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Joseph S. Lucas and Donald A. Yerxa, Editors

Origins of Globalization | How Not to Deal with Enlightenments | In the Archives | European Integration The Making of the Modern American Home | The Present Emergency | Whiteness and the Historians' Imagination

February 2002

Volume III, Number 3

The Medieval Church and the Origins of Globalization
by James Muldoon

For good or ill, globalization is upon us. At the mundane level, this means that an enormous range of products from the most ordinary to the most sophisticated can be found everywhere. An American fuels his Japanese-made car with gasoline brought from Saudi Arabia and drives it while drinking coffee from the Caribbean and waiting for a call on his cell phone made by a company in Finland. On the other hand, it is also possible to travel throughout much of the world without leaving American culture. One can glide over the surface of the earth, renting from Hertz, staying in Holiday Inns, and eating in McDonalds, remaining in a hermetically-sealed American bubble. 

Even those who criticize globalization because they see it as destroying their traditional way of life often dress rather like American sports fans or college students, so that someone who has no idea of the intricacies of the squeeze play wears a New York Yankees cap. Furthermore, because of the ubiquity of CNN and other news services, foreign demonstrators thoughtfully wave signs written in English, although, like American student papers, the demonstrators’ protest slogans occasionally contain misspellings and grammatical errors. There is a sense that English, specifically American English, is the language of the global village, a village that grows ever larger. With the development of the hand-cranked radio, it is no longer even necessary to live near electric power lines or to possess an unlimited supply of batteries to hear the news and to learn about the world. No matter how hard one tries to avoid the consequences of globalization, like the “Hound of Heaven” it follows us “down the arches of the years.”

To the extent that we conceive of globalization in such material terms, however, our understanding of what is happening remains superficial. Globalization is much more than the creation of a universal consumer culture. After all, it is quite possible to wear western clothes, use western technology, and watch CNN while rejecting the culture that underlies them. Globalization is above all a conception or a vision of the right order of the world. It is also a vision that is inextricably linked to Western Europe’s Christian past. Globalization exists not only because Europeans created worldwide trade networks, but also because Europeans conceived of all humankind as ultimately forming a universal community.

The term globalization and related terms such as developed and underdeveloped nations mask what is really taking place throughout the world. These bland and neutral terms suggest that there is a universal, natural, and ongoing process of human development that operates in every society. Belief in the existence of this process is based upon the premise that human beings form a single species and therefore every human society should eventually develop along the same general lines. To say that there are underdeveloped societies is to suggest that outside forces have intervened to block or at least to slow down the natural course of development that should be occurring. Furthermore, because humankind forms a single species, globalization also means that there are universal or international standards of humanitarian behavior that are applicable to all societies. What is really happening throughout the world is not, however, some inevitable natural process leading to the formation of similar societies everywhere. 

What is really happening is the westernization or the Europeanization— not simply the Americanization—of the world, a process that has been going on not from 1492 but from the 11th century. This does not mean the European domination of the world in military terms or even in economic terms. It does mean the spread of European cultural values and their imposition on, or their adoption by, non-European peoples. To think globally, that is to see humankind as forming some kind of coherent whole, is in effect to see the world as Europeans have come to see it. This is a vision rooted in the medieval Christian tradition; modern conceptions of globalization and of a global society echo the medieval ecclesiastical vision of all humanity as a single spiritual community. 

The process of Europeanization began with the formation of medieval Europe out of the ruins not only of the Roman Empire but, even more important, from the ruins of the Carolingian Empire in the 10th century. Europe was formed by combining the Germanic invaders and the classical tradition within a matrix created by the Christian Church. The elements of this distinctive culture emerged from the Carolingian heartland and spread gradually in all directions as a result of conquest and missionary efforts. Eventually the peoples along the frontiers of this Christian culture, the Celts, the Scandinavians, and the Slavs, became Christian. The fundamental assumption underlying the medieval missionary effort was that all rational creatures are descended from Adam and Eve, all bear the marks of Original Sin, and all are redeemed by the death of Christ on the cross. It was therefore the obligation of Christians to preach Christ’s Gospel to all humankind, a task that became increasingly important as apocalyptic visions of the imminent coming of the end of the world appeared in medieval Christianity at the end of the 12th century. 

The medieval Christian vision of the world was not, however, restricted to the spiritual realm. By the 13th century, European society had also assimilated the thought of Aristotle and from that obtained a conception of what it meant to be civilized. In his Politics, Aristotle argued that only in a settled agricultural society could people find all the elements necessary for the fullest development of human existence. Having first emerged within the city-state world of the Mediterranean, Aristotle’s conception of civility was completely acceptable to Christian thinkers. The administrative structure of the Church was territorially grounded in the parish and the diocese, units that replicated the province structure of the Roman world, which in turn derived from the Mediterranean city-state. Therefore, missionaries who encountered uncivilized people had not only to introduce them to Christianity but to the civilized way of life as well. 

But how did a people become civilized? Aristotle did not deal with this issue, apparently believing that the development of the city-state was a natural process that required no explanation. Subsequently, however, the Roman lawyer and politician Cicero provided sketch of humankind’s rise to civility. He described society’s original state as a primitive life in the fields and forests. Then a manarose to communicate to his fellows a vision of a better way of life, the city-state. Christian missionaries could identify with this Promethean orator who first communicated the vision of a better way of life. They themselves would inform primitive people not only about a better way of life in this world, but also about salvation in the next. 

There was another aspect of this Christian conception of the world, however, one that is often overlooked. The medieval Church not only preached a message of salvation in the next world and had a broad concept of universal human development in this world. It also developed the outlines of a universal legal system. Church law, the canon law, can legitimately be seen as the first truly international law. Fundamentally, the canon law was the law of the Church for its own members, but inasmuch as the medieval Church saw itself as universal in scope and membership, its law could embrace all humankind. Unlike modern international law, however, the canon law dealt with individuals and societies but not with states. The canon law also dealt with relations that could exist between Christian and non-Christian societies everywhere. 

In the canon lawyers’ conception of the world, there was a tripartite legal order that encompassed all humankind within a universal moral order. In the first place, there was the canon law that governed Christian life. There was also the Mosaic Law that governed Jewish society. Everyone else was subject to the natural law, a law accessible to all rational creatures. Seen in this light, the medieval canonists were probably the first to conceive of humankind in truly global terms. 

The expansion of Europeans overseas beginning in the early 15th century was directly linked to this global vision. Obviously, trade, a desire to outflank the Muslim world, curiosity about the world beyond Europe, and other factors contributed to the move overseas. However, the framework within which this expansion took place was ecclesiastical and legal, a fact often overlooked by historians. The formal justifications for occupying newly discovered lands from the Atlantic Islands off the coast of Africa in the early 15th century to Alexander VI’s Inter caetera in 1493 always explained contact and conquest in terms of the Church’s universal mission. Various popes granted to the Portuguese and the Castilians a monopoly of European contact with specific regions in order to rationalize European entry into these new worlds. One goal was to prevent conflict between the emerging overseas empires by recognizing specific spheres of interest in the newly encountered regions. A second goal was to insure that these Christian monarchs would use some of the wealth gained by conquest for the purpose of supporting missionary efforts aimed at converting native inhabitants to Christianity. Force could be employed if the inhabitants violated the natural law by engaging in wicked practices such as cannibalism or prevented the entry of peaceful missionaries and merchants. Force could also be employed to bring these people to the civilized level of existence. The pope acted as a kind of universal judge. He determined if a particular people were violating the natural law and, if so, asked a Christian ruler to punish them. 

One of the consequences of the Protestant Reformation was the rejection of this medieval view of humankind. Hugo Grotius, the founder of modern international law, explicitly rejected the papal claim to universal jurisdiction. He also reduced the scope of international law to relations among the nations of Europe. Most important, he began the process by means of which law was distinguished from moral theology. In the wake of Grotius’s work, international law and relations grew increasingly secular. 

In fact, as European states came to control most of the earth’s surface by the 18th century, the vision of a global society actually declined. Instead, Europeans increasingly saw the world as a series of competing empires without any overarching supervision, a kind of Hobbesian war of all against all. By the end of the 19th century, however, there emerged in some quarters an interest in creating institutions for the peaceful resolution of international conflicts. This led to the creation of the World Court at The Hague and, later, the League of Nations and the United Nations. 

Underlying these recent efforts at world order are some of the same elements that underlay medieval notions of world order. In the first place, contrary to 18th- and 19th-century racial theories about humanity, current theories of world order assume that humankind is a single species, not several species with different intellectual and moral capacities. In the second place, it is widely believed that all societies possess the capacity to rise to the European and American level of development. At the same time, many Europeans and Americans think that international humanitarian standards of behavior should be imposed on societies that do not adhere to them. This, of course, leads to the problem of who is to determine what these standards are and when and where force should be used to uphold them. The standards being imposed are said to be universal, but in reality they reflect the values of Europe and America. Where the medieval Church asserted that there was a natural law that all rational creatures should obey, modern thinkers contend that there are internationally agreed upon standards to which all people should adhere. Finally, where the pope could authorize the occupation of a country whose ruler engaged in violations of the natural law, in the modern world the president of the United States, perhaps with the approval of the secretary general of the United Nations, can act in a similar capacity. 

What we now call modernization and globalization is really a continuation of a process that has been proceeding for a millennium as European Christian society has expanded far beyond its original home. To a medievalist at least, the vision of world order that has been coming into play since World War II—a vision of a universal human community with universal standards of behavior and an agency authorized to determine whether or not a society is adhering to those standards—is reminiscent of the medieval papacy’s conception of the world. Many years ago, Carl Becker argued that the philosophes’ ideas about the political order were a secularized version of medieval Christian thought. The same can be said of postmodern conceptions of world order, which revive some very pre-modern ideas in secular guise. 

James Muldoon, emeritus professor of history at Rutgers University, is presently an invited research scholar at the John Carter Brown Library. He is the author of Empire and Order: The Concept of Empire, 800–1800 (St. Martin’s Press, 1999).


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How Not to Deal with Enlightenments
by Roger L. Emerson

I work on the Enlightenment, particularly on the Scottish Enlightenment. I have written on clubs and societies, universities, patronage, religion, and science. Throughout my career, I have tried to see Scottish history in relation to things going on elsewhere, not just in England but also on the continent and sometimes in America. The world to which the Scots belonged was not a particularly British world but a much wider one. I have tried to see the period in the round and not become too wedded to one or another set of problems or themes. 

I care about getting the parameters of the Scottish Enlightenment set correctly. This, it seems to me, involves, first of all, the realization that, as with every period, one is dealing with a term that is imposed upon a range of years because these years reveal persisting, if changing, traits which are convenient to label since they co-exist and then cease at some later point to cohere. The labels are ours and will change as the period recedes into the past. All labels are temporary. Still, in the case of the European and American Enlightenments, the traits are generally those that many people in the period ca. 1660-1830 found useful to notice and discuss. Like the advanced thinkers of any age, those of that period thought, although usually at differing times in various parts of Europe, that they were doing things both novel and important, and related to similar things being done by like-minded men and women elsewhere. They were not shy about pointing that out. Further, most of them had an interest in tracing the origins and forebears of the beliefs and institutions that they sought to defend, change, or eradicate. They did not see themselves, and we should not see them, as having no antecedents and no sense of the way things were related in their intellectual worlds. We should, I believe, look for the continuities with the past that they found it interesting to assert as well as for the changes that they sought to make. In doing so, we need to consider a wide range of problems and ideas which preoccupied the thinkers of what we call the Enlightenment. 

Contemporary intellectual historians tend, however, to focus on only a segment of Enlightenment thought and, consequently, miss much of what was important about that era both in general and in the particular contexts which interest them. John Pocock’s recent volumes on Edward Gibbon (Barbarism and Religion: The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1737-1764, vol. I, and Narratives of Civil Government, vol. II [Cambridge University Press, 1999]) offer what will be a widely-read example of this unfortunate trend. Pocock is interested in the traditions and men from whom Gibbon drew, but his work often reads as if he were giving a character to the Enlightenment or Enlightenments in which he situates Gibbon. His exciting, valuable, and erudite volumes will be taken by many to be authoritative statements about the Enlightenments with which he deals as well as about the Enlightenment of Edward Gibbon. As a guide to Gibbon, we may perhaps trust him; I think we should not when we think about the Enlightenment and particularly about the Scottish one.

Professor Pocock views the European Enlightenment as “a process at work in European culture,” defined primarily by secularization and a system of balanced powers or states, and supported by commerce, as well as by an evolution of manners which commerce and the new political balance required (I:4f). The period’s exciting historiography, like its thought in general, was, according to Pocock, almost exclusively taken up with debates about civility and morals, politics, and “the forces making for modernity about 1500—navigation, printing, gunpowder, and the revival of letters—and those operating about 1700: standing army and public credit, commerce, and the new philosophy” (II:370). In Pocock’s view, it is not principally in the realm of ideas but in that of power and the contests for it that one comes to understand the Enlightenment or Enlightenments. 

What makes Pocock’s account even more curious is its location of a specific time and place at which the Enlightenment may be said to begin in Europe—at Utrecht in 1713. At the same time, he tells us that Enlightenment “occurred in too many forms to be comprised within a single definition and history, and that we do better to think of a family of Enlightenments, displaying both family resemblances and family quarrels (some of them bitter and even bloody)” (I:9). One still must ask what the members of this family had in common; did they have a common birth date in 1713? If nothing can be specified as common, there is no sense in talking about variations, including the ones he has stipulated and which he repeatedly treats as the only ones that matter because they contributed to Gibbon’s enlightened narrative. Even Peter Gay’s old conception of a family of Enlightenments (which in turn popularized a notion of Ludwig Wittgenstein) was more adequate since it offered as two exemplars of Enlightenment Voltaire and Hume. 

We read a good deal in Pocock’s volumes of Voltaire as an historian who “both defines ‘Enlightenment’ and presents ‘the Enlightenment narrative’ in terms of a history of manners, attempted on a scale and with a panache not found before him” (II:73) and of his hatred of religion, barbarism, and a certain kind of European chauvinism. We hear little of the man of the English Letters, in which Bacon and Locke are applauded for reasons having to do with knowledge and how it may be advanced and used, or of the man who made Newton’s accomplishments available to the French reading public, or of the man who experimented to find the “pabulum of fire” and wrote plays meant to be modern in form as well as content. In short, we hear little of the philosophe whose agenda was so much wider than that of the Enlightenments Pocock offers us. Any definition of Enlightenment as circumscribed as Pocock’s misses too much of what was happening in the period and what brought it about. What may suit Gibbon should not be extended to all. 

Pocock does list “philosophy” as an ingredient of the process he sees as crucial to Enlightenment. But the great achievement of the philosophers of the 17th century (one which extended into the 18th century) was the invention of new theories of knowledge and new methods by which things could be known and, once known, improved or changed. It was this epistemological revolution that inspired the efforts of so many to discover, generate, and act upon the new knowledge that they found within their grasp using the methods of Boyle, Sydenham, Huygens, and Newton, to cite four of Locke’s heroes. They, like Locke, were given to changing the world for the better, as well as to understanding it by a new set of empirical procedures. In accounting for the origins of the “process” of Enlightenment, it seems absurd to attend so little to the new philosophy and the sciences it engendered— mathematics, natural philosophy, and natural history. Yet this is precisely what Pocock does. His definition relegates a lot of thinkers and doers whom we might want to include as major participants in Enlightenment to the status of forerunners to its preliminaries or hangers on to its achievements because they were not central to the social and political changes that he seeks to describe and which he believes fascinated Gibbon. He has more or less done what he has accused others of doing: “bringing [the varied Enlightenments] within a single formula—which exclude[s] those it cannot be made to fit” (I:9). 

Professor Pocock also fails to notice in any serious way that when the Enlightened thought about what they were doing and how they should proceed, they did not limit themselves to the sorts of things in which he is interested and understands. In an age in which schooling provided a sort of synopsis of the intelligible world, to ignore the unity of that intellectual world when considering the Enlightenment is to impose on it a character which is his and not that of the time. Bacon’s well known scheme of the arts and sciences, organized around the faculties of the mind— memory, reason, and imagination—was one form of asserting this unity; a form echoed in Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature where everything is brought back to sense, reason, and imagination. Another instance is provided by university curricula; a third by the encyclopedic trees of various reference works including those of Woolf, Chambers, Diderot, and d’Alembert. These, like classical educations and Christian instruction, persisted through the Enlightenment and helped to insure that its intellectuals were broad in outlook and not constricted to the parameters set out by Pocock. 

But, if one believes that Enlightenment thought was systematic, then it is imperative to relate it to natural philosophy, which was as much a part of the enlightened world as religion and the realm of grace. Similarly, many in the late 17th and 18th centuries shared the belief that improvements of every sort were possible and within their means had they but the will to make changes. The devotion to improvement was European in scope and not the possession of particular peoples, although there were certainly differences in the times at which such views were expressed and in the number and kinds of people who held them. Still, this was a cosmopolitan, complex world in which there is not a clear line to be drawn between many of the virtuosi (those earlier pansophists who sought to know everything and to apply their knowledge for human betterment) and the philosophes. Gibbon’s outlook was not altogether typical of his time because he, like Pocock in these books, lacked an interest in, if not some knowledge of, the sciences. 

To apply this broad perspective to the Scottish Enlightenment is to ask and answer a number of questions that Pocock and those on whose scholarship he relies (principally Nicholas Phillipson, John Robertson, and Richard Sher) tend to ignore. These relate to science and improvement, to religion, to the place of Edinburgh in the Scottish Enlightenment, to patronage, and to the end of the period and the causes of that end. 

When did Scots first begin to find a place for the improvers and scientists? The improvers, who as a group looked back to Bacon and other virtuosi, became visible in the 1680s although it was not until 1723 that a national improvement society appeared. When it did, it embodied the outlook of men from the 1680s, men like Sir Robert Sibbald, who never lost hope that a survey of the country would provide information for improving purposes. The survey was finally realized in the Statistical Account of Scotland, edited by Sir John Sinclair at the end of the 18th century. The Honourable Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture of 1723 was but the first of many organizations that pursued the aim of making Scotland better through the application of new knowledge in as many ways as possible. It was followed in the 1750s by the Edinburgh Society which, for a few years, enrolled all the members of the Select Society. The latter is always cited by those who think along Pocock’s lines, but its sister society, dedicated to improving activities, enlisted more members and cost them a larger membership fee. It is usually ignored in discussions of the Scottish Enlightenment. 

The scientists were visible perhaps a bit earlier but lived mostly abroad until ca. 1670. They were more common in Scotland by 1700 and constituted during the 18th century, if the country’s more than 5,000 medical men trained in Scotland during the century are included, a body roughly equal in size to the 1,000 or so clerics that the country possessed at any given time. By 1800, the universities were as much dedicated to the pursuit of science and medicine as to anything else. A boom in medical and scientific education flourished from ca. 1714, after the founding of the first medical chairs. One would not learn that from an account of the Scottish Enlightenment that sees it as very much a post-1745 product of moderate Presbyterians reacting against Calvinism (II:312f). This, one hardly needs to note, excludes most of the Select Society membership as well as most of those one would like to call enlightened in Glasgow and Aberdeen. Pocock has not really described a Scottish Enlightenment, but merely the views of an Edinburgh coterie and a few of their Glaswegian friends. If one wishes to understand the Scottish Enlightenment, one must look at those whom he has excluded—doctors, gentlemen, lawyers—and not just the clerics and university professors who wrote works related in some fashion to his and Gibbon’s interests in history. Perhaps the most emblematic figure of the period was Lord Kames, who wrote learnedly on the law and its improvement, on aesthetics and morals, on agriculture and flax husbandry, on education and physics—as well as on philosophy and history. And, if we want to consider enlightened Scottish clerics, why not start with John Simson, the professor of divinity at Glasgow whose career has recently been so well studied by Anne Skoczylas [Mr. Simson’s Knotty Case: Divinity, Politics, and Due Process in Early Eighteenth-Century Scotland (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001)]? If Pocock is interested in the Protestant Enlightenments of the Dutch and Swiss, he should pay some regard to their Scottish followers. Simson was emulating the Swiss and Dutch when, in 1714, he got into trouble for doing so; that was long before Francis Hutcheson came to Glasgow as a professor in 1729. Indeed, most of the moderates whom Pocock considers were born after 1714. 

Every Enlightenment depended upon the patronage of the great both to secure places for its members and to insure a hearing for their views. The Enlightenments that form Pocock’s family took their shape and orientation from what patrons were willing to coun- tenance. Too little attention is paid to this not only in Scotland but elsewhere. Monographs are written about the rather marginal women patronesses of the salons, but we get few studies of the truly successful and influential patrons. No one has written on the patronage of the great Scottish political figures other than the 3rd Earl of Bute, whose patronage was arguably less culturally important than that bestowed by the Squadrone lords in the period ca. 1710–1724, or by the 3rd Duke of Argyll ca. 1723–1761, or by Henry Dundas ca. 1780–1806. Argyll’s patronage did much to shape Scotland in his own image. He was a virtuoso interested in medicine, botany, law, and improvements of all sorts; his wide range of secular interests is mirrored by his library holdings. He, as much as any of the men whose careers he furthered, shaped the Scottish Enlightenment. It came to reflect his secularism, his tolerance, and his practical and academic interests. He and his political faction also gave jobs to most of the Scots who interest Pocock: Lord Kames, William Robertson, John Millar, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, but not to Hume who resented Argyll’s lack of support. Surely, such patrons and their interests deserve more attention from historians. 

Finally, one must consider what brought the Enlightenment to an end. In the case of Scotland, the period seems to have ended for a number of reasons. The acceptance of utilitarian ideas and more vocational educations tended no longer to privilege the systematic presentation of knowledge in college curricula or the hierarchy of sciences which these once embodied. Empirical methods had made the unity of knowledge a methodological one. At the same time, the growth of industry and a transportation revolution linked Scotland economically to the rest of Britain and eroded the bases of a separate national identity. England and the Empire became more accessible and necessary to Scots who found less to criticize in their world. Their old ties with the continent were disrupted. Scots turned into the North Britons that many had for a long time thought they should become. The period ended with an increasing and profound emphasis on feelings, which devalued “reason.” With the revulsion against the French Revolution came a return of intolerance but also of religion. None of this has much to do with the end of a system established by the Peace of Utrecht or with the Arminianism that Pocock supposes were so important to some of his Enlightenments. 

Now it may be said that John Pocock did not set out to do a history of the Scottish Enlightenment but to relate Gibbon’s outlook to the work of several of his predecessors working in various Enlightenments from which he drew inspiration, examples, and methods. I am quite willing to concede this and to applaud Pocock’s real achievements; nevertheless, I expect a fairer account of the Enlightenments upon which Pocock draws. In showing what that might be in one case, I have, I think, set out some of the reasons for my dissatisfaction with Enlightenment studies more generally. 

Roger L. Emerson is emeritus professor of history at the University of Western Ontario and author, with Paul Wood, of a forthcoming study of the scientific community in Glasgow, 1690–1800, to be published in Science and Medicine in the Scottish Enlightenment by Tuckwell Press.

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In the Archives: A Visit to Arkhangel’sk in 1999
by Lynne Viola

In late May of 1999, I flew from Moscow to the old port city of Arkhangel’sk (or Archangel) in Russia’s far North. Fearing the co-ed arrangements of the Russian overnight train compartments, even the “lux” variety, I booked an evening flight on Arkhangel’sk Airlines. To my untrained eye, the plane looked alarmingly old. It was a Tupolev from the Aeroflot fleet, decentralized and denationalized upon the fall of the Soviet Union. Fortuitously (because I am a nervous flyer), I sat in the row behind the emergency exits. Above the window of the emergency exit, I read a small sign alerting passengers to the “emergency rope.” The sign was attached to a latched compartment door upon which the Russian woman sitting in the window seat had immediately hooked her carry-on bag (in Russia, a hook demands a bag). Dutifully, I took out the emergency instructions from the rear pocket of the seat ahead of me. With great interest, I read that the emergency rope had notches on it to facilitate the climb down. And there was more. At the front of the plane, there were also emergency exits. Fortunately, these did not have ropes, but rather emergency carpets that had to be held taut at the bottom by the first two people (men in my picture) out. Passengers were instructed to empty their pockets of wallets, pens, combs, bottles, and other potentially dangerous objects, as well as to remove high heel shoes, eye glasses, and ties before deplaning. In minutes, the female flight attendant came down the aisles handing out paper bags for flight sickness, or as one of my neighbors explained to an elderly woman, bags for “unpleasantness.”

I was traveling to Arkhangel’sk to work in the archive of the Northern Regional Committee of the Communist Party. As a member of the University of Toronto’s Stalin-Era Research and Archive Project, I had decided to focus my attentions on the far North in my continuing studies of the repression of the Russian peasantry under Joseph Stalin. In the early 1930s, millions of peasants were forcibly deported, under horrendous conditions, to the most desolate regions of the Soviet Union, mostly in the dead of winter. In 1930, close to 75,000 peasant families traveled in unheated boxcars to the far North. They were then transported to remote forest and marsh lands and told to build homes and villages. The ablebodied worked in the timber industry under slave-like conditions, while the non-ablebodied attempted to clear the lands for farming and eke out a miserable existence from the soil.

I had nearly exhausted the central archives in Moscow that were open to me and decided to follow my peasant deportees, or “special migrants” as they were euphemistically called, to one of their places of exile. I decided to concentrate on Russia’s far North because it appeared to be the least studied region of deportation. The previous year I had worked in the sleepy town of Vologda, located halfway between Moscow and Arkhangel’sk. There I was able to observe the exiles’ lives on a local level. Now I was determined to examine the papers of the regional-level bureaucrats who largely determined their fate.

I decided to combine my time in Arkhangel’sk with a side trip to the notorious Solovetskii Islands, the site of a 15th-century monastery turned into a concentration camp in the 1920s and 1930s. Some of the peasants repressed under Stalin had ended up there. The Islands were both beautiful and terrible. Pristine, ornamented with a dilapidated, but magnificent monastery, and situated in the middle of an archipelago, the Islands are known for their natural splendor, especially in summer and autumn. A small population of about 1,000 people live there, mostly engaged in one way or another in the tourist business, such as it is (I didn’t see any other tourists that weekend). But such desolation I had never seen before in my twenty odd (and often very odd) years of travel in the former Soviet Union and Russia. Farm animals seemed to have taken over the center of the island: goats in little packs scurrying away from people, cows wearing bells and eyeing me, I thought, aggressively, and dogs wildly chasing motorcycles, the main means of transportation in the village. Everything was gray, damp, muddy, dirty, and in a state of disrepair. 

The “hotel” was a small, two-story wooden structure, largely unfinished on the outside, but homey and comfortable (though bloody cold) on the inside. To convey the “exoticism” of the Solovetskii Islands, they had planted in the hotel courtyard a 1937 vintage “Black Maria,” the car that the secret police used in the dead of night to take away newly arrested people in the towns. My hosts, like all Russian hosts, were warm, generous, and welcoming. I toured the monastery, visited a museum exhibition on the early Soviet concentration camp, and later traveled to a more distant concentration camp, notorious for the grand, outdoor staircase, down which prisoners with manacled wrists would be thrown by debauched guards. The visit to Solovki, as it is known familiarly, was sobering and the perfect preface to my archival work. 

Back in Arkhangel’sk, on the morning of my first work day, I called the director of the archives of the former Northern Regional Committee of the Communist Party. The director was on otpusk, that is, on vacation. The deputy director agreed to see me. She kindly explained how to reach the archive from my hotel, mischievously noting that they “worked behind Lenin’s back.” Not quite understanding that last comment, I walked from my hotel, crossed the square where indeed Lenin still stood with his back to the town hall, and walked up the steps to the archives. The deputy director couldn’t have been more gracious. As luck had it, a lovely, intelligent woman in charge of the publication office had been working on my topic, with a focus on the tens of thousands of Ukrainian peasants who were deported to the North. She shared with me her findings, relevant archival inventories, and document folders in a most collegial way. Later, we had several opportunities to chat over tea, and she told me about her own Ukrainian roots and the reasons for her interest in the subject. 

From the first hours of research, I was transported into a world of almost indescribable horror. I read of the Regional Party Committee’s plans to feed the exiles’ families (including some 88,000 children) according to “starvation norms.” The majority of loca- tions designated for settlement were completely uncleared marsh or forest lands, accessible only by river or by foot and then only for a part of the year. While awaiting transfer into the interior, people were crowded into barracks or nationalized churches, with space per individual calculated as “smaller than a grave” and the temperature not above four degrees. I read about the “colossal death rate” of the children and the epidemics of typhus that raged through the exile population. I read the desperate letters home written by young male exiles sent ahead into the interior to build the “special villages.” One young man wrote, “It is impossible to describe life here, they treat us worse than cattle . . . . They don’t even give us water, not to mention food . . . .” Another wrote, “We live very poorly, there is nothing, each day we expect death. Daily 20 to 30 to 40 people die.” During the 1932–33 famine there were cases of cannibalism. 

Drunken village commandants regularly beat and tortured exiles, confining them in cold cellars for days at a time. They also embezzled state funds intended for the exiles and raped exile women. I read about the homes constructed for exile children whose parents had died of disease and exhaustion, about the high death rates in those homes, about state inspectors finding children’s corpses hidden in barns. There were secret deals with cemetery caretakers to bury the children unofficially so the home directors could continue to receive funding for these little “dead souls.” 

At the end of my time in Arkhangel’sk— and with plans for a return visit in the year 2000—I had a tour of the city. My driver, a new English-speaking guide (with whom I insisted on speaking Russian), and a young man anxious to discuss history and try out his English took me on the worst roads I have seen in any Russian city. I clandestinely swallowed Gravol pills, hoping to avoid “unpleasantness.” The car swerved from one side of the road to the other to avoid potholes (fortunately there was not much traffic in Arkhangel’sk). While I listened to the English- speaking guide minutely and painfully describe Arkhangel’sk’s history, economy, and especially factories (a holdover from the days of the workers’ paradise), I surveyed the ruins of what had been a thoroughly sovietized city. Gone were the quaint wooden structures that so gracefully lined the streets of Vologda. In their stead were erected the ugly, poorly constructed high-rise apartment buildings of the Brezhnev era, now woefully unfit for habitation. But therein live the people of Arkhangel’sk, no doubt many the descendants of my Ukrainian and Great Russian “special settlers,” who continue to make the best of conditions that they know are deplorable, and most often with a sense of humor, a level of civility, and a graciousness extraordinary for their surroundings. 

Lynne Viola is professor of history at the University of Toronto. Her most recent book is Peasant Rebels Under Stalin: Collectivization and the Culture of Peasant Resistance (Oxford University Press, 1996). 

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European Integration: An Event for Reflection
by George Ross

On January 1, 2002, citizens in twelve European Union societies cashed in their drachmas, deutschemarks, francs, and florins for new Euro notes and coins. This was the final step in the most significant creation of a new currency zone since the coming of the dollar in the U.S. The event reminds us that European Integration deserves its place among the major historical processes of the 20th century. Today the European Union (EU) is a unified economic space that rivals the U.S. in GDP, productivity and innovative capacity.[1] The Europe that invented the Westphalian state system and then explored its most perverse consequences is now peaceful and the EU is even moving tentatively toward a common foreign and defense policy. The EU remains an “unidentified flying political object,” as Jacques Delors has often called it, a unique political system which, based on nation states, includes dense confederal arrangements, several genuinely federalized policy areas, transnational institutions that can decide important issues, and a juridical system whose rulings bind member states. How can we characterize this great process of integration? And, since it is far from finished, what can we expect next?


Europe was clearly in need of a new beginning after World War II. The predominant power of the United States over Western Europe and American redefinitions of national interests for the Cold War were clearly central. The defeat of the Axis powers had left Western Europe broke, destroyed, vulnerable, divided, and partly occupied. Indeed, American military power in Western Europe after 1945 temporarily removed military options from the hands of Western European leaders. The power of the United States in the Cold War and Europe’s need to reconstruct were what established new incentives for Western European nations both to commit to democracy and to reconsider their relationships with one another. 

The first step came in 1950, when Jean Monnet, the post-war French economic planner and consummate international “fixer,” persuaded French foreign minister Robert Schuman to propose a “common market” in coal and steel in response to American insistence on rehabilitating Germany. The pressing choice for France and Germany, the central players, was between resolving post-war differences on their own terms or having the Americans do it for them. The result was the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) established in 1951, composed of the six members (France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg) who would later form the European Economic Community (EEC). The British, determined to sustain the Commonwealth, stayed out. The ECSC was an institutional pioneer for what followed, with a “High Authority” of appointed officials wielding considerable supranational power, checked mainly by a “Council of Ministers” from the member states. After the 1954 defeat of the European Defense Community, another Monnet project, new talks, pushed forward by Benelux initiatives, eventuated in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which founded the European Economic Community (EEC) and Euratom (a European Atomic Energy Agency, Monnet’s contribution to this round).[2]

The Rome EEC treaty, signed by the ECSC six, absent the British again, outlined a twelve-year period to establish a customsfree internal market surrounded by a single external tariff, accompanied by a Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to promote agricultural modernization (insisted upon by the French) and several other common policies. Implementation would start in Brussels, designated as the EEC’s administrative center, by an appointed supranational commission with the job of proposing and implementing legislation and enforcing the treaties. The new EEC’s institutional structure, which resembled that of the ECSC, had a legislative arm in its Council of Ministers. There was also a European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg to build up a body of European law binding on member states. Finally, there was a weak parliamentary assembly whose members were appointed by member state governments—today’s more serious European Parliament is a much more recent creation. 

The goals for the first period were reached earlier than the treaty had envisaged, but not without major problems. The British, who founded the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) in 1960 as an explicitly non-supranational competitor to the EEC, very quickly realized that the EEC was going to work and that they needed to be inside it. French president de Gaulle then vetoed British applications first in 1963 and again in 1966, denouncing the British as insufficiently “European” and too closely tied to the United States. In geopolitical terms, de Gaulle wanted the EEC to become a “third force” in international affairs, a pole between the two Cold War superpowers. Then in 1965, de Gaulle faced down the fledgling European Commission and other member states in the “empty chair” crisis, bringing EEC business to a halt for six months. Here the issues were institutional. The Rome Treaty had projected eventual Council of Ministers’ decision-making by a “qualified majority” of votes (with votes weighted to reflect the size of member states). French obduracy instead led to the 1966 “Luxembourg compromise” in which any member state could veto a proposal that it judged contrary to its basic interests. 

This new intergovernmentalist equilibrium reflected deeper realities. The EEC was primarily a “Common Market” between quite separate national economies. EEC Member states, for the most part, were pursuing particular national economic strategies. The EEC provided them new outlets for trade, some protection from the outside world, in particular from a U.S. pressing constantly for trade liberalization, and a painless way of modernizing agriculture through the CAP. Further supranationalization might have deprived EEC member states of the economic tools to steer their national economies. 


At first, the 1970s brought new energy. The European Parliament gained budgetary powers and plans were drawn up for “economic and monetary union” (the Werner Report of 1970), an EEC-wide social policy, and a more ambitious regional development policy. Moreover, the EEC enlarged to include four EFTA members—Great Britain, Ireland, Denmark, and Portugal (there would have been five had the Norwegians not voted against it in a referendum). The new energy did not produce much, however, because the EEC’s economic situation changed abruptly in the mid-1970s. Chronic inflation, compounded by the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979, was accompanied by rising unemployment. Quite as important, the American abandonment of the Bretton Woods international monetary system fed international currency instability, which threatened the Common Market. Significant problems then flowed from the divergent economic choices of EEC members in response to these new economic challenges. One symptom was a sauve qui peut rise in non-tariff barriers in intra-EEC trade. Finally, integrating the new members proved difficult, particularly because the British, who had struck a bad bargain to get in, obstinately demanded renegotiation to the point of blocking the Brussels machinery cold. 

The great experiment could have ended at this point. Monetary issues, more than anything else, probably prevented this from happening. Monetary instability threatened the entire Common Market, but it took collaboration between German chancellor Helmut Schmidt and French president Giscard d’Estaing to found a new European Monetary System (EMS). The currencies of countries choosing to belong to the “exchange rate mechanism” (ERM) of EMS were kept within “bands” around specific valuation formulae. EMS was initially constructed around equivocation between France and Germany about ultimate goals, however. The Germans, with a tough, price-stabilityoriented independent Bundesbank, wanted the ERM and EMS to follow Bundesbank inclinations. The French, inflation-prone and wont to use devaluation rather than deflation as a tool, hoped to use EMS to soften the Germans. 

The early 1980s were a low point. Member states could not agree on much of anything, and as “Europessimism” spread, unresolved problems piled up. A majoFr recession began in 1979, stretching well into the 1980s. After elections brought the Left to power in 1981, the French tried to respond to this with a new program of national economic voluntarism and redistributive reform that was at odds with the policies of other EEC members. The monetary effects of this ultimately tested the equivocation behind EMS and created the conditions for reenergizing integration. 

Difficulties in implementing the new Left program meant that the French needed to devalue (they did so three times in two years, in fact). Each time they asked to do so within the ERM, however, the Germans stipulated strong new conditions for French economic policy to the point where finally in 1983 the French faced a choice between continuing their nationalist reformism or staying in EMS. The first choice might have ended European integration, or at least blocked it for an indefinite future. Rather than deal a potentially fatal blow to European integration, French president Mitterrand reversed French policies. EMS survived while the French joined others in tough policies to combat inflation. The French choice in the mid-1980s turned out to be as much for Europe as for a changed economic policy as Mitterrand set out to settle many of the big issues on the EU’s table. A solution was quickly brokered for the “British check” problem, stalled negotiations about Spanish and Portuguese membership were renewed, leading to their accession in 1986, and a new Commission president, Jacques Delors, was appointed. 

The Delors Commission set immediately to work with a White Paper to “complete the Single Market” by the end of 1992, setting out several hundred measures to make a single integrated European economy out of the interconnected national economies of the Common Market. Agreement, facilitated by desires for market liberalization among major EU members, led quickly to a multilateral “Intergovernmental Conference” (IGC) to change the existing treaties to facilitate implementation of the new program. The Single European Act (SEA, ratified in 1987) was to be the first in a series of revisions to the European “constitution” (i.e., its treaties). It brought “qualified majority” voting on Single Market programs, amending powers to the European Parliament (which had been elected by universal suffrage since 1979), new environmental policies, a more coordinated European research and development program, regional redistribution, and more social policy. 

The next large step was Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), again connected to the workings of EMS. The French felt victimized again by German hard-nosed dealings in new currency instability in the mid- 1980s and, in response, proposed the establishment of EMU to dilute German monetary power in transnational arrangements. The “Delors Report” on EMU was approved in 1989, and two new IGCs were scheduled to begin in later 1990. The first was to adapt existing treaties for EMU and the second, a German suggestion, was to discuss “political union” focusing on democratic accountability and responsibility, the powers of the European Parliament in particular, and foreign policy cooperation. The Maastricht Treaty on European Union, ratified in 1993, was the result, setting out daring new priorities. EU member states agreed to pool sovereignty over monetary policy in an independent European Central Bank (ECB) committed to price stability and a single European currency, later named the Euro, by 1999. Maastricht also set the EU toward establishing a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CSFP), common policies in matters of Justice and Home Affairs (largely police matters), and greatly increased the powers of the European Parliament by allowing “codecision” with the Council of Ministers. 

Yet another IGC, to review the workings of Maastricht, produced the Amsterdam Treaty. Signed in 1997, it further extended and simplified “codecision,” added new clauses on social policy, modified procedures for the CFSP, moved parts of Maastricht’s intergovernmental “third pillar” on Justice and Home Affairs into the Community’s “first pillar,” and inserted new provisions on flexible participation by member states in EU matters. A fourth IGC in 1999, focused on adapting EU institutions in the light of pending enlargement to the east, created the minimalist Nice Treaty. Such an accumulation of multilateral conferences to rewrite the EU treaty base was no accident. Europe has clearly engaged in a major constitution-writing exercise that will stretch well into the next millennium.


European integration is one of the great political success stories of the second half of the 20th century. While European integration may have succeeded, it is far from concluded. Indeed, the EU’s recent mutations have created new situations in which the EU must decide anew whether to continue to grow and change. In the new century Europeans cannot avoid addressing the really hard questions about what they have done. “Where is the EU going?” “What is it for?” “Who is it for?” 

The introduction of Euro notes and coins in January 2002 is an appropriate memorial to 50 years of work, but it also points to perplexing questions that will need future resolution. EMU has “Europeanized” monetary policy in a European Central Bank while leaving EU member states in charge of their own macroeconomic and fiscal policies, creating serious coordination issues that could lead to sub-optimal outcomes and unpleasant policy competition, in particular “tax dumping.” In time, will EMU’s “one-size fits all” monetary policy enhance broader welfare or privilege certain regions at the expense of others? Next, will the ECB’s pursuit of price stability strangle European growth and push up already high unemployment? Does the weakness of the Euro vs. the dollar presage international differences between the EU and U.S.? Why are key EU member states so reluctant to create an open European capital market to complement the single currency? Finally where will the Central and Eastern European new members of the EU fit in EMU? 

One neglected dimension of EU history is its role as a magnet for aspiring new democracies in Europe. In the 1980s, three former authoritarian countries (Spain, Portugal, and Greece) consolidated democratic polities and modernized economically with EU help and inspiration. Ireland, another recent member, has been changed economically and socially beyond recognition. Now EU Europe is about to undertake the biggest experiment in fostering democratization it has ever faced. It is not surprising that such an experiment also raises many new questions. 

Ten Central and Eastern European countries (plus Cyprus) are poised to join the EU, probably in 2004–2005, and several more are in the waiting room. It is not easy to join the EU. Applicants are only considered if they have functioning market economies with democratic political systems following a rule of law; they are admitted only when they have fully conformed to what is called the acquis communautaire, an 80,000-page compendium of all of the EU’s existing laws, rules, regulations, and procedures. EU membership could thereby ensure and consolidate democracy in many countries where it historically has never existed. Things could go wrong, however. The EU’s method of inducting new members could come to be seen as quasi-colonization, for example. A new enlargement to countries much poorer than those in the EU core could establish an enduring area of relative underdevelopment next to the rich West unless existing EU members find new ways to redistribute resources. Unstable politics and low social policy standards could feed back to the West. Problems with ethnic minorities in the new member states could explode. 

The EU, which is rapidly becoming a political union, has become an actor of growing importance in international affairs, almost despite itself. The EU is already a co-equal player with the U.S. in the politics of international trade, particularly in the World Trade Organization. Moreover, as the EU grows, its international interests are bound to cease being strictly regional. Enlargement will create a very long and much more vulnerable eastern border to manage. The entire Mediterranean region, including the Middle East, is central for the EU’s future. In the medium term, all of this implies a changing balance between the EU and U.S. But does the EU really want to have a focused foreign and defense policy? How strong is Europe’s political will in this area? Can Europe become a more serious partner of the United States through NATO and what will this do to transatlantic relations? As the Euro makes the EU a monetary and financial rival to the U.S., will this create more challenges for transatlantic relations? 

Finally, and perhaps most important, the EU faces significant institutional questions. First off, its existing institutional makeup may prove inadequate, even paralyzing, when membership rises from the current 15 to 27 over the next few years. This is a serious matter, since the future efficacy of European institutions will determine what an enlarged EU can actually do. It is hard to be optimistic here, since in the repeated multilateral conferences of recent years member states have proven remarkably reluctant to consent to the kinds of institutional changes that might make the future work better. A lot is at stake, and very little has been done. 

The institutional issue goes much deeper, however. Over the years member states have agreed to pool significant dimensions of sovereignty to enhance economic success and the general welfare. In doing so, however, they have also created a Euro-level political system that poses problems for citizen scrutiny, control, and exercise of preferences over decisions. The Rome Treaty established a system with a distinct lack of transparency and direct political responsibility. The European Commission, with its formal monopoly of proposal, was appointed. The Council of Ministers, the EU’s co-legislature, and the European Council, the EU’s strategic guide, are intergovernmental and have always functioned behind screens of diplomatic secrecy. The European Parliament, despite its growing power, remains an odd body to which no government is responsible and which has no majority or opposition, making for very foggy debates and communications with European peoples. European law is juridically superior to national law, but the origin and nature of European law is badly understood by citizens, and the workings of the ECJ are difficult to understand. Finally, all of these institutions work with a baffling multiplicity of decisionmaking processes which only specialists can really follow. 

Real politics in Europe remains national politics, and there exists as yet little European political culture. Despite this, national parliamentary discussions rarely feature European issues, and elections to the European Parliament remain tightly linked to national political debates. With notable exceptions (like Denmark) most national parties and interest groups have only begun to embrace European matters. One could fault member state leaders, analyze the reasons for their behaviors, and investigate the institutional and other incentives at the national level that encourage such practices. But whatever this might turn up, the gap between the thickness of national democratic deliberative practices and the thinness of these practices at the European level is clear. 

Since 1985, substantial national state capacities and control have been transferred away from EU member states. In some areas capacities have been relocated from familiar national democratic places to less familiar and less democratic transnational ones, shining new spotlights on the insufficiencies of Brus- sels institutions. In addition, important matters that had been debated publicly and decided democratically at the national level have been shifted to the market. The story gets even more complicated. Decisions producing this re-localization of state capacities have often been made by European-level methods whose relationships to democracy are murky. The European arena presents European political elites with a place where politically risky medium-term policies can be set out far more easily than at national levels. The consequences of such Euro-level decisions targeted on large problems and proposing medium-range remedies come to constrain national democratic choices at a later point in time. The effect of this is that the European political arena, with its perceived democratic deficiencies, effectively structures many options in national polities before these polities have had a chance to deliberate and decide. 

The ways in which democratic representation and accountability work in EU member states vary, but are sufficiently well understood by citizens to allow the legitimation of national authority. The same cannot be said for the EU, which is a promiscuity of different types of representation. National political elites are represented in the workings of the Council of Ministers and the European Council, but given the intergovernmental scope of these institutions, they can skirt accountability in many ways, diluting the importance of their provenance in national elections. The Commission is not supposed to represent any particular Europeans, but to serve “Europe.” The Parliament does not yet engage the attention of those who elect it. MEPs are elected, for the most part, because of the national positions of their parties, not because of voters’ acquaintance with European matters. The European Parliament may do good work analyzing and scrutinizing proposals sent to it, but very few people know about this work and even fewer understand where it fits politically. 

A ramshackle EU institutional complex makes democratic responsibility and accountability more difficult than it needs to be. But it is not at all obvious what to change and how to change it. Moreover, building real transnational transnational democratic politics is a dramatically new problem that must take place against the background of changing national democratic politics. Politicians and leaders are faced with a daunting choice between confronting the EU’s democratic dilemma at the potential cost of disrupting integration or moving forward with integration and hoping for the best. 

These are big issues. Those who have built Europe are democrats and people of the law, but existing European institutions do not facilitate the clarification of issues of democratic responsibility and accountability. The EU is aware of these problems. Indeed, it is just beginning a major transnational debate about what to do about them which will culminate in 2004 in new intergovernmental negotiations to reshape European institutions. Major European leaders have already staked out very different positions. German foreign minister Joschka Fischer wants the EU to become more clearly federal, along German lines. French president Jacques Chirac wants the EU to become more clearly confederal, with future leadership to come from a vanguard of large Western European EU members. British prime minister Tony Blair wants the EU to become much less supranational and more effective at solving concrete economic problems. EU-watching over the next period should be fascinating. Historians are not used to deconstructing historical turning points as they actually occur, but there is no reason why they cannot start doing so now. 

George Ross is Morris Hillquit Professor of Labor and Social Thought and director of the Center for German and European Studies, Brandeis University. With Andrew Martin, he is editor of The Brave New World of European Labor: European Trade Unions at the Millennium (Berghahn Books, 1999).

[1] The EU has been the name of “Europe” only since 1993. Before that it was called the EEC and then the EC.

[2]Monnet thought that atomic power would be the key energy source for future European growth, hence Euratom, modeled on ECSC. He seems to have misunderstood that cheap oil had already begun to serve this function. 

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Monticello, the Usonian House, and Levittown: The Making of the Modern American Home
by Alexander O. Boulton

The search for the origins of the modern American suburban home often starts in Levittown, the planned community on Long Island built by William and Alfred Levitt after World War II. Both as a work of architecture and as a reflection of who we are as Americans, however, the modern American suburban home’s real origins can be traced back to the nation’s founding and the architecture of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. William and Alfred Levitt are not generally known as great architects.  The tract housing suburban developments that they built and named after themselves in Long Island, New York, and in Pennsylvania, have long been scorned by architects, urban planners, and social critics. The name Levittown has become virtually synonymous with all the worst features of Cold War America. The lack of aesthetic appeal is only one of a number of criticisms that includes conformity, racism, and gender inequality.

Nevertheless, the Levitt brothers helped launch a revolution in American life. The development of the modern American suburban home was largely the result of a sudden release of consumerism following the Great Depression and World War II. During the 1930s and early 1940s, the housing industry, like other industries, had stalled. When GIs returned from the war and sought new homes for their baby boomer families, they hoped to escape from both the poverty and the uncertainty that had marked the preceding years. They led one of the greatest migrations in American history, fleeing from the cities in search of their own small plot of land and, with it, their place in the American Dream.

The Levitt brothers were there to give them exactly what they wanted.  Using assembly line techniques, which they had learned from building housing for the military during the war, they were able to manufacture dozens of houses a day, transforming farmland and forests into suburban tracts. The boom in housing stimulated all sectors of the economy. In the years after World War II America led the world in the construction of automobiles, highways, shopping malls, and all the consumer goods—vacuum cleaners, washing machines, lawn mowers, barbecue grills, and televisions—that came to symbolize the good life.

The new housing developments built by the Levitts and their many imitators helped to shape new social patterns that came to define the American way of life. For many, the American family reached its apex of perfection in the 1950s. It was the heyday of the single wage-earner, nuclear family, immortalized in a new American art form, the television situation comedy. The new American suburban middle class emerged as a potent political force as well; by the end of the century the suburban “soccer mom” became the constituent most courted by both political parties. 

However, some social critics were not so sanguine. As Americans fled the cities, they became, the critics said, not only physically, but also emotionally distant from their fellow citizens. As federal funds shifted from the cities to the suburbs, many urban areas went into decline. Crime and drugs proliferated in the cities and a new form of intolerance, hiding behind the face of apathy, emerged in the suburbs; black Americans were excluded by racial covenants and by lending institutions from purchasing houses in Levittown and other suburbs. In addition, feminists accused the new housing patterns of creating virtual prison cells for suburban housewives who were physically removed from each other and the life of the nation. Environmentalists, at the same time, complained that the new developments wasted natural resources and that an increasing dependence on the automobile polluted the environment. 

The Levitts, of course, were not responsible for creating all of the promises and problems of modern America. They only occupy a prominent place in a long line of historical developments that reach back to the Founding Fathers. The critical link between Levittown and the era of the nation’s founding is perhaps Frank Lloyd Wright. Sometimes identified as America’s greatest architect, Wright is probably most famous for building the great show homes of wealthy businessmen such as Edgar Kaufmann’s Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, and the house for Frederick Robie in Chicago, or for public buildings such as the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Yet Wright’s most influential buildings were the small, relatively inexpensive houses that he began to design as a response to the Great Depression. He called these “Usonian houses,” a play on the words “us” and “U.S.” These houses incorporated many of the features of his more ambitious and expensive homes, but brought them into the financial reach of the average American. 

All of Wright’s buildings reflected his philosophy of “organic architecture.” They “grew,” he argued, like living plants, in conformity to natural laws, local conditions, and practical needs. His organic architecture was a total rejection of the architectural styles of his day. He was determined to “break the box,” to escape from the confinement of formal rules and structure. The major elements of his buildings were not the walls that superficially supported the structures, but the spaces that gave them meaning. His houses reached out from, and were largely supported by, a central fireplace and chimneystack. Wright saw the hearth as the emotional as well as the physical center of his houses. It symbolized for him the emotional core of the family. Despite his own tumultuous family life, Wright’s architecture celebrated a romantic image of the family as a nurturing haven for the individual in his struggle against a hostile world. 

Alfred Levitt, the architect in the family (his brother Bill was the salesman), was strongly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1937, Alfred Levitt left his job and spent every day of the next six months observing the construction of one of Wright’s “Usonian” houses in Great Neck, New York. In designing his homes for Levittown, Alfred Levitt copied many design features that Wright had pioneered, and he was also influenced by the larger context of ideas out of which they had developed. Despite the fact that most early Levittown houses were designed to look like 17th-century Cape Cod cottages with steep roofs covering the one and a half story structures, they were thoroughly modern. Levittown houses, like Wright’s Usonian houses, had no basements, and were heated by copper coils embedded in the concrete slab floors. They had large picture windows and carports. Built-in cabinets and bookcases and swinging shelves marked the flexible boundaries between rooms. Levitt, like Wright, did away with the dining room, merging the functions of the kitchen and the living room. Like Wright’s Usonian homes, Levitt’s houses had a practical traffic flow that centered on the hearth. 

More importantly, perhaps, Levitt’s customers, like Wright’s, were a new incarnation of the American middle class. Newly wealthy, impatient with old forms of authority, they were being pulled into an increasingly complex and uncertain world, and they found the meaning in their lives increasingly in the affections of their families. 

Both Wright’s and the Levitts’ architecture reflected a transformation of the traditional divisions of labor both within the home and in the outside world. Wright’s architecture to a large extent was made possible by, and reflected, the decline of live-in servants, who now generally lived in tenements reached by streetcars. There was no longer a division between the main family who inhabited the middle floors, and the upstairs and downstairs worlds of servants. In Levittown, household work was done entirely by the woman of the house, aided by vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and mass-produced “TV dinners.” In both cases, technology helped, and gave a reason for, the family to close in on itself as a safe refuge from a hostile world. 

Yet America’s unique marriage of architecture and an emotionally charged vision of the nuclear family predates Frank Lloyd Wright. In any list of America’s most influential builders we should include the name of Thomas Jefferson with those of Alfred Levitt and Frank Lloyd Wright. Not everyone would agree with this evaluation of Jefferson. To most architectural historians, the architecture of Jefferson’s home at Monticello, of the Virginia State Capitol, and of the buildings he designed at the University of Virginia, is highly derivative. Jefferson’s version of Roman neo-classicism, copied from 18th-century architecture books, and inspired by the buildings he saw in France, many would say, only represents a highly idiosyncratic dead end in American architectural history. 

Yet Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello looks not only backward toward the past but forward into America’s future. Like Levittown’s Cape Cods, its historical external form houses a new system of internal functions. Monticello represents a new balance between architectural form, technology, and social/labor patterns. The name itself, Monticello, or “little mountain,” suggests its unique status and Jefferson’s radical intentions. Building on a mountaintop in the 18th century was completely impractical. Jefferson’s house was far from the fields and docks upon which the fortunes of colonial Virginians depended. Monticello foreshadowed the 19th-century romantics’ idealization of nature. Jefferson exulted in Monticello’s location: “How sublime to look down into the workhouse of nature, to see her clouds, hail, snow, rain, thunder, all fabricated at our feet” (Jefferson to Maria Cosway, October 12, 1786). 

Jefferson’s famous labor-saving devices at Monticello were more importantly labor-hiding devices. Every aspect of his house revolved around this impetus. Throughout Jefferson’s life, housing for all except the domestic workers and craftsmen was moved down the hill from the main house or hidden by fences. The house itself is situated atop an underground passage that connects it to work and storage areas, the kitchen, the stables, and slave quarters. The traffic patterns in the house restrict the flow of visitors from the more private sections of the house. Unlike the great mansions of Virginia’s colonial aristocracy in which there were few entirely private areas, and where family, guests, and servants intermingled, at Monticello public, private, and work spaces are subtly but clearly delineated. Jefferson’s library and bedchambers were known as his sanctum sanctorum, where only special visitors were invited. Lilliputian stairs allowed family members to retreat to private rooms away from downstairs guests. Dumbwaiters at one end of the house transferred chamber pots from Jefferson’s bedchamber to underground tunnels, while at the other end they sent bottles of wine to guests in the dining room. Rotating shelves on doors allowed guests at dinner to be served without slaves constantly entering and leaving the room. 

The complex traffic patterns of Monticello went hand in hand with a complex geometry, uncommon to houses of the period. The octagonal bays displayed Jefferson’s love of obtuse angles, his own way of “breaking the box” of 18th-century formalism. Each of the rooms varied in size and height, marking off juxtaposing open and closed, high and low, and light and dark spaces. 

Monticello was physically removed from society and visually removed from labor, but the impression that Jefferson hoped to convey was that of a house in harmony with nature. It celebrated its natural surroundings, seeming to work not by human labor, but by natural laws. It also served as Jefferson’s emotional escape from the political world that he hated. In a typical letter, Jefferson wrote to his daughter Martha while he was serving as vice president in Philadelphia: “When I look to the ineffable pleasures of my family society, I become more and more disgusted with the jealousies, the hatred, and the rancorous and malignant passions of this scene, and lament my having ever again been drawn into public view” (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph, June 8, 1797). In another he wrote: “Worn down here [in Philadelphia] with pursuits in which I take no delight, surrounded by enemies and spies, catching and perverting every word which falls from my lips or flows from my pen, and inventing where facts fail them, I pant for that society where all is peace and harmony, where we love and are loved by every object we see” (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph, February 5, 1801). 

Monticello was Thomas Jefferson’s other “declaration of independence,” celebrating the individual in harmony with the laws of nature, as well as a new emphasis on the family. As such it was less a display of 18th-century rationalism, and more suggestive of the emotionalism of 19th-century romanticism. 

Jefferson’s home should be compared to Wright’s Fallingwater and Usonian houses, and to Levittown. Unlike the architectural monuments of the past, these are not towering palaces. They are essentially horizontal and internally complex. They seek a harmony with natural laws, and at the same time they reflect an American search for self-identity, not in the larger world, but in the embrace of the family. They are the homes of individualists who are strangely separate from the chain of cause and effect that lies between labor and wealth. Monticello is not only America’s first modern, middle-class, suburban home, it is also one of the earliest answers to Hector St. John de Crevecouer’s question “Who is this new man? This American?” 

Alexander O. Boulton is assistant professor of history at Villa Julie College and the author of “The American Paradox: Jeffersonian Equality and Racial Science,” American Quarterly 47 (September 1995): 467–492. 

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The Present Emergency
by Jeremy Black

The nature of the present crisis is such that the perspective I am offering may swiftly seem redundant. At present, there have been no bin Laden attacks in Britain, but a “Real IRA” car bomb last night in Birmingham is a pointed reminder of our vulnerability. All historians, however, write against the background of change, and it is therefore worth taking up the invitation to do so. It is clear to me from ten days spent in the U.S. in late October and early November that the complexity of the “British” response (if anyone can thus simplify the attitudes of a large population) is not appreciated. This complexity has played out in the remarks of commentators, including historians, as well as in polls. To characterize it all too crudely, there has been a vast amount of affectionate sympathy for Americans along with a certain degree of criticism of America. The horror of the acts of September 11 was imprinted firmly through television, radio, and the press, and there has been a widespread understanding of the urgency of a response. 

British commentators have also offered a wealth of information on a range of related topics, from the history of Afghanistan to the problems of defining terrorism. Prominent historians who have found themselves called on include Michael Howard, pressing for a judicious response and underlining the difficulty of the task; Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, writing on the nature of Islam; and John Keegan, using his position as defense correspondent for the most conservative of the newspapers, the Daily Telegraph, to urge a vigorous military response including the dispatch of cruise missiles against those who send encrypted messages through the Internet.

Comparing the British with the American newspapers, the former have devoted more space to the political background and dimension of the struggle. The British experience also provides a different context for understanding terrorism. Although there has been no single act of horror to compare with September 11 (the IRA fortunately failed when they tried to destroy the British version of the World Trade Center—the far uglier Canary Wharf), the population of Northern Ireland proportionately has taken far heavier casualties from terrorism than that of the U.S. so far; and, of course, much of the IRA terrorism was funded by American sympathizers. Simon Jenkins pointedly asked in the Times where the Americans were when the IRA nearly destroyed the government in the 1985 Brighton bombing. The sense that Americans are being introduced to the real world is present in some of the commentary. There are, of course, differences, not least the greater global range and ambition of the bin Laden organization. 

Much of the British commentary has been about the need for a political as well as a military strategy to confront the threat. Destroying bin Laden will only profit us so much if another radical Islamic organization arises determined to repeat what has hitherto been an act that has reaped many of the consequences its progenitors presumably sought. Furthermore, as is very clear, it could get much worse if the full repertoire of scientific weaponry is brought into play, and also if states such as Egypt fall into hostile hands. A political strategy, however, requires a reexamination of American policies in the Middle East that may well be impossible for American politicians and policymakers. If so, this violence is likely to recur. There is no inherent reason why Islamic society should be anti-American, and there is more in common between Islam and the U.S., with its powerful affirmation of religious values, than China, Russia, or Europe. However, both because of pronounced support for Israel since the 1960s and due to a failure to engage with developing trends in Islamic politics from that period (both, in part, unfortunate consequences of the focus on Vietnam and the habitual confusion of means and ends), the situation is now very dangerous. Societies with rapidly growing, youthful populations, centered on volatile urban communities, are defining themselves in a way that can only partly be compensated for by advanced weaponry. Indeed, a very senior British historian pointed out to me recently that Britain itself has not faced a comparable challenge from a large section of the population not sharing common values since the Catholics under Elizabeth I; such a comparison reveals the advantages of politicians with Oxbridge history degrees. The troubling persistence of anti-Americanism in parts of the Islamic world will require a thoughtful and long-term political response that will contribute to the defense of America and, with it, the free world. 

Historians will engage with the issues of the moment as citizens and commentators. More than most they need to consider their comments carefully, as their accounts of the past will be seen as carrying particular weight. Historians need to be careful when drawing conclusions about the effectiveness of individual strategies. For example, Victor Hanson in the last issue of Historically Speaking argues that it will be possible to “dismantle the very foundations of Islamic fundamentalism,” a bold claim that is somewhat compromised by his use of evidence. Pace Hanson, “civic militarism” is not “a trademark of Western militaries,” and the move away from conscription has made this clear. Furthermore, he neglects the failures of European imperial powers in the 20th century, which would have thrown into doubt his claim that “the foundations of Western culture . . . when applied to the battlefield have always resulted in absolute carnage for their adversaries.” Those who suffered from Western imperial- ism may also be surprised to know that constitutional government is a foundation of Western culture. There are also worrying lapses of detail. Lepanto is presented as an unproblematic victory; Hanson ignores the swift rebuilding of the Turkish navy, Venice’s rapid move to abandon her allies, the Turkish reconquest of Tunis, and the Turkish retention of Cyprus, the cause of the conflict, for over three centuries. He also neglects the role of local allies in enabling Cortés to overthrow the Aztecs. 

If the use of historical evidence to provide rapid support for policy advice is all too easy in a crisis, there is also the danger of a failure of contextualization. Terrorism is employed as both a descriptive and an evaluative term, but in the latter case there is a powerful subjective element. Were the Free French who attacked Vichy with British support terrorists or freedom fighters? What about the Contras, or those who currently oppose Russia or China? Such complexity may have no role in public politics and may seem inappropriate for a society recoiling from an evil and vile attack, but unless some effort is made to engage with the issue, it will be impossible to appreciate the degree to which President Bush’s proposal “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” makes no sense in much of the world. 

Choices are often far more complex, and much of the world will not march to this step. It is difficult for many Americans to appreciate the fundamental differences between American views on, for instance, the Middle East and those of their allies. Those differences impose one of the most important limits on American power and underline the major role foreign policy expertise will play in preserving America’s superpower status. Understanding the parameters within which allies can be expected to operate demands knowledge, deftness, and expertise that have not always been the strong suit of American government. Even without allies, the U.S. will remain the world’s leading power and continue to achieve most of its own goals so long as it keeps those goals limited. Again, it remains unclear how public opinion would accept the concept of limits in defense and foreign policy since the American people, and their politicians, have a low tolerance for vulnerability and fear. This leads to demands for an invulnerable and comprehensive defense system, but in practice no military establishment is likely to provide both. This is one of the many issues that historians can fruitfully discuss. 

Jeremy Black is professor of history at the University of Exeter and author of Western Warfare, 1775–1882 (Indiana University Press, 2001). 

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Whiteness and the Historians’ Imagination[1]
by Eric Arnesen

The rise of a genre of scholarship centering on white racial identity—on whiteness—is one of the most dramatic developments in the humanities and social sciences in recent years. The new scholars of whiteness insist that race is not something that only non-whites possess but is a characteristic of whites as well, necessitating close scrutiny of whites’ race and racial identity and the very construction of race itself. 

It would seem that the “blizzard of ‘whiteness’ studies,” as cultural theorist Homi Bhabha puts it, ought to elicit critical reflection. But with few exceptions, the assessments in print today have been authored by those writing within the whiteness framework and tend to be largely descriptive or supportive. This is unfortunate. In my view, the whiteness project has yet to deliver on its promises. The most influential historical studies of whiteness—notably by David Roediger, Noel Ignatiev, Matthew Frye Jacobson, Neil Foley, and Karen Brodkin—rely on arbitrary and inconsistent definitions of their core concepts while they emphasize select, elite constructions of race to the virtual exclusion of all other racial discourses. Offering little concrete evidence to support many of their arguments, these works often take creative liberties with the evidence they do have. Too much of the historical scholarship on whiteness has disregarded scholarly standards, employed sloppy methodology, generated new buzzwords and jargon, and at times, produced an erroneous history. 

The weaknesses of whiteness scholarship are particularly evident in its treatment of a subject that historians of the United States have chronicled for decades—the hostile encounter between Irish immigrants and African-Americans in the antebellum North. Long before whiteness came on the scene, historians described in copious detail Irish immigrants’ political allegiance to the pro-slavery Democratic party, their workplace clashes with blacks, and their participation in anti-abolitionist and anti-black mobs. Whiteness scholars have revisited these issues, asking once again: “How and why did the Irish in America adopt their anti-black stance?” Attempting nothing short of a paradigmatic revolution, whiteness scholars suggest that the necessarily prior question, is “how did the Irish become white?” To pose this question is to assert that 19th-century Irish immigrants to the United States were not white upon their arrival—that is, they were not seen as white by the larger American society and did not see themselves as white. Over time, whiteness scholars argue, they became white. Yet early and mid-19th-century commentators on the Irish did not speak of whiteness per se but invoked a more diverse discursive apparatus, weaving considerations of religion (which virtually vanish in the considerations of the whiteness scholars), notions of innate and observed character and behavior, and yes, race too into their anti-Irish commentaries. Therefore whiteness historians must assume the role of interpreter, translating the 19th-century vernacular of race and group inferiority into the late 20th-century idiom of whiteness.

Upon arriving in the United States, David Roediger declares, “it was by no means clear that the Irish were white.” This claim rests not on an examination of early and mid-19thcentury scientific thought, nor upon the actual observations of contemporary nativeborn white opponents of Irish immigration, much less on any assessment of what the Irish newcomers themselves happened to think. Rather, it is rooted largely in the negative views, held by some, of the Catholic Irish “race” in the antebellum era. The Irish were mocked by political cartoonists who “played on the racial ambiguity of the Irish” through simian imagery and by ethnologists who “derided the ‘Celtic race;’” they were the butt of nativist folk wisdom which “held that an Irishman was a ‘nigger,’ inside out.” From these claims of Irish racial distinctiveness and inferiority—which historians have long recognized and explored— Roediger decisively, if arbitrarily, places whiteness at the center of the equation. Noel Ignatiev, author of How the Irish Became White, concurs: it was “not so obvious in the United States” when the Irish began “coming over here in large numbers in the 1830s and ‘40s, that they would in fact be admitted to all the rights of whites and granted all the privileges of citizenship.” That they were, in fact, granted all those rights and privileges upon naturalization doesn’t give Ignatiev pause; neither does the history of pre-famine migration, in which Irish immigrants, many if not all of them Protestants, often blended unproblematically into American society. As for the question posed in his book’s oftencited title, Ignatiev barely attempts to answer it, drawing instead from Roediger for theoretical justification. 

Upon close inspection, whiteness scholars’ assertions of Irish non-whiteness rest largely on their conflation of racialization and the category of whiteness. For Ignatiev and Roediger, the increased popularity of the “racialization of the Irish”—the tendency to see the Irish as a distinct and inferior race— is equated with their exclusion from whiteness itself. The two, however, are by no means equivalent. Matthew Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color becomes relevant here. One need hardly accept Jacobson’s assertion that the famine migration “announced a new era in the meaning of whiteness in the United States” to appreciate the grounding of his arguments in the contours of mid-19th-century scientific racism. Jacobson insists that racial science produced, and American culture popularized, the notion of an “increasing fragmentation and hierarchical ordering of distinct white races.” The Irish were consigned to the Celtic race—a white, if inferior, race. Although Jacobson undercuts his own contribution by repeatedly translating a rich and complex language of race into the narrow idiom of whiteness, his formulation, if taken at its face value, can effectively dispatch the “how the Irish became white” question, replacing it with “how immigrants became racialized.” 

More complex than the Irish case is the question of race, whiteness, and the new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe who arrived in the United States in the last decades of the 19th and the opening decades of the 20th centuries. A vast literature on the immigrants’ experience in the United States is available to historians of whiteness. John Higham’s classic 1955 study, Strangers in the Land, still remains unsurpassed as the most valuable exploration of American nativism. Higham explored in depth the increasingly racial nativism of the late 19th century which warned of the dangers posed by the inferior “races” of Southern and Eastern Europe; subsequent studies of immigration restriction, eugenics, and labor have documented the varieties of racial classifications that consigned Eastern and Southern Europeans to inferior slots. Aside from a new vocabulary, historians of whiteness add little, if anything, to the extraordinarily rich history of American immigration. To a certain extent, whiteness scholarship has appropriated older historical narratives of immigration only to translate them into the lexicon of contemporary theory. 

Almost half a century ago Higham’s study showed in great detail that the cultural and biological inferiority of Italians, Jews, Slavs, and other new European immigrants were widely advertised by scholarly experts and racist popularizers alike. Indeed, staunch advocates of immigration restriction, eugenicists, skilled trade unionists, the Dillingham Commission, university-based anthropologists, ethnologists, biologists, and popularizers of scientific nativism and racism served up the belief that Europeans were composed of a range of distinct and unequal races. New immigrants arrived in a country that readily slotted them into pre-existing or evolving categories of racial difference. But, as in the case of the Irish, whiteness scholars often conflate the ubiquity of racial thought—scientific and popular racisms which hierarchically ranked a variety of European “races”—and whiteness. 

To a large degree, scientists and the antiimmigrant popularizers of the belief in racial hierarchies did not employ whiteness as a category of racial difference. Instead, they talked of multiple races, which, depending on the particular classification, could number in the dozens for Europeans alone. When elaborating on his racial classifications of Europeans in The Passing of the Great Race, for instance, Madison Grant divided European populations into “three distinct subspecies of mankind”—the Nordic/Baltic, Mediterranean/ Iberian, and the Alpine subspecies, on the basis of what he discerned as profound physical differences. As Matthew Jacobson observes, Grant’s emphasis on those distinctions led him to conclude that the “term ‘Caucasian race’ has ceased to have any meaning except where it is used, in the United States, to contrast white populations with Negroes or Indians or in the Old World with Mongols.” “Caucasian” might have been a “cumbersome and archaic designation,” Grant conceded, but it was still a “convenient term.” Grant did not speak of whiteness, either literally or metaphorically. What is gained by portraying Grant’s arguments as “views on the hierarchy of whiteness,” as Jacobson does? 

It is evident, though, that in some circles, new immigrants were spoken of as though they were not white. What to make of those claims is not always evident. Jacobson cites an Ohio Know-Nothing newspaper charging that “Germans were driving ‘white people’ out of the labor market” as evidence of “ascriptions of Germanic racial identity.” Roediger quotes Higham’s observation that “[i]n all sections native-born and northern European laborers called themselves ‘white men’ to distinguish themselves from the southern Europeans whom they worked beside.” “‘You don’t call . . . an Italian a white man?’ a West Coast construction boss was asked. ‘No, sir,’ he answered, ‘an Italian is a Dago.’” It is conceivable, perhaps likely, that some of the makers of these remarks did not view new immigrants as white. But such anecdotes, taken out of their contexts, don’t get us very far in convincingly reconstructing the outlooks of the speakers. Whatever these references mean—and I think the jury is still out on how to read this suggestive terminology— they beg the following questions: To what extent are these anecdotes representative of broader opinion? Can public opinion be reduced to a single discursive construction— the non-white status of new immigrants?If so, who makes up that public opinion, and who gets left out? 

If new immigrants were not white in the above examples, they were in others, or at least they were often not constructed as non-, almost-, or quasi-white. Investigators into the causes of the 1919 steel strike, for instance, found some 54 races employed in the steel industry. The overwhelming distinction among workers was not between native-born American “whites” and immigrant “nonwhites” but between the “Americans” and the “foreigners.” Immigrant laborers complained repeatedly that they were given the “hardest and most unpleasant jobs” and were “lorded over by the skilled American workers.” Margaret F. Byington’s 1910 survey of Homestead, Pennsylvania, drawing on the Twelfth U.S. Census, broke down the population of this mill community into “native white of native parents,” “native white of foreign parents,” “foreign born white,” and “colored.” The distinctions between whites deal with nativity, not hierarchies of whiteness. And yet, “Hunkies” were by no means the equals of native-born whites. “The break between the Slavs and the rest of the community is on the whole more absolute than that between the whites and the Negroes,” Byington discovered. Many “an American workman . . . looks upon them with an utter absence of kinship.” Differences of culture, language, and religion, and perceptions of race—but not necessarily whiteness—operated to keep them apart. 

The assignment of new immigrants to a wide array of hierarchically ranked races came under growing attack by the third decade of the 20th century. Whatever the status of whiteness, the interwar years indisputably witnessed what Elazar Barkan calls the “scientific repudiation of racism,” a decline “in the scientific respectability of applying racialbiological perspectives to cultural questions” that began in the 1920s. Anthropologists and biologists challenged prevailing definitions of race; culture and environment came to occupy significant places in new scholarly definitions of race, although older notions of distinct European “races” died more slowly at the level of the grass roots. Historians of whiteness go further, concluding that the new immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, like the Irish before them, eventually became white by the 1930s and 1940s. 

Yet here, as in their treatment of the 19th century, whiteness historians do not specify the criteria they use to characterize the new immigrants and their children as “not-quitewhite.” Passive voice construction allows them to evade the necessary task of identifying the active agents denying or qualifying these groups’ whiteness in the 1930s and 1940s, lessening the need to square the assertions of not-quite-whiteness with the countless examples to the contrary. Italian or Polish immigrants and their children may not have been the social or economic equals of the old Protestant Anglo-Saxon elite, but who, precisely, portrayed or “constructed” them as not-quite-white? Not politicians courting their votes, government and military officials attempting to mobilize them, academic anthropologists and social scientists studying them, journalists writing about them, or industrial unionists seeking to organize them. Only if whiteness is merely a metaphor for class and social power are these men and women not white. But if it is merely a metaphor, then its descriptive and explanatory power is nil and its repetition in so many different contexts contributes only to confusion. Even if whiteness scholars managed to produce some convincing evidence that some Americans—manufacturers, professionals, or other elites—somehow doubted the full whiteness of new immigrant groups in the 1930s and 1940s, on what grounds do these historians single out those views, declare them hegemonic, and ignore all countervailing opinion, no matter how great? 

With regard to the mid-19th century, similar questions can be posed regarding the people who ostensibly saw the Irish as not white. Which Americans? When? For how long? Jacobson’s answer is remarkable for its passive projection of a monolithic stance toward the Irish onto all of American society. By the mid-19th century, he argues, “racial conceptions” of the Irish “would lead to a broad popular consensus that the Irish were ‘constitutionally incapable of intelligent participation in the governance of the nation.’” Without diminishing the significance of political nativism at particular moments, the notion of a “broad popular consensus” would have been news to many of the local and national leaders of the Democratic party, who courted and relied upon Irish political support; it would have been news not only to the Irish but also to many non-Irish workers in the nation’s urban centers. For if some Americans denied whiteness to the Irish, other Americans did not. Roediger acknowledges in passing that there were two institutions that did not question the whiteness of the Irish—the Democratic party and the Catholic church; neither can be described as insignificant in size or influence. But it matters little to historians of whiteness that one of the two major political parties in the United States embraced, defended, and even championed the Irish, including them without hesitation in the category of “white” or “caucasian.” Instead, historians of whiteness ignore the significance of this counter-discourse and focus almost exclusively on the more explicitly racialist discourse of the American elite—the Anglo-Saxons, the nativists, and their ilk. How and why whiteness historians present the views of only one portion of the American public—one that did not exercise unquestioned and continuous power, despite the elite status of many in its ranks—as the truly significant discourse on the racial construction of the Irish is never addressed. Indeed, the answer to the initial query of “how the Irish became white” is a short one: the Irish became white because historians, not their contemporaries, first made them “non-white” before making them “white.” 

Consider Jacobson’s invocation of whiteness to interpret racial conflict in New York during the Civil War. In the bloody New York City Draft Riots of 1863, he contends, the Irish rioters who embraced white supremacy and resorted to racial violence demonstrated their “insistence upon whiteness.” With these and other words, Jacobson treats whiteness and racialist beliefs and actions as virtual synonyms, substituting the former for the latter and presenting the maneuver as a novel interpretation. Equally problematic are his efforts to force contemporaries’ discourse about rioters’ behavior into the mold of whiteness. To elite onlookers, the Irish rioters were little more than “savages,” “wild Indians let loose” in the city, a “howling, demonic” mob. Rather than take contemporaries at their word, Jacobson perceives code: these words reveal that elite critics were “questioning the rioters’ full status as ‘white persons’” and the riots became the “occasion for a contest over the racial meaning of Irishness itself.” But they do nothing of the sort. To the extent that anti-Irish sentiment involved casting the Irish as a separate, albeit white, race, Jacobson suggests nothing that immigration scholars haven’t demonstrated years ago. Jacobson’s interpretive maneuver rests upon a definition of white- ness that is simultaneously cosmically expansive and narrowly circumscribed: whiteness is so interpretively open as to subsume any related discourses into its fold. At the same time, the only whiteness that counts is that of the elite, defined as proper decorum, a refraining from street violence, deference to law and order, and the like. Absent from consideration are other constructions that suggest the precise opposite of the questioning of whiteness. What is one to make of the remarks of Horace Greeley’s Tribune when it admonished striking Irish-American dockworkers —just three months before the Draft Riots of July 1863—that while no law compelled them to work with blacks, both the black and “the white man” have “a right to work for whoever will employ and pay him,” and that the “negro is a citizen, with rights which white men are bound to respect”? What of the coverage of the New York Herald, which characterized striking longshoremen engaged in violent attacks on blacks simply as “white men”? There is little ambiguity here: these papers were confirming, not challenging, the status of the Irish as whites. But historians of whiteness appreciate neither ambiguity nor counter-discourses of race, the recognition of which would cast doubt on their bold claims. 

Race, racial identity in general, and white racial identity in particular are tremendously important subjects, fully deserving of the attention they have received and ought to continue to receive in the future. Yet how one studies race and racial identity matters considerably, and many of the assumptions, interpretive techniques, and methodologies pursued by cultural historians of whiteness are highly problematic and, ultimately, generative of superficial insights. The arbitrary definitions, tautological reasoning, and conceptual substitution that function as the tools of the whiteness historians’ trade serve the exploration of racial identity poorly. 

Its current popularity suggests that whiteness will retain its academic lease on life in a variety of disciplines. But historians would do well to interrogate the concept, and the methodologies employed by those who invoke it, far more closely than they have. Racial identity is too important a subject to receive nothing less than the most rigorous treatment at historians’ hands. If whiteness is to endure as a critical concept, its scholars need to demonstrate that more than the historian’s imagination or aspirations are involved. If they cannot, then it is time to retire whiteness for more precise historical categories and analytical tools. 

Eric Arnesen is professor of history and African-American studies, and chair of the department of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author, most recently, of Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality (Harvard University Press, 2001).

[1]This is a brief excerpt. For the complete article from which this was drawn, including notes and citations, see Eric Arnesen, “Whiteness and the Historians’ Imagination,” International Labor and Working-Class History 60 (Fall 2001): 3-32.
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