Schlesinger, revisited

My brother-in-law, Michael Phillips, historian, author of White Metropolis, sent me an extended comment on the late Arthur Schlesinger, so I thought I'd turn book/daddy over to him for the moment. In response to the laudatory obits, Michael raised the following point:

"Arthur M. Schlesinger certainly was a well-intentioned liberal, but he shared the flaw held by elite New Frontiersmen: black people, brown people, women and radicals rarely captured his attention, except as a sideshow to the more crucial ideological battles waged between wealthy Anglo liberals and conservatives. Schlesinger essentially embraced a Whiggish, triumphant view of American history, seeing the national narrative of the United States as a march towards greater and greater liberty and freedom with only an occasional detour, such as McCarthyism, along the way. Victims of that alleged American progress didn't fit into that storyline, so Schlesinger ignored them.

"For instance, in the 523 pages of text in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Jackson (published in 1945), Schlesinger doesn't discuss even in passing one of the most striking and consequential aspects of Andrew Jackson's presidency: the initiation of Indian removal in Georgia culminating in the "Trail of Tears," a policy that led President Jackson to commit an impeachable offense by defying two Supreme Court decisions.

"Even if we accept the right-wing argument that concern over "minority" history is only a symptom of modern-day political correctness, the political world thought Jackson's Indian policies were important in Jackson's time, so Schlesinger's disinterest in an American act of genocide 100 years later is hard to excuse. Unfortunately, in the Schlesinger era of scholarship, people of color functioned as the exception that proved the rule. The suffering of Indians, African American slaves, etc, only highlighted how free the rest of us were. Any achievement of the civil rights movement was taken not as a sign of how courageous or determined blacks, browns and others were, but of the greatness and generosity of this country. But Schlesinger couldn't reconcile the mass murder represented by the Trail of Tears with his big story, the triumph of liberalism, so he pretended it didn't happen.

"Schlesinger's semi-regular polls of scholars rating the presidents had a similar pernicious effect. The scholars he consulted condemned or praised presidents based on their competence, not on whether they used their office to promote justice. Actions that extended American power were taken by these scholars as a good in and of themselves, regardless of the suffering such policies might cause other peoples and other lands. In Schlesinger's polls, American presidents "fail" but they don't consciously pursue evil. Schlesinger had a good heart, but like many liberals of the Cold War era, he had a moral blind spot when it came to dealing with the non-white world."

March 5, 2007 1:30 PM |



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