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The Contradictions of American History
It's easy to judge the mistakes of the past, but it's better to learn from them.
A note to readers: Persuasion’s coverage of the Russian assault on Ukraine will continue tomorrow with a special edition of the Good Fight podcast, featuring Yascha Mounk in conversation with George Packer. You can also read Yascha’s piece on how the war puts to rest the illusions of the past decades here.
By Michael Walzer
Years ago, I wrote an article for Dissent magazine that included a brief discussion of a New York periodical published from 1837 to 1859—The Democratic Review (DR). You can read every issue on the internet, and I read a good number of them. The DR was an organ of the Jacksonian Democrats; its editors declared themselves defenders of “radical democracy.” They were friends of the Irish immigrants; they promoted labor rights; they wrote, though very tentatively, about the rights of women. The leading editor, John O’Sullivan, was briefly in the New York State Assembly, where he introduced legislation banning capital punishment (which was only narrowly defeated). But the politics of these radical democrats was shadowed by a gross contradiction: They did not support the abolition of slavery. Though they didn’t defend slavery, they also didn’t oppose it. The Jacksonian Democrats, like Democrats for a long time after, depended on Southern votes. They couldn’t win power in Washington or help Northern workers without the support of slave owners. On the most important issue of their time, they failed as champions of democratic equality.
The DR reminds us of politics’ contradictory nature. Its writers called for American intervention in defense of liberty everywhere; they wanted the U.S. government to provide military support for the European revolutions of 1848. But they made an ugly exception for the South. DR contributors included Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walter (as he then was) Whitman; these men were true democrats. Yet they wrote for a magazine whose editors made no place for black people in their republic.
What is the right response to political contradiction? Confronted with the moral indifference or outright bigotry of our former heroes, we might be tempted to search for replacements elsewhere. If the DR won’t do, can’t we turn to those on the other side of the political conflicts of the 1840s and ‘50s, the critics of slavery? The problem is that they too disappoint. Many of the Northern Whigs, who opposed the expansion of slavery, some of them committed abolitionists, were also fierce enemies of Irish Catholic immigrants. Think of them as near-egalitarians with a blind spot when it came to “popery”—they were Protestant bigots. They were also afraid that the immigrants would end up voting for the Democrats, as they did. Their Know-Nothing descendants were even more extreme in their prejudice. But many of these same people became Republican supporters of Abraham Lincoln. Their politics was certainly preferable to that of the Democrats, allied with slave owners, but it was not entirely admirable.
Reading the new revisionists of American history, I thought of The Democratic Review. No doubt the revisionists are doing us a service in laying bare the racial oppression that played such a large part in our past. But if American history can no longer be a narrative of uninterrupted virtue, neither is it an entirely sordid tale. We have to embrace its complexity. I admire the DR; it was an engaged political magazine, right on many of the issues of its time. But I won't overlook, I have to condemn, the refusal of its editors to join the fight against slavery. I admire the New England abolitionists, but I can't ignore the nativist bigotry of many of them.
I believe similarly that the Founders really did create a "new order for the ages," a land of liberty, but I also know that only some of the inhabitants of the land were free. Liberty was a promise yet to be redeemed—and many, maybe most, of the people who made the promise were not committed to the redemption. Still, this was a promise that resonated throughout the world and brought millions of men and women to the "land of liberty"—among them, my grandparents and perhaps yours, too.
It’s a mistake to deny the contradictions of our history, but it isn’t easy to live with them. We (some of us, anyway) long for the Founding Fathers as we once saw them: Washington refusing to play the monarch, retiring to his country estate; Jefferson writing the inspiring words of the Declaration; Franklin telling the others that they must hang together or hang separately. But it is necessary to remember that the workers on Washington’s estate were slaves, and to remember Jefferson’s enslaved “mistress,” Sally Hemings, and to remember those of the Founders who intended to sustain the slave system. All that…and all that.
Even as we give the revisionists their due, we need to be wary of a kind of eliminationist history, which would leave us with nothing to admire in our past. What we should see in the contradictions I’ve described is not simple hypocrisy or self-regard but the common “doubleness” of political action, driven by private interest and public commitment. The desire for power, say, rubs shoulders with the hope for liberty, or democracy, or socialism. That great student of political life, Niccolo Machiavelli, argued that the crucial motive that led political actors to found, sustain, or revive a republic was the desire for personal glory—not for the well-being of the political community. But we can honor the decision to seek glory in founding a republic, even as we condemn the egotism of Great Men.
Today’s revisionists are engaged in what we used to call “ideology critique”—when the word “ideology” did not refer to any set of ideas and ideals but specifically to those that provided cover for material interest. The purpose of the criticism was to expose the interest, usually economic, which was assumed by the two Karls, Marx and Mannheim, to drive political activity. The critics aimed to demonstrate the error of “idealism”—the doctrine that the ideals proclaimed by political actors are actually the reason for the action. Instead, the reason is always interest; the only political motives that count are the desire for profit, or power, or prestige. But this is wrong—or, better, it is only half-true. Consider, to take an easy example, the role of Marxism in 20th century politics and the many contradictions that it produced—above all, between the thirst for justice and for absolute power.
A fair historical account needs to do more than catalogue sins. Ideals are real, and sometimes effective; interests are real, and sometimes determinative. Reading the past, writing history, we must be idealistic materialists or material idealists. What do these seemingly contradictory phrases mean? We should avoid a purely “patriotic” history, a story of American nobility and nothing else. In truth, we shouldn’t be too entranced with nobility. It isn’t always a bad thing to act from material or personal interests: Think of workers on strike fighting for higher wages and better working conditions. High ideals alone often produce arrogance and cruelty: Think of Lenin’s socialism.
We should also beware the excesses of “ideology critique.” Economic self-interest doesn’t explain everything that happens in the world. Nor is everything that happens irredeemable. We can’t resolve the contradictions of the past, but we can choose sides; we can oppose the racism of our own time and support contemporary versions of The Democratic Review’s campaigns for immigrants and workers. We can acknowledge the sins of the Founders and still agree that we are bound to recognize and redeem the promise of the “new order.”
Perhaps most importantly, we should guard against hubris. Acting on our own, in our own time, we will certainly try to avoid the immorality and injustice of the past. We will do the best we can to recognize all the implications of our values. We promise, when we defend equality, that we won’t leave anyone out. But we had better add humility to our righteousness; we are unlikely to avoid the contradictions of political life.
Michael Walzer is a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and a former co-editor of Dissent.