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Looking for Heroes

The Vineyard of Liberty Volume One of “The American Experiment”

by James MacGregor Burns
Knopf, 741 pp., $22.95

We Americans, unlike many Europeans, have tended to see our history as the product of conscious intentions and purposeful leadership. We have not usually thought of ourselves as caught up in large impersonal forces sweeping us along to destinies we have not chosen. Which is to say that we generally have not had a tragic vision of our past. But there is in our history one notable exception to this—the Civil War. Of all the great events of American history only the Civil War has been viewed as tragic. Only such a bloody, fratricidal conflict was awesome enough to seem to be beyond traditional American political management. Yet as unaccustomed as we are to being imprisoned by circumstances, it is not surprising that some of us have been unwilling to see even the Civil War as the result of inexorable forces beyond human control. Consequently, that war has become the only major event in our history that has aroused among historians a continual debate over whether it was inevitable or avoidable. The Civil War has become a kind of test of America’s ability to govern its fate.

In 1858 Senator William H. Seward sought to describe the differing views his fellow Americans had of the crisis between North and South and in doing so anticipated the two major interpretations that subsequent historians would make of the Civil War. Some people, said Seward, think the sectional conflict is “accidental, unnecessary, the work of interested or fanatical agitators, and therefore ephemeral.” But Seward believed they were mistaken; the sources of the conflict were deeper than that, and in a memorable phrase he said so: “It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces.”

The question of the irrepressibility of the sectional conflict, defined by Seward at the outset, has been around for a long time. Indeed it lies at the heart of this new book by James MacGregor Burns—the first in what will be a three-volume narrative survey of the history of the United States, with the larger title The American Experiment. Burns is a distinguished political scientist, and so he is well aware of the uncontrollable power of those impersonal, circumscribing “forces” that are, as he says at one point, “the product of millions of tiny decisions” by countless individuals. Yet Burns has also hobnobbed with presidents and even run for Congress. He has written prize-winning biographies of FDR and JFK, and he has developed a particular fascination with what he believes is the power of extraordinary political leaders at crucial moments to transcend and transform the impersonal forces of history. The tension between these differing views of the historical process—between irrepressible, deterministic forces and free-acting, controlling political leadership—runs through Burns’s volume, and lends interest and drama to what would otherwise be a very old-fashioned political narrative of the history of the United States from the Constitution to the Civil War.

Because Burns is covering such a large span of time and so many events, he necessarily has relied heavily on the work of other historians. He has read widely and has brought together a huge amount of material, and he has told a familiar story with clarity and verve. Virtually all the great political personalities and colorful anecdotes of the period are included—from Benjamin Franklin’s closing remarks at the Philadelphia Convention to President Lincoln’s shrewd squelching of opposition within his cabinet. But what makes Burns’s conventional political narrative new and provocative is the use he has made of ideas and theories drawn from his influential studies of American politics. He focuses particularly on what he describes as the formal and informal constitutions of the American political system and on the extraordinary quality of political leadership that this peculiarly divided political system requires.

In 1787-1788, Burns argues, the Founding Fathers, a small elite of illustrious and respectable leaders, created a structure of government that sought to control political power “by splitting it into pieces and balancing the pieces,” not only among the various offices of government but also between the national and the state governments. Above all, the Founding Fathers feared factions and parties, especially of majorities, and aimed to make it difficult for people to combine together politically. In order to govern in such a structure, says Burns, politicians would have to bargain ceaselessly, “in a vast system of brokerage and accommodation that would give something to everybody—liberty to the individual, desired laws or appropriations to groups, and governmental balance and stability to the whole.” It was an immensely complicated political system that the Constitution created—this calculated system of dispersed power—and it placed on American politicians “an enormously heavy burden of leadership.” The system demanded “expert brokers and dexterous improvisers… masterly transactional leaders” who could operate across the variety of boundaries separating governments.

Out of these demands grew gradually and unintentionally another constitution, an informal one, created not by a tiny elite steeped in political theory but by thousands of popular leaders “experimenting with new ways of gaining office and power.” This popular constitution was the party system. Unlike the formal Constitution, it “was spawned outside the establishment, often outside the law, and hence, born a bastard and growing up as a political orphan, it never became quite respectable.” Parties, “with their coalition building and other unifying tendencies and machinery,” brought dispersed power together and helped to make the formal institutions of government workable. After an abortive start in the 1790s and several decades of fumbling, by the late 1830s a recognizably modern party system was in place—two self-conscious, competing parties of Democrats and Whigs, with hierarchical organizations in nearly every state that reached from the localities to national conventions. This impressive party system had the potential for strong popular majority rule. But, says Burns, it remained a potential, for the system had a number of underlying weaknesses. Not only did the parties lack clear programs and ignore large numbers of people, but, most important, they remained very awkwardly related to the formal constitution of government. The question always was: could the parties’ tendency to concentrate power overcome the Constitution’s tendency to disperse it?

During the antebellum period these two constitutions—the formal institutions of government and the informal party system—existed in an uneasy relationship, just managing time after time by accommodation and compromise to stifle the sectional crises over slavery that threatened to break apart the nation. “Then,” writes Burns, “in the 1850s, this system crumbled.” Powerful centrifugal forces and growing sectional divisions unsettled the delicate balance between the two constitutions. The Whig party collapsed, and the Democratic party gained an abnormal dominance over national and local politics, especially in the South.

Thus the “electoral competition in a diverse and balanced electorate” on which the system depended was destroyed.

The two-party system assumed that within each party moderate and “extremist” forces would grapple for control, but that the two parties would tend toward the center—and hence toward gradual adjustment and morselization—because of the need to win the support of centrist voters.

But without this two-party competition the Democrats in 1856 “won an undeserved victory over splintered opposition,” which in turn only intensified the rise of extremism. The result by 1860 “revealed in naked outline what had been for some years the actual power configuration—a four-party or multiparty system, with its inherent weaknesses.” In the 1860 election Lincoln and the Republicans won the presidency with less than 40 percent of the popular vote and precipitated the secession of the southern states from the Union. It was the greatest failure of the American political process in the nation’s history.

Although this is a very ingenious and sophisticated argument, it is actually an updated refinement of the point of view opposed by Seward in 1858—an interpretation of the sectional conflict that stresses its superficial, avoidable character. This interpretation, usually referred to by historians as “revisionist,” sees the Civil War resulting essentially from a breakdown in the political process. During the 1930s and 1940s some historians, led by James G. Randall and Avery Craven, argued that the Civil War was actually needless and preventable. The differences between the sections, they said, were not fundamental and the forces making for conflict were not irrepressible. Slavery could have been eliminated gradually and peacefully. All that was needed was astute political management. Instead, these “revisionist” historians argued, blundering politicians exaggerated sectional differences for electoral purposes, blew up the crisis artificially, and eventually undermined the political system’s capacity for compromise.

Although Burns rejects any stark version of this revisionist, “blundering generation” explanation of the Civil War, his argument is a subtle variation of it. Not only does he, like other revisionists, focus largely on political behavior and assume that politics and political leadership exist autonomously apart from social circumstances, but he also asks of the antebellum period the same question all revisionists have asked: not what were the North and South quarreling about, but rather how did the political system contain the quarrel for so long, only to allow it in the 1850s to erupt into war.

Like other revisionists, Burns tends to play down the differences between the North and South. Both sections, he says, were examples of exploitative capitalism. No doubt southern slavery was a particular degradation, but northern “wage slavery” was little better. “Behind the lofty pretensions of each [section] lay an ignoble defense of the elite monopolization of property and profits.” Burns thus suggests that the North was as morally flawed as the South: “it was too vulnerable to southern charges of ‘wage slavery’ to be able to mount a respectable defense.” Therefore it was not so much the differences between the sections that brought on the war as it was the weaknesses of political leadership.

The central theme of this book, as of all of Burns’s other work, is the nature of political leadership. Although he is writing history, Burns is still the political scientist and has the political problems of our recent past, our present, and our future very much on his mind. His history of the first half of the nineteenth century thus becomes something of a tract for our times.

Time and again Burns suggests that proper leadership might have prevented the Civil War. By the 1850s the society was in disarray; people were divided by a host of issues, not only slavery but also temperance, women’s rights, education, banks, immigration, and free land. Liberty was more a source of confusion than a guide to coherent political action. “Serious politicians” faced with this disarray “had to win state and local elections against rivals who could easily outdemagogue them in the emotional politics of the early Fifties.” The parties were no help in lessening this emotionalism. “The parties were immobilized because their top leadership was immobilized, and the leaders were immobilized because they were enmeshed in state and local politics.” What was needed, says Burns, was some “great national leader,” someone who was “equal to the deepening crisis,” someone “with the power to appeal to the hearts and minds, to the fundamental wants and needs and aspirations of the people, able to apply steady moral and intellectual standards to the issues confronting them.” What America required were “transcending leaders” who could “turn the shank of history.”

It is not as if we have not had that kind of transcendent leadership at other times in our history. What Burns seems to have in mind for his inspirational leader is someone like FDR, someone “adept in mobilizing the grand nationwide coalitions necessary for effective presidential politics.” Henry Clay was a logroller and not that kind of leader. Neither was Daniel Webster; he had a national vision but he chose to serve commercial and industrial interests “rather than respond to the needs and aspirations of the poor throughout the nation.” Yet the Whig Party—with its “positive, creative impetus” and its belief that liberty could be promoted “not only against government, but through government”—at least had the makings of a New Deal, and its collapse, says Burns, was “a pity.”

What reveals more than anything else Burn’s peculiar conception of leadership and his present-day concerns is his remarkable chapter entitled “The Majority That Never Was.” This chapter is a severe indictment from a modern perspective of the conditions of blacks, women, Indians, and all the poor in antebellum America. The plight of slaves goes without much saying, but women were almost as much degraded. Most were farm women and “most farm women were still drudges.” While their husbands bought steel plows and other tools, “farm wives shared little in labor-saving advances.” Even worse off were those women who went into factories; their existence became “almost intolerable” and created among them “mounting unrest.”

The immigrant poor too were victimized by American conditions. Exploited by ship companies and con men, plunged into squalor, and left strugging for jobs, the newcomers drank and fought and barely survived. But the immigrants were not the only poor in America. There were many others—“marginal New England farmers holding onto their rocky soil, frontier people, impecunious scholars, laborers at the bottom of the pile, and, always, Indians and blacks.” All these oppressed poor “were bound together in a great commonality of deprivation—denied good homes and food and clothes, good health and nutrition and education, and hence damaged in motivation, aspiration, and self-fulfillment.”

This is an extraordinary present-minded and hence depressing picture of antebellum society that Burns has drawn. If readers had only this one chapter to go on, they could not help believing that antebellum America was latently revolutionary, not to mention wondering why any European in his right mind would ever have come here. In fact, Burns implies that a nationwide radical movement was fermenting just below the surface. Everywhere among this deprived majority there were “unfulfilled wants and needs” and “widespread feelings of injustice” waiting only to be brought into political consciousness and collective action, “into feelings of entitlement that could then be converted into effective demands on the political system.” But this did not happen, and the reason it did not was a “failure of leadership.” Would-be leaders were too divided from one another and too separated from the masses, and therefore the revolutionary majority that might have been never arose. “Were there in the United States,” Burns asks, “persons of rare potential leadership who might have transcended the differences among the reform and radical groups and built a coalition of the have-nots? We will never know, because such a leader did not arise.”

It is hard to imagine a greater misconstruing of the nature of historical writing. Better to put clocks in ancient Rome than to create this kind of anachronism. But then one sometimes forgets that Burns is a political activist for whom writing history is really politics by other means. What he wants for the past and what he wants now is “masterful transforming leadership,” leadership that can transcend the mundane circumstances that bind the rest of us ordinary mortals.

Burns is well aware of what historians have said about the powerful “economic and ethnic and religious forces” that limited the capacity of leaders to act in the antebellum period. Yet despite his recognition of these “impersonal forces,” he cannot help believing that some heroic leader might have arisen above these forces and controlled them. Over and over Burns reveals his heroic conception of the historical process. “It is not given,” he writes, “to more than a few voyagers in the stream of history to influence its basic direction.” Most historical inquiries of the coming of the Civil War have been “inconclusive,” he says, because they have “failed to differentiate between the givens of history—the geographical, racial, and economic forces that were inextricable and inseparable from the past—and the somewhat more tractable decision-making situations, where leaders might have decided differently.” Perhaps the forces were too powerful for any political system to overcome, “yet European and other political systems had encountered enormously divisive forces and survived.” After all, says Burns, “a supreme test of leadership” is the leaders’ ability to deal with “the ‘impersonal’ forces streaming around them.”

Americans in the antebellum period simply did not produce that kind of leadership. Even Lincoln was “a perplexed and flawed” leader. Neither he nor Stephen Douglas emerged from their debates in 1858 “as a moral leader, capable of reaching into the minds and hearts of human beings, appealing to their more generous instincts, recognizing their fundamental wants and needs, and mobilizing their hopes and aspirations.” The strategic problems facing the nation in 1860 were very great, and “only moral, intellectual, and political leadership of the highest order could have readily solved such strategic problems.” Unfortunately “the Republican party could claim no such leadership.” And so the war came.

This is romantic American optimism carried to extremes. Somehow from somewhere some great hero, some Lochinvar, might have ridden in and rescued Americans from their predicament. Thus for Burns the coming of the Civil War cannot be a true tragedy, the kind of tragedy that sees the inescapable boundaries within which people have to act. The “tragedy” that he perceives lies elsewhere, in the fact that neither side saw how like the other it was, that neither side linked liberty “to equality and other principles in a well-considered hierarchy of values,” and that neither used government creatively and positively to cure its ills. In other words, the “tragedy” for Burns lies in the fact that those poor benighted people back then were not more like us—or more like the citizens Burns would want us to be.

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