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Joseph S. Lucas and Donald A. Yerxa, Editors

Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

September/October 2004

Volume VI, Number 1

Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs, "Re-Bunking the Pilgrims"

Joseph Morrison Skelly, "Here We Stand, in Baquba"

Thomas Fleming, "Illusions and Realities in World War I"

Bruce J. Evensen, "D.L. Mooody and the Mass Media Revival"

--Bruce Kuklick, "The Future of the Profession"
--Leo P. Ribuffo, "Ain't It Awful? You Bet, It Always Is"
--Marc Trachtenberg, "Comment on Kuklick" 

An Interview with John Ferling

--John T. McGreevy, "Catholicism and American Freedom"
--Leo P. Ribuffo, "The American Catholic Church and Ordered Liberty"
--Eugene McCarraher, "Remarks on John McGreevy's Catholicism and American Freedom"
--Christopher Shannon, "Comments on Catholicism and American Freedom"
--John T. McGreevy, "Response to Ribuffo, McCarraher, and Shannon"

Thomas Schoonover, "Uncle Sam's War of 1898 and Globalization

George Huppert, "Notes on the Boothbay Harbor Conference"

Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

September/October 2004

Volume VI, Number 1

Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs

In grade school in the 1950s, I learned that the Pilgrims were the most important and influential of England’s American colonists. Seeking religious freedom, the heroic Pilgrims set sail for distant shores. En route to America, these poor, purehearted souls invented democracy with the famed Mayflower Compact. After struggling through the initial hardships of life on unfamiliar soil, they invented the classic American holiday of Thanksgiving, which they celebrated with their friends the Indians. More virtuous than the rapacious Virginians who preceded them, the Pilgrims were the first true Americans.

Those inspiring Pilgrims of my youth have taken a beating! According to today’s historians, the Pilgrims were among the least significant of England’s American colonists. Their tiny Plymouth Colony was soon absorbed by the larger and more prosperous Massachussets Bay. The Pilgrims were no friendlier to Indians than other Europeans in the Americas—which is to say, they were greedy, duplicitous purveyors of genocide. Nor did they invent democracy: the Mayflower Compact was just an expedient means of maintaining order in a new environment. And their first “Thanksgiving” was nothing more than a replica of a traditional, secular English harvest feast. The Pilgrims didn’t even call themselves Pilgrims, a term coined by the 19th-century Americans who invented these virtuous forbears out of thin air in an effort to grace the relatively new United States with a glorious past. Indeed, about the only aspect of my schoolboy Pilgrims that has survived this assault is their poverty. 

The truth about the Pilgrims—and yes, I do still call them Pilgrims—is perhaps closer to the “myth” than to what we can learn from today’s textbooks . . . . 

Formerly curator of the Leiden Pilgrim Documents Center (1980–1985), chief curator of Plimoth Plantation (1986–1991), visiting curator of Manuscripts, Pilgrim Hall Museum (1992–1996), Jeremy Bangs (Ph.D. Leiden, 1976) is director of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum. His extensive publications on 16th- and 17th-century Dutch and colonial cultural history include The 17th-Century Town Records of Scituate, Massachusetts (New England Historical and Genealogical Society, 3 vols., 1997, 1999, 2001); Indian Deeds, Land Transactions in Plymouth Colony, 1620–1691 (New England Historical and Genealogical Society, 2002), containing an extensive critique of Jennings’s “invasion” metaphor; Pilgrim Edward Winslow: New England’s First International Diplomat (New England Historical and Genealogical Society, 2004); and Letters on Toleration, Dutch Aid to Persecuted Swiss and Palatine Mennonites, 1615–1699 (Picton, 2004). He is currently editing the remaining twelve volumes of Plymouth Colony records for integral publication on CD-ROM and writing a book to be called Leiden and the Pilgrims.


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

September/October 2004

Volume VI, Number 1

Joseph Morrison Skelly

On the morning of Saturday, September 25th, I arrived in Baquba, my final destination in a year-long deployment to Iraq with the United States Army Reserve. The city lies forty miles northeast of Baghdad, in Diyala province, on the eastern edge of the Sunni Triangle. Its population of 280,000 is a mixture of Sunnis, Shiites, and even some Kurds who have drifted down from the northern part of the province. It has been a volatile place at times over the past six months, the scene of major battles in April and June. These flare-ups were sparked by a small, disgruntled minority—an angry assortment of ex-Baathists, Al Qaeda operatives, foreign agents, and some local opportunists who cast their lot with the insurgency. This motley crew made a fatal mistake. The 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Infantry Division (“The Big Red One” of Sicily, Normandy, and the Bulge), quickly put down both uprisings. Known as the “Dukes of Diyala,” the 3rd BCT controls the city and its hinterlands, and has made great progress in stabilizing the province since its arrival in February of 2004. 

In fact, beneath the radar screen of cable news networks and twenty-four hour news cycles, normal life has returned to many parts of Baquba. The vast majority of its people are decent, hardworking citizens who are glad to have the Americans here, ecstatic to be rid of Saddam Hussein, and eager to turn their country around. Many are supporting the reconstruction efforts of the United States and its Coalition partners. Some do so publicly, others privately. Several personal conversations over the past weeks have unequivocally confirmed these sentiments. So, too, have the actions of numerous men, women, and children that I have witnessed firsthand. That said, the insurgents, as reported in the press, sometimes target Iraqis who work with the Coalition. These Iraqis remain undaunted. Their courage is inspiring. Yet the full telling of their tale may have to await the final defeat of the insurgency. Perhaps historians will one day reveal the complete truth. 

My duty station in Baquba is at a location called the CMOC, the Civil-Military Operations Center. It is a joint headquarters. The Army personnel at this center work closely with the local and provincial governments, the State Department, and some NGOs, under the command of the Army leadership at brigade and division levels. Army officers and enlisted troops, working closely with Iraqi experts and administrators, tackle a variety of projects, all geared towards stabilizing the province. These missions include restoring public works, upgrading the transportation system, streamlining the energy distribution network, reconnecting communications links, improving public education facilities, and enhancing civil-military relations. These essential activities constitute an integral part of full spectrum warfare on the 21st-century battlefield. In the coming months, my duties will focus on higher education (including the reconstruction of one of the local universities, which was damaged in the June uprising when insurgents commandeered a nearby stadium), government relations, and other projects that may arise. 

The CMOC is a compound of several buildings situated on approximately one city block. It has a high-visibility presence in the city. It is accessible. These features are necessary to attract locals and to build trust in the community. They also mean that the installation is sometimes a target of the insurgents. Occasional mortar rounds, echoes of improvised explosive devices, and sporadic AK-47 fire punctuate the days and nights. Indeed, the CMOC was attacked in early October, when three Russian-made rockets slammed into the neighborhood, with two near misses and one direct hit on the compound. There were no American casualties, but several innocent Iraqi civilians were injured, which was of no concern to the guerillas, of course. The next three nights the CMOC and the nearby offices of the Iraqi National Guard and Iraqi police were mortared, without any reported damage. On the night of October 12 insurgents fired several RPGs at the seat of the provincial government several blocks away, known locally as the Blue Dome. These attempts at intimidation failed. The American troops stationed at the CMOC remained rock solid throughout this brief test, passing it with flying colors. They are determined to hold this ground. Down the street, the Blue Dome opened for business as usual on the morning of October 13. 

In a nutshell, this city is one of the cockpits of this war. The next several months will be critical. The soldiers at this post will not waver. To paraphrase Martin Luther, “Here we stand, in Baquba.” 

Joseph Morrison Skelly is assistant professor of history at the College of Mount Saint Vincent. He is the author of Irish Diplomacy at the United Nations, 1945–1965: National Interests and the International Order (Irish Academic Press, 1997). He is currently serving with the 411th Civil Affairs Battalion, in support of the 1st Infantry Division, in Operation Iraqi Freedom.


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

September/October 2004

Volume VI, Number 1

Thomas Fleming

Two years ago, when I decided to write a book on the American experience in World War I, I thought I had discovered the best opening for a historical narrative I had seen in forty years of writing books. 

On the night of April 1, 1917, only hours before Woodrow Wilson was scheduled to go before Congress and ask for a declaration of war, the president sent for Frank I. Cobb, editor of the New York World, a stalwart supporter of him and the Democratic Party. As Cobb told the story, he rushed to Washington, arriving at the White House at 1:00 a.m. He and Wilson talked into the dawn. 

Wilson told Cobb he had “considered every loophole” to escape going to war but each time Germany blocked it with some “new outrage.” Then Wilson began to talk about the impact the war would have on America. “Once lead this people into war,” the president said, “and they’ll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance. To fight you must be ruthless and the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter the very fiber of our national life, infecting Congress, the courts, the policeman on the beat, the man in the street.” 

“He thought the Constitution would not survive it,” Cobb said. “That free speech and the right of assembly would go. He said a nation couldn’t put its strength into a war and keep its head level; it had never been done.” 

“If there’s any alternative, for God’s sake let’s take it,” Wilson exclaimed. 

“Well I couldn’t see any, and I told him so,” Cobb concluded. 

This touching scene coincided with another episode I discovered in the memoir of Woodrow Wilson’s secretary, Joseph Tumulty, a man whose name was often spoken with respect in my boyhood home in Jersey City. Tumulty was born not too many blocks from my house. 

Tumulty told how he and Wilson returned to the White House on that April evening after the president’s speech to Congress, calling on America to fight a war without hate, a war to make the world safe for democracy. The soaring rhetoric had been received with near hysterical applause. 

Tumulty accompanied Wilson to the cabinet room, where the president broke down. “My message today was a message of death for our young men,” Wilson said. “How strange it seems to applaud that.” 

The president launched into an emotional monologue, defending his long struggle to keep America neutral. Finally, Tumulty said, “he wiped away great tears [and] laying his head on the table, sobbed as if he was a child.” 

Here, it would seem, was a double dose of heartbreak combined with globe-girdling drama. I could almost hear the sympathetic sobs as readers turned the opening pages. Alas, additional research led to another variety of heartbreak: the literary kind. These two scenes, which are in numerous biographies of Woodrow Wilson and histories of World War I, never happened. According to the White House logs, Frank Cobb did not set foot in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on the night of April 1, 1917. Nor did Joe Tumulty return to the White House to witness Wilson’s supposed breakdown after his speech. 

What was going on here? It took a lot more research to find the answer . . . . 

Thomas Fleming is the author of more than forty books, including The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I (Basic Books, 2004).


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

September/October 2004

Volume VI, Number 1

Bruce J. Evensen 

I am a child of revival. In 1962 I was one of 704,900 who attended Billy Graham’s meetings on Chicago’s lakefront and one of 16,597 who came forward to express a personal need for a savior. Today, Graham’s reach is far wider. On Christmas Eve in 1996, speaking from a small sports stadium in Puerto Rico, Graham preached to a targeted one billion people across the planet. Satellite technology created this communication community. It reportedly reached a man in Sierra Leone, who borrowed money to repair an antenna so that “twenty two of my friends and neighbors could watch the Gospel on television.” At that very hour, 2,000 Ugandan churches opened their doors to television parties that showed the same program. Churches in the Philippines conducted immediate baptismal services for those who had “come to Christ.” Pastors in Saltillo, Mexico said 20,000 saw Graham’s “A Season for Peace” and reported many were curious about the condition of their souls. In Italy, event organizers reported 20,000 “decisions for Christ” following the worldwide television special. 

The romance between mass media and popular religion, practiced as an evangelistic art by Graham, was a development one of Graham’s mentors, D.L. Moody, would have easily appreciated. During the late Gilded Age the former shoe salesman with a fourth grade education conducted urban revivals across the Anglo-American landscape, appropriating, as Graham later would, all available means in doing so. That meant the active courting of the press as an important instrument in reaching the unchurched with the gospel message. Moody’s success resulted in the creation of mass media revivals that relied on the twin pillars of prayer and publicity in constructing citywide spectacles as extraordinary as any editor or reader had ever seen. 

Moody was a little known Chicago layman when he arrived in Liverpool on June 17, 1873. When the revivalist left the same city two years and two months later after preaching all over England, Scotland, and Ireland, he was heralded as the greatest evangelist in the English-speaking world . . . . 

Bruce J. Evensen is professor of communications at DePaul University. He is the author of God’s Man for the Gilded Age: D.L. Moody and the Rise of Modern Mass Evangelism (Oxford University Press, 2003).


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

September/October 2004

Volume VI, Number 1


One of the many highlights of the Historical Society’s 2004 conference, “Reflections on the Current State of Historical Inquiry,” was a lively session on “The American Historical Profession in the 21st Century.” Bruce Kuklick launched the session with his paper, after which Leo Ribuffo and Marc Trachtenberg offered their responses. The exchange was provocative, candid, and frequently hilarious. Below are slightly revised drafts of the speakers' papers.

Bruce Kuklick 

There are several reasons why I was a bad choice to make this presentation. I have an ambivalent connection to the profession, disliking meetings and networking and thereby losing sustained intellectual contact with peers. In many ways I am barely professionally active. My interests lie in two peripheral fields, intellectual and diplomatic history, that are usually counted as retrograde. Moreover, although I am convinced (unlike many of my colleagues) that we know at least a little bit about the past, I also believe that we know very little about the future, and should not get into the game of being futurologists. I am under an illusion that I read widely but when, in preparation for the talk, I looked at the Journal of American History’s recent symposium on the topic, I noted that there were many “seminal,” “pathbreaking,” and “paradigm”-shattering or -creating books, not just that I had not read but that I had not heard of. Thus, readers are encouraged—as were the commentators —to be very critical of my views. Readers are also reminded that for the most part, I am noting what I think are trends, and not endorsing them. 

What will shape the future of the profession is a phenomenon that I call “mass professionalization”—a very large number of people trained to be professional historians, to publish in ever more specialized journals, to try to avoid undergraduate research agendas. This phenomenon has diverse consequences.

In our era, the large number is too high—too many people trained with a Ph.D. degree to be historians, so that even in the enormous system of higher education, there are too few jobs for these individuals. This may be an issue of under demand rather than oversupply, but the consequences are the same, especially in the fields of American history that I know best. 

The first significant problem of mass professionalization is that there is a growing helot class of non-standing faculty, exploited and underpaid. To presume that the tenure-track job at a major university represents the norm is like presuming that Ozzie and Harriet represent the typical American family. But the power of the tenure system to distort market forces is extraordinary. In ordinary circumstances, with such an enormous supply of faculty in comparison to a relative small demand, one would draw the inference that faculty with jobs would be teaching more and being paid less; but for standing faculty the reverse actually often occurs. 

Thus, two likely results of mass professionalization in the 21st century are, on the one hand, increasing attacks on tenure and, on the other, increasing pressure for unionization. Both the attacks and the pressure me that we ought to try to maintain the older dignified notion of a profession, and I don’t like the idea of unions for graduate students. But I have a hard time coming up with good reasons to fight unions, and I can’t think of many to retain the tenure system. I would settle for a system of the old crafts union, like carpenters but not like autoworkers. We will probably get the latter.

Even for those on the lowest rungs of the professional ladder, the ideology of graduate school professors, which emphasizes publication, more than usually holds sway. Even schools that have long served certain regional, vocational, or ethno-cultural needs have often given in to this ideology. This means that most of us value scholarship, and promote it, more than we promote teaching or service to an institution. 

A second significant problem of mass professionalization stems from this scholarly emphasis—the exponential growth of publications. Some of these publications are products of the proliferation of academic historical societies, each valorizing one aspect of the past—of the Soviet Union, the early American republic, the history of public policy, secondary education in Asia, Byzantium, the history of the book—you name it. Along with a society usually goes a journal and scholarly essays. 

Books are a more important publishing endeavor in the profession than articles. I am told that even the prestigious academic presses cannot much longer afford to print dissertations and, as they put it, serve as vetting agents in tenure decisions. The average sale of a history book is 600–800 copies, and in many cases, the most frequent request made on presses is to give their readers’ reports to tenure committees. It is easy to infer from this that no one wants to read many of these books, but I actually believe that perhaps unlike other disciplines, there are useful facts in most first books by professional historians, and it is not so terrible to have them available in a form that will now last for 500 years. 

The problem here is that almost none of us is able to sort out what is worth reading (as opposed to what is worth consulting if someone wants to get some information). We can no longer monitor with any reliability the publications that define the contours of historical knowledge at any time, the scholarly structure that is supposed to define the profession. This may not be an overarching concern in some recherché areas of inquiry, but it certainly is in the main line of American history. 

There is a third related problem of mass professionalization. While there is useful information in most of these volumes, whether or not they are good history is a different question. The increase of historians, specialties, and publications has joined its force to another social fact: a growing university system that even at its bottom end has many perquisites. 

Together these facts make it more difficult for scholars to publish their way “out” or “up,” for there are so many people writing that it is almost impossible for all of us jointly to discern what is meritorious. What is crucially important is one’s first place of employment. Thus it seems to me there is more justified ressentiment on the part of faculty at non-elite schools, for many talented historians there may rightly feel that their work is not appreciated the way it should be. 

There is a flipside to this. There are a great many ordinary historians who by luck, backslapping, and a bit of diligent effort are now regarded as premier scholars in their fields. They can marshal journals, societies, a constellation of university departments, and even funding agencies in their support. 

This problem of mass professionalization means that we have fewer efficient means at our disposal for authoritatively evaluating historical work. In the old days standards may have been narrow and determined by a group of old white males who successfully passed on their rigidities. But at least one knew who to read, and the number of historians was limited enough so that supply did not so entirely exceed one’s ability to consume. 

When I discussed my presentation with friends, a number of them expressed the hope that I would denounce cultural history and falling standards, and speak up in some fashion for the history of ideas or of international politics. The attentive reader will find a bit of this kind of response in the comments of Professors Ribuffo and Trachtenberg to this short paper. But my concern is not that many professional historians emphasize things that don’t interest me much, or have political views I disparage. I am not alarmed at the cultural presuppositions that some see as constraints on the profession or as leading it in the wrong direction. There may be a left-liberal set of predispositions in history that sets a certain agenda, but that is not what I find troubling. 

Rather than operating with blinders, the profession, I believe, has a 1000 flowers blooming; history is a big tent. My fear is the number of flowers and the size of the tent. There is so much out there, and so many of us are struggling to get recognition for whatever it is that we do that we have little sense of what the outlines of even large fields are and of what is worth reading. We don’t have much of a handle on what we do, or how we are doing it, and I don’t see much of a chance that this will change. 

A fourth significant problem of mass professionalization is the trade’s connection to the role of history in American society. All cultures have some sense of an immemorial past, and in some ways professional historians partly serve the same function as tribal elders. That is, part of our role is that we collectively maintain a social sense of the past. One way we do this is through popular history writing, the History Channel, and historical movies and documentaries. But there is an enormous gap between what intrigues the profession as a whole and the obsession of the greater public with Great Men and Big Battles. I am not entirely opposed to this obsession, but I do think that the public would be better served if there were a better match between its concerns and our priorities and standards. As matters stand now, there seem to me to be two diverging tracks, the popular and the professional, and I do not believe that is healthy. It may also be pretty conventional, but it does strike me that the effusion of historical specialties has increased the divide between the popular and the professional. In the old days, the commitment of the profession to past politics was pretty much synchronized with public tastes. 

Another aspect of this problem is the history text, at both the high school and college level. And here I have a different concern from the one evinced in the controversy over the History Standards. The textbooks are legion, although the ones that I know best are in American history, which I have recently taught in AP American history courses. The texts exhibit the troubles I have talked about and give some weight to every subfield and every dimension of the study of the United States that will make a text “comprehensive.” Again, these books reflect the diversity and complexity of the profession, and not at all the needs of our undergraduate charges. I would trade all of these texts in for just two old books: James Henry Breastead’s Ancient Times and Charles and Mary Beard’s Rise of American Civilization. Just as the claims of popular history reflect the gap between what the public needs and what we are able to provide, the texts illustrate the gap between what students in our democracy require and what we are able to give them. 

Let me, in conclusion, turn away from the problems to a connected matter: where I would like us to direct our efforts in the future. I would like to see far more of an accent on undergraduate teaching. We need a more coherent history curriculum, with more stress on a series of basic courses that offer a broad introduction to the national and international historical setting of our lives. We need fewer seminars on narrow topics for undergraduates. We need more discussion courses and a graded writing program that would increase in difficulty with an increase in the level of courses. We need more faculty willing to teach freshperson seminars. We need more seasoned faculty to teach survey courses. We need more faculty to recognize that the “reproduction” of the professoriate, as it has been described to me, is not the most holy task. We need fewer graduate students competing with undergraduates for time with faculty, and fewer graduate students substituting for faculty in classrooms. That is, we need to do more to train our students to be educated citizens. 

Bruce Kuklick is Nichols Professor of American History at the University of Pennsylvania. His latest book is A History of Philosophy in America, 1720–2000 (Oxford University Press, 2002). 


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

September/October 2004

Volume VI, Number 1

Leo P. Ribuffo

Bruce Kuklick has been one of my best friends for more than three decades. Thus I say with candor and affection that this article does not represent Kuklick at his best. It reflects an educational background and academic career spent entirely at elite universities. It contains too many self-righteous ex cathedra assertions that even Kuklick does not believe when pressed to think about them. 

Just as every person is his or her own historian, every person is his or her own futurologist. In some dumb sense, to appropriate Carl Becker’s phrase, Kuklick as an everyman futurologist made predictions about the future when he acquired mortgages and decided to raise four children. And I suspect he attempted to make those decisions with minimum stupidity. So why should not the rest of us, acting in our capacities as what William Appleman Williams called “citizen historians,” engage more broadly in futurology about something as insignificant as our own craft, business, profession, trade, and— sometimes—racket? Kuklick claims to detest the history business (what in calmer moments he has described as an honorable “practice”) because it is too much of a racket. Yet, as Kuklick has also admitted in less oracular moments, he has spent much of his career studying intellectual businesses and rackets. Perhaps when pressed Kuklick might admit that our trade deserves the same serious attention he has elsewhere lavished on churchmen, philosophers, archaeologists, and even shortstops. We get no such respect from him here.1 

Kuklick’s central argument is that historians suffer from “mass professionalization.” Simply put, there are more historians than the market can absorb, and this oversupply derives from the propensity of academic stars, some of whom are also academic racketeers, to build their egos and empires while avoiding undergraduates. This argument is true as far as it goes, but Kuklick oversimplifies the situation, in the process showing an unmerited enthusiasm for market forces absent elsewhere in his work. There seem to be roughly 5,000 academic historians in the United States. Is this too many? The number is no larger than the number of big-time professional athletes—a frivolous occupational cohort Kuklick likes more than historians. Certainly Americans have the right to cast their dollar votes, to recall an old image from Economics 101, on shortstops rather than professors, but this is not necessarily a good idea. Kuklick forgets that mass professionalization has been an inescapable byproduct of mass education, a development that has enormously benefited the United States in general and many of us academics in particular. If university education had remained as limited and insular in the 1960s as in the 1930s, Kuklick and I might be hammering nails and sweeping floors as our fathers did rather than enjoying what he recognizes as one of the most pleasant jobs in the world. Indeed, the very pleasantness of our job means that supply will exceed demand most of the time

What are the intellectual consequences of mass professionalization? Kuklick reduces them to a nostalgic assertion that it is now “almost impossible” for people “to discern what is meritorious.” I think this is no more true now than in 1966, when I entered graduate school, even though, now as then, I disagree with most of our trade’s elite about what is interesting, important, original and, ideally, both original and pretty much true. 

As a William Jamesian, Niebuhrian, Cold War revisionist, social democratic professor out of sync with the elite of our trade in 2004, I am a noncombatant in the grandiosely misnamed “culture wars” at least partly because I remember, within human limits, what it was like to be a Jamesian, Niebuhrian, Cold War revisionist, social democratic graduate student during what Kuklick calls the “old days,” when scholarship was dominated by pluralist social theory and consensus (or counterprogressive) historiography.2 In recent years my admiration has grown for Richard Hofstadter, Seymour Martin Lipset, Nathan Glazer, and other leading members of this intellectual cohort because they got right one big thing now often forgotten—that the U. S. is a relatively homogeneous and conservative country. Even so, their plentiful errors look as absurd as anything currently published. Among these errors, my favorites (a friendly term I can use in tenured late middle age) are that religion was dying out, that cultural politics was illegitimate and avoidable, that mentally healthy people clustered in the vital center, that anyone beyond that sacred segment suffered from status anxiety at minimum if not a full-fledged paranoid style, and that American anti-Semitism was only marginally related to Christianity. 

Since Kuklick passes on the opportunity, I will address some of the intellectual trends in American history. Although what follows is necessarily impressionistic, it is based on the usual interaction with our trade: teaching, service on search committees, and the reading of professional journals (with greatest attention to the book reviews). There is certainly an orthodoxy of sorts, though that term may be too pompous and rigid to describe the perennial situation that some topics, questions, methods, and moral judgments are hot while others are not. As I am hardly the first to observe, professional organizations create orthodoxies; indeed, that is what they are intended to do. In a nutshell, the “orthodoxy” that has become dominant in the past two decades is a kind of mushy leftism descended from the Popular Front of the 1930s by way of the 1960s. As Doug Rossinow, one of the best historians of the 1960s, commented more than a decade ago, the historical profession is “filled with liberals who think they are radicals.”3 The extent to which non-elite historians, especially graduate students, actually believe in the orthodoxy is a tougher call. Undoubtedly, as in all such circumstances, there is more backsliding and latent rebellion in the pews than in the pulpits, let alone at the bishops’ residences. 

Although men and women make their own historiography they do not make it under circumstances of their own choosing. Two circumstances seem particularly compelling now. First, given the problem of oversupply (Kuklick’s formulation) or under demand (mine), there is an especially strong inclination to stick with the tried and (I hope) true topics, questions, methods, and moral judgments honored by our trade’s establishment. Opportunities to do so are abundant. Starting in the 1960s, for example, historians rediscovered women, African-Americans, and Native Americans. Their stories do need to be told. Since few historians favor slavery, segregation, patriarchy, or mass murder, most of these stories can be told with minimal professional risk and, therefore, minimal reflection. 

Second, as the American electorate has (sort of) moved rightward and the Right has made the academy a special target in the socalled culture wars, most liberal and radical historians have unsurprisingly conducted a reflexive defense of their now orthodox methods, moral judgments, and favorite hot topics. Evidence of rethinking, ecumenicalism, and serious argument (by which I mean something very different from sweetsy “dialogue”) is hard to find in the major associations and journals. In less polarized times, for instance, more historians might agree with my colleague William H. Becker that practitioners of labor history and practitioners of business history have much to teach each other. Worst of all, the so-called culture wars have energized a compulsory cloying moralism that afflicts historians across the ideological spectrum. 

To a greater degree than is usually acknowledged, rethinking, intellectual ecumenicalism, and serious argument can be found at the grassroots, perhaps especially in non-elite colleges and universities. Indeed, Kuklick to the contrary, this is the best reason why non-elite Ph.D. programs should not close up shop. From the vantage point of one of those universities, let me offer several nonsweetsy observations and suggestions about our trade’s intellectual trends. 

The vogue of postmodernism is less significant, for good or ill, than the hoopla surrounding it suggests. It is a good idea for historians to think about what they are doing, especially about what is usually called the problem of relativism. With few exceptions, such concerns were dormant among practicing historians during the golden age of counterprogressive historiography. By the 1980s the old questions reappeared in an unfamiliar (and thus especially seductive) European vocabulary—a familiar phenomenon in American intellectual life—via literature departments. As philosopher Richard Rorty recently observed, the same issues could have surfaced again through a rediscovery of William James and John Dewey (and, he might have added for our trade, Carl Becker and Charles Beard). But, as Rorty put it, American pragmatists were thought to “lack pizzazz” compared to Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida.4 

Accordingly, insofar as our trade is methodologically chic, we address perennial problems in a new idiom. When I was in graduate school, under the influence of the “new criticism,” we read a bunch of words on a page and perhaps discerned therein the theme of rebellion. Now graduate students deconstruct a text and perhaps discern therein the trope of transgressiveness. In practice, the difference is largely a matter of jargon, as is often the case with linguistic twists and turns. We sound savvy by “powering down” our computers, as the manuals instruct, even though we stop the flow of electricity just as effectively when (following an older discourse from our frugal parents) we merely “turn off” the lights. 

Despite the hoopla, there are few thoroughgoing postmodernists among practicing historians, let alone a horde of amoralists pushing students down a slippery slope to nihilism. Rather, there is a ritualistic inclination to talk the talk even if the meaning is murky. Indeed, the talk sometimes seems intended to intimidate those who admit that the meaning is murky. 

The main perils of high theory are, first, that new words may be confused with new and better ideas, and second, that current theories may yield less understanding than earlier frames of reference. This danger is hardly new, however. The pluralists and counterprogressives used Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Sigmund Freud to concoct an interpretation of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s which is inferior to the best workaday journalism of the 1920s. 

Much more influential than the postmodern rediscovery of relativism—and much less appealing to my taste—is the pervasiveness of small-scale social histories that purport to illuminate the lives of ordinary men and women, “the people.” This vogue has many sources. The resurrected intellectual Popular Front of the 1960s made “history from the bottom up” an attractive field for baby boomer historians. But a far from leftist Zeitgeist also energizes this specialty. We live, after all, in the era of People magazine. Then, too, local social history meets market needs. Compared to other countries, there are a great many historians in the United States and relatively little American history, and graduate students have to write dissertations about something. 

Although small-scale social history has never been to my taste, I would be more likely to acknowledge the field’s virtues (primarily, that “useful facts” are made available, as Kuklick notes) if authors of these studies wrote better and claimed less. A book focusing on one city, neighborhood, union local, or Ku Klux Klan klavern can be fascinating. In fact, these tend to be clunky and boring. At their worst, the main characters reveal less temperamental and moral complexity than characters in a good television disaster-of-theweek movie. Mixed motives and ambiguous feelings are particularly absent in accounts of the oppressed who (contrary to the views of some Historical Society members) did and still do exist. 

H. L. Mencken joked long ago that historians were failed novelists. Would that it were so! In our day, they are less likely to be good storytellers than second-string social theorists who problematize questions that need not be problems, let alone major problems. Did artisans in Hartford, Connecticut differ from their counterparts in Bridgeport, Connecticut? Believe it or not, they did if you look closely enough. Do “the people” blindly yield to capitalist hegemony or do they sometimes think and act for themselves? Do they have “agency?” Guess what? The answer is “Yes!” 

Even if every practitioner of local social history wrote as well as William Faulkner or Sherwood Anderson, the prevalence of this genre would present problems. Of necessity, the authors magnify small differences. This approach, combined with the assumption that there should be no “master narrative” (even provisionally for the purpose of addressing large questions), undermines broader frames of reference and obscures larger realities. For instance, American historians ritualistically repeat that the United States is one of the most diverse nations in the world. On the contrary, and especially if we count for this large question only the native born population, the United States is not even one of the most diverse countries in the Western Hemisphere. 

To a large degree academic political history has become a wholly owned subsidiary of social history, especially small-scale social history. Consider the historiography of the 1930s. During the past two decades there have been countless studies of labor unions, cities, and neighborhoods in which the local actors are (with varying skill) related to national developments. At the same time, there is no solid, comprehensive account of the Works Progress Administration or the Civilian Conservation Corps. In short, though studies of politics, variously defined, are available, historians for more than a generation have shown remarkably little interest in how government, especially the federal government, actually functioned or functions in domestic affairs. Americanists who study government actions in the world are often thought peripheral and perhaps retrograde. Indeed, distraught diplomatic historians have recently begun to sex up their field’s vocabulary in order to sound like social or cultural historians. 

In their general disregard of government, historians, regardless of their political persuasions, stand shoulder to shoulder with their fellow citizens. Yet most of their fellow citizens do not notice the historians by their side. Kuklick joins the throng, pondering our trade’s most frequently asked question about the market. Given the popularity of historical novels, period-piece films, Civil War reenactments, celebrations of the “greatest generation” and so forth, why don’t people pay more attention to us? Whatever their ideological and methodological differences, leaders of the American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, and the Historical Society join in the common lament that historians fail to reach a general audience. As a mere matter of intellect, this lament lacks merit. Consider the prototypical “practice”: medicine. Physicians whose research appears in the New England Journal of Medicine usually do not expect their findings to reach the New Yorker

Moving beyond mere matters of intellect to the level of status anxiety and market rewards, I too regret that I am not as rich and famous as I would like to be. In an attempt to ameliorate this devastating situation, I have even appeared twice on the History Channel (known to detractors as the Hitler Channel). The last time I addressed the popularization question, in 1992, I offered to appear on “The Tonight Show” whenever Jay Leno wants to banter about William James or the Cold War. My offer remains open, and I hope that if Leno sees the light he will seat me next to Ashley Judd rather than Mel Gibson. 

I am not holding my breath, however, and neither should any readers hoping for a similar invitation. But neither am I wringing my hands. Historians with an inclination to popularize what they know can and should do so as well as their skills and circumstances allow. Yet circumstances are not promising. Indeed, there is an unavoidable roadblock that cannot be cleared even with sound bytes and makeup. Every person is his or her own historian, but most people are not very good historians. Moreover, most people do not care that they are mediocre or bad historians (or physicists or sociologists or theologians). A reliable understanding of the past beyond their own memories does not seem essential to their lives—which, by and large, it is not. Acting as their own physicians, everyman or everywoman would probably choose to be treated by a doctor who published original research in the New England Journal of Medicine rather than by the author of medical popularizations in the New Yorker. Since an accurate understanding of diseased bodies is much more consequential than an accurate understanding of Thomas Jefferson, it makes sense as a futurologist of personal health to bet on professional standing rather than popularity or accessibility. 

My generalization about everyman and everywoman’s limited capacity as a historian certainly applies to journalists and documentary filmmakers. Indeed, following their professional standards, they typically crave gimmicks and profess to believe that grand events turn on quirks of personality. Kuklick writes with some justice that the questions academic historians ask and the answers we give are not intellectually imposing. Yet they rank up there with oncology when compared to the simplistic history favored by policy makers and pundits—even in cases where a thoughtful and reliable understanding of the past might affect matters of life and death. 

This essay has been primarily an “internalist” analysis of the history business. Yet the major changes in American intellectual life have derived less from internal inconsistencies in orthodox belief systems or from the imperatives of careerism than from external shocks originating in the wider world. Indeed, without the Vietnam War and the capital S Sixties, the basic premises of pluralist social theory and counterprogressive history would probably still dominate the academy, as they still dominate national politics and mainstream journalism. I am not a good enough futurologist to predict the next world historical shock. 

In the meantime, to describe the situation in a favored jargon (popularized by Kuklick in his transgressive youth), we will proceed with “normal” historical investigation rather than face a “paradigm shift.”5 Boredom, opportunism, and curiosity will continue to inspire slight modifications in the mushy leftist orthodoxy—modifications usually framed as revelations and still leavened with compulsory cloying moralism. For instance, the historical establishment has rediscovered that industrial workers spent time in churches as well as factories and, guess what, one venue affected the other. Similarly, tight-knit communities under stress produced conservative activists as well as heroic radicals and, guess what, lots of the conservatives were women. 

But there is hope for something beyond caution and quibbling. You do not have to be a demographer or futurologist, only a regular at faculty meetings, to notice that the long predicted wave of retirements will finally start to occur within a decade. Then, briefly, demand for academic historians will once again exceed supply for roughly a decade. Another forty-year job crisis will undoubtedly follow. During this interlude, however, free spirits among Generation X-ers and the “millennial” generation that follows may feel sufficiently secure to problematize questions that are significantly problematic. 

In the meantime, ain’t it awful? You bet. It always is. 

Leo P. Ribuffo is Society of the Cincinnati George Washington Distinguished Professor of History at George Washington University. He is the author of “Confessions of an Accidental (or Perhaps Overdetermined) Historian,” in Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, eds., Reconstructing History: The Emergence of a New Historical Society (Routledge, 1999), 143–163.

1 Bruce Kuklick, The Rise of American Philosophy: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1860–1930 (Yale University Press, 1977); Churchmen and Philosophers: From Jonathan Edwards to John Dewey (Yale University Press, 1985); Puritans in Babylon: The Ancient Near East and American Intellectual Life, 1880–1930 (Princeton University Press, 1996); To Every Time A Season: Shibe Park and Urban Philadelphia 1909–1976 (Princeton University Press, 1991); and “Writing the History of Practice: The Humanities and Baseball, with a Nod to Wrestling,” in Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, eds., Reconstructing History: The Emergence of a New Historical Society (Routledge, 1999), 176–88. 

2 Almost all of the leaders of our trade during the quarter century after World War II affirmed the political, sociological, and psychological “vital center” (to recall Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s famous phrase), but they did not necessarily discern or affirm an American consensus. Accordingly, following Gene Wise, I prefer to call them counterprogressive historians. See Wise, American Historical Explanations: A Strategy for Grounded Inquiry (Dorsey, 1977). 

3 In conversation over a beer. 

4 Richard Rorty, “Philosophical Convictions,” Nation, June 14, 2004, 54. 5 Bruce Kuklick, “History as a Way of Learning,” American Quarterly 22 (1970): 609–628.


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

September/October 2004

Volume VI, Number 1

Marc Trachtenberg

What is going to determine the future of the American historical profession? For Bruce Kuklick, sheer numbers are of fundamental importance. The profession, he thinks, has become so large that it no longer has, or indeed can have, a clear sense of what it is about. In the old days you knew what the important works were. You could see which works defined “the contours of historical knowledge” at any particular point in time. But today there are so many historians and there is so much pressure to publish that no one can hope to develop a sense for what, in scholarly terms, pulls the community of historians together. 

Indeed—to draw out what for me is one of the key implications of Kuklick’s argument —there is not much that makes our occupational group a real profession, with a distinct identity and a broadly accepted set of standards for “authoritatively evaluating” scholarly work. Instead, what we have is a mass of people laboring in particular subfields. The work they produce is rarely of interest to scholars working in other subfields. People write for very narrow audiences, producing books and articles that, as a general rule, almost no one reads. What passes for the profession is really a congeries of specialized groups with highly parochial interests—groups, moreover, of privileged individuals, shielded by the tenure system, turned in on themselves, cut off from the larger society, incapable, by and large, of even giving their undergraduate students the sort of instruction they need. 

The problem, according to Kuklick, is rooted in what he calls “mass professionalization,” although perhaps (if we bear in mind what a profession is supposed to be) “mass deprofessionalization” might be a better term. There are just so many people trained to be historians, and so much work that has to be published, that things more or less had to develop along these lines. It is not a pretty picture, but in his view there is not much we can do about it. The source of the problem is structural; the basic structures he has identified will certainly remain intact; so we will have no choice, he thinks, but to live with the situation as he has described it. 

What is to be made of that argument? I have no real quarrel with his description of the way things are today. There is obviously not much today that holds us together as a profession. Even to refer to history today as a “discipline” strikes me as inappropriate. It is clear, as Kuklick says, that as a profession “we don’t have much of a handle on what we do, or how we are doing it.” And he is obviously also right about how the interests of historians have diverged from those of the public at large, and indeed from those of the undergraduates they are supposed to teach. 

So he has accurately identified a whole complex of problems, but if we are to face those problems intelligently, we need to grapple with the question of what gave rise to them in the first place. What are we to make of his argument in this area? Is it just a question of numbers? I do not think that the growth in the size of the profession is nearly as important in this context as he makes out. There are other professions, medicine, for example, and many hard sciences, which have expanded enormously in size but have retained a strong sense of the sort of work that is of fundamental importance and the kinds of standards to be used in evaluating the work that is produced. 

So if the problem we historians face is not a result of sheer numbers, what then is it rooted in? I think values are a good deal more important than Kuklick is prepared to admit. When I look at what is being produced nowadays, the problem, at least for me, is not that there is so much being published that I just do not have the time to read much of it. The more basic problem is that I would not want to read much of it, no matter how much time I had. The amount of work published is not a fundamental problem. In principle, the subfields can always identify their best work, and we can always find the time to read the most interesting books produced by people working in all sorts of different areas, especially books that speak to the broader concerns of people throughout the profession. Or to put the point more precisely: we at least have as much time today to do that kind of reading as we had thirty or forty years ago. But the key point here is that those books have to be worth reading, and the problem today is that what can be identified as prominent works in many areas of history are often not worth spending much time on. I would love it if a thousand flowers were in fact blooming. But as I look around me, I don’t see a garden of that sort. I see some flowers blooming but many more being choked out by weeds—indeed, weeds that people fawn over and treat as though they were more beautiful and more fragrant than the flowers themselves.

What does this imply about the future? Kuklick does not see much of a chance that the problems he has identified will go away. And of course if numbers were the heart of the problem, the situation would not be likely to change for the better. But if the problem were rooted in values—and by that I mean not the political values of the practitioners, but rather their sense of what history should be and how it should be done—then change is very likely. The reason is that culture is always in flux. Values are always changing. I have no idea what the historical profession, if one can still call it that, will be like twenty or thirty years from now, but I think it is almost bound to be very different from what it is today. 

The present situation, in fact, is not rock solid. Society allows us, as members of a profession, to enjoy certain prerogatives. But it does this not because it loves the color of our eyes. It does this because at some level it counts on getting something in return, something of value to society as a whole. Professional autonomy is not a simple gift, bestowed for all eternity with no questions asked. Professions are relatively free from social control, but in exchange they are supposed to feel a certain sense of obligation—a sense of responsibility to the society as a whole, a responsibility for maintaining standards and for doing work of real value. There is an implicit bargain, and a profession cannot expect to renege on its part of the bargain without, in the long run, paying a real price. 

The long run, of course, may be very long. The profession is now shielded from social pressure by the sorts of institutional structures Kuklick talks about. We all know how strong those structures are and how weak the mechanisms of social accountability are, especially if we are thinking primarily in terms of immediate and short-term effects. But in the long run, social forces—including especially market forces—have a way of making themselves felt, no matter what institutional frameworks exist. A profession, for example, that insists on offering courses that the students are not interested in may well, sooner or later, pay a price for that kind of behavior, especially if neighboring disciplines move in to meet unfilled student demand. 

No one knows what the future holds in store for us. But it is hard to believe that things will go on as they have forever. And if you believe that things are bound to change in the long run, then you have to feel that it is very important right now not to throw in the towel. As we move through what may be a very long night, it is important to keep at least some fires burning: it is important to keep alive a certain sense of what history is. 

Marc Trachtenberg is professor of political science at UCLA. His A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945–1963 (Princeton University Press, 1999) was awarded the American Historical Association’s Paul Birdsall and George Louis Beer prizes in 2000.


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

September/October 2004

Volume VI, Number 1

Conducted by Joseph S. Lucas

JOHN FERLING, professor emeritus of history at the State University of West Georgia (he retired in May 2004), has written extensively on the political and military history of early America. Among his works are A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (Oxford University Press, 2003); A Wilderness of Miseries: War and Warriors in Early America (Greenwood Press, 1980); and Struggle for a Continent: The Wars of Early America (Harlan Davidson, 1993). An accomplished biographer, Ferling has written lives of George Washington, John Adams, and the Pennsylvania Loyalist Joseph Galloway, as well as Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson and the American Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2000). His most recent work is the just published Adams Vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, part of Oxford University Press’s Pivotal Moments in American History series. Joseph Lucas had the privilege of interviewing this prolific student of early American history in April of 2004. Ferling reveals that his predilection for writing about war, politics, and great leaders stemmed partly from expediency. Yet Ferling also passionately believes that these classic subjects continue to matter, and their histories have much to teach us today. 

Joseph Lucas: During your long and productive career you have bucked several of the trends that have defined your generation of historians. You have focused on elite leaders rather than marginalized masses. Your primary concerns are political and military history rather than social and cultural history. And you see the past not as a foreign country but as intimately connected to the present. Indeed, you argue that the past, particularly with regard to political and military leadership, holds important lessons for us today. How do you account for your iconoclastic views? And how do you see your work in relation to that of your peers and colleagues? 

John Ferling: Well, for many years I had a poster over my desk, and it contained a quote from Thoreau about marching to a different drummer. So maybe I am iconoclastic. But I don’t think so. I think I’ve wound up doing what I’ve done out of necessity because of where I teach. It just seems the pragmatic thing to do. I don’t teach at a major research university, and I don’t have a research library at my disposal. So I’ve chosen to work with the resources available to me on a daily basis. We have things like the modern editions of the Washington papers, Franklin papers, Hamilton papers, Adams papers, and so forth. That was the direction that I went simply because the material was there and available to me. As a result, I think, most of my work has been on political and military history.

When I was finishing graduate school, I had a one-year appointment at a school just outside of Philadelphia in Chester County. I was very much interested in abolitionism, and there was a wonderful library of abolitionist materials in Chester County, maybe five minutes from where I was living. If that had materialized into permanent, tenuretrack employment, I would have probably worked on the history of antislavery.

I do think there are lessons from the past: political lessons and military lessons as well. I’m struck by the fact, for example, that Jefferson wrote a letter to John Adams in 1813 stating that all through history, in every society at every time, one party existed that favored the many while another party existed that favored the few, and political battles tended to revolve around that struggle between the many and the few. And that’s how I see American politics. I see that struggle going on in the Revolution. I see that struggle going on between the Federalists and the Democratic Republican Party in the 1790s and the early days of the republic. I see it through most of the 19th and 20th centuries in America’s political history as well. 

Lucas: Are there other important lessons from the era of the American Revolution and the early republic? 

Ferling: I think there are. The American Revolution, for example, can tell us a great deal about the limits of military power. Look at the relative strength of Great Britain and the colonies in 1775—it seemed as if there was no way that the colonists could win that war and that they were mad to go to war. And yet they wound up winning it. There were limits to British military power. In Vietnam the United States wound up making some of the same mistakes that the British had made in the 1770s, thinking they could do whatever they wished. I hope we haven’t made that same mistake again with our recent policies. 

The American Revolution says something about the cost of imperial power as well. The British found themselves caught up in four intercolonial wars between 1689 and the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, and they were driven deeply in debt as a result. They tried to extricate themselves from their indebtedness with policies that brought on the Anglo-American crisis and war. 

I’m struck by the fact, too, in reading Gordon Wood’s Radicalism of the American Revolution and Joyce Appleby’s Inheriting the Revolution, that both of those historians develop the idea of how different America had become by 1826. Almost no one could have dreamed in 1776 of how the Revolution was going to play out and the changes that it would bring. I’m not sure I agree entirely with Wood, who argues that people like Jefferson were ultimately disenchanted by what happened. I wouldn’t go that far. But it reinforces the lesson that you just never know what’s going to happen in history. You undertake something, and you think you know where you’re going, but it always leads to things you can’t foresee. (In my survey classes I emphasize how World War II was a crucial factor in bringing on the modern civil rights revolution in the 1950s and 1960s and may have had a hand in bringing on the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s—certainly no one foresaw these developments when the U.S. went into war.) 

In the 1790s one of the things that really fascinates me is how Washington and Adams coped with great crises. In 1794 there was a hue and cry to go to war with Great Britain, and instead of going to war Washington opted to seek peace. He sent John Jay to London and eventually accepted a treaty that had many shortcomings. But the great virtue of the treaty was that it prevented a war that Washington thought would have been disastrous for the union. By the same token, Adams’s entire presidency was taken up by the Quasi-War crisis with France. He was under enormous pressure, especially from the right wing of his party, to take a bellicose policy. He, too, resisted that and sought peace, even though he knew that his actions might wreck his chances for reelection in 1800. I think that both presidents ultimately acted more like statesmen than as politicians. There is a lesson there for subsequent leaders. What seems to be the best thing to do from a political standpoint may not be the best thing to do in the long-term interests of the nation, or the historical reputation of the leader. 

Lucas: Your first book was a study of Joseph Galloway, a Loyalist, and his ideas. Yet the several books that you wrote after that work have focused primarily on Revolutionary leaders. Why the shift? How did your initial work on Loyalism during the Revolution inform your subsequent work on the revolutionaries themselves? 

Ferling: When I was starting out, actually still working on my Masters degree, I found myself fascinated with dissenters. I was interested in the Copperheads in the Civil War and Loyalists in the Revolution. When I decided to specialize in the American Revolution era, I focused on the Loyalists. By the time I got to Joseph Galloway it was 1969, and I was active in the anti-war protests. Galloway was a protester. It was a very different kind of thing; he was a conservative protester, and the anti-war protests I participated in were at the opposite end of the spectrum. 

As I worked on Galloway, I found myself drawn to areas that I hadn’t imagined I would go into—I tell my graduate students that this is a benefit of doing biography. Galloway was speaker of the house of the Pennsylvania Assembly for about twenty years, so I had to learn a good bit about Pennsylvania politics. His political ally was Benjamin Franklin, and so I had to learn something about him. And then during the war, after proclaiming his neutrality initially, Galloway opportunistically joined the British when he thought they were about to win the war in 1776. The British used him as a military intelligence official, and so I had to learn something about military history. When I came along—and it may still be like this in graduate school today—if you were taking a course on the American Revolution, the professor would usually just skip over all of the military aspects and say, “We’ll leave that to armchair generals.” So I hadn’t really learned anything about military history in school. Further, Galloway wrote about twenty-five pamphlets or so during the Revolution, and I had to understand something about the ideology of the Revolution in order to sort out what Galloway was saying in contrast to what the Whigs were saying. 

More than anything, however, working on Galloway peaked my interest in military history. When I finished the Galloway book, I decided to do a book on colonial warfare. I was particularly influenced at that time by Richard Kohn’s “The Social History of the American Soldier: A Review and Prospectus for Research,” American Historical Review 86 (1981): 553–567. Kohn talked about a new military history, and it was new in the sense that military historians now were trying to look not only at how war affected society, but also at how society affected war. The book I wrote was called A Wilderness of Miseries. As I researched that book, I grew interested in George Washington. At that time no one had done a one-volume biography of Washington for about fifty years. Because we did have source materials here, at that time it was the Fitzpatrick edition of Washington’s writings, I was able to do a biography of Washington and still later a biography of Adams. I was probably able to do about 95% of my research for both books here in Carrollton, Georgia—getting books and microfilm on interlibrary loan and using the modern editorial versions of my subjects’ papers. So it was a matter both of interest and expediency. 

Lucas: What inspired you to become a historian, writer, and biographer? 

Ferling: When I was an undergraduate I had to take two courses in American history during my freshman year and two in Western Civ in my sophomore year, but neither turned me on to history. They were mostly just memorization courses, and I didn’t like them. I had had some interest in history before I started college, but those courses pretty much turned me off. I got to the last semester of my sophomore year and I had to declare a major. Fortunately for me, the guy who was teaching Western Civ fell ill and had to go in the hospital. In the time honored tradition of academe the low man on the totem pole in the history department got rushed in to teach the remainder of the course. He was a young historian right out of graduate school named William Painter, and he threw out the original syllabus. He had us read several paperbacks. I don’t remember all of them, but one of them was Marcus Cunliffe’s George Washington: Man and Monument. I remember being completely fascinated. Instead of listening to lectures, we read and discussed the books. I found myself really getting turned on and going to the library and wanting to read more about Washington. One of the other books was Alan Bullock’s Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. So at least two of the books were biographies. That may well be the source of my interest in biography.

But there was also something else that was crucial. In the 1960s during the student protests many of the schools began to abandon the requirement that students had to take both halves of Western Civ and both halves of U.S. history. They went over to a cafeteria approach, and you had to take a set number of courses in social science. And you could take history, or you could elect not to take any history at all. One of the things that historians quickly discovered was that if the students were given a choice, they wouldn’t take history. 

This aroused concern in the profession, and I remember reading a couple of presidential addresses delivered to historical associations. The thrust of these was to encourage historians to write narrative history, to try to write something that could reach the general public. That really resonated with me. I wanted to reach out to the general public as well. I felt that writing biographies would be a way to do that. And all through my career in fact I’ve tried not only to publish in scholarly journals, but to write articles for popular magazines such as American History and the Smithsonian Magazine as a way of reaching out to the general public. 

One of the things that disturbs me today about the profession is that almost everything that’s being done is in social history, and it doesn’t appear that very much of that is being read by the general public. There have been some academic historians who have been able to reach the general public. Joseph Ellis and David Hackett Fischer come to mind. But they are not writing social history, they are writing political or military history. I wish more professional historians could succeed in reaching the general public as popular writers such as David McCullough and Walter Isaacson have succeeded in doing. Their success suggests to me that the general public is interested primarily in biography and political history. 

Lucas: Did you have literary ambitions prior to becoming a historian?

Ferling: When I was an undergraduate I had no idea what I was going to do. My dad worked for a large chemical company, but he didn’t have much of a formal education. He had the misfortune of graduating from high school just as the stock market crashed in 1929, so he wasn’t able to go forward with college. He worked for Union Carbide where he was surrounded by engineers, and he very badly wanted me to be an engineer. But I didn’t have the inclination and certainly didn’t have the talent in math for that.

What I really wanted to do was be a sportswriter. I worked on the newspaper in high school and wrote some sports for that. One of the things that got me interested in history was a movie I saw in high school (I’ve seen it since, and it’s pretty awful, but at the age of sixteen I thought it was wonderful). It was a documentary called The Twisted Cross on the rise and fall of Hitler. That sent me to the library, and I started reading some things on history. And a lot of what I read was written by popular writers. I remember being very much taken by William L. Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which I read when I was an undergraduate. And I remember thinking that I would like to do something like that. And when I took that Western Civ course with Professor Painter, I went to his office and said, “How do you get to do something like this? Do you have to be wealthy, a man of means, to write these things?” His response was something like, “Hell no. You teach history in college.” And I knew at that point what I wanted to do. 

Lucas: Two of your contemporaries, Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood, have focused on the ideas that they believe shaped America in the late 18th and early 19th century. An earlier generation of historians, the one that included Charles Beard, stressed the role of economic interest as an agent of historical change. Where do you stand? 

Ferling: Actually, I straddle the fence, although I lean more toward the idea of economics playing the principal role in determining what happens in history. I certainly don’t think ideas are unimportant. Look, for example, at abolitionism in the 19th century: many people wind up in the abolitionist movement because of Christianity and Christian thought—the notion that I am my brother’s keeper. At the opposite end of the spectrum, in the 20th century racist ideas helped create Nazis. But by and large I tend to see economics as the determining role in history. I look at the Constitutional Convention, for example, and if I had to put my money on why the Constitution wound up being written as the founders wrote it, it would be more because of economics than ideology. I wouldn’t rule out ideology. The founders certainly had read extensively in the political science of their day and tried to structure government so that one branch didn’t become more powerful than another. But by and large I see something like the Constitutional Convention as composed of delegates who represented the economic interests of their states. It’s telling that the Southerners who come to the Constitutional Convention almost to a man were interested in protecting slavery and devising a document that could protect slavery. Northern delegates from urban areas were interested in furthering the commercial interests of New York or Philadelphia or Boston. So I tend to see economics as the driving force there and, for the most part, throughout history. 

Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution came out in 1967, and I started work on my dissertation on Galloway in 1969. I was really very much influenced by Bailyn. His book threw open a window to me that had been closed. Most of my work to that point had been involved with looking at what Progressive historians had written in the 1920s and 1930s. They were dismissive of ideas, which they saw as tools that leaders used for propaganda purposes. Bailyn obviously took ideas extremely seriously, and he saw ideas as shaping action. I was very much taken with Bailyn and still frequently use Ideological Origins as a required text in my American Revolution class. More than any other book, it shaped the way I approached Galloway. But now, I have come full circle. To tell you the truth, if I was to go back and write another book on Galloway today, I would probably see him as tied to Philadelphia’s mercantile community and its fear of change for economic reasons and develop that concept far more than I did thirty years ago. 

Lucas: Your book A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic appeared in the summer of 2003. What is the theme of the book? 

Ferling: A Leap in the Dark looks at the era of the American Revolution, the half-century between the Albany Conference in 1754 and Jefferson’s inauguration as president in 1801. In the first half of the study I am concerned with explaining why the Revolution occurred. I emphasize economic factors and the personal opportunities that many sensed would result from independence. Workers and some merchants, especially those in New England, came to see that breaking away from Britain’s restrictive mercantile legislation was in their best interests. Similarly, many who had invested—or hoped to invest—in land in the trans-Appalachian West, came to see that they would be better off if Americans called the shots with regard to opening that vast region. In addition, many ambitious colonists despaired of accomplishing what they believed they were capable of achieving because of the limitations imposed by what Jefferson referred to as their “colonial subservience.” Many years after the Revolution, John Adams wrote that all he had been able to hope for as a British colonist was to be a militia officer, sit in the colonial assembly, and achieve a comfortable standard of living. That was insufficient for him, and for many others. 

In the second half of the book I look at what the Revolution meant to that generation. Until 1776 the focus of the protest was entirely on resisting British policy. Other than Tories, few appeared to think about what post-Independence America would be like, and most who gave it some thought shrank from divulging their thoughts publicly. Then in 1776 Thomas Paine spoke of Independence as the birthday of a new world and an opportunity to begin the world anew. I believe that he captured what some had been quietly thinking, while others, who were stirred by the Declaration of Independence, began to envision change after 1776. Of course, the most conservative revolutionaries never imagined radical social and political change, and many were appalled by the changes that occurred during the last years of the war and the first years of peace. This portion of the book deals with how these two sides coalesced and the struggle that they waged between the end of the war in 1783 and the election of 1800. In many ways it is a return to the Progressive interpretation, but I think I am more charitable than they were to the Federalists. The nationalists, or consolidationists, not only harbored legitimate concerns about national security, but through Hamiltonianism they created a modern and diversified economy. 

Lucas: What do you make of the recent and current scholarship that looks favorably and seriously at post-1760 British policy in North America? It strikes me that there’s a feeling in the air among a lot of historians of early America that the continuation of the British Empire might not have been such a bad thing, maybe in some ways even preferable to American independence, especially with regard to slavery and the fate of American Indians. 

Ferling: I don’t agree with that. I see the Revolution as a great, liberating moment. I see it in Jeffersonian terms, and I see the election of 1800 as a revolution of 1800— a revolution in the sense that it made possible the fulfillment of the ideas that people like Thomas Paine had given voice to and that I think many Americans embraced. Paine talks about the Revolution as a chance to start the world anew. It’s the first day of a new world, he says in Common Sense. And I think a great many Americans came to see that as the case. I think what makes the American Revolution at once frustrating and really interesting is that all of the focus— until you get into the war in 1775 and 1776—is on resisting British policy, and it’s unlike any other modern revolution. There’s no sense of domestic change by and large in that time period. And it’s only when they start thinking seriously in 1775 and 1776 of declaring independence that some people like Paine do begin talking openly about change. The Americans fielded a citizens’ army basically, and a lot of those people come out of the war thinking that “we want to make some really seminal changes here; this is going to be the payback for all of the sacrifice that we’ve gone through.” If the crisis had been resolved peacefully and Britain had been in control, maybe eventually, toward the end of the 19th century as happened in England, there would have been a broadening of suffrage rights and whatever. But enormous change was unleashed, particularly, as Joyce Appleby makes clear in Inheriting the Revolution, between 1800 and the 50th anniversary of independence in 1826. The window was thrown open, and the possibility for change was brought about, with Jefferson’s victory in 1800. Lucas: Is liberation the theme of your forthcoming book, Adams Vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800?

Ferling: It has two themes. One is that 18thcentury politics and politicians were decidedly modern. There were differences between the politics of the 1790s and the early 21st century, but what I found most striking was how many similarities existed. The parties were better organized by 1800 than I had expected them to be. They already employed what we now call “negative campaigning”: they adroitly used the technology at their disposal to get out their message; they utilized every conceivable artifice to out-hustle their adversaries; and the presidential candidates, including President Adams, were actively involved—though in a surreptitious manner—in the presidential campaign. 

The second theme is that the election of 1800 resulted in a “revolution of 1800.” At first blush, the results of the election appear to be extremely close. There was little difference in the electoral totals between the two parties, and in the states where I was able to flesh out the voting results, the parties more often than not were rather evenly balanced. Yet I also found evidence of significant change. In the congressional elections as a whole, there were striking signs that the Federalists had been repudiated. In part, that was payback for their high taxes, the Alien and Sedition Acts, and what many believed had been a contrived war scare with France. But it also represented the hope of many that the promise of truly sweeping change that Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson had enunciated in 1776—change that would bring an end forever to many of the social and political limitations that had existed in colonial Anglo-America before 1776— would at long last be fulfilled. 

Lucas: I’m struck by the way you evoke the rhythms of daily life in the early 19th-century U.S. in your biography of John Adams. Have you learned a lot from the works of social and cultural history written by your Americanist colleagues, or did you get that from the Adams papers?

Ferling: Well, I think it was from both. I’ve always been interested in social history. In fact for many years as part of my regular teaching load I taught two courses in social history: U.S. social history to and since the Civil War. And I’ve always incorporated a great deal of social history in my survey classes. I teach two survey courses and one upper level course every semester. My two survey courses are mostly social history courses, and I probably incorporate far more than my students would like about farm life. I am really intrigued by farm life because I grew up in a more urban environment around Houston. But my mother was the daughter of a farmer who lived not too far from Pittsburgh, and we used to go back up there on vacations every summer. So I’d spend several days on my grandfather’s farm, and I suppose it led me to become intrigued with what life was like for those who had lived on farms in earlier generations. My dad was a bluecollar worker, a hardhat, so I was also interested in the industrial workplace and have stressed that as well in my classes. Most of my readings in the survey courses—outside readings—were on things like birthing practices or marriage habits or diets or medicine and longevity and that sort of thing. So I have always been interested in social history. But I do think one of the problems with social history is trying to tie things together into a bigger, meaningful whole. I think with political history you can, for example, develop a theme around the growth of capitalism or the growth of democracy. But if you’re dealing with what life was like for coalminers or mill hands, it’s fascinating and I think you want to try to understand how our ancestors lived, but I have some difficulty in tying it all together into something that’s really meaningful. I can do that better from a political angle. 

Political history broadens your understanding of the general time period that you’re working in, and I think that’s one of its advantages. Biography is the same. As you mentioned, it does force you—if you’re looking at John Adams, for example—not only to look at the political side, but also to try to come to grips with his private life. What was it like to be a lawyer in mid-18th-century Massachusetts? What was family life like? What was he like as a parent? What kind of houses did he live in? What books did he read, and why? How did he travel?

Lucas: You’ve spent a lot of time with the founders, particularly Adams, Jefferson, and Washington. How do you assess their respective personalities? 

Ferling: Jefferson is a great contradiction. He’s a racist, and you would want more from a guy who appears to be so enlightened. He’s a slave owner, and unlike Washington who liberates his slaves in his will, Jefferson only liberates a handful of slaves. And they’re all from the Hemings family. People find that side of Jefferson distasteful. But on the other side, here’s this guy who sees the danger posed by the route that the Federalists are taking. He takes the lead in resisting the Alien and Sedition Acts and more than any other person he was responsible, starting about 1790, for piecing together a movement to oppose Hamiltonianism. Ultimately, the 19th century, as it unfolded politically at any rate, was Jefferson’s century. So there’s a real dichotomy there in looking at Jefferson, and it makes him extremely fascinating. 

I think almost everybody who looks at Washington comes away with pretty positive ideas. People look at Washington trying to find evidence of corruption on his part, and just can’t find it. He doesn’t misuse power. He’s not a great general, but he’s not a bad general either. And I think the country was extremely fortunate to have Washington as its first president. I don’t agree with everything that he did. As I said, I’m probably more of a Jeffersonian, and Washington wound up leaning clearly toward the Federalists in his presidency. But I do think that the country was fortunate to have him. When he was faced with that crisis with Great Britain in 1794 he didn’t opt for war, he opted for peace. I think that if he’d opted for war, there is a real possibility that the United States wouldn’t have survived that early period. The country was so divided between Anglophiles and Francophiles that it might have been pulled completely apart if it had been a long, tough war. He did have a kind of Olympian manner about him. He was an unapproachable individual. He doesn’t appear to be a very warm person at all. I’ve often thought, for example, that if somehow or other I could spend an evening—go to dinner and have a couple of drinks—with one of these people, who would I probably prefer it to be? And certainly Washington would be the one I would be least interested in spending an evening with, because he is so unapproachable. I’d probably opt for John Adams. If nothing else he’d probably gossip, and I’d probably learn more from him than the others.

Lucas: You’ve been extraordinarily prolific throughout your entire career, even while teaching three courses per semester. I wonder about your work habits. Do you write daily? 

Ferling: Actually, the three courses a semester are about one-third of what I taught for more than my first twenty years at West Georgia. We were on a quarter system, and we taught three courses a quarter. So I taught nine courses a year, and we met each class five days a week. So I was in the classroom for three hours every day. In some respects, maybe that was good, because it disciplined me to come to work five days a week. Most of my colleagues currently teach a two-day a week schedule, but I still opt to teach a five-day a week schedule, so that I come up to the office every single day. All through my career I have tried to work out a teaching schedule with a long block of time in order to write. And it’s meant doing some things that I didn’t particularly want to do. I taught an awful lot of night classes when we were teaching the three courses a quarter. Now I teach my classes in the afternoon, and I come to work at 8:00 AM and try to work in the library for up to four hours. I don’t look at a stopwatch or anything, and on days when I’m just spinning my wheels, I pack it up and wait for a better day tomorrow. But generally I try to go to the library and work there for several hours every day, five days a week. 

Lucas: So that’s where you do your writing as well as your research—in the library? 

Ferling: Right, in the library. But then I come back, and, of course, I have the computer in my office. But I still compose in longhand. When I started my career, I worked with a typewriter, and I wasn’t a good enough typist to think about typing and think about writing simultaneously. So I got in the habit of writing in longhand, and I still do that. After I revise what I write in longhand, then I come back and put it on the computer and do all of my revisions. I once had an office mate who used to say that he loved research, but he hated writing. He thought that writing was just an exercise and sort of a necessary evil. I always saw writing as an art form and loved writing every bit as much as doing the research. I spend at least 50% of the time that goes into every book writing and rewriting and rewriting. 

Lucas: What do you have in the works now, after the Adams Vs. Jefferson book? 

Ferling: Well, Oxford is going to publish that book some time in late September or early October. They’ve put it on the fast track, and they’re hoping to get it out in the midst of this presidential election—they hope it will get a little bit more attention that way. Since submitting the manuscript for the election of 1800 book, I’ve begun working on a book on the War of Independence. I’ve always veered between biography or political history and military history. One of the writers I most admire is John Keegan, the British military historian. I absolutely loved his single-volume histories of World War I and World War II, which I think are useful for both a scholarly audience and a popular audience, and I’m writing a book on the War of Independence that is modeled on Keegan’s template. 


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

September/October 2004

Volume VI, Number 1


IN THE LAST ISSUE of Historically Speaking, we featured a forum on Jonathan Edwards’s place in the American history narrative. In this issue we turn the spotlight to the largest American denomination, Roman Catholicism, in an effort to explore its impact on the nation’s political and intellectual life. As with the forum on Jonathan Edwards, we again debate whether the standard narrative of American history adequately encompasses religious experience and thought. And we also touch on the more controversial notion of rewriting American history from distinctive religious perspectives. 

Our guide will be University of Notre Dame historian John T. McGreevy, whose Catholicism and American Freedom was published last year by W.W. Norton. On May 7, 2004, the Historical Society and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute co-hosted a forum on McGreevy’s book at ISI’s headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware. McGreevy opened with a brief synopsis of Catholicism and American Freedom, after which Leo Ribuffo, Christopher Shannon, and Eugene McGarraher provided commentary and then McGreevy responded. Edited versions of the participants’ comments appear below. 

John T. McGreevy 

Catholicism and American Freedom [CAAF] sketches the interplay between Catholic and American ideas of freedom, beginning in the 1840s when an unprecedented wave of European immigrants made Catholicism the single largest religious denomination in the United States. Many of these immigrants helped create what historians now describe as the 19th-century Catholic revival.1 The revival affected large regions of France, Belgium, Germany, and Italy, and swept across Ireland and into the United States, Canada, parts of Latin America, and Australia. Mass attendance became more regular, and religious vocations (especially among young women) grew steadily. Ultramontanism, the term most associated with the revival, is shorthand for a cluster of shifts that included a Vatican-fostered move to Thomistic philosophy, a more intense experiential piety centered on miracles and Vatican-approved devotions such as the Sacred Heart, an international outlook suspicious of national variations within Catholicism, and a heightened respect for church authorities ranging from the pope to parish priests. All this was nurtured in the world of Catholic parishes, schools, and associations, whose members often understood themselves as arrayed against the wider society. 2 

What this revival and its intellectual legacy meant for the history of the United States is my subject . . . . 

John T. McGreevy is professor of history and department chair at the University of Notre Dame. In addition to Catholicism and American Freedom (Norton, 2003), he wrote Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the 20th-Century Urban North (University of Chicago Press, 1996). 

1 Raymond Grew terms the conflict between Catholicism and liberalism a “central theme” of 19th-century European history. See Grew, “Liberty and the Catholic Church in 19th-Century Europe,” in Richard Helmstadter, ed., Freedom and Religion in the 19th Century (Stanford University Press, 1997), 197; Margaret Lavinia Anderson, “The Limits of Secularization: On the Problem of the Catholic Revival in 19th-Century Germany,” Historical Journal 38 (1995) 647–670; and Austin Iverveigh, ed., The Politics of Religion in an Age of Revival: Studies in 19th-Century Europe and Latin America (Institute of Latin American Studies, 2000). 

2 Joseph A. Komonchak, “Modernity and the Construction of Roman Catholicism,” Cristianesimo nella storia 18 (1997): 353–385.


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

September /October 2004

Volume VI, Number 1

Leo P. Ribuffo 

For more than two centuries, harsh nativists, relatively benign critics, and reflexive Protestant celebrationists have called the Roman Catholic Church an un- American institution. While dispensing with the loaded term “un-American,” we need to take the issue seriously. In several respects, some obvious and some harder to discern, the Catholic Church as an institution has stood apart from prevailing American attitudes.

First, and most obviously, as George Marsden has observed in The Soul of the American University (1994), the United States is the “only modern nation” whose “dominant culture was substantially shaped by low-church Protestantism.” Some Scots, Swiss, and Canadians might dispute the “only,” but Marsden’s general point is sound. Second, and less obviously at a time when scholars exaggerate American diversity past and present, the United States was conceived by leaders with an extraordinary sense of national mission. This sense of mission, which derived both from Reformation Protestantism and from Enlightenment republicanism, sometimes involved changing the rest of the world by example and sometimes involved changing the rest of the world by force of arms. Indeed, despite notable internal divisions, this sense of mission energized Americans to conquer a continent within a half century of independence, a conquest that in turn further energized nationalist sentiment. In this patriotic, even chauvinist climate, the Catholic Church was—and still is—an international organization headed by a foreigner. Not surprisingly, the Vatican classified the United States as a mission field until 1908, well after it had become the foremost economy on earth.

Third, since roughly the 1840s, the United States has been a democracy. Political democracy, though limited almost entirely to white men at the outset, nonetheless went far beyond what was available in Europe. An expandable ethos of equality was at least as important, and the results quickly could be seen within Protestantism. In the 18th century Jonathan Edwards would have agreed with all of the popes that the true faith could not be defined by every Tom, Dick, or Hezekiah who happened to read Scripture. In the 19th century Barton Stone, Charles Grandison Finney, and Joseph Smith had no such qualms. The Catholic Church was not—and is not—a democracy. Indeed, as McGreevy stresses, while Americans on the whole became increasingly democratic and enthusiastic about individual autonomy, the Vatican and elements of the American Church became less so. 

Throughout much of his book, perhaps most of it, McGreevy in theory seems to prefer this more restrained definition of freedom, which might be called, with a bow to traditionalist conservatives, ordered liberty . . . .

Leo P. Ribuffo is Society of the Cincinnati George Washington Distinguished Professor of History at George Washington University. He is the author of Right, Center, Left: Essays in American History (Rutgers University Press, 1992) and is working on a book titled The Limits of Moderation: Jimmy Carter and the Ironies of American Liberalism


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

September/October 2004

Volume VI, Number 1

Eugene McCarraher

In his conclusion to What I Saw in America G. K. Chesterton reflected with a splendid and rueful uncertainty about the future of American democracy. Having already dubbed America the “nation with the soul of a church,” Chesterton wondered if that soul—baptized, he knew, in the font of Protestantism—would be able to withstand the corrupting influences of modern science and capitalism. Indeed, the growing cultural authority of business and science alerted Chesterton to the need to root democracy in religious not secular ground. Against John Dewey, H. L. Mencken, and other acolytes of a post-Christian order, Chesterton argued that the most insidious enemy of democracy was not religion but secularism, and especially the scientific, instrumentalist rationality to which more intellectuals were pinning their hopes.

Chesterton reasoned that because secular reason could demonstrate wide variations in intelligence, skill, and merit, it undermined belief in equality and buttressed the leadership of elites, and thus could not provide an impeccable basis for a democratic culture. However, because it asserted the divine parentage and likeness of men and women, “the dogmatic type of Christianity, [and] especially the Catholic type of Christianity” could, in Chesterton’s view, assure democratic citizens that “its indestructible minimum of democracy really is indestructible.” Democracy had no reliable foundation, he concluded, but in “a dogma about the divine origin of man.” Any secular groundwork was “a sentimental confusion, full of merely verbal echoes of the older creeds.”

Bored by secular liberals and socialists, Chesterton made clear that his brief for orthodoxy should give no comfort to conservatives: earlier in the book, he had confessed the “attraction of the red cap as well as the red cross, of the Marseillaise as well as the Magnificat,” and now declared that “the idealism of the leveler could be put in the form of an appeal to Scripture, and could not be put in the form of an appeal to Science.” 

Echoing Augustine and anticipating the libertarian pessimism of postmodernists, Chesterton hoped that Americans would remember that “there is no meaning in democracy if there is no meaning in anything; and that there is no meaning in anything if the universe has not a centre of significance and an authority that is the author of our rights.” “So far as that democracy becomes or remains Catholic and Christian, that democracy will remain democratic,” he concluded. “In so far it does not, it will become wildly and wickedly undemocratic.” 

Except among Chesterton aficionados, What I Saw in America remains virtually unknown among American intellectuals. That’s a pity, I think, because it’s the finest Catholic, or even foreign, reflection on American democracy ever written, far superior to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in points of literary style, intellectual prowess, and critical acuity. Tocqueville, of course, thought that American Catholics, far from being frightened into submission by clerics, would in fact provide the strongest ballast for democratic equality. So it’s certainly not surprising that American Catholic intellectuals, especially those maturing or born after the Second World War, have routinely appealed to Tocqueville when arguing for an affinity between Catholicism and liberal capitalist democracy. 

One of the many small merits of John McGreevy’s book is that it features only two brief and unconnected lines about Tocqueville. And while it doesn’t mention either Chesterton or his record of American travels, the great merit of McGreevy’s study is that it demonstrates the wisdom and durability of Chesterton’s ambivalence . . . .

Eugene McCarraher is assistant professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. He is the author of Christian Critics: Religion and the Impasse in Modern American Social Thought (Cornell University Press, 2000). 


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

September/October 2004

Volume VI, Number 1

Christopher Shannon

John McGreevy is the Jay Dolan of his generation. I mean this not only in the sense of his being the leading practitioner of American Catholic history today, but also in his default capacity as ambassador from this subfield to the larger profession. Dolan burst on to the professional scene with his 1975 monograph The Immigrant Church. Scholars not particularly interested in church history were drawn to the work as a study of immigrants, and Dolan’s use of then cutting-edge techniques of social history placed his book at the vanguard of the academic history of its day. Twenty or so years later, McGreevy burst on to the scene with his Parish Boundaries (1996). Here the innovation was less in method than subject matter: the book examined the role of urban Catholics in the resistance to integrated housing during the civil rights era. Race, an issue relatively neglected by Dolan, had become the single most burning passion of American historians following the end of the Cold War. Non-Catholic historians praised Parish Boundaries for its sensitivity to religion as a “factor” in race relations; Catholic historians praised it for being praised by non-Catholics. Parish Boundaries appealed to those within the field as a model of yet another “new” American Catholic history that would finally realize the long dreamed of integration into the mainstream of the profession—precisely the hope for Dolan’s Immigrant Church some twenty years earlier. 

I raise these connections less out of concern for professional genealogies than as a symptom of a logic of revision that afflicts the profession as a whole. For reasons that I believe are in the book itself, I doubt that Catholicism and American Freedom will succeed where Dolan’s work failed. It does stand, however, as a ringing endorsement of the professional standards to which post-Dolan American Catholic historians still aspire. As we are at a meeting of a professional association forged in battles over the status of those standards, I think it is appropriate to evaluate the book at a level that can unfortunately best be identified as meta-history. . . . 

Christopher Shannon is assistant professor of history at Christendom College. His most recent book is A World Made Safe for Differences (Rowman and Littlefield, 2000).


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

September/October 2004

Volume VI, Number 1

John T. McGreevy 

Leo Ribuffo challenges me to more fully integrate Catholic politicians and political activists into my account. Fair enough. In part my explanation for the modest attention devoted to John Kennedy, Al Smith, and Joseph McCarthy is that I wrote an intellectual history not a political one, and I do discuss how Catholic and non-Catholic intellectuals understood the Smith campaign in 1928 and Kennedy’s handling of the religious issue in 1960. What does seem notable by its absence in CAAF, in retrospect, is a thorough treatment of religion and politics at the local level, where the parallels between the neighborhood- based, male-dominated parish structure and the neighborhood-based, male-dominated ward structure deserve much closer attention. 

Ribuffo adds that more sustained treatment of figures such as Phyllis Schlafly (or, I might add, William F. Buckley) would have widened the scope of a narrative too concerned with Catholic responses to American liberals at the expense of Catholic influence on the modern conservative movement. Again, a reasonable point. Still, fine books on the relationship between Catholics and modern conservatives do exist.1 And within the 100,000 words bequeathed me by W.W. Norton I thought it more important to focus on the dominant Catholic intellectual tradition —suspicious of liberalism, certainly, but dismissive (at least until the 1980s) of National Review-style free market economics. 

Ribuffo also makes a broader claim: that I place too great an emphasis on “words” or more particularly “clergy and leading theologians” at the expense of studying the behavior of lay Catholics. Certainly I do not intend to argue that all lay Catholics reflexively obeyed priests and bishops. (And some of the figures discussed at length in the book, including Orestes Brownson, James McMaster, and Jacques Maritain, were not priests.) Or that all “Catholic” immigrants to the United States from Italy, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, or anywhere else were Catholic in a meaningful sense. What I can do is point to a subculture of remarkable density and scope and ask what ideas and practices sustained it. That all Catholics did not agree upon or even care about the contours of those ideas and practices is unremarkable, and we should avoid placing upon Catholics a burden of coherence not impressed upon, say, followers of John Dewey. . . .

1 Patrick Allitt, Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America, 1950–1985 (Cornell University Press, 1993). Also see Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (Hill and Wang, 2001).


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

September/October 2004

Volume VI, Number 1

Thomas Schoonover

Most Americans have considered the Spanish-American War (a better term is the War of 1898) as a conflict that took place in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines and as a dispute between the United States and Spain. The conventional emphasis upon Cuba and Puerto Rico has made it easy to think of this war primarily in domestic terms. This viewpoint seemed patently misleading to me while in graduate school. The War of 1898 incorporated permanent global engagements into U.S. foreign relations. 

The War of 1898 and its aftermath formalized the transfer of leadership—unwillingly on the part of Spain, most of Europe, and Japan—in the ongoing quest for access to wealth in Asia and the Pacific. This passage of power to the United States occurred within the context of its competitive relationship with other states in the North Atlantic region and in the Caribbean and Pacific basins. Since the 17th century, Protestant North Americans considered the Catholic colonies to the south and west and all the non-Christian areas of the Pacific basin as a challenge to their religion, security, commercial activity, and culture. U.S. growth and transformation across the continent pointed to the resilient tradition of British colonial expansion. In the 1780s U.S. vessels hunted whales and seals, and other ships traded in Pacific and East Asian waters. Soon, missionaries undertook to “civilize” the Pacific islanders and East Asians (and U.S. sailors), while U.S. warships departed to explore the Pacific, protect U.S. interests, and tutor those Pacific basin dwellers who failed to adopt U.S. civilizing and material instructions. At times, these ships were used to protect U.S. objectives from the Chinese, Japanese, and Europeans who proposed alternative visions for the Pacific basin. These expansive impulses generated tensions and conflict in both the Caribbean and Pacific basins in the course of the century-and-a-half after 1776 . . . .

Thomas Schoonover, Sagrera Professor of History, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, is the author of The French in Central America: Culture and Commerce, 1820–1930 (Scholarly Resources, 2000), Germany in Central America: Competitive Imperialism, 1821–1929 (Scholarly Resources, 1999), and, with Lester Langley, The Banana Men: American Mercenaries & Entrepreneurs in Central America, 1880–1930 (University Press of Kentucky, 1995).


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

September/October 2004

Volume VI, Number 1

George Huppert

The 2004 conference of our Society took place in an unusual setting. We met in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, from June 3–6. Our host was the Spruce Point Inn, an exquisite seaside resort hidden amid woods and surrounded by the ocean. Some of our participants may have harbored doubts about setting out to meet in this distant rendezvous, but their doubts were dispelled on arrival. Others signed up for the conference, coming from as far away as Berkeley or London, precisely because of the setting’s powerful appeal. 

For three days we were able to talk to each other under ideal circumstances, mostly outdoors. The weather was perfect. Our plenary sessions were held in the beautiful conference center finished only hours before our arrival. 

We broke with tradition by avoiding corporate hotels in big cities. We also departed from conventional ways by having papers precirculated and asking presenters to speak informally instead of reading prepared texts. These measures went a long way toward erasing the distinction between panel and audience. In most sessions this resulted in lively and fruitful exchanges among all those present. We continued our discussions under the tent adjacent to the conference center, where breakfast and lunch buffets were served by the inn’s fine staff. 

Some of us still had enough energy in reserve to go on talking into the night. Some of us brought our children who could be heard squealing and splashing in the swimming pool while the imposing figure of Donald Yerxa floated past them. Meanwhile serious work was going on in the conference rooms where we found ourselves adventuring way beyond the confines of our fields of expertise. It is not often that specialists in Renaissance studies or labor history join discussions of South Indian historiography, Russian church history, Jeffersonian democracy, or Holocaust memoirs. 

We did not wander too far from the theme of the conference, which was defined as a reflection on the current state of the discipline. Roundtables on world history and global identity were among the broadest topics addressed. Elsewhere we discussed the state of the art in Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Latin American historiography, as well as new developments in the study of medieval Poland, modern Islam, and Black nationalism. Among the sessions that provoked a good deal of argument were the Christopher Lasch Lecture delivered by Sean Wilentz and Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s discussion of world history. Bruce Kuklick, Leo Ribuffo, and Marc Trachtenberg offered their critical summary of the current state of the American historical profession in an atmosphere of rising hilarity, beginning with Kuklick’s dissection of the foibles of our profession and rising to storms of laughter in response to Ribuffo’s practiced comedy routines. 

As is to be expected, much of importance happened outside of the formal sessions. The relaxed setting—more like a retreat than a business meeting—allowed us to avoid the usual distractions. Communication with the outside world was severed. No cell phones ringing, no e-mail. The sense of having happily stepped out of our ordinary activities permeated the entire meeting. Instead of arranging job interviews, we arranged a concert offered to us by Deborah Coclanis and her friends. 

Our experiment with new ways of interacting is likely to influence our next meeting. We may want to pre-circulate papers again—we may even go so far as to read them carefully before the meeting—and we may try to retain the informality we achieved in Boothbay at our next meeting, in 2006, when we will descend on the Chapel Hill campus at the invitation of our president, Peter Coclanis. 

George Huppert, past president of the Historical Society, is the author of several books and articles on early modern European history. In 1989 he was decorated as Chevalier de l’Ordre des Palmes Academiques by the French government.


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