The Historian Who Saw Through America

For more than thirty years George Fredrickson was a leading historian of race relations and racial ideologies in the United States and other multiracial societies. By a cruel trick of fate, his unexpected death on February 25, 2008, occurred three days before the official publication date of his book on Abraham Lincoln’s racial attitudes, Big Enough to Be Inconsistent, and five months before publication of Diverse Nations, a collection of fifteen previously published articles and review essays. Fredrickson’s thorough research, original insights, common-sense interpretations, and lucid prose made him a historian’s historian as well as a writer who reached a broad audience with several of his books. He will be sorely missed by friends, colleagues, and readers—especially readers of this journal, for which he reviewed dozens of books over the past quarter-century.

Seven of the fifteen essays in Diverse Nations first appeared in The New York Review. Along with the other eight, which were originally published in a variety of scholarly formats, they range over subjects about which Fredrickson made himself one of the world’s foremost authorities: slavery in the United States; the comparative history of race relations; ethnic diversity, multiculturalism, and ideologies of racism and assimilation in various societies—especially the United States.

The seven review essays in Part Two of Diverse Nations, “Slavery and Race: Historiographic Interventions,” analyze twenty books published during the past decade. Fredrickson had a knack for concise summaries of and trenchant comments on these books. A graduate student preparing for a general examination in this field could do no better than to start with Fredrickson’s essays and finish by rereading them after reading the books themselves. The first of these reviews, “The Skeleton in the Closet,” expresses the central theme of Diverse Nations : slavery was the skeleton in the closet of a nation founded on the proposition that all men are created equal. Human bondage was America’s “original sin” (the title of another essay). “Slavery and its consequences…were not incidental or secondary aspects of American history but constitute its central theme,” insisted Fredrickson.

Rather than being an exception to the grander themes of liberty and democracy, slavery and the racism it engendered have exposed the shallowness and narrowness of the national commitment to these ideals.

Coexistent with the racial divisions between blacks and whites is a history of ethnic diversity in a nation of immigrants. At one time, as Fredrickson noted, various ethnic groups that made up the American mosaic were defined as “races”: the Irish race, Italian race, Jewish race, and so on. But like the original British Americans, they eventually became “white” and were no longer considered distinct races. Asians and Hispanics also seem on the road to becoming ethnic groups rather than “races”—if not exactly white, they are no longer necessarily considered nonwhite, though at one point Fredrickson described Hispanics as an “ethnoracial category” which nevertheless “differed in significant ways from the racialization of African Americans.”

In contrast to the racial skeleton in its closet, the United States…

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