were evidence of the American political spectrum’s lamentably narrow and parochial constraints. In other words, the consensus school had its roots not only in Tocqueville but also in Marx.
The first explicit statement of the consensus position, in fact, had come from the left-leaning Richard Hofstadter, in his book The American Political Tradition (1948). The main body of the book consisted of iconoclastic biographical sketches of major figures in American political history: Thomas Jefferson was “The Aristocrat as Democrat”; Theodore Roosevelt, “The Conservative as Progressive”; FDR, “The Patrician as Opportunist.” Hofstadter saw the history of American politics as intellectually stagnant, with a series of melodramatic arguments distracting from a fundamental agreement on the virtues of property rights, individualism and self-interest. Challenges to the established liberal order, such as communism, had existed and continued to exist in America, but it was no accident that those challenges always ended up being relegated to the fringes.
The view from the left also influenced the most ambitious and influential statement of the consensus school, Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America (1955). If Boorstin provided an anti-intellectual celebration of the American way of life and Hofstadter a disgruntled criticism of the American devotion to individualism and private property, Hartz delivered a dense historical and philosophical account of why America had such an unreflective belief in Lockean liberalism. The epigraph and guiding vision came from Tocqueville: “The great advantage of the Americans is that they have arrived at a state of democracy without having to endure a democratic revolution; and that they are born equal, instead of becoming so.” When Hartz compared America to Europe, the key distinction was that America had never dealt with feudalism or needed to dismantle an old order. Without any real forces of reaction or revolution in America, the provocative idea at the heart of Lockean liberalism—“atomistic social freedom”—looked like a straightforward description of reality rather than a contested philosophical ideal. Locke’s description of society as essentially a bunch of small-scale independent farmers turning the land into marketable commodities was “instinctive to the American mind,” Hartz wrote, just as the polis was to classical Athens or the church to medieval Europe.
Like Hofstadter, Hartz lamented that the result of the American liberal consensus was a political scene that had more bark than bite. Americans argued all the time, Hartz acknowledged, but “there is about it all, as compared with the European pattern, a vast and almost charming innocence of mind.” Writing during the Red Scare and the witch hunts of the early Cold War, Hartz’s main hope was that increasing involvement in the postwar world would spur Americans to understand and transcend the “danger of unanimity” that lurked as the dark side of “liberal absolutism.” A consensus that saw all eccentricity as evil, he sensed—more than a decade before Watts, Chicago and Kent State—might prove to be no consensus at all.
To understand why the consensus school eventually faltered, it is helpful to look back at how it first emerged. In 1922, the historian Carl Becker published a short study of the Declaration of Independence. His final chapter explored how the major developments and ideas of the nineteenth century—nationalism, imperialism, industrialism, Darwinism—had modified and undermined the Declaration’s assertion of natural rights. “To ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is true or false is essentially a meaningless question,” he wrote. “Natural rights” was simply the idea to which American revolutionaries appealed in order to justify their withdrawal from the established laws of the British Empire, and it seemed true to them because it allowed them to think that their actions were in harmony with the universe. For Becker, who was known as a Progressive historian, the founders’ faith in a higher law could “not survive the harsh realities of the modern world.”
Becker’s analysis of the Declaration’s fate reflected conventional Progressive ideas about politics and history. Progressives tended to have a pragmatic view of political thought: the world was changing, and political principles needed to keep up. As opposed to the postwar idea that Americans had always shared a steady commitment to the Declaration’s political ideals, the earlier Progressive school had an optimistic faith that American history was moving forward through a series of pitched battles between wealthy capitalists and the people: workers, small farmers, democratic pioneers. Historians like Becker reinforced this view by emphasizing that economic interests, not political principles, dictated the deep-seated conflicts that drove American democracy. The historian Charles Beard applied Becker’s framework to the Constitution in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913), the book that made his reputation. Later he and his wife, Mary, wrote a sweeping and influential interpretation of American history called The Rise of American Civilization (1927), which pitted industrialists against agrarians and business interests against workers in a seemingly never-ending series of conflicts.
Twenty years after Becker first wrote his book on the Declaration, Alfred Knopf reissued it, in 1942, with a new introduction. Writing in the middle of a war driven by totalitarian dictatorships in Europe, Becker ventured to explain why a reprint might be welcome just then. “The incredible cynicism and brutality of Adolf Hitler’s ambitions, made every day more real by the servile and remorseless activities of his bleak-faced, humorless Nazi supporters,” Becker wrote, “have forced men everywhere to re-appraise the validity of half-forgotten ideas, and enabled them once more to entertain convictions as to the substance of things not evident to the senses.” Among the things that turned out to have substance were phrases like “the inalienable rights of men,” which now seemed vital not in spite but because of the spread of hostile ideologies around the world. Such phrases, Becker wrote, “denote realities—the fundamental realities that men will always fight for rather than surrender.”
Becker’s shift, from a pragmatic view of the Declaration’s political purpose to a bedrock faith in the Declaration’s principles, reflected a broader transformation. By the Forties, the Progressive faith in progress through conflict seemed ill-suited for a world that had witnessed the rise of fascism and communism and the horrors of the atomic bomb and the Holocaust. The last important work generally considered to be part of the Progressive school was Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Age of Jackson, which he finished in the spring of 1944, just before heading to Europe to work with the Office of Strategic Services. Like other Progressive histories, The Age of Jackson saw its period in terms of the conflict between capitalists and democrats. Just a few years later, however, Schlesinger published The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom (1949). Suddenly, America’s internal divides seemed relatively easy to bridge. Liberals and businessmen could both agree on the basic virtues of a free society and “the ultimate integrity of the individual,” which was what America stood for in the fight against totalitarianism. “The non-communist left and the non-fascist right must collaborate to keep free society truly free,” Schlesinger wrote. The decisive reelection of Harry Truman, in 1948, over not only the Republican Thomas Dewey but also Strom Thurmond’s racist segregationists and Henry Wallace’s quasi-communists further proved, for Schlesinger, that “the job of liberalism … was to devote itself to the maintenance of individual liberties and to the democratic control of economic life—and to brook no compromise, at home or abroad, on either of these two central tenets.”
Along with Schlesinger, Boorstin, Hofstadter and Hartz laid the groundwork for the consensus interpretation that would dominate the writing of American history for about two decades. But the pendulum eventually began to swing back toward conflict.
Interpretations are always simplifications: if pushed too far in one direction, they lose touch with reality. This had happened to the Progressive school in the Forties and Fifties, and it happened to the consensus school in the Sixties and Seventies. In the latter case, historians began to realize that their emphasis on consensus was obscuring bitter conflicts that erupted with some regularity. It is possible to agree about the desirability of liberty and equality but to disagree deeply, even violently, about what those words mean and how they are to be realized in politics, society and economics. Slavery and the Civil War stood as proof of this and, predictably, consensus historians had no convincing way to deal with them. Hofstadter put it best when he suggested a cartoon of the consensus view of the Civil War: “a Reb and a Yank meet in 1865 to survey the physical and moral devastation of the war: ‘Well,’ says one to the other consolingly, ‘at least we escaped the ultimate folly of producing political theorists.’”
The idea that a deep consensus governed American life began also to look untenable in the face of the political, social and cultural conflicts of the Sixties, some of which called into question the fundamental assumptions of postwar liberalism. Back in 1949, Schlesinger had argued that Americans disagreed only about the timing and method for implementing civil rights. By the middle of the Sixties, in the wake of massive resistance, race riots and the rise of the Black Power movement, Schlesinger’s sanguine attitude seemed naive. As citizens fell away from the center, it was unclear whether even a great deal of digging would uncover underlying commitments uniting Goldwater conservatives, the New Left, Black Panthers and radical feminists.
By the time of the Bicentennial in 1976, it was difficult for anyone to agree on what America meant and what in its history, if anything, could be celebrated. Demographic changes within the American historical profession itself also played their role. One of the conditions that gave rise to the consensus school was the basic homogeneity of the American professoriate, especially after communists were mostly purged from teaching positions in the late Forties. Historians for the next generation were white men with good salaries living in a prosperous and mostly peaceful nation. By the Seventies, however, departments were starting to hire their first women, blacks, Latinos and Asians—many of whom brought different experiences and perspectives to American history.
The result of these changes was a renewed emphasis on conflict—but not only the economic conflict between the haves and have-nots that had animated the Progressive project. New fields, organized around racial, ethnic, gender and religious conflicts, focused on groups whose struggles had contributed to an American story that was becoming increasingly diffuse. Dissertations in social history quadrupled from 1958 to 1978 as young scholars sought to recover the experiences of women, slaves, free blacks, Native Americans, immigrants and children. Yet like isolated individuals in the liberal state of nature, the different fields of American history were atomized—they seemed to have nothing tying them together, no central theme to imbue experience with deeper meaning. “History was once called a habitation of many mansions,” reflected the Southern historian C. Vann Woodward in 1982, “but it has been more recently described as scattered suburbs, trailer camps and a deteriorating central city.”
Woodward was no reactionary. His intellectual background was like that of most consensus historians—he had visited Soviet Moscow in the summer of 1932—but his historical focus on the South after Reconstruction, a time of riots, lynching and Klan violence, meant that he was never tempted to downplay the centrality of political and economic conflict in American history. Throughout his career, he remained committed to racial equality and the search for a usable past. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to his best-known work, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955), as “the historical bible of the civil rights movement,” because it demonstrated that the South had not always been so steadfastly committed to segregation. Yet by the late Sixties, Woodward’s commitment to liberal integrationist principles had begun to look retrograde to a new generation of activist historians.
Around that time, Woodward joined with Hofstadter to plan a new series of books called the Oxford History of the United States. His main goal was to revive the art of historical narrative for a general readership, believing a democratic public should not “confront the present and the future with outdated misconceptions of the past.” In some quarters this focus on storytelling was seen as a betrayal. In response to an essay for the New York Times Book Review announcing the first volume in 1982, Woodward was assailed by a younger social historian who claimed that the call for a new narrative history represented “anti-intellectual Luddism,” reflective of the New Right’s “demand for a return to simpler times and simpler tales.”
The series proved popular from its inception, but progress was slow. Only four volumes were published by the time of Woodward’s death in 1999. Since then, a handful of additional volumes have appeared under the editorship of David Kennedy, but after 35 years the project remains only two-thirds complete, and the reason for the project’s slow pace isn’t just that narrative history is less common than it once was, or that historians have largely retreated (like the rest of us) to their own respective silos. Narrative problems are ultimately analytical problems: historians no longer know how to tell a narrative history of the United States because they no longer know what to think about the United States.
Perhaps they’re right to be cautious. In framing a narrative about a nation, there’s always the danger of letting description shade into prescription—as Hartz saw when he wrote about the “compulsive power” of consensus. Stories about the past are bound to leave things out, and any narrative will eventually come to grief as neglected groups disrupt settled assumptions to make themselves known. Yet we can acknowledge those dangers and still recognize that Woodward was also right. The task for the next generation of American historians will be to draw a new roadmap of our country’s history—simple but not simplistic, rigorous but not rigid, inclusive but not incoherent. As our most recent history has shown, we refuse this task at our peril: if Americans are not offered realistic stories about their country’s past, they may well choose mythological ones.