U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Can Political History Be Intellectual History?

We here at the USIH Blog have a tradition of spending several weeks posting comments or papers or analyses from our annual conference. I hope this year is no different. So consider this an open call to those who were in DC: send me or another regular blogger your paper, comments, or analyses and we will post them here. 

In that spirit I post comments by Michael Landis, who sat on a great roundtable on the question “Can Political History Be Intellectual History?” that included Heather Cox Richardson,  Sarah Mergel, and Thomas Balcerski. Landis is an Assistant Professor of History at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas and author of Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis (Cornell 2014). 

When my colleagues and I conceived of this panel, I imagined that my comments would be a full-throated defense of political history and an attack on the rise of disciplinary barriers, such as that being erected between “political” history and “intellectual” history. I was going to say something about Plato and Aristotle, that “man is by nature a political animal,” and that intellectual history is a mere offshoot of political history. [1] However, the surprising attention of a recent article of mine gave me pause, and I began to think differently about how we write and treat politics and ideas.

Back in early September, I penned a short piece for The History News Network on historians, language, and terminology. The article received a deluge of comments, and was picked up and republished by Smithsonian Magazine. The piece calls on historians and teachers of American slavery and the Civil War to re-examine their word choices. I challenged them to follow the lead of Paul Finkelman, who urges us to use “Appeasement of 1850” rather than “Compromise of 1850,” and Ed Baptist, who prefers “enslaver” to “slave-owner” and “slave labor camp” to “plantation.” I added my own opinion that we should employ “United States” rather than “Union” in discussing the Civil War. The article was, in the words of Matt Gallman of the University of Florida, an act of “bomb throwing.”

The essay elicited almost immediate response from defenders and attackers alike. In particular, conservatives condemned me as a “Lefty Prof” leading the “word police.” I spent hours reading all the comments on History News Network, Smithsonian Magazine, facebook, and twitter, some of them comically hateful, such as the gentleman who concluded that my love life must be as bad as my ideas, or the fellow who called me a “Hebrew goblin” and vowed to spit in my face. Nevertheless, I found the process of writing the piece and digesting the feedback enormously rewarding and engaging. It was, I confess, an unexpectedly intellectual experience. The connection between terminology and argument was revealed on several levels. Different groups were wedded to very specific words as well as very specific arguments.

Take, for instance, the fierce attachment to the word “compromise.” More than any other aspect of my essay, my rejection of the word “compromise” (a word that has been used by generations of historians and civilians alike to describe the legislative packages that prevented disunion in the antebellum era) attracted the most vitriol. Even many of my seasoned colleagues, who are well aware of the uneven nature of the deals struck in 1820, 1833, and 1850, seemed hopelessly attached to that word. Why? I asked myself. Why are people so reluctant to reexamine “compromise”? Why the loyalty to a word?

I have spent much time pondering these questions, and I have concluded that the term “compromise” strikes an emotional chord on Americans’ heart strings. Americans like to think of themselves as a people who, when necessary, sacrifice their individual interests for the common good. In this case, the future of the nation. Moreover, Americans seem attached to the notion that they are more alike than different, that there are really no serious, deep, destructive divisions in American politics; that we all agree on republican values and the virtues of nationhood. The heyday of this way of thinking, of course, came in the mid-20th century, with the consensus school of historiography, where politically-motivated scholars such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. re-wrote American history to minimize sectional divisions and the centrality of slavery. The Civil War was just a big misunderstanding caused by a “blundering generation,” concluded J.G. Randall in 1940. [2]

With this consensus interpretation of history, Americans could feel good about themselves; they could rest assured that in a troubled, fractured world the United States remained united. The stubborn belief in “compromise,” I believe, is part of the consensus equation. With a compromise, both sides sacrifice nearly the same amount; opposing interests can find common ground. That is a much rosier picture of American history than the sources warrant. If we abandon “compromise” as the label for some of the most important moments in United States history, then we are abandoning the consensus ideal. In turn, it forces us to examine our current political crises as far more dangerous than might be comfortable. Despite the fact that the federal government constantly teeters on the brink of another “shut-down,” Americans still seem convinced that “compromise” will always save the day.

Moreover, rejecting the compromise paradigm forces us to acknowledge some very disturbing things about the American past, namely that the Slave Power was real and that the United States was dominated by a powerful minority built on human torture, bondage, and murder. As scholars such as Eric Walther, Walter Johnson, and Ed Baptist have shown, the sheer brutality and monomaniacal mentality of the planter elite rivaled the Nazis. How could there possibly have been comprise with such a monstrous group? To discard the compromise ideal is to confront the fact that the United States was, for a significant part of its history, a minority-rule nation controlled by murderous maniacs. Unsettling indeed.

My comments here have a two-fold objective. First, I aim to rattle your cages and get you thinking differently about language and the realities of antebellum America. And second, I hope to show that political history is, at its core, also intellectual history; to discuss the political power of antebellum enslavers, for example, is to dig deep into our understanding of “America” as a nation and what influence that idea may have on us today. Thus, I find myself returning to my original objective of attacking disciplinary barriers. How and why should we separate politics and ideas? To my mind, they are one in the same. Politics are ideas in action. Or, as the late Pauline Maier said in an interview with the New York Times following her 2011 keynote address to this very organization, “How can you understand what people do if you don’t try to understand what they think?”

Let us take my friend Andrew Hartman’s recent book on the Culture Wars. According to blogs and tweets and posts, you all consider it “intellectual history,” but when I read it, it seemed very much a work of political history. He is very clear that ideas are intrinsically tied to events; to divide and separate ideas and events obscures rather than illuminates. The same can be said of the work of my fellow panelist Heather Cox Richardson: her books on Reconstruction, nineteenth century politics, and the Republican Party are very much about ideas as well as events. So in which category do her books belong? “Political history” or “intellectual history”? Why do we need such distinctions? I even bristle at the phrase “political history,” since it implies that there is an exclusion of “social” history, whatever that is. Perhaps we should go a step farther and question the disciplinary boundaries present at most academic institutions: history, political science, philosophy, pre-law, etc. Do these discreet terms really make sense?

So let me conclude by calling for a wholesale rejection of disciplinary and categorical barriers. We should embrace each other’s work as being part of a much larger whole, not enact an intellectual “enclosure movement” by throwing up fences and staking claim to specific approaches and methodologies. If nothing else, political and intellectual seem to be sharing a renaissance in scholarship and academic interest. Our two fields, side-lined for decades by “cultural” and “social” history, are now making a comeback. Let us work together, blend our disciplines, and tear down the barriers. In our current atmosphere of corporate education and increasing specialization in scholarship, I know my comments and suggestions are inflammatory. But, as Frederick Douglass once said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

[1] Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, Part II.

[2] J. G. Randall, “The Blundering Generation.” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 27, No. 1, June 1940.