Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was bred in the bone for his role on the stage of 20th-century American history. His father, the historian Arthur Meier Schlesinger, was already a rising academic star when Arthur Jr. was born in 1917 in Iowa City, while, on his mother’s side, the prominent 19th-century historian, George Bancroft, was said to be an ancestor. When Arthur Sr. was offered a position at Harvard in 1924, young Arthur’s fate was all but sealed. He was raised in the hothouse atmosphere of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and given every possible incentive by his doting parents to pursue academic success, first at Phillips Exeter Academy and then, beginning in 1934, at Harvard. Even before his son had left Cambridge, Massachusetts for that other Cambridge to continue his studies as a Henry Fellow at Peterhouse, Arthur Sr. had managed to get Jr.’s senior thesis on Orestes Brownson published by Little, Brown—not without some calling in of favors. While there were gestures of resistance in these early years against his father’s interventions, the young Schlesinger seems to have modeled himself on Arthur Sr. to such an extent that in 1933 he had his middle birth name changed from Bancroft to Meier (thus acquiring the Jr. suffix). None of this is to suggest that he was undeserving of his many accolades. Indeed, he was so focused on the historical vocation that he had little time for boyish pursuits. His first close friendship seems to have been one formed at Peterhouse with Charles Wintour, the British son of a major general. One forms the distinct impression from Richard Aldous’s treatment of Schlesinger’s early years that his experience was rather narrow, his social world largely limited to rarefied circles of upper-middle class academics. After Pearl Harbor, he failed to pass the Army physical and ended by working for the Office of War Information under McGeorge Bundy, a Boston Brahmin who would later serve in John Kennedy’s administration along with Schlesinger. In short, before the publication of his first major book, The Age of Jackson (1945), Arthur Jr.’s experience of the lives of the “lower orders,” those whom he championed throughout his life, was meager.
Schlesinger had come to see the populist Jackson as a harbinger of the Progressivist movement that followed, culminating in the New Deal. As Aldous notes, in The Age of Jackson Schlesinger reorients “Jacksonianism away from the western frontier and emphasizes its national character, including among urban workers, small farmers, and intellectuals in the Northeast.” He presents Jacksonian populism as less a sectional movement than a class-based resistance against uncontrolled capitalism. It was this emphasis that gave the Pulitzer-prize-winning book its chief claim to originality, but Schlesinger’s underlying purpose was to reinterpret American political history since Jackson as a morally necessary struggle to wrest power from Big Business and place it in the hands of the people. In fact, Schlesinger’s argument is watered-down Marxism. In The Age of Jackson, and more pointedly in an article for the New Republic published the following year (and unmentioned by Aldous), Schlesinger, like Marx, applauds the capitalist bourgeoisie for having been the key historical force in breaking the back of feudalism and thus opening the doors to democratic liberty, though of course the “aristocracy of capital” was never a true friend of liberty. Its dominance, too, had to be broken in the name of the people. Schlesinger consistently blurs the distinction between liberty and democracy until the terms become virtually synonymous. When he argues that Jacksonian politics restored the true aim of the Revolution (against its Hamiltonian usurpation), he implies that the Founders marched arm-in-arm with the sans-culottes—which is patently false. In Jackson’s White House, Schlesinger tells us, an Eastern brain trust (Schlesinger’s precursors) fervently embraced the Revolution of 1830 and its restoration of popular sovereignty in France. In this scenario, Jackson himself emerges as an American Louis Phillipe, triumphant against our home-grown Legitimists the Hamiltonians, though of course Schlesinger doesn’t put it quite this way.
Schlesinger never once strayed from the liberal fold, but he was himself a Hamiltonian in the sense that he advocated a unitary nation-state against Jeffersonian decentralization. He argues forcefully that Jackson was Jeffersonian in championing the cause of the common man, but what he most admired about the Jacksonians was their willingness to put down “radical” notions of state sovereignty (viz. the Nullification Crisis) while favoring, as he believed, an activist federal power prepared to bring the plutocracy to heel. As Eugene Genovese has written (echoing Forrest McDonald), despite Jackson’s oft-proclaimed commitment to states’ rights, “His commitment had a firm limit: like Lincoln after him he would not abide . . . an action that threatened to sever the Union.” Thus the Jackson legacy could be regarded as a useful tool in Schlesinger’s mythmaking on behalf of the liberal tradition—or, rather, his brilliant attempt to create a tradition for the quasi-Marxist form of liberalism ushered in under Roosevelt. Of course, in reality, Jackson’s object in attacking the Bank of the United States was not to aggrandize Federal power but to “free the economy from central control.”
To say that Schlesinger was essentially a splendid propagandist for the liberal cause would not be inaccurate. His major works after The Age of Jackson—including the three volumes of his unfinished opus on the Roosevelt years, as well as The Vital Center, The Cycles of American History, and The Imperial Presidency—are all well-researched, stylistically seductive, and often penetrating. Nonetheless, as Aldous reveals, Schlesinger never made any secret of his commitment to historiography as a mode of advocacy. Early on he had recognized, rightly, that there can be no pure, positivist objectivity in historical writing. Comparing his own ancestor Bancroft with Richard Hildreth, whose six-volume history of the United States appeared in the 1850’s, he dismisses the latter as a mere “annalist,” one who strip-mined the historical record to produce an assemblage of impartial “facts” but who wholly lacked a point of view.
Hildreth was a straw man, a foil for Schlesinger’s attempt to define what sort of historian he would be. Of Hildreth, he says, “[I]f he had allowed a scheme of organization to rise . . . simply from the study of the facts, he might well have written a work of much more enduring importance.” What Schlesinger means by a “scheme of organization” is a philosophy of history. Rejecting the Hildreth model (a convenient caricature), he chose to fashion himself in the image of Bancroft, who was what Aldous calls an “action intellectual” who wrote with the “sincerity of a viewpoint.” More importantly, he followed the example of his own father, whose theory of the “cycles of American history” Arthur Jr. made his own. He had always been fascinated, he wrote in the 1960’s, “by the interaction between history and public decision” and by the process in which “past history becomes an active partner in the making of new history.” Yet it is not the self-understanding of those who make history that matters, he asserted, but the interpretation of those who come later. Is there a problem here? As a much greater historian, John Lukacs, has argued, it is true that “objectivity” in the historical profession is a Cartesian myth, that the historian cannot escape the participant’s role. Facts have no significance until they are interpreted, and the interpreter is to some extent caught up in the self-understanding of his own era. Yet Schlesinger’s position seems to assume that those who come later possess a superior perspective, a position that only a faithful progressive could take—that is, one who believes that he has fathomed the ulterior purpose of the historical drama. But, as Lukacs might retort, what if the telos of history cannot be known by the participant observer? What if its meaning is, in the last analysis, not political but theological, known only in the mind of God? Such questions did not, apparently, worry Schlesinger the nonbeliever overmuch.
Schlesinger did not publish a complete exposé of his philosophical approach until 1986 when The Cycles of American History appeared, but the theoretical construct elaborated there informed even his earliest works. This construct, as his father first developed it in 1924, boils down to the notion that American history alternates between conservatism and liberalism roughly every 16 years. Cycles of liberalism advance the democratic and egalitarian ideals of the Revolution; cycles of conservatism seek to “contain” and moderate those advances, while insuring that the privileges of the “few” are not threatened. Arthur Jr. did not fundamentally alter this progressivist vision, but expanded and refined it. The first volume of The Age of Roosevelt, The Crisis of the Old Order: 1919-1933 (1957) does not deal with FDR’s presidency but with the failures and paralysis of the conservative “Old Order” which preceded it. Only in The Coming of the New Deal: 1933-1935 is the triumph of Roosevelt’s democratic optimism vindicated and portrayed as a resumption of the march of egalitarian progress established during the presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. The third volume, The Politics of Upheaval: 1935-1936, continues in the same vein. Turning to these volumes today many readers will perhaps wince at a narrative that sounds occasionally like a medieval morality play, one in which powerful business forces are arrayed in the red robes of Avarice as they seek desperately to turn back the righteous Everyman armies of the New Deal. To his credit, Aldous recognizes that The Age of Roosevelt is just as selective a reading of American history as was The Age of Jackson, and, moreover, one which is flawed by its not always convincing efforts to force the events of the Roosevelt years into the straitjacket of conservative/liberal cycles. Nevertheless, Aldous is evenhanded in his valuation of these volumes, noting for example that Schlesinger was the first to recognize that there were, in actuality, two New Deals, the first recovery-minded and “rooted in the past”; the second “reform-minded.” Though sometimes dismissed as simplistic, this framework has endured in subsequent scholarship. Aldous also astutely suggests that Schlesinger’s failure to complete the projected five volumes in the Roosevelt opus may have been a result simply of an inability to reconcile the developments of the final eight years of FDR’s reign with his theory of cycles. As more recent historians have insisted, the FDR brain trust was, as the 1930’s wore on, less concerned with liberal reform than with “state capitalism and state building.”
What is most striking in Aldous’s account of the middle years of Schlesinger’s career is the degree to which he became consumed by politics. After his war years in the Office of War Information (and a stint in the OSS), he returned to take a teaching post at Harvard. But, though he was a popular teacher, he was dissatisfied. In keeping with Bancroft’s ideal of the “action intellectual,” the lesson he took from the career of his progenitor was that writing American history “was not removing yourself from national politics; it could mean inserting yourself into them as an active player.” During the Truman years he moved decisively toward the anticommunist left, a position he would maintain throughout the Cold War era, frequently espousing the cause in popular journals such as Life, Time, and the New Yorker and corresponding with key political players such as Averell Harriman, Adlai Stevenson, and Truman himself. His literary abilities no doubt opened many doors for him, but it was also the case that he had always been capable of what he termed, in an early journal entry, a “ruthless charm”—an opportunistic, perhaps even sycophantic capacity for endearing himself to those in positions of power. By 1952 he was firmly positioned at the heart of the Democratic political machine, writing speeches for and advising Adlai Stevenson in two losing presidential campaigns against the immensely popular Eisenhower. When his loyalties shifted to John Kennedy in the 1960 campaign, Schlesinger apparently suffered only mild qualms of conscience. By his estimation JFK, despite his oft-praised charisma, was essentially a “managerial” centrist, not really a liberal at all, but admirably receptive to liberal advisors and speechwriters. The story of Schlesinger’s elevation to “house historian” under JFK has been retold so often that it is not necessary to belabor it. What is more interesting is how Schlesinger’s insertion of himself into the political arena proved to be an addiction, one that siphoned off an enormous quantity of his time and energy. While he continued to publish during the 1960’s and 70’s, these books, like A Thousand Days (his memoirs of the Kennedy years) were, with one notable exception, not serious works of history but ephemeral analyses of current events.
The exception is The Imperial Presidency (1973), a timely and even prophetic work that, though flawed in some respects, might justifiably be regarded as Schlesinger’s most enduring contribution to the historical study of American politics. Written just as the Vietnam fiasco was drawing to an end, and partly in response to abuses of power in the Nixon White House, it surveys the long history of presidential usurpations of power, including Lincoln’s imposition of martial law, the territorial annexations abroad under McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt, and the vastly expanded war powers assumed by Franklin Roosevelt. Over the decades, and especially after the Spanish-American War, congressional veto authority over matters of war was gradually eviscerated. Schlesinger, despite his adulation of FDR, is honest enough to recognize that this second Roosevelt’s skillful and high-handed manipulation of Congress (and public opinion) contributed greatly to the growing acceptance of an imperial presidency. With his usual stylistic panache, he noted that “[T]he imperial presidency grew at the expense of the constitutional order. Like the cowbird, it hatched its own eggs and pushed the others out of the nest.” FDR had been “right” and Congress wrong, but this seeming vindication of an almost unlimited presidential authority over foreign policy contributed more than anything else to the greater abuses of power by LBJ and Richard Nixon. The Cold War played a crucial part, as well, arousing doubts about whether such an existential threat to the democratic world could be firmly resisted by a president shackled by Congress. Among the criticisms one might raise here is that Schlesinger exaggerates the threat posed by Nixon, who, Aldous says, “for all his conventionality of utterance and mind[,] was a genuine revolutionary.” This, in retrospect, seems doubtful. A more important criticism hinges upon Schlesinger’s neglect of the link between the growing centralization of domestic power and the rise of the imperial presidency—a link which might best be understood in the context of an aggressive American nationalism. On this point, we must return to the farsighted Lukacs, who, in reviewing the publication of Schlesinger’s collected journals (2007), stated that for all his brilliance Arthur Jr., hopelessly wedded to an antiquated liberalism, failed to see “the rapid decline of the appeal of liberalism, and the attraction and the force of a populist nationalism—the cult of the people and of the military power of the nation.” It is the Republican Party, the party of faux conservatism, that has most effectively harnessed this alliance of forces, even as the reputed party of the “people” wades ever deeper into the swamp of identity politics. Sadly, Schlesinger watched (and personally suffered from) this development and, though he did not fully comprehend it, was wise enough to see the danger. Speaking of the emergence of multiculturalism and lamenting the demise of the “melting pot,” he wrote, “[T]he use of history as therapy . . . means the corruption of history as history.”
[Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian, by Richard Aldous (New York: W.W. Norton & Company) 496 pp., $29.95]