Some of my students or former students reading this blog might remember me harping in class about the “Consensus View” of American history. Consensus scholars–the political scientist Louis Hartz and historian Daniel Boorstin come immediately to mind–tended to focus on the ideas that defined a uniquely American character. Those ideas usually boiled down to some form of economic (capitalism) or political (freedom) liberalism.
The Consensus view of America is still with us today and it experienced a bit of a revival in the wake of September 11, 2001. The followers of the late Samuel Huntington, author of the controversial Who Are We” The Challenges to America’s National Identity come to mind, but I am sure you can think of others.
In academic circles this view of American history was crushed by social historians and New Left historians in the 1960s and 1970s who began seeing national character as problematic. These historians focused more on diversity and pluralism. By concentrating their scholarly attention on African-Americans, women, the working-class, native Americans, farmers, and other people who were not part of the Consensus story, a new, more complex narrative of American life emerged.
The liberalism of Hartz, Boorstin, and others was also challenged by a group of historians–led by Bernard Bailyn, J.G.A. Pocock, and Gordon Wood–who suggested that it was actually civic humanism or “republicanism” and not liberalism that was at the core of the American character. Unlike the New Left historians, the historians of civic humanism did not deny the existence of a distinct American character, they just thought it rested in an intellectual tradition that found it roots in the city-states of Renaissance Italy and not in the liberalism of the English or French Enlightenment.
I decided to revisit this lesson in historiography because the Consensus view of American life is making another comeback in the form of sociologist Claude S. Fischer’s Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character. (We have blogged about this book before). Here is a snippet from an excellent review of the book by Vanderbilt historian Sarah E. Igo:
Concerned as it is with the contours of American character as well as culture, it is hard to read Fischer’s book as other than an argument for consensus history. If Made in America is a reminder of the perils of that tradition, it also brings to mind what is compelling about it: clear storylines with the power to shape what Commager might have called the national imagination. There is an audience for such work and thus an opportunity for it to enter into public conversation and understanding. It is on this score that Fischer’s accessible book is most valuable, upending much conventional wisdom about American history, from the religiosity of the founding generation to the lack of community spirit in our own.