AUGUST 4, 2010
In a review essay entitled “What Politics Does to History,” July 19, 2010, John Summers states that my work on the American Revolution “helped initiate the long fashion for sneering at dead white men of ideas, and turned history from a means of understanding to a record of heroes and villains.” Mr. Summers also finds in my work a “refusal to acknowledge the many-sidedness of history" that "has been part of [my] method from the beginning.” What he calls “the Lynd-Zinn school of historiography” in his view has “difficulty conceding that mass movements could be anything but democratic and progressive.” Most egregiously, Mr. Summers writes: “Lynd was never a historian who selects significant problems for study, but one who knows most of the answers in advance.”
The reality is that regarding one issue after another, I reached conclusions quite different from my initial presuppositions. I have engaged in substantial historical debate concerning:
1. The politics of farm tenants and city artisans during the quarter century 1763-1788, which, as a graduate student, I explored to test the interpretations by Carl Becker and Charles Beard concerning the Revolution and the formation of the United States Constitution. I found that farm tenants and artisans in the period of the Revolution were not primarily motivated by ideology. Tenant farmers took whatever position on independence their landlords opposed, in the hope that if the landlord's cause were defeated, the tenant might come to own the land that he farmed. The primary concern of artisans both before and after the revolutionary war was to protect their vulnerable livelihoods from imported British manufactures.
2. Whether the enactment of the Northwest Ordinance in July 1787, banning slavery North of the Ohio River but permitting it in the expanding Southwest, was part of a “compromise of 1787” another aspect of which was the adoption by the Constitutional Convention of the three-fifths clause for both existing and prospective states. My interest in the part played by slavery in the historiography of so-called Progressive historians like Turner and Beard, in the formation of the United States Constitution, and in the worldview of Jefferson and latterday Jeffersonians, was indeed stimulated by immersion in the Southern civil rights movement. However, I have offered whatever insights appeared to result from this orientation as hypotheses to be tested by further research. In a new Foreword to re-publication of my Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution by Cambridge University Press, Professor Robin Einhorn of the University of California at Berkeley particularly praises my argument that Jefferson lumped together as “agrarians” both small farmers and Southern plantation owners, thereby misleading many subsequent historians.
3. Whether a cluster of ideas associated with Dissenters from the established Anglican Church in Great Britain and with Tom Paine in the new United States constituted an American radical tradition that was distinct from the ideas of the Founding Fathers and on which 19th century antislavery activists relied. This was the thesis of my Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, also recently re-published by Cambridge University Press as what the Press terms an “established classic.” Toward which “dead white men of ideas” does Mr. Summers consider that I “sneered”? He sneers at me in a way that I do not recall ever denigrating any one, in print or otherwise.
4. The origins and consequences of the civil rights movement's effort in 1964 to seat African American delegates from Mississippi at the national Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City. I have sought to reflect on the choices facing the civil rights movement of the mid-1960s by examining the experience of combat soldiers in Vietnam, and prisoners at Ohio's high security penal institutions, in overcoming racial barriers.
5. Why the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the enactment of the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act), both in 1935, failed to give rise to a radical trade union movement and a national labor party. In trying to understand the rapid capitulation of the CIO to a mainstream model of trade unionism I was very much influenced by the perspective of steelworkers I interviewed. They reported that in the late 1930s the CIO had not been recognized as an exclusive bargaining representative in Little Steel but bargained with management as a members-only or minority trade union that retained the right to strike. They were adamant that workers then enjoyed wages and benefits better than after the adoption of a comprehensive collective bargaining agreement complete with no-strike and “management prerogative” language. Their interpretation has recently beein reinforced by the magisterial work of Professor Charles Morris, The Blue Eagle at Work: Reclaiming Democratic Rights in the American Workplace (Cornell University Press, 2005).
6. The importance for Leftists in the United States of a perspective associated with the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico, and the Morales presidency in Bolivia, of “mandar obedeciendo,” that is, governing in obedience to the wishes of local assemblies of the indigenous;
7. The enduring significance of nonviolence in United States history, notwithstanding a Civil War in which as Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address every drop of blood drawn by the lash was repaid with a drop drawn by the sword. In this connection I have emphasized the tension between the law governing conscientious objection, which requires objection to “war in any form,” and the judgments of the Nuremberg Tribunal holding that soldiers are not only permitted but required to object to the commission of war crimes in a particular war.
I could offer additional examples of the interaction of my participation in popular struggles and what I experience as enhanced scholarly understanding. Bibliographies appended to Carl Mirra's biography and to Stepping Stones, a joint autobiography by my wife Alice and myself, give the interested reader whatever opportunity may be desired to pursue any of these discussions.
Mr. Summers is wrong when he states that I assume mass movements to be democratic and progressive. In distinction from my beloved comrade, Howard Zinn, I have been concerned not so much with rescuing the voices of the people "below" as with exploring whatever light their views may seem to throw on a variety of problems of interpretation.
I believe that historians should look to one another's scholarly products and evaluate these by conventional academic methods. Calling each other names gets in the way.