The Cycles of American History
by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
Houghton Mifflin, 498 pp., $22.95
The author of this book requires no introduction to the readers of The New York Review. The name of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., historian, essayist, lifelong student of American political institutions, has appeared too often in this journal, as that of either reviewer or reviewed, to need further identification here.
The book at hand is a series of fifteen essays drawn mainly from articles published by the same author at various times in recent years, but revised or reedited or in various other ways reinforced by the author’s present views. What emerges is a series of mature reflections on a number of serious questions to which the author has, over the course of the years, given much study and thought. These questions are viewed historically, as they all deserve to be; and the author’s treatment of them is enriched not only by his superb knowledge of American political history but also by a fine literary style which adds to both the readability and the force of the thoughts brought forward.
It is never easy to review a work composed of a number of different articles, bearing on different subjects. Particularly is this true when certain of the articles, as is the case here, are of such weight and quality as to merit full-length reviews in their own right. The diversity is further heightened, in this instance, by the fact that the essays are almost evenly divided between those that deal with America’s domestic-political institutions and customs and those that relate, at least by implication, to the position of this country as a member of the world community.
Let us begin with the second of these two categories.
Schlesinger sees two profoundly rooted but conflicting strains in the way Americans view themselves—in the role, that is, in which they cast themselves—as a nation among other nations. Sometimes these two strains do battle with each other in the same American breast; more often large segments of opinion lean decisively one way or another, with the result that each of the strains has had its period, or periods, of ascendancy in American public life.
One of these views, strong initially among the Founding Fathers themselves, saw Americans as essentially no different from the general run of human beings: subject to the same limitations; affected by the same restrictions of vision; tainted by the same original sin or, in a more secular view, by the same inner conflicts between flesh and spirit, between self-love and charity. This view, in its original eighteenth-century form, was also informed by the recognition that history had had, to that time, few examples to show of a solid and enduring republic, whereas one could point to a number of examples of empires and monarchies that answered reasonably well to this description. Against this background of perception, the Founding Fathers tended, for the most part, to see the establishment of the national independence and unity of the United States as an experiment—not an easy one …