January 25, 2017
The New Cult of Consensus

For Judith Stein

In the February 1, 1959, issue of Commentary the distinguished historian John Higham published an essay called “The Cult of the ‘American Consensus’: Homogenizing Our History.” Until the 1940s, Higham noted, the giants of American historical scholarship—Frederick Jackson Turner, Vernon Parrington, and Charles Beard—the “progressive historians,” as they came to be known—envisioned an “America in which democracy… battled against entrenched privilege.” The battle took a number of different forms: class against class, farmers vs. businessmen, property rights vs. human rights, Hamiltonianism vs. Jeffersonianism. Their focus on conflict enabled progressive historians to divide up American history into discrete periods marked by their distinctive struggles. “Among scholars attuned to conflict,” Higham explained, “American history appeared jagged and discontinuous.” Progressive historians “had an eye for convulsive moments in history and dramatized vividly the turning points when one side or the other seemed to seize control.” Theirs was not a Whiggish story of inexorable progress, however. Instead, America had both radical and conservative traditions constantly at war with one another—and with no end in sight—for those were the struggles the “progressive” historians of the early 20th century discerned in their own time, struggles whose historical origins they had set out to explain.

After WWII, however, a new generation of scholars erased the radical half of the story and produced a very different version of American history, a version that was, in Higham’s words, “strikingly conservative”—conservative not necessarily because the historians themselves were conservative, but because they saw only one relatively conservative, unchanging strand in the American past. This new group of scholars—ever since known as “consensus historians”—became giants of the post-progressive generation: Richard Hofstadter, David Potter, Louis Hartz, and Daniel Boorstin. But Higham was not persuaded. The consensus historians, he wrote—in obvious frustration—are “carrying out a massive grading operation to smooth over America’s social convulsions.” In their hands the American Revolution ceased to be revolutionary, the populists were deluded pastoralists, and the Civil War became inexplicable.1 Turning points gave way to continuity—there could be no struggles over capitalist development because, in Carl Degler’s words, “capitalism came in the first ships.” As for 1776, Degler quipped, “revolutionaries can be conservatives.” No great ideological divisions marked the American past, either because Americans have had no ideology speak of, or because there has never been a meaningful alternative to the pragmatic liberal tradition. Persistent social struggles gave way to an emphasis on something called “national character.” The “American Experience,” Higham complained, “has become an incantation.” As had “the American Mind.” Faced with abundant evidence that so many people in the past believed America was divided between the haves and the have-nots, consensus historians turned to psychology. Rather than explore actual conflicts over injustice and inequality, they explored the mindset of those who imagined such things. So, for example, abolitionists, populists, progressive critics of corporate America, all were said to have suffered from an affliction known as “status anxiety.”

Pretty soon the world did an end-run around consensus history. The Civil Rights movement, the free speech movement, the anti-war movement, riots on campus, riots in the streets—wherever you looked in the 1960s there was not much evidence of consensus. Not surprisingly, historians who came of age in that decade, inspired by the eruption of various forms of radical protest, defined themselves by their repudiation—often their ostentatious repudiation—of the postwar generation. The very term “consensus history” became an epithet, uttered with disdain.

The revival of interest in the conflicts and the violence that mark American history proved enormously fruitful. In 1969, in a beautiful book that was his final reckoning with The Progressive Historians, Hofstadter himself acknowledged the limitations of the consensus approach, singling out the Civil War as a historic convulsion that scarcely exemplified the pragmatic genius of American politics. In some ways this was not surprising. Hofstadter had been influenced by Marxism when he was young, and he was one of the first historians to blow the whistle on U. B. Phillips’ romanticized histories of slavery. Nor should it surprise us that in the 1960s Marxism became the most effective means by which historians recovered the fundamental issues at stake in the Civil War—although it was a Marxism that accepted the structural foundations of the conflict between the North and the South but went on to examine the political and ideological manifestations of that conflict.

I think of Judith Stein’s work as having emerged from that same intellectual ferment. Attentive to class divisions, but always sensitive to the unpredictable ways class conflict has played out in American politics. It’s that sensitivity to the particularities of time and place that has repeatedly sent Judith off the archives and makes her such an industrious researcher. She had a set of priorities but no predetermined answer. Who knew, for example, that it was the foreign policy apparatus that prevented the federal government from protecting American workers from unfair trade practices during the 1970s?

Earlier in her career she brought that sensibility to African American history. Just as there is no singular “American Mind,” neither is there a singular “Black Mind.” She wrote one of the first and most potent critiques of the use of “identity” as an organizing principle for historians. She explored, with surgical precision, the class biases of Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, and Marcus Garvey. And she did so not simply by critiquing their projects and ideas, but by aptly contrasting them to the interests of working people, whether sharecroppers or steel workers. This is what distinguishes Judith’s work from the depoliticized social history that recovers the daily lives of ordinary men and women simply for the sake of recovery. There is nothing antiquarian about Judith’s scholarship. There is always a politics of class conflict, but the politics changes over time. It has a history.

For me, becoming more familiar with Judith’s work and having her here as a colleague and a friend—the many conversations we’ve had over the years—has helped reshape and the kinds of books I write, the questions I ask, the things I look for when I delve into any particular aspect of history. I mention this for two reasons. First because that’s what we’re here for, to express our appreciation and admiration for Judith as a model of scholarly integrity and intellectual rigor, and as a good and loyal friend.

But I mention it for another reason as well. Right now, today, it is vitally is important for historians to be attentive to the kind of history Judith writes. For over the past several decades a new kind of consensus history has re-established itself as a popular way of understanding the American past. To be sure, there are still many scholars who see conflict and change as central themes of United States history, just as most of the leading American historians of the post-war years never adopted the consensus approach.2 Nevertheless, consensus history is now widespread within the academy and there is little overt opposition to it. No John Higham has come along to name it or to critique it. In part this is because today’s consensus historians are a larger and more diverse lot. Some study race, others gender, and still others capitalism, often arguing for conflict in one arena while assuming consensus in the other. They seem to be writing about different things in different ways, and this diversity obscures the pervasive influence consensus history has right now.

This may seem counter-intuitive in light of the enormous amout of scholarship devoted to, as just one example, slave resistance and racial conflict in American history. But bear in mind that the “consensus” historians were writing about back in the 1950s was a political consensus. Richard Hofstadter examined the American political tradition; Daniel Boorstin extolled the genius of American politics. Implicitly but necessarily, this meant that theirs was a consensus among the white men who dominated most of American political history, whether as voters of officeholders, well into the mid-twentieth century. Their books played down the once-familiar conflicts over capitalism and democracy that progressive historians had long discerned within American politics, conflicts between competing economic interests at the constitutional convention, between frontier democracy and eastern elites, between agrarians and aristocrats, between populist farmers and corporate elites. One of the important advances made by the critics of consensus history in the 1960s was the recovery of conflicts over race and gender that progressive historians tended to skip over. Yet the same emphases on race and gender has resulted, paradoxically, in a focus on enduring traditions of white supremacy and patriarchy and with them renewed claims of ideological consensus among the white men who for so long dominated American politics.

The new consensus history has shaped large swaths of the American past, from the American Revolution of the eighteenth century to the “long” Civil Rights movement of the twentieth century. Here I focus primarily on my own field of inquiry—slavery, antislavery, and the Civil War—where the drift toward consensus has been startling. Everywhere you look historians are collapsing fundamental social distinctions—between slavery and racial discrimination, for example, between being married and being enslaved, between the free labor system of the North and the slave labor system of the South. The social bases of political conflict thus erased, consensus historians go on to suppress the significance of antislavery politics, even to the point of denying that politics played any role in whatsoever in the destruction of slavery. These crucial erasures are once again explained by reference of a broad political consensus—not the liberal consensus of Hofstadter and Hartz, but the smothering, all-consuming consensus in favor of “white male supremacy.” It’s still consensus history; it’s just a different consensus.

The Civil War has once again become incomprehensible. “The one thing we have not been able to explain,” one of the new historians of capitalism admitted to me a while back, “is the Civil War.” A nationwide proslavery consensus can easily account for southern secession, but only as a hysterical over-reaction to a non-existent threat—precisely because consensus rules out the possibility that the Civil War had any antislavery origins. Because they think primarily in terms of timeless cultural values and historical continuities consensus historians are generally suspicious of any argument for “origins.” Confronted with a massive change like the abolition of slavery they instinctively reach for “contingency,” thereby reproducing one of the most enduring—and most pernicious—premises of the “Lost Cause” school of Civil War studies: As Jefferson Davis put it, slavery had nothing to do with the war’s origins and abolition was a mere “incident” of the military struggle. Erasing the prewar struggle over slavery, contemporary historians continue to argue that emancipation was either the unintended byproduct of the war or that the war inadvertently created the openings that enabled the slaves to free themselves. At best the war itself led Lincoln and the Republicans to the conclusion that slavery had to be abolished if the Union was to be restored. But Lincoln and the Republicans cannot possibly have come into the war with an antislavery agenda, nor did any Union soldiers entertain antislavery sentiments until they got to the South after the war began. An ideological consensus among white men all but requires that the abolition of slavery be entirely the unintended by-product of the Civil War itself.

Erase decades of political struggle over slavery and the war itself risks becoming meaningless. For some historians it was little more than a mindless bloodbath—an abstract “war” devoid of political significance. Others have suggested that the war changed so little in American history that we should not even bother trying to explain it. And still others treat the Civil War and Reconstruction as anomalous, temporary departures from the consensual norm. Thus the American Revolution—hardly a revolution at all, according to several recent historians—established the consensus of white male supremacy that was solidly entrenched by 1800 and only fleetingly dislodged by the sectional crisis. By 1900 white male supremacy was fully restored to the dominant position it had occupied in 1800. Think about that: An entire century of revolutionary social and political upheaval is erased with one sweeping invocation of the ideological consensus. The Industrial Revolution disappears. Emancipation changed nothing. The crop-lien system of the late nineteenth century was merely “slavery by another name.”

To see how this is done, take a closer look at the way historians of gender, capitalism, and racism, have been going about their work lately.

Last summer I taught a seminar on the Reconstruction Amendments—the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments that together abolished slavery, established the primacy of national citizenship for whites and blacks alike, and banned racial qualifications for voting. These amendments, I told the students, were part of a far reaching, revolutionary transformation of American politics and society. Among the many ramifications of this change, often unappreciated, was a gender revolution that transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of women who went from being the personal property of their owners to being the legal wives of their husbands and the legal mothers of their children.

At that point one of the participants in the seminar asked: “How do you respond to the argument that with emancipation black women merely replaced one master for another?”

Mind you, I had made no claim that emancipation lifted enslaved women from the depths of hell to the gates of heaven, only that the transition from slavery to domestic patriarchy was fundamental. But the question assumed the opposite. It assumed that slavery and domestic patriarchy were but slightly different forms of the same basic thing. This argument is surprisingly popular right now. To the extent that it has an explicit theoretical grounding, is it is that slave masters, like husbands, exercised their authority through property rights, that wives in free families and slaves on plantations were both “domestic dependents” within an economy organized around the household.

Observations of this sort are especially frustrating because they obscure the truly significant role that gender played in the origins of the sectional crisis. Antislavery northerners were at once critics of slavery and defenders of northern society, not merely free labor but also domestic patriarchy, which they justified as a paternalistic system of protection for wives and children. By contrast, slave marriages had no legal standing. Critics argued that enslaved women and children were rendered defenseless by a system in which enslaved husbands and fathers were systematically stripped of their authority to protect their own families. The astounding popularity of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, makes no sense outside this social and ideological context. Nor does the determination of Union authorities to legalize the marriages of freed men and women make sense unless we appreciate that for most Americans in the middle of the nineteenth century—men and women, black or white—secure family life was thought of as a realm of “freedom,” one that had been systematically denied to slaves.

To be sure, women’s rights activists sometimes equated the subordination of married women to the subordination of slaves. But then, labor radicals likened wage labor to slavery, temperance reformers equated alcoholism with slavery, Civil War soldiers described military life as slavery, and Abraham Lincoln supposedly once said because his father kept his son’s wages he himself had been a “slave” until the law “emancipated” him when he turned twenty-two. Even John C. Calhoun complained that rising northern power threatened to make slaves of… southern slaveholders! Clearly “slavery” had become the gold standard of oppression by the middle of the nineteenth century, the institution with which all other forms of inequality were invariably equated. It was for this reason that abolitionists, disturbed by the relativization of slavery, took care to differentiate slavery from other forms of oppression. They were especially concerned to dispute their allies in the women’s rights movement who sometimes claimed that the condition of wives and slaves was essentially identical. None other than Angelina Grimké chastised her sister, Sarah, for failing to recognize the crucial differences between marriage and slavery. In law, in politics, and in everyday life, abolitionists pointed out, there was a profound difference between property in a person and property in person’s labor service.

Beyond the very different experiences of wives and enslaved women, the political economy of domestic patriarchy on northern farms sharply distinguished it from the political economy of slave labor on southern farms. Northern farms, constrained by the labor available within the household, responded to market incentives by mechanizing. But slavery liberated masters from the labor constraints of the household. Because slaves were movable property rather than members of the household, southern masters responded to market incentives by accumulating slaves rather than mechanizing production. This fundamental distinction—between northern farms where wives and children were indispensable to the prosperity of the household, and southern plantations where the bulk of the labor was performed by slaves outside the household—sent the two economies off in very different directions, with obvious implications for the sectional crisis. One system depended on the powerful legal constraints that marriage imposed on northern women, the other depended on the legal denial of marriage to enslaved people, men and women alike.

Nobody would claim that transition from slavery to domestic patriarchy created an egalitarian utopia within black families. But it’s hard to deny that the wholesale reorganization of southern labor, with legally constituted families as the basic unit of the sharecropping system, did not profoundly transform the day to day lives of black men, women, and children. Yet some historians now speak of the legalization of black family life as a “restoration” of the status quo patriarcha. To collapse the distinction between slavery and patriarchy by means of the generic category of “domestic dependency” not only makes the Civil War incomprehensible, it makes emancipation meaningless.

Behind this interpretation of emancipation lay the presumption of an ideological consensus in favor of male supremacy. But was there such a consensus in nineteenth century America? Jan Lewis, Michael Grossberg, and others long ago demonstrated that patriarchalism did not go uncontested in the nineteenth century. A strong ideological counter-current upheld “companionate” marriages between husbands and wives, marriages in which both parties supposedly shared equally in the joys and obligations of family life. This idealized, largely middle class image of the marriage and the family was no less utopian than Blackstone’s rigidly patriarchal ideal of family “unity.” The ideological conflict played out in the decades-long debate over Mormonism. Critics of the Saints denounced polygamy as a barbaric restoration of patriarchy that, among other things, denied wives the equality they were entitled to in properly companionate marriages. Whatever else the debate over Mormonism signaled, it was not consensual patriarchy.

With conflict came change rather than continuity—change, moreover, that did not always signal “progress.” Over the course of the nineteenth century the mothers replaced fathers as the presumptive custodians of children upon the dissolution of a marriage, a major shift but hardly an egalitarian one. Birth control became more common even as women lost access to abortion and contraception. Divorce became easier, but entry into some professions became more difficult. Perhaps most importantly, married women secured more control over family property along with the right to enter into contracts independent of their husbands. No doubt the economic instability that accompanied capitalist development had created a powerful incentive for husbands and fathers to protect their assets by transferring some of the family property to wives. But as Norma Basch, Reva Siegel and others have demonstrated, these legal reforms were often passed by legislatures in direct response to the organized lobbying efforts of women’s rights activists. What had emerged by 1900 was not the equality of husbands and wives, but neither was it the restoration of a timeless male supremacy.

A similar problem plagues the new histories of capitalism, in which slavery plays a central role. Again we are told that free and slave labor were mere variations on a single theme—more alike than different. According to Edward Baptist,

there are key things about slavery as a set of institutions and practices, as a culture, that make it more like the emerging western capitalist complex in the early nineteenth century than it is less like—more like, more part of, than it is different, than it is separate, that it is just one flavor in a larger banquet of capitalism, and it contributes to the overall whole.3

For Walter Johnson “slave racial capitalism” in the South was not merely connected to northern industrial capitalism, rather slavery itself was capitalism, capitalism distilled to its essence. By implication there was no fundamental difference between the incentive of the wage and the incentive of the whip. The credit system created by southern merchants to finance the domestic slave trade foreshadowed the credit system General Motors created to finance the domestic automobile market.

By shifting the emphasis from relations of production in economies based on free and slave labor—which were profoundly different—to patterns of trade and finance, which were often quite similar, the new histories of capitalism smudge the line between the daily lives of enslaved and free workers, not to mention the sources of tension between the slave economy of the Old South and the free labor economy of the antebellum North. Long-distance trade, and the financial mechanisms that make trade possible, have often established close connections between very different systems of production. This was conspicuously true during the early modern era, when British merchants and financiers began trading around the world in the products produced by eastern European serfs, Indian peasants, and African slaves—all to meet the exploding demand for consumer goods among the formally free laborers of England, many of them already working for wages. But to say that there was a relationship between English wage earners and Eastern European serfs is not to say that capitalism and serfdom were the same thing. The fact that at the height of the Cold War the United States sold wheat to the Soviet Union did not make the U.S. a communist nation or Russia a capitalist one. Similarly, the fact that northern textile mills purchased cotton from southern slave plantations did not make the northern and southern economies identical.

If the distinction between northern and southern “capitalism” was merely taxonomic, two variations of the same basic thing, not only is the Civil War rendered incomprehensible, emancipation loses its revolutionary character. For W. E. B. DuBois the wartime revolution resided in the voluntary transfer of the labor services of half a million black workers from the masters who owned them to the Union employers who paid them wages. The heroes in DuBois’s account were not only the slaves who ran from their owners to claim their freedom within Union lines, but also the Union generals who oversaw the transition to a new system of wage labor, men like Benjamin Butler and Nathaniel Banks. But those same Union generals are held in contempt by more recent historians who often denounce the new labor regime as if it were little more than the re-imposition of slavery. Wage labor and slave labor are made to seem indistinguishable. The emphasis on the revival of the cotton economy in the postwar South makes the emancipation of four million slaves look like a relatively minor event in a relatively continuous history.

Finally, there’s racial consensus history—the oldest, most deeply entrenched version of consensus history—the one most closely linked to contemporary politics. Here we see the familiar elements of consensus history in their most unvarnished form: The instinctive resort to taxonomy, the relentless invocation of timelessness, the methodological idealism, the preference for mono-causal explanation, the hostility to class analysis and with it the staggering condescension directed toward those who don’t measure up to the enlightened racial views of university professors, metropolitan elites, and the New Yorker magazine.

In some ways this is the most frustrating form of consensus history because it emerged in the early sixties from a much-needed critique of progressive as well as consensus historiography, both of which had failed to deal with the issues of slavery and racial discrimination in American history. Frustrating as well because racial consensus history appears, on the surface to posit a fundamental conflict, albeit one based on racial identity. The problem, then, is not that historians in the sixties began addressing issues that had been ignored for far too long. The problem was the way they went about addressing those issues.

There was a seemingly irresistible temptation to read the central issue of the Civil Rights Movement—racial discrimination—back onto the issue of the Civil War era, which was slavery. Freedom Riders became “the New Abolitionists” and by extension the problem of slavery became a variation of the larger problem of racial inequality. To many historians this made the North and South look more alike than different. In “the treatment of the Negro,” Leon Litwack wrote in 1961, the Mason Dixon line is a misleading division. These were the building blocks of what has since become racial consensus history.

In place of a homogenized American Mind, for example, historians began to speak of a singular “white mind” or “white America,” alongside an equally singular “black mind” and its counterpart, a unitary “black community.” As Judith Stein, Cedric Johnson and others have demonstrated, black communitarianism smooths over the basic conflicts of interest between the black professional-managerial class and the black working class. The same critique applies to the dubious concept of an undifferentiated White Mind—a mind that is more or less racist more or less all the time. Variations were merely taxonomic—a question of what kind of racism was on display in any given setting.

The larger problem is the widespread invocation of racism as the default explanation for everything that has happened in American history. Even if we concede the universality of white racism that would not tell us how racial ideology functions as causal force in history. I suspect this is one of the reasons racial consensus historians so often prefer to ask questions about should have happened but did not. Why did the Founders fail to abolish slavery? Why did Republicans fail to follow through on the promises of Reconstruction? Why did Populism fail? Why did the New Deal fail African Americans? A single answer—racism—can seem like a plausible answer to this type question.

But it’s hard to escape the suspicion that the answer is determining the particular form of all those questions. Racism might explain why people repeatedly failed to do what they should have done, but if the questions are framed in more straightforward way—Why did people do what they did?—the familiar resort of a white racial consensus loses much of its salience. Why did the northern states abolish slavery during the American Revolution? Why did so many northern states pass personal liberty laws designed to obstruct enforcement of federal fugitive slave laws? Why did Republicans pass a landmark Civil Rights Act in 1866? Why did so many sharecroppers join the Colored Farmer’s Alliance? Why did so many African Americans begin voting for Democrats during the New Deal? Racial consensus history doesn’t work very well as an answer to historical questions posed in such a straightforward way.4

Reshaping the form historical questions take is one of several rhetorical moves common to racial consensus history. “Racism” and “white supremacy” are reified, flooding the landscape of American history, doing tremendous damage but often with no-one in particular having to do it. We are repeatedly told that before the Civil War “racism was rampant,” “racism was widespread,” “racism was universal” in pre-Civil War American, in the North as well as the South. Here we see not only the familiar erasure of sectional differences, but also the denial that there was ever any politically significant dispute among whites over the place of African Americans in the United States. The abolition of slavery the North, the struggle to disfranchise free blacks who had previously been allowed to vote, the passage of black codes in northern states and the subsequent repeal of those same codes, the overthrow of slavery during the Civil War, the Civil Rights Acts if 1866 and 1875, the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments—none of these things suggest to consensus historians that there might have been politically meaningful differences of opinion about race among white voters and elected officials, or that the political significance of racial ideology varied enormously over time and place. If there were such divisions and variations, reification smooths them over with the all-encompassing claim that “racism was rampant.”

More insidious are the increasingly popular references to racism as a quasi-biological phenomenon. Racism is now commonly referred to as a “sickness,” a “disease,” a “cancer.” A generation of historians who prided themselves on their discovery that “race” is a socially constructed category rather than a biological one simultaneously began to talk about racism as if it were an inherited trait. Racial prejudice is said to have been “built into the DNA of the United States.” Repeated references to racism as “America’s original sin” do the same kind of work. Original sin carries a host of different meanings in various Christian denominations, but in all of them the original sin is passed on to every succeeding generation. It is inescapable. It is intrinsic to who we are. What can this mean other than that racism will be with us until… the second coming, the last judgement, the end of days—or whatever it is that happens when God gets fed up with us.

What’s ironic is that the one thing racial consensus history cannot explain is the very thing it claims to explain. Make “white supremacy” an all-explanatory principle, and it ends up explaining nothing. By that I mean it cannot account for how racial ideology actually works, or fails to work, in any given historical setting. Why, for example, did a majority of northern voters—in 1860, 1864, 1868, and 1872—repeatedly fail to respond to the Democratic Party’s overt and unabashed appeals to white supremacy? When does racism work? What does it usually work with? Under what conditions does it not work? What does it take to get whites, many of whom may well be racists, to join with blacks in support of abolition, or populism, or the New Deal? What kind of coalitions, what set of circumstances, makes it possible for a substantial number of whites to support a voting rights act or increases in the minimum wage—things that disproportionately benefit African Americans. These questions go to the heart of American history, but they cannot be answered—they cannot even be asked—within the assumptions of racial consensus history.

When John Higham complained about the conservatism of consensus historians he was referring to their implicit Burkean premise that cultures can only change at a glacially slow pace, that when political demands for progressive change are thrown up against the immense inertia of history the results are at best fruitless and at worst catastrophic. Higham knew quite well that Hofstadter and Hartz were not “conservatives” in the everyday political sense of the term. He knew that they came out of a left-wing tradition, that they were critics of the liberal consensus, that they despised the conservatism of the McCarthy era.

Yet Higham was correct to discern the deeper conservatism of consensus history—and his insight applies as well to much of contemporary historiography. The new consensus historians present themselves to the world as radicals, as harsh critics of the racism, sexism, and economic inequality that are everywhere to be seen in American history. But like their predecessors in the postwar decades, these new consensus historians are in many ways left-wing Burkeans. They posit a culture as overwhelming and impervious to change as the Himalayas. No wonder every struggle for social change has come up empty handed, or worse. There was no American Revolution. Emancipation was a humanitarian disaster. The populists were irrelevant. The New Deal was irredeemably racist. And the Civil Rights movement didn’t change much. What sort of progressive politics can you get to from that kind of history? Eric Hobsbawm once said that hope was a civilized emotion, but what we see here is a history and politics of hopelessness. If nothing ever changes, why bother to struggle? If politics has always been a waste of time for progressives, why bother with the hard work of organizing to make the world a little bit better? Consensus leaves us with no options other than the flamboyant rhetorical gesture, the chest-thumping screech of outrage, and ceaseless wailing against the dying of the light. If the way we are is the way we always always were, isn’t that the way we will always be?

Fortunately, we know how to push back against the new consensus history because we’ve come here today to celebrate a scholar and a friend whose life-work shows us how it can be done.

1. The second volume of Boorstin’s trilogy, The Americans: The Democratic Experience, makes it seem as though the most important developments of the Civil War were the invention of canned milk and standardized clothing sizes.

2. Back then there was Richard Hofstadter, but there was also C. Vann Woodward. There was David Potter, but there was also Kenneth Stampp. While Daniel Boorstin was trivializing social history, Oscar Handlin was lifting it to new levels of sophistication. Prominent historians like Merrill Jensen were still writing in the progressive tradition. I would even argue that, whatever he became thereafter, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was a great historian when he wrote The Age of Jackson and The Age of Roosevelt. Allen Nevins and Bruce Catton were publishing impressive multi-volume histories of the Civil War that have yet to be surpassed—they surely surpass the popularizers of our own time. It’s also worth pointing out that the consensus historians themselves were an ideologically diverse group. Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition was a scathing critique whereas Boorstin took to celebrating the mindlessness of American politics. Higham’s analysis of the conservatism of consensus history was aimed at Boorstin.

Similar observations apply today. For all the emphasis on consensus in the field of Civil War history, there remain a core of scholars who still see the sectional crisis as a fundamental conflict over slavery. These include, among many others, Bruce Levine, John Ashworth, James Huston, Steven Hahn, Matthew Karp, and of course, Eric Foner.

3. Baptist’s observation is ambiguous. It is reasonable to speak of slavery as “part of” an “emerging western capitalist complex.” But that’s different from saying that slavery was “more like” capitalism than unlike, that it was “just one flavor in a larger banquet of capitalism.” The first observation obliges us to pay close attention to the historical relationship between capitalist development and plantation slavery. The second collapses the distinction between the two systems of production and thereby makes it hard to understand that relationship—one that ultimately led to the Civil War. Baptist’s talk to Google employees can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cw6lFyy8jIk.

4. These kinds of questions should be distinguished from efforts to consider possibilities that were on the table at any given moment. Why did compromise fail during the secession crisis? Why wasn’t land redistributed during Reconstruction? Such questions assume the existence of alternatives, whereas racial consensus history precludes that possibility.

About the Author


Category: Feature, Issue #20 | RSS 2.0 Both comments and pings are currently closed. | | Print

nonsite.org is an online, open access, peer-reviewed quarterly journal of scholarship in the arts and humanities.
nonsite.org is affiliated with Emory College of Arts and Sciences.
© 2017 all rights reserved. ISSN 2164-1668