Paranoia and American History

The Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style

by David Brion Davis
Louisiana State University Press, 97 pp., $4.00

Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War

by Eric Foner
Oxford, 353 pp., $2.75 (paper)

Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War

by David Donald
Knopf, 392 pp., $8.95

Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man

by David Donald
Knopf, 595 pp., $15.00

Charles Sumner
Charles Sumner; drawing by David Levine

How does one account for America’s sometimes violent past political divisions? Few historians now accept Charles Beard’s view, popular earlier in the century, that a continual struggle between rich and poor explains American strife. Much of the best historical work since the Second World War has undermined Beard’s claims. But as the criticism has proceeded, no convincing alternative to Beard’s theory has emerged. Years ago, a few “consensus” historians sought to turn Beard upside down. They urged that American history is a story of unity, not of conflict; of shared values, not of social warfare. Their influence, while great in the 1950s, now seems to be waning. The consensus view does not square, among other things, with the fact of two savage internal wars between 1776 and 1866.

As awareness of internal American conflict mounts, and as Beard’s explanations become obsolete, historians have two choices. One, not yet pursued with sufficient vigor, is to find a new social basis for political controversy. If the split which Beard stressed between rich and poor will not work, a more subtle study of class, racial, ethnic, and sectional antagonisms may explain why America has at least twice come apart at the seams.

A second possibility, which now promises to be the latest form of orthodoxy, is to construct psychological explanations for American history. The new psychological historians tend to accept the consensus view of American society. They find an understanding of political controversy not in divisive social reality but rather in paranoid misperceptions of a reality hardly divided at all. The psychological historians’ work depends on the important truth that what men perceive at the time, not what historians later know to be true, governs the historical process. Their work has been encouraged by the relatively recent acceptance in this country of intellectual history, with its emphasis on ideas, beliefs, and persuasions. More important, the new psychological historians have arrived at a time when Freudian explanations are all the rage. Where “hang ups” are thought to explain so much, why not find paranoia throughout our history?

During the past decade, every American struggle has been reinterpreted from the perspective of psychoanalysis. Bernard Bailyn, in his brilliant and influential reinterpretation of the American Revolution, has claimed that the War for Independence can largely be accounted for by the colonists’ paranoid fear of a conspiracy against liberty in England.1 John Howe, following Bailyn, has urged that the fight between the followers of Jefferson and those of Hamilton was largely a clash between paranoids who felt threatened by monarchical conspiracies and paranoids obsessed with Jacobin plots.2 Now, in The Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style, David Brion Davis applies similar psychological methods to the coming of the Civil War.

Civil War historiography has long been ripe for such an interpretation. During the 1930s, when most historians found evidence for Beard’s divisions between rich and…

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