Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution
Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism
The publication, almost simultaneously, of both these books by Staughton Lynd provides an opportunity to assess his position both as a historian and as an ideologue of the New Left. Normally, it would be bad manners to confuse the two roles, but Lynd has argued forcefully that they ought not to be separated, and both books, especially Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, are plainly meant to serve political ends. As a contribution to American radical historiography, Lynd’s work must be evaluated as part of the present effort of recent scholars, most of them under forty, to establish an ideological foundation for their political movement. These men and women have been in revolt against a vulgar-Marxist tradition based on economic determinism, a glorification of the lower classes, and the self-defeating tendency to read the past according to the political demands of the moment. Historians like W. A. Williams, Aileen Kraditor, and Christopher Lasch, starting from such different ideologies as Christian socialism, orthodox Marxism, pragmatism, and existentialism, have recently converged in an attack on the economic determinism and romanticism of the earlier tradition and, especially, the assumption that myth-making and falsifying in historical writing can be of political use. It is ironic that even historians who do not consider themselves Marxists are steadily building a genuine American version of Marxism by the very act of destroying the caricature to which they fell heir. Lynd speaks as part of this current, but, as these books reveal, he might more properly be placed in the tradition being overthrown.
Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution, by far the better of the two books, contains excellent empirical work on a number of important questions, but also reveals much methodological and philosophical confusion. Its value lies in its painstaking analyses of local responses to the political and social crises of the Revolutionary and Constitutional eras. By making careful studies of selected areas in New York State, Lynd tests the familiar theses of Beard and Becker, with their strong suggestion of a counter-revolution by large property-owners. In particular he writes well about the position of the artisans and lower middle-class radicals who played an important part in the Revolution and the constitutional crisis. When, for example, he demonstrates, with impressive skill, how foreign policy considerations played a major role in the radical thinking of the lower classes, he begins to discuss class positions as a complex mixture of material interests, ideologies, and psychological attitudes, and implicitly comes close to replacing economic determinism with a sophisticated class analysis of historical change. These four essays in Part One, together with Lynd’s other published work on the Revolutionary period, justify his reputation as a thoughtful scholar of early American history.
IN “BEYOND BEARD,” the introductory essay, however, Lynd seems unable to pull the threads of his empirical work together into a coherent theory that would in fact go “beyond Beard.” The narrow economic analysis characteristic of so much of Beard’s work is based upon an investigation …
Self-Evident Truths? December 19, 1968