IS AMERICA STILL A GLORIOUS CAUSE?
A Conversation with Historian Robert Middlekauff
In The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789, Robert Middlekauff emphasizes themes which may remind readers of the traditional narrative historians and their interest in the American character. Besides having written this first volume to appear in The Oxford History of the United States, Dr. Middlekauff is author of The Mathers. After having been Margaret Byrne Professor of History and Provost and Dean of the College of Letters and Science at the University of California, Berkeley, Dr. Middlekauff became Director of the Huntington Library in San Marino on September 1 of this year. Dr. Christopher Flannery, Project Coordinator of The Claremont Institute's Bicentennial of the Constitution Project, and Dr. Ken Masugi, Editor of the Review, spoke with Dr. Middlekauff recently at his office in the Huntington about the historian's craft.
Claremont Review: We would like to ask you first about your own scholarly work and, in particular, about your most recent book, The Glorious Cause, which is the first volume to appear in the Oxford History of the United States.
The reviewers seem to have a fairly consistent reaction: The book is viewed as representing a return to an older style of writing history, narrative style, which had fallen into scholarly disfavor and disuse with the popularity of monographs and specialized studies. Is this an accurate view of your own book as you understand it? What commends your approach?
Robert Middlekauff: I'm not sure I do understand it that way. In writing The Glorious Cause, I certainly was not consciously attempting to return to any older mode or style of history. I've always been interested in the American Revolution, and I've always been interested in the problem of dealing with major events or sets of events in Western civilization. How does one do this? I've always-this is a very personal statement, I suppose-wanted to write a history about a very large and clearly important event in the history of Western civilization. I'm an early-American historian, and I've taught courses on the American Revolution for over 20 years and studied it in one way or another for many years. So the Revolution was a natural choice for me.
I did not set out to write this book under a commission from Oxford University Press or C. Vann Woodward. I had started writing it several years before I went into the series. When I was asked to join the series, the informal understanding was that I would write the kind of book that I had originally set out to write. I would not write it in conformity with any terms of a series. I'm sorry I didn't say something like this in the preface, it would have helped some readers-at least the scholarly reviewers-understand what I did, and what I failed to do in that book. Many scholarly reviewers have said that what I had done is not, in any full sense, a complete synthesis of the scholarship of the period. They had been put on the scent that it was to be a synthesis, or that I had attempted to write a synthesis, by Vann Woodward's foreword in which he says that the books in this series are to be syntheses.
I'm incapable of writing a synthesis, and I've lever had any desire to write such a book. I don't look upon history that way. It's a much too personal calling for me, and I think a historian ought to say what he thinks and should not simply synthesize what other historians have done.
I wrote a book much too personal and idiosyncratic, I suppose, for a lot of people's tastes. I certainly use the scholarship of others, but I did not attempt to weave some synthesis out of it. The judgments in the book are mine. Where they coincide with somebody else's, it's not because of an attempted achieving of synthesis; it's a coincidence. So, that in a nutshell is how I looked upon the kind of commission that I had. Whether this represents a return to some older style or not, I don't know. I think historians ought to speak to intelligent lay readers as well as to one another. I can't really see the point of writing for another 25 or 30 people in a field.
CR: And what sort of audience were you aiming at?
RM: I was writing for two sorts of people: intelligent laymen or general readers, and professional historians. Most professional historians of early American history don't have an overall grasp of the American Revolution. Most historians are lamentably ignorant of the war; for example, the military side of the Revolution. Liberal intellectuals are suspicious and hostile to the study of war. They're hostile to war first of all, and that carries over into an aversion to its study. And so I think you get a lot of lopsided and skewed histories of the American Revolution because they leave the war out. I have been cashiered because I put the war back in, and maybe I overdid it, but I think the war was really very important in defining the shape of the Revolution and in affecting constitutionalism. I don't think you can understand the drafting of the Federal Constitution if you do not study the war. The war affected this generation in ways that I think professional historians have not recognized.
CR: The so-called narrative mode of writing history in one reviewer's understanding is connected with the question: What or who makes history? Is it to the "morally autonomous individual"-that is, the individual men who deliberate about events and shape them-that one should look, or to the forces beyond the control of men: social systems and economic forces that sweep men along? You are said to represent the first approach.
RM: Yes. I think that's probably a fair way of putting what my view is, that I think that written history should concern itself with people, with men, in their circumstances. Consider in this light the post-World War II development of the Annales School, and the people who are preoccupied with deep structures and the so-called impersonal substratum-substructure, structures, or classes-those great impersonal forces that are presumably hidden from somebody who looks at events. I think many social historians have been remiss in not recognizing the importance of men in structures, in circumstances in society. I think them remiss in not recognizing that the decisions, the ideals, the principles of men can make a very great effect. The way people use power, for example, can shape the structure of a society.
I don't see how anybody could live in the 20th century and look at what's happened in this century, and talk about the unimportance of chance or contingency, of principle, of ideology, of ideas of men. We presumably are competing with a state that has been created by an ideology. The Soviet state has reshaped structures-the way society is organized, the way the ground is cultivated, the way it is held, the way manufacturing is conducted. I don't believe that the Soviet Union is the product of some vast impersonal forces that can be understood without the decisions and the ideas, the ideologies, the values of men. It seems to me to be absurd to look at that.
CR: In the preface to your book you remark that the revolutionary generation did consider their cause to be a glorious cause, and so do you. You also say, I think, that one of the purposes of your book is to revive, at least in part, some of the passions and commitments that characterize the revolutionary generation? Do I remember correctly?
RM: Well, to revive an understanding, not to revive the passions and commitments. It's not history in that old-fashioned sense of patriotic history. I did not write that book with the sense that American patriotism needed refiring or that American nationalism needed strengthening or anything of that kind. That was not a motive at all. I do want my readers to get a sense of the way people felt about what they were doing and about the time they were living in. And so I put a great deal of emphasis on reconstructing the sort of experience that I thought would give readers a sense of the Revolution being not just for the elite, for the great, but for the ordinary people.
In a way, I think a detached reader could look at that book and say this book is written by a new social historian as well as an old-fashioned narrative historian because I, after all, spend a lot of time on the common soldier and try to take him apart and explain what made him tick and what his passions and values were. I take him very seriously. I don't dismiss him as being unimportant. He's not just part of some hidden structure; he's somebody who really plays a significant role in the history that I tell. So in that sense I think there is a good deal of social history in that book.
I do say that I agree that it's a glorious cause, to come back to what we first said, but I also qualify that by saying that I think there are a lot of enormous failures in it. I think they have to be judged by the standards of the 18th century. I don't think it's fair to bring these people into the court of the 20th century and to cashier them by 20th century standards. Certainly a number of the things that I think are deplorable in the Revolution were recognized in the 18th century as failures. And of course the most dramatic and the most important and the most searing was the failure to deal with slavery. I certainly point that out as clearly as I can. I don't spend 300 pages on it, and I don't regret not doing that. Pointing it out in a number of ways and places as I do was probably sufficient.
CR: Is it still a glorious cause? That is, can someone today look back and say, yes, somewhere in that Revolution we find our cause today? Take Lincoln, who looked back at the Declaration of Independence and declared it to be the father of all moral principle in us. Do you look at the glorious cause in that way, in, say, a Lincolnian way?
RM: I think that there was a very great nobility in the principles that were announced by the Americans in the Revolution. I think there was a standard raised that still has great vitality and, in many ways, is still not attained. I think if you simply look at the Declaration itself, you find that it sets out principles that are very worthwhile considering today and, put into a 20th century context, taking very seriously. The one that has caused Americans the most grief, of course, is the statement that "All men are created equal." Equality in the sense that Jefferson meant, I think is a very great idea; it certainly is one that the 20th century has not begun to deal with as effectively as it should. Certainly, the statements on behalf of political liberty are admirable; and the whole notion of constitutionalism as it was defined in this generation is, and was, admirable. And the respect for constitutionalism still has an element of glory in it. Again, despite all the failures.
CR: The failures are measured by the standard, by the nobility of the standard?
RM: I guess there are several ways of looking at it. The revolutionaries did not meet their own standards; that's one thing I'm suggesting. They met them to some extent, and they achieved a great deal. But they gave us something too, and I don't think that we've met them yet either, and I'm not confident that we will.
CR: I can readily see your readers understanding your book as a means of challenging them to live up to the hopes of the Founding generation. That is, I can understand how readers-and I myself am such a one-can regard your book as really just as much a political statement about the American condition today as it was historical inquiry in that sense of trying to re-create the past and the way the people understood themselves. So, what would you say to a person reading your book in that way, as drawing political lessons for today from it in that way?
RM: That is an awfully hard question. And I don't generally think in those terms. I don't think of myself as being a historical moralist. People have to draw moral lessons, or political lessons, in their own way. For me, it's simply enough to re-create the torment and the pain of that experience and the sense of identity it gave to Americans, and to leave it at that; then I think it's up to readers to make of it what they will.
CR: I have a question about what you had to say about equality and your book's citation of Garry Wills' recent book, Inventing America. I was wondering how satisfied you were with his explanation of equality, which seems to be quite eccentric; that is, he tries to read Locke out of the Declaration, which just on the face of it seems utterly absurd. And even after you read his book, it doesn't seem to be convincing.
RM: Well, I think that there is a lot of rhetorical extravagance in Wills' book. To make a very good point about Hutcheson's importance and about the importance of the sense of community in the 18th century (I guess that's a 20th century word, and maybe the wrong word), he went to a great extreme, as, you say, in eliminating Locke and in disavowing all previous interpretation of the Declaration. I think that you're quite correct. But on the other hand, I think there is much in his book-I don't accept it whole cloth-that's valuable and important. The sense that he has of Jefferson's understanding, and the understanding of others, that was taking place in the Revolution was a shattering of a people, and the creation of another people, I think is probably the right one. You remember he stresses the original emphasis in Jefferson's early version of the Declaration; he stresses the importance that Jefferson placed on the sense of brotherhood in America, the sense of brotherhood with England. Now whether Jefferson was really right or not, I don't know. I think Wills has picked out a very important point to emphasize, and I think that's an important contribution in that book. Plus, he's right on Jefferson in lots of ways. The wonderful stuff about Jefferson's obsession with numerology and statistics. He's absolutely correct about Jefferson. Nobody had said that before about Jefferson. Nobody had really picked that out. I think that's of value. Now, that doesn't bear directly on what we're talking about in the Revolution. But there's a lot of value in that book, despite all the extravagance, the rather eccentric reading of the evidence, the eccentric decisions about what to accept and what not to accept.
CR: This question of Wills raises this broader question of the extent to which there are things such as enduring principles. That is, if you assume the nature of man is constant, are there not enduring principles of political philosophy that can guide a people, and were such principles in evidence at the Founding of this nation? To put it another way, I'm asking about the relationship between the study of political philosophy, the tradition from Plato to Locke and beyond, and the study of history.
RM: It sounds to me like a subject for another book about three times as long as mine. I don't really know how to answer that question; I'm skeptical of several of the assumptions you have made. I'm not sure that human nature is constant or really whether there is anything that we can identify as human nature or the nature of man. Those terms always leave me a little uneasy. I'm still something of a historical nominalist, and I feel a bit uneasy with abstractions of that sort. I don't think generally in those terms, and so it's a very hard question for me. Maybe I'd better think of that for a while.
CR: Religion plays a very great part in your account of the Revolution. To what extent do you think the ideas of the Revolution can be accounted for by looking to the religious background, and to what extent do you see them as a decisive break with that tradition-something new?
RM: I should say first of all that one of the failures of the book that I wrote was my inability to sustain that theme as evenly as I might have throughout the book. It disappears for too many pages. I didn't really know how to sustain it, and I still really don't know how. I don't think it's the failure of the narrative form; I really believe that narrative history can be an explanatory history. But as for religion, the reason I concentrated on it was because I was, and am, very interested in why the so-called commonwealth-man ideology, the radical Whig ideology, seemed to find such fertile soil in America, why it was compelling to so many people.
Part of the problem in explaining the Revolution is explaining why so many people enlisted on the patriot side, and why they were involved-involved in various degrees, of course. It seems to me that finally the most compelling explanation comes out of some sort of understanding of their culture, their essential values and attitudes and habits of mind; and the only way that I can think of to reconstruct that culture is to look at their religion. This, I think, has been one of the hardest problems for reviewers to understand. Probably it's a comment on how secular contemporary historians are, how secular-minded.
I wanted to try to explain why the radical Whig ideology-especially its propensity to cast political questions in moral terms-was so compelling and effective in America. As I started to say a moment ago, it seemed to me it could be explained only in terms of the evangelical, rather low, Protestantism of Americans in the second half of the 18th century. Their church membership was rather low in this period, and it may be that in a formal sense religious commitments were not impressive. I think people judged political questions in rather sharp moral terms and tended to accept the sorts of explanations of political problems and crises in terms of the commonwealth ideology, because those terms relied on conspiracy and plots and a certain kind of morality. I think I was more effective in developing this theme in explaining the coming of the Revolution than I was in showing how it affected what happened after the war, though I tried to do that in the chapter in which I explained the basis of the constitutional movement itself and how it was tied to the earlier period.
I do think that religion is supremely important, and I wouldn't limit it just to the period of the Revolution. I think that at least up to the Civil War and perhaps after, you can understand American history only if you have an understanding of American religion. It's like trying to understand the 20th century without some understanding of economics. This is a terribly rough equation, but Calvin is to the 17th and maybe the 18th century what John Maynard Keynes is to the 20th century. I said this is very rough, and I'm exposing myself to all kinds of attacks. But I hope that I make my point.
CR: I gather that, from your point of view, in the Revolution and Founding, freedom was connected with virtue, that politics was intended to cultivate virtue and also depended upon virtuous citizens.
CR: Now there are influential interpreters of the Founding who regard America as a modern political mechanism which doesn't depend upon virtuous citizens and is not intended to cultivate them. They cite the father of the Constitution, James Madison, and especially the Federalist, to buttress such arguments.
RM: You can also quote to the contrary from the Federalist Papers. Virtue was very important in that work.
CR: Right. The republican government more than any other presupposes a certain kind of citizenry, and so on. What is your view of that?
RM: Madison, I think, was divided. I think he believed-at least the way I read him, he certainly did believe-that ultimately republican politics would survive only if virtue survived in a people. But he was also very interested in a word that he and Hamilton used over and over again: energy. He was interested in an energetic government, and he was certainly very concerned about the importance of large organizations, the development of large institutions and their effect on a society, and he was in some ways a disillusioned and disenchanted Republican. He certainly was not a Democrat in any modern sense, and yet he believed very strongly that a republic had to have a strong democratic element, and of course the Constitution does, more than any state government and more than the Articles of Confederation. He's not a naive man, and I don't think that Madison thought that what he and others were creating was going to survive through the ages either. I think he was in some ways a historical pessimist.
CR: So you think he would be surprised to see how long it has gone on?
RM: Well, I don't know about that, of course. But I think if he had been pressed to make a prediction, he would have made a rather bleak one about the fate of the republic. He had a strong historical sense, as you know. He read an awful lot of ancient history. He really was a supremely gifted intelligence. I don't think there was any more impressive intelligence in that generation.
CR: I'm wondering whether you have a particular teacher or whether you regard a particular school of history as being especially helpful in the formation of your own career and scholarship.
RM: Well, yes. The man I studied with was certainly very important to me, and I think had a very great influence on me, Edmund Morgan. He's certainly a strong advocate of narrative history. But on the other hand, I have been very much influenced by Perry Miller, who, I think, was certainly one of the two or three greatest historians of this century. I think he is a wonderful historian. Those two more than any other two. I have read a lot of the new social historians and find their work very interesting and helpful and important, even though that's not the kind of history that I want to write. But those two, I suppose-Morgan and Miller-more than any others, have been important for me.
Of an older generation of historians, of the 19th century historians, the two I suppose I admire more than any others and are quite different from one another are Henry Adams and Francis Parkman. Concerning the current crop of so-called analytical historians: I'm obviously not a Marxist, and there is a lot that I don't like in E. P. Thompson's book on the making of the English working class, but I think that's a marvelous book. But he has not been deeply influential on me, though certainly I read him with a lot of appreciation.
CR: What about future plans? Do you have a project in mind?
RM: Yes, I've got several things in mind. I think the most ambitious thing I would like to do is something I may not be able to do-write a book about religion and society in early America, and do it from, say, the beginnings of the colonies up to some point in the early republic. I don't know where it really ought to stop. I think it's a subject that has not had very good historical treatment. For me, the most impressive and the most stimulating book on this subject is Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism. I still think that's the most impressive book I've ever read about religion and society. But I don't think there has been a great deal done by sociologists that is-well, again for historians-terribly helpful, and historians have not done it very well.
I also want to write a book-a shorter, less ambitious book-about 20th century narrative historians. I've never written a book about historians before, but I would like to write a book that says something about narrative historians of America in this century, Samuel Eliot Morison being the key figure, but also dealing with, I think, Allan Nevins and Schlesinger, Jr. What I'm interested in is what has happened to the narrative in the 20th century. I'll have to do something with the 19th century narrative history, and then really give most of my attention to the 20th century people, and those are the three I'm thinking about concentrating on. They're very different, but they're all interesting in their own right.
And Morison, I must say, in some ways has been influential for me. Historical prose style is something I'm quite interested in, and Morison's style I find very interesting. Despite what many historians take to be his antiquated ideas about the past, he has a very colloquial and modern prose style. It is a daring style; he takes all kinds of chances that most people can't bring off. He does it. And it's not quite clear to me how he does it. His stuff doesn't become dated or stale. A too-heavy reliance on colloquial expressions or on slang will soon kill anybody's prose, but it doesn't work that way with him, and I'm not quite sure why.
CR: Who would you recommend to an aspiring young historian today, a student, as an example of historical prose style, and how would you recommend such students to acquire and develop a style?
RM: I would recommend that they read as widely as possible, certainly the people I've mentioned. I think they certainly would profit from reading Morgan, Miller, and Morison, and reading Henry Adams, and the great 19th century practitioners, I think, would be helpful to them. I don't think that one can set out and acquire a style. I think the only way to develop a prose style is to try to attain the clearest understanding possible of whatever it is you're studying, and then to say what you think about it as simply and as honestly as possible. Style will come if there's anything in you. Style is some expression of your own distinctiveness; it's some expression of what you are, and it will come if you have some difference and if you say things as simply and as honestly as possible. The mistake that young writers make is to try to write fine prose. They should just try to say things, explain things, as clearly as they can without affectation, without striving for style.
CR: Can you tell us something about your duties as Director of the Huntington Library?
RM: The Huntington is a collection of three rather disparate units: a library, an art gallery, and a botanical garden. So the administrative work tends to be decentralized with certain problems and matters for larger decision coming up to the director's office. There's a peculiar kind of administrative work representing the institution to the general public and to the professionals, including other professional societies and institutions. Being concerned with and trying to strengthen a research program will be an increasingly important part for me. The assignment isn't exactly given, and the Director can, within certain limits, make this job what he wants to. I think that in many ways the Huntington works very well. Lots of things that it does are beautifully organized and very well administered.
The Huntington runs a whole series of programs for school children, for example, that seem to me to be very interesting and quite well-conceived and administered. We depend a lot on volunteer help, on docents. There is a very strong docent program here in the library and the art gallery and the botanical gardens. They're all public-spirited people who want to volunteer their time and their energies, and they're enormously helpful. Here the spirit of the surrounding community really infuses the institution. And I think it's terribly important and healthy. It helps tie us to the community, and I think it must help keep the Huntington fresh because there's a strong community tie. Now the other parts of the institution seem to be quite healthy to me as well. I would like to see us be a more active professional and research institution than we are-not that we're especially weak there, but I think probably our research program could be strengthened. In part that comes down to money-where you put your money, and how you make it available to scholars and to researchers who come here.
CR: Do you have any plans in the immediate offing for improving the research aspect?
RM: We're talking about a number of "plans," and I can only say a few general things about them. For myself, I very much want to see a program for young scholars here. Young scholars are certainly welcome, but we do not have an organized program for them. I would like to see an organized fellowship program for the young in graduate school and then for assistant professors who are still making their scholarly careers. I hope that over the next few years we can find money to provide fellowships and research aides and grants for them. I think that would be something that we could do very well. Of course, we can't take in everyone who is interested, and I think any such program will have to be tied to our collections, which are very strong in British and American history and literature. I hope that we can be of service to a whole variety of universities and colleges, not just in California but in the United States and, to some extent, in Europe as well-especially for the young.
I think another thing that we can do to increase the research program is to run more seminars than we do. There are lots of ways of doing that. We could create a Huntington seminar that would have a theme-a large subject-that we followed out for a year. Or we could set up several seminars on parallel lines that entertained a variety of subjects in any given year.