The Eagle Has No Head

The Americans: A New History of the People of the United States

by Oscar Handlin
Little, Brown, 434 pp., $6.95

This is still another attempt at an answer to Crèvecoeur’s question: “Who then is the American, this new man?” Earlier efforts in this vein customarily bristled with claims about American purpose. American destiny, and similar conceits. Not only historians who wrote the superior virtues of Anglo-Saxonism but even men like George Bancroft were given to see Americans as a Chosen People illustrating in their history (in Bancroft’s phrase) “the principle of freedom.” In more recent years a number of historians, from Louis Hartz to Daniel Boorstin, offered their “exceptionalist” interpretations of America as the country embodying an ideal liberalism, thus contributing their bit to the then flourishing American Celebration. Now Handlin’s book heralds a new turn. Perhaps because the current social and political scene suggests to the thoughtful intelligence a sense of masterless confusion, Handlin interprets the American past in terms of largely uncontrolled drift rather than of self-conscious mastery.

This New History of the People of the United States reflects and emphasizes the current mood of sobriety and doubt. Less than a decade ago, Boorstin praised “the marvelous success and vitality of (American) institutions.” For Handlin, all these muscular certainties have gone flabby. He believes, one senses, that Freud may after all have been right when he exclaimed: “America—a miscarriage.” Handlin permits himself only the small consolation that the full story is not yet in. “The outcome,” (he says in conclusion) “was still open.”

For Handlin, the process of settling a continent was the central experience of the American people. It created a new man, shaped by the environment in the very act of transforming it. But once this process was completed, once the Americans had dissolved the ties which bound them to European tradition and achieved a measure of self-consciousness, the world began to close in on them. The reliance on freedom and individualism, the faith in success and acquisitiveness that had sustained them, were now shaken. The frozen world of the Cold War and the insidious threats of mass culture and mass society undermined the traditional values of American man. These were new perils with which his previous experience had hardly prepared him to cope. Hence his current disorientation, his lack of a sense of identity.

While most earlier interpretations focused on the conscious designs of historical actors, Handlin’s treatment centers upon the environmental determinants of behavior and upon the unanticipated consequences of human actions, rather than on willful design and purposeful direction. There is little here on the ideas and ideals of, say, the Puritan oligarchy, but much on the way in which settlement on the rough New England soil deflected the Puritans from their original intention to build a New Jerusalem. By the second generation, Handlin claims, the Puritans had already neglected the pursuit of collective sainthood and focused instead on the pursuit of individual wealth and power. The high ideals of New England transcendentalism are, again, treated only in passing. While the pressures of an expanding industrial economy on previously genteel modes of social and political adjustment are given considerably more thorough treatment. In a sense, Handlin’s method is that of earlier social historians, but his social history lacks their infatuation with inevitable progress.

Handlin is mainly concerned with consequences rather than with purposes, with outcomes rather than with intentions. While this provides some new perspectives on American history, it also accounts for what, I believe, is his main weakness: the neglect of political factors. This is not surprising in view of his orientation. Politics involves deliberate purposes; it is precisely these that are slighted here. Let me give a few examples.

Ever since Charles Beard’s bold An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, historians have hotly debated his contention that class interests lay at the roots of the political purposes of the framers of the Constitution. A whole generation of younger historians have attempted to show that wider national concerns rather than class interests inspired the founders. Handlin skirts the whole issue in two bland sentences: “Men of property they were, of course, conscious of their interests and of those of the states which had sent them. But they were also aware of a national interest.” Thus discussions about political purposes are pushed aside with a weary gesture, presumably because Handlin feels that not deliberate purposes but the broad sweep of socio-economic developments determined the subsequent course in history. Similarly, the momentous contentions between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans are treated most gingerly since, Handlin says, their ideological differences were more apparent than real: “The reality was somewhat less distinct than the orators made it.”

The Populist Revolt of the Nineties has long fascinated historians, from John Hicks to Richard Hofstadter. Whether they sympathized with it like Hicks, or were highly critical of it like Hofstadter, they saw it as one of the few specifically American political movements. Handlin gives it exactly two paragraphs. This disinterest, again, seems to stem from his feeling that not ideological protests and social conflict but the continued growth of the economy determined the true character of the American experience.”…The spirit of the times trapped the Populists too…. When the century ended there seemed little prospect, and even little desire, for far-reaching changes in government. Ironically, American were never more prosperous.”

Handlin is impatient with the “progressive social science” in the forty years after 1900 for simplifying social relationships into clear-cut conflicts of contending social forces: “Jeffersonians against Hamiltonians, farmers against merchants, East against West. Despite its professions of objectivity…it often endowed those battles with melodramatic moral overtones—good guys against bad guys.” This may often have been so. Yet one cannot help but feel that Handlin, in his commendable effort to counter ideological oversimplification, has now indulged in an opposite fallacy by discounting politics and ideology altogether. It would seem as if to him political ideas and moral sentiments can play only a peripheral part in human history.

Nowhere in Handlin’s book is this tendency more apparent than in the treatment of the Civil War. Not that he slights the moral dimensions of the slavery crisis in the manner of those “revisionist” historians who have come to reinterpret it as a “repressible conflict” or a “needless war.” The conflict, to Handlin, was unavoidable, but it solved nothing. The old masters came back to their plantations, freedom and equality for the Negro remained unattainable, and neither the future of the Negro nor that of American society were settled. The sound and fury of the war only helped to shatter optimistic Emersonian illusions that “human beings could recreate the world in an ideal image.”

Handlin’s stance in this book has certain interesting similarities with Edmund Wilson’s recent Patriotic Gore, although these authors are obviously far removed from each other in terms of moral predisposition and philosophical premises. To be sure Handlin does not use Wilson’s biological metaphor which compares human contentions to the voracious gobbling up of smaller sea slugs by larger ones at the bottom of the ocean. Yet he seems to share with Wilson a disenchantment with the efficacy of human purposes in the political or ideological realm. Both offer radically critical interpretations of American history, yet both also reflect a current mood of resignation and tragic despair which could easily become a self-fulfilling prediction: If men feel powerless consciously to fashion the world they live in, this world will indeed continue to display the features they deplore.

Handlin seems to paint correctly the ideological drift of America in mid-century. It is true that efforts to locate a conservative tradition run up “against the blank wall of the American past, which offered men no heritage but that of change.” It is true that “even the dissenters were unsure of themselves.” It is true that “uncertainty was particularly troubling for the young people growing up.” But it is also true that this uncertainty can hardly be dispelled by a vision of history that unduly neglects the impact of choice and deliberate effort.

Handlin has read the experience of American history through glasses ground skeptical by the disillusionments of the last few decades. He has helped to dispel many of the conceits and illusions that plagued earlier generations. Yet, we need to realize that if we go to the opposite extreme in our recoil, we are brought up against the fact that when the past is made to appear recalcitrant to the actions of determined historical actors, it can no longer endow either present or future with any inspiration. When this occurs, it is all too likely that in our despair we turn to irrationalism and religiosity and shun the chances for purposeful intervention.