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The Art of Comity

In all of his writing, Richard Hofstadter has sought to define the nature of American society as it has expressed itself politically. His viewpoint has been essentially liberal, with emphasis upon the value of an open society. But he has rejected the optimism and complacency of traditional liberal thought. He has refused to accept the textbook view that American history records a continuous unfolding of the democratic ideal, and he is skeptical even about the commitment of the majority of Americans to such an ideal.

In many of his interpretations, in fact, Hofstadter has been an iconoclast. For instance, he refused to accept Jacksonianism either as coonskin democracy or as incipient nineteenth-century New Dealism; he diagnosed it instead as a movement to admit a new class of entrepreneurs into the economic privileges previously monopolized by the Bank of the United States. He saw Lincoln not as a “Great Emancipator” but as a politician who shrewdly combined the antislavery votes of those who wanted to keep the territories free and the anti-Negro votes of those who wanted to keep the new areas white. He rejected the idea that Progressivism was a pure, liberal reformism, pointing to the “sour” nativistic side of much Progressivism, as shown in Prohibition, the exclusion of the Japanese, and immigration restriction generally. Hofstadter denied the conventional view that the New Deal was merely an extension of Progressive Reform—and therefore “good” because sanctioned by precedents—and argued that in a number of ways, it marked “a drastic new departure… in the history of American reformism.” For instance, it brought urban, immigrant groups into the stream of American life (though it neglected Negroes), and recognized a new role for the government.

These views, which challenged tradition at many points, are, in their conclusions, not unlike some of the harsh revisionism of the current New Left. But the tone is different, for it is not hostile, nor even astringent. Hofstadter himself perhaps suggests the reason in The Age of Reform (1955): “I find that I have been critical of the Populist-Progressive tradition…. I say critical, but not hostile, for I am criticizing largely from within.” In short, while he saw many aspects of the American past in a realistic, unflattering light, recognizing that it was not what its uncritical admirers had supposed it to be, he cherished it nevertheless. Thus, interpretations which might be regarded as quite damaging were stated with a mellowness that made them seem less drastic than they really were. Perhaps this is an aspect of Hofstadter’s largeness of mind and his emotional sympathy for points of view which he reluctantly regards as rationally fallacious.

In his new book, a study of Turner, Beard, and Parrington, one again encounters conclusions damning in themselves but curiously blended with a tone that is almost affectionate. These three men were the giants of American historiography when Hofstadter entered the profession. “I have asked myself why I wrote this book,” he writes in his Preface, as if he never wondered until after the book was completed. His answer seems subjective. “I started this book out of a personal engagement with the subject, out of some sense of the incompleteness of my reckoning with my intellectual forebears…out of the conviction that if I did not write about these men now, the clarification that I hoped for from such a reckoning might never take place. At the point at which I began to have some identity as an historian, it was the work of these men, particularly Beard and Parrington, that interested me as supplying the guiding ideas to the understanding of American history.”

Critical but not hostile, Hofstadter here again is an observer of American History “largely from within.” He recognizes the personal merits of Turner, Beard, and Parrington, and the stature of their work. He alludes to “the mythic appeal of their ideas which reached outside academic walls and touched readers in the general intellectual public.” He remarks that they were among the first academics to recognize that they “must have a reckoning with the world of institutional power,” and points out that all three were drawn into “university controversies of varying degrees of acerbity, and each of them left an institution under stress.” He shows them to be appealing men, and writes with appreciation of their pioneer achievements in bringing history to terms with an urban, industrial, ethnically diversified society.

But while Hofstadter shows his sympathy for these historians, he shows at the same time an unflinching readiness to examine their short-comings. There is something admirable but also something ironic in his capacity to hold both perspectives. The irony is underscored by the fact that all three historians are now more or less out-of-date, and Hofstadter’s own work went far to out-date them, for his view of Progressivism is vastly different from Parrington’s, his view of the nature of the issues in American history is vastly different from Beard’s. He himself states that these men are obsolete. On Turner: “the mountain of Turner criticism is his most certain monument”—one way of suggesting that Turner’s ideas are now buried and that the barrage of criticism, though long-delayed, was at last overwhelming. On Beard: today, Beard’s reputation “stands like an imposing ruin in the landscape of American historiography”…his ideas come to us “as a set of lingering resonances.” On Parrington: although Hofstadter can still engage his graduate students’ minds in Turner and Beard, “I could find no way to interest them in Parrington.”

These statements raise questions as to why men of such remarkable talent now seem no longer to be relevant, and if they are not relevant, why Hofstadter has chosen such an intractable subject. Is this long book only an inconclusive chapter in Hofstadter’s own intellectual autobiography, or is he addressing himself, as before, to crucial current questions?

He is, I think, speaking, with unnecessary and tantalizing indirectness, to a very large and current question; How does a society handle the kind of controversy which is necessary to all reform and social change, without experiencing a measure of disruption that injures or even destroys the society itself? How can we have consensus without repression or controversy without disruption? In his previous writings, Hofstadter has touched upon another aspect of this problem, for in The Age of Reform and later in The Radical Right, he developed the view that some controversies are fought over real issues—over conflicting ideals or conflicting interests—but that others derive from psychological anxieties about status rather than from genuine differences on questions of policy. (Prohibition, for instance, may have represented a symbolic attack by rural, Protestant, old-stock Americans against an urban, secular, cosmopolitan society by which they felt threatened.) In his analysis of Progressivism, Hofstadter emphasized the illusory or marginal character of many of the highly dramatized “issues,” such as the “titanic” battles between the “people” and the trusts. He stressed the broad agreements of the Progressive period, and other historians have gone further to suggest that the great corporations approved of, or even capitalized upon, measures which the Progressive pictured themselves as winning by crusades against the plutocracy.

While Hofstadter was developing this interpretation, Louis Hartz and Daniel Boorstin were also publishing books which minimized the element of conflict in American history—Hartz arguing that Americans all shared the basic ideology of John Locke, and Boorstin arguing that Americans were highly pragmatic and did not take any ideology seriously enough to be divided by it. In 1959, John Higham, noting the common emphasis on consensus by these and other writers, suggested that a “cult of consensus” was emerging, and he identified Hofstadter as a prominent member of the consensus school.

In writing about Turner, Beard, and Parrington Hofstadter now addresses himself directly to the question of conflict and consensus, for all three of these were men who read the past as a series of conflicts. Indeed, their optimistic faith in the steady advance of progress was predicated upon a belief that the forces of enlightenment and democracy were waging a constant war against the forces of obscurantism and reaction. Turner constantly stressed the geographical conflict of sections; Beard, the economic conflict of interests; Parrington, the ideological conflict of enlightenment versus reaction. Beard became almost paranoid in suspecting conspiracy on the part of those who opposed “democratic” or “progressive” measures. Parrington had a Manichean view of the world. “The pivotal idea of the Progressive historians,” Hofstadter writes, was “economic and political conflict.” But he shows they had no criteria for measuring the magnitude and intensity of conflict. Hence they tended to treat every divergence of opinion as if it were a major battle in an epic war. They saw the Constitution as a “counter-revolution” against the Declaration of Independence, the Jacksonian “Revolution” as a coalition of frontiersmen and workingmen against the capitalist elite, the Progressive movement as a crusade against “big business.”

Careful historical analysis has qualified, if not discredited, all these simplistic versions of American history. But such exaggerated antitheses were unavoidable in the absence of a broad perspective which would compare political issues in America with those in Europe, and recognize how narrow was the range of disagreement in this country, with its universal acceptance of Lockean liberalism, as compared with the deep divisions in countries which were struggling with a feudal past. In this perspective, Hofstadter concludes that the Progressive historians seemed “comically credulous” to take the conflicts in American politics so seriously.

Instead of opting either for consensus or for conflict, Hofstadter now takes the balanced position that we have had both, and indeed that we have needed both: conflict to activate ideals in an otherwise static situation; consensus to set limits upon the hostilities generated by conflict. This is, to him, far more than an academic matter, of “historians taking sides upon the very question of whether there are sides to take.” For historians who put too large an emphasis on consensus will leave the public unprepared for the divisiveness of conflict; historians who see the past as a constant social war will leave us without an awareness of the essential part that underlying agreement has played and of the sheer destructiveness that chronic, unlimited conflict can bring about.

These misapprehensions would be serious in any society. They may now, Hofstadter thinks, be very grave in our present society, which is “in the midst of a dangerous major crisis.” He does not specify what this crisis is, but when we remember that he is at Columbia, and when we note the intensity of public bitterness indicated in the daily press, perhaps he does not need to spell out his meaning. In any case, he believes we should be realistic about conflict and consensus, and he has squeezed into the final, too-brief section of his book, an analysis of what he believes realism in this respect requires. First, we must recognize that conflict has been an important feature of our society. Even if the issues with which Turner, Beard, and Parrington were concerned no longer seem authentic and important, we cannot conclude that there were no major issues merely because these three did not discern them. There have been, in Hofstadter’s view, very serious issues. These include “the genuinely revolutionary aspects of the American Revolution,” the Civil War, and “the racial, ethnic, and religious conflict with which our history is saturated.” The real problem is not the question whether issues have existed, but how the important ones can be distinguished from the unimportant ones, or the reconcilable ones from the irreconcilable.

As a step toward such a distinction, Hofstadter suggests that conflict may be contained and consensus reached when “those enlisted in society’s contending interests have a basic minimal regard for each other: one party or interest seeks the defeat of an opposing interest on matters of policy, but at the same time seeks to avoid crushing the opposition or denying the legitimacy of its existence or values.” When this tolerant attitude, which Hofstadter calls “comity,” prevails, consensus can be achieved without suppressing dissent, and conflict can operate without becoming disruptive. History, he suggests, can seek to identify the bases of such comity; thus historians can realistically “return to the assessment of conflict in American life without contributing to the disruptive tendencies in American life.” Hofstadter ends on a note of aspiration: “in an age when so much of our literature is infused with nihilism, and other social disciplines are driven toward narrow, positivistic inquiry, history may remain the most humanizing of the arts.”

Indeed, Hofstadter’s concept of comity invites a search for more consensus than the Progressive historians were willing to recognize. Jefferson saying “We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists”; Lincoln invoking “malice toward none and charity for all”; Franklin Roosevelt, holding together his New Deal coalition—all these are examples of the tradition of comity in American life. But comity, as Hofstadter presents it, may be more a measure of the degree of toleration which prevails at any given time than the device for attaining toleration that he seems to think it is. Everyone will agree that some positions held by opponents deserve a “basic minimal regard”; but everyone will also agree that other such positions do not—for instance the Nazi position on the Jews. Does the Soviet action in Czechoslovakia merit comity? Does Mayor Daley merit it? In situations ranging on a scale with imperceptible gradations from high-minded and responsible dissent to vicious and nihilistic destructiveness, how far should comity extend? The question whether comity should be applicable to a given case is itself always a potential issue of conflict. When applied, comity will, of course, have a pacifying effect, but the pacification is the consequence really of the prior agreement that this is a case to which comity is applicable, rather than of the invocation of the principle of comity. I do not think that Hofstadter has taken enough account of this limitation.

Nor has he reckoned with what it is that makes a question a burning issue. Our history is full of issues—Prohibition, Free Silver, the Direct Primary—which galvanized people in one decade and left them cold in the next. But the concept of comity does not tell us why people care so little about public issues at one time and so much at another (certainly this country once had more consensus than it needed and now seems to have less); nor does it tell us why people care so desperately about one issue and not another. Beard and Parrington superimposed upon our history some “issues” which may make them look “comically credulous” today, but historians are not the only victims of belief in fictitious issues; the public also is capable of taking up a spurious issue and waging a conflict over it which is certainly “real,” though the issue itself later seems “unreal.”

Further, we must reckon with the reason for the decline of the reputation of the Progressive historians. No doubt they exaggerated the depth of the issues, but that is hardly why we now leave them unread. Hofstadter himself gives another reason, which he does not elaborate, when he says, “The new post-war modernism, with its sensationalism, its love of extremes and violence,…its interest in madness as a clue to the human…its belief that modes of sexuality embody or conceal symbols that are more universally applicable, its sense of outrage, its profound destructive intention [no comity here]…seemed in many ways to be a transvaluation of everything that Parrington cared about…a generation that has been reading Jean Genet, Henry Miller and William Burroughs sees Parrington…as an incomprehensible square.”

Here, I think, Hofstadter touches, all too briefly, on the essential reason why Turner, Beard, and Parrington are now usually left unread. They suffer neglect not because of their shortcomings as historians, though Hofstadter is correct in his analysis of these shortcomings, but because their past as they saw it, which seemed so usable when they constructed it half a century ago, no longer seems usable to their readers today. Nor are they really dated by their excessive commitment to the conflict view of history, for with the issues of Vietnam and Black Power we have swung back toward a view which emphasizes conflict. Hofstadter has addressed himself brilliantly and extensively to a number of internal questions about the work of these three historians, but so far as his broader purpose is concerned, these matters are somewhat beside the point. He has slighted the answer to a major question which he himself poses as well as anyone else has done: in what way did the social thought of the early part of the century give vitality to the ideas of these three historians? And more precisely, how have changes in social thought sapped this vitality? The answer is not entirely obvious, as it would have been if they had proclaimed a flat earth shortly before we discovered that the earth is round. Their work still has a certain cogency. Yet their ideas of progress and perfectibility do not really fit our view of the human condition today.

Could Hofstadter have analyzed in a more direct way the specific changes in ideology which have made these three writers, once so perfectly attuned to the prevailing tendencies of social thought, so irrelevant? I think he could have, but he has not quite done so. He might well have developed more adequately his passing implication that the neglect which overtook Turner, Beard, and Parrington resulted not from the specific defects of their history nor from their obsession with conflict but from their being caught in the intellectual riptide which occurs when society is replacing one image of itself with another.

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