U.S. Intellectual History Blog

My “History of Liberalism” Relay Team

In the chapter I’m working on now, I’m situating the history of Stanford’s undergraduate curriculum from the 1890s to the 1980s alongside (or within) the history of American liberalism. Alas, no one has (yet) published The Big Book of American Liberalism, so there is no conveniently periodized master-narrative upon which I can draw to trace out the career(s) of liberal thought in American life throughout the 20th century. Rather, I need to put together a relay team of historians to help me carry the baton of my argument.

For my take on the history of liberalism, here’s the team I have assembled so far:

Leslie Butler, Critical Americans: Victorian Intellectuals and Transatlantic Liberal Reform
James T. Kloppenberg, Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870-1920
Andrew Jewett, Science, Democracy and the American University: From the Civil War to the Cold War
Richard H. Pells, Radical Visions & American Dreams: Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom
Angus Burgin, The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression
Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture

In terms of the history of Stanford’s undergraduate curriculum in particular, my main secondary sources are these:

Julie A. Reuben, The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality
Rebecca S. Lowen, Creating the Cold War University: The Transformation of Stanford

Certainly these aren’t the only scholars upon whose work I am relying in this chapter, nor are they the only sources I’m using who have something to say about liberalism in general, or about liberalism and higher education in particular. But in terms of chronological and thematic coverage, I can pretty much situate my reading of primary sources (course catalogs, university bulletins, annual reports, commissioned studies, etc.), informed by the insights of Reuben and Lowen, within the compass of a larger narrative arc that stretches from Butler to Rodgers.

That’s my plan, anyhow.

Right now I’m trying to get from a discussion of laissez-faire liberalism as manifested in the free elective system to an exploration of the connection between the ascendancy of bureaucratic liberalism and the implementation of general education requirements after World War I. It’s a nice argument in theory, but it’s not working out so well on paper now. I find myself relying in places on the impersonal organicist causality of Robert Wiebe – lots of ideas or institutional structures “emerging” and “developing,” “conflicting” with and sometimes “yielding to” other notions, other structures. This is all right to some extent, but  too much impersonal agency in my explanatory scheme might be a sign that I’m not digging deep enough as I try to make these turns in my argument.

Anyhow, I picked my History of Liberalism relay team with an eye to the particular angle I am trying to take in subsequent chapters of my dissertation. (I’m keeping the precise trajectory of that angle to myself, but as you can tell from my inclusion of Burgin, I’m particularly interested in the relationship of liberalism and neoliberalism and how they intersect in this 1980s curricular debate).   So this is not meant to be a syllabus, an exhaustive list, a comprehensive roster – it’s a pragmatic grouping of monographs from which I can draw for my “longue durée” background chapter.

That said, I’d like to know: if you were putting together your own relay team of historical works to carry your version of the story of liberalism from the Gilded Age to the 1980s, which texts would you pick?

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I find Alan Brinkley’s Liberalism and it’s Discontents useful. Also there are thoughtful essays collected in Liberalism For A New Century, edited by Neil Jummonville and Kevin Mattison.

  2. LD–An interesting post. Below are some works by historians that could be useful.

    Over Here by David Kennedy

    Freedom From Fear by David Kennedy

    When America Was Great by Kevin Mattson

    Grand Expectations by James Patterson

    Beyond the New Deal by Alonzo Hamby

    Restless Giant by James Patterson

    Divided They Fell by Ronald Radosh

    Although he was not an historian, Teddy White’s Making of the President series (1960, 1964, 1968, 1972) could be interesting in showing changes in liberalism from 1960-1972.

    • Although Patterson has no deep theory or science of ‘expectations’, his book does show that increasingly higher expectations both drive and mar liberalism in the postwar era. – TL

  3. This is a very useful question. I found Daniel Rogers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (1998) helpful.

  4. Hi LD, this is fascinating and I’m really interested to see how this chapter plays out. Think of it this way – you are trailblazing a path for many younger scholars, including myself, who might end up citing your dissertation liberally.

    Is there any good book or article on the Progressive university and its ties to liberalism? Jewett is great on this, and so is Edward Purcell’s Crisis of Democratic Theory. But in both cases the university itself goes in and out of the picture. Joel Isaac’s Working Knowledge is better on situating things at Harvard, but both he and Reuben avoid the politics.

    Wondering if you might have more luck with the books/articles on individuals, like on Dewey, Charles William Elliot, Charles Eliot Norton, and perhaps especially David Starr Jordan and his networks, successors, fellow academic leaders, etc.


  5. Thanks to all for the replies and the suggestions — and keep them coming!

    I will look again at Kennedy’s Over Here. Also, it occurs to me that Novick’s Noble Dream is certainly (if sometimes obliquely) telling the story of liberalism. In fact, in terms of covering the entire timespan that I’m looking at, that might be the best single book with something to say on liberalism and higher ed in tandem.

    Yes certainly to the Jumonville/Mattson edited reader, and also of course to J’s Critical Crossings. Might be very interesting to put Jumonville conversation with Burgin.

    Interesting question, Bryan. On Jewett, I wonder: is “scientific democracy” liberalism (in the most capacious sense) by another name? But in terms of other works not mentioned above, Dorothy Ross’s section on “Progressive Social Science” in Origins… is really useful. I think Cremin is helpful too — in The Metropolitan Experience, see his sections on “The Progressive Nation” and “A Metropolitan Education.”

    One book I’ll need to go back and look at through a “liberalism” filter — and I’ll be glad to do it, because it’s such a great book — is Rosalind Rosenberg’s Beyond Separate Spheres: Intellectual Roots of Modern Feminism. She certainly gets at the role of the Progressive university in shaping the culture more broadly, and interrogates the relationship between academic knowledge/research and larger social changes. Also very helpful is the “geography” of her study — I had posted about Stanford’s “westernness” as part of its longue-duree status anxiety. Rosenberg’s study would suggest that geography was crucial on a bigger scale. Upstart universities in far-flung places, because they needed students and researchers, were less finicky about providing space — lab space, intellectual space — for women, and that had huge implications for intellectual inquiry more generally.

    Another interesting take on the Progressive university is Brian Ingrassia’s study of the “triumph” of college football: The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education’s Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time Football. This is good for its attention to space, architecture, etc. But I was surprised, given Ingrassia’s argument, that he did not enter into conversation with Julie Reuben on the question of moral formation.

  6. There’s been some excellent recommendations in this thread so far. What I’m about to offer up is a bit different from everyone else, but I think they’ll aid you:

    1. “Making Sense of American Liberalism” by Jonathan Bell and Timothy Stanley is a collection of essays, but gives some good, concise essays that explore various facets of the history of modern American liberalism. It tries to move from an entirely declension narrative, while at the same time acknowledging the defeats and setbacks suffered by liberals from the 1950s until the present.

    2. “The Liberals Moment” by Bruce Miroff is a great re-examination of the 1972 election, viewing it as a place where the seeds of the modern Democratic Party (and by extension modern liberalism) were sown.

    3. “Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics” by Devin Fergus. A different take on liberalism, with it set in North Carolina from 1965-1980 and considering its relationship with Black Power, I think this book is still useful for you because it also adds considerable nuance to the historiography of liberalism.

  7. Doug Rossinow, Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America (2008; pb, 2009)

    (haven’t read but have seen it mentioned favorably)

    • I’d second this one. Kept trying to think of the title but it escaped me–definitely one worth checking out.

  8. I would also add the following books.

    The Unraveling of America by Allen Matusow
    The Years of Lyndon Johnson series by Robert Caro
    Lone Star Rising by Robert Dallek
    Flawed Giant by Robert Dallek
    Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream by Doris Kearns

  9. L.D.:

    I get the impression that your consideration of Liberalism would be one that draws a direct line, more-or-less, from John Locke to Thomas Jefferson to Franklin Roosevelt. Though many join you in this (most of them, no doubt, political liberals), I do not find such a schema terribly compelling. To me, American liberalism is first and foremost a political doctrine, one that evolved as politicians needed it to, in response to emerging conditions and to electoral considerations. In that light, I think that the Progressive response to industrialism issued such a significant modification to classical Liberalism that conservatives are not too far off when they bitch and moan that modern-day political liberalism really should have a different name.

    If you are interested in that approach, though, I think that Alan Ryan’s latest book, The Making of Modern Liberalism would be a good place to turn. I have not read it, but to my memory it received widespread raves when it was released in 2012. As far as I know (again, not having read it) it is more-or-less exactly what you’re looking for as a presentation of the overarching century-spanning transatlantic development of Liberalism.

    To better explain *my* more local and political conception of American liberalism, though, the place I would send you would be my own book. In trying to make sense of the competing American commitments to democracy and capitalism, all of A Commercial Republic is, in some Hartzian sense, a meditation on the influence of Liberalism in the U.S. (I take up that issue specifically in the conclusion.) And there is a short passage on Liberalism in the early national period on pages 25-27. But the part that might be of the most interest and/or relevance to your particular question would be those sections that trace the evolution of 20th century political liberalism. Those are on pages 120-130, 145-150 and 166-182.

    The particular changes in the use of the word “liberalism” is important here as well. For that I leaned heavily on Ronald Rotunda’s book The Politics of Language: Liberalism as Word and Symbol (22-25) and John Dewey’s 1935 Liberalism and Social Action (35-54).

    Finally, you can never go wrong reading On Liberty or, to a lesser extent for your project, the Second Treatise of Government.


  10. Mike, thanks for this thoughtful comment/reading, and the great suggestions.

    I’m trying to follow a slightly different trajectory than the one you laid out. I’m starting with John Stuart Mill’s influence on the “critical Americans” (relying much on Butler’s wonderful book), and how their arguments for “educative democracy” found their counterpart in Charles W. Eliot’s elective system (one kind of “liberal education”) alongside their arguments for the “Arnoldian” cultural training to ennoble and equip citizens with the ethical foundation to choose wisely in the process of self government (another kind of “liberal education”). I start here because Stanford University started here, temporally and temperamentally. And I am trying to carry the story forward on two fronts — changes to the notion of what constitutes a “liberal education,” as evidenced in Stanford’s changing curriculum, and changes to the structuring logic of “liberal democratic capitalism” (or a “liberal capitalist democracy,” or something like that). So I’m probably closer to the concerns of A Commercial Republic than I made it sound in my initial post, and I will order the book forthwith.

    Generally, I don’t usually say much online about the specifics of what I’m writing. It’s not fear of my argument being “stolen” — I have no illusions that this idea is worth stealing, especially after trying to make a go of it on the page. I’m more inclined to think it needs euthanizing, but I’m going to try to see it through to the end. Rather, I usually keep my own counsel on specifics because I have to marshall and focus all my resources in making this argument where it has to be made: in the dissertation draft.

    But I really needed help with conceptualizing this series of moves I want to make in telling (a version of) the history of liberalism that changed right along with a changing college curriculum (or vice versa, actually), and I knew this community would be intellectually and professionally generous in suggesting new angles to take on that history. You have not disappointed. In addition to the wonderful suggestions here, I have gotten emails from some very astute interlocutors with more reading suggestions and some questions to help me get closer to what I’m trying to say. I’m so grateful — and you can bet I’ll be saying so on an acknowledgments page.

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