I recently received an unexpected gift from American historian and political theorist Barry Alan Shain, The Declaration of Independence in Historical Context, a 600 page collection of documents from the era of the American Revolution, with accompanying commentaries and a long introductory essay, published by Yale University Press. It would be marvelous if Barry’s ambitious scholarship elicited the widespread discussion among journalists and media celebrities that it richly deserves. But I doubt this will happen. The author is not in sync with the authorized political camps, from Dinesh D’Souza to the followers of left-radical historian Howard Zinn, when he warns against such “misconceptions” as the belief that the US was founded as a “propositional nation.” Contrary to this belief: “The Declaration may more accurately be seen as the unintended and undesired culmination of a process of resistance in which the majority of the colonists believed they were defending customary and traditional British constitutional institutions and historical political rights against misguided ministerial and parliamentary innovations.”
Shain demonstrates exhaustively that up until the eve of the Revolution most members of the Continental Congress opposed “parliamentary innovations,” as staunch monarchists. Most of these dignitaries were not comfortable with the natural rights phrases that Thomas Jefferson inserted into the Declaration, a point that such scholars as George Carey and Forrest McDonald have also made. If one could go back in time and tell these The Strange Death of M... Best Price: $54.95 Buy New $231.53 (as of 09:25 EST - Details) delegates they were founding a global democracy based on human rights, and that they were putting the US on a course toward converting the entire planet to something called “liberal democracy,” they would have viewed the speaker as mad.
Although other scholars have offered similar arguments, their views, like those of Shain, cannot possibly prevail against the parameters of debate established by our political-journalistic elites. Certain discussions that would have unfolded in the past have become closed questions. This has happened for two reasons, both of which I try to explain in my book The Strange Death of Marxism.
First, in the cultural and social sphere, the US has moved dramatically toward the left, so much so that the left center in my youth would be well to the right of where “conservatives” have placed themselves. Note that onetime feminist Eleanor Roosevelt wanted to limit women’s access to the workplace, lest their presence there reduce the “single family wage” of their husbands and threaten the unity of the family.
Until the 1960s, women were seen by both of our political parties as primarily wives and mothers; homosexuality was generally viewed as a psychic disorder (by communist even more than capitalist nations); and civil rights for blacks meant the right to sit at an integrated lunch counter. Although those changes that have occurred since then may be viewed by the broad public as “only fair,” they have exacted an enormous price, and part of that price is an intolerance of the way people lived before the cataclysm of the 1960s and 1970s. Please note that an idea like gay marriage would have struck most people as silly and possibly offensive thirty years ago; today it is proclaimed by our media as a fundamental, universal right. The Wall Street Journal rails against Russian leader Vladimir Putin for not allowing self-proclaimed homosexuals to teach in public schools. Through most of my life I could easily imagine most Americans taking similar positions to those of the Russian president, without eliciting the anger of Democratic or Republican newspapers.
Second, the shift of our cultural-political spectrum leftward has brought a narrowing of historical debate, which seems to have resulted in having both sides take what used to be recognizably leftist positions. Certain discussions can barely take place any longer, without the participants being accused by the media, the educational establishment, and the official conservative opposition of racial or gender insensitivity. Is it really possible to take a negative view of Reconstruction, without being attacked as a racist? This fate has befallen even the pro-Union historian William A. Dunning. In his study of the Union army’s occupation of the post-Civil War South, Dunning criticizes the politics and rapacity of the Reconstruction government and of those who were behind it; this hapless historian, who came from an impeccable Abolitionist background, is therefore now condemned as a racist. The book on Reconstruction by Eric Foner, which treats the events in question as a morality play between evil Southern whites and a virtuous Union occupying army, has supplanted other treatments of a now politically settled subject. The fact that Foner, a longtime revolutionary socialist, presents Reconstruction as “America’s unfinished revolution” gives his work a link to contemporary social engineering projects.
But the most disfiguring ideological reconstruction of history has taken place on what is supposedly the conservative side. Here we see the current labeling of good and bad guys read back into the past in order to justify a belligerent foreign policy. Thus the struggles for hegemony between two ancient Greek slave societies, according to Victor Davis Hanson, reveal the outlines of modern confrontations between predictable heroes and equally predictable villains.
These evocations of Manichean struggles, which I notice particularly in Hanson’s newspaper columns, sometimes verge on the ludicrous. They have nothing to do with history as a serious discipline. The first rule for the study of history should be to understand the differences between past and present and then the differences between different things in the past. I am now reading and hearing outbursts of anger in the press about the revival of murderous anti-Semitism in Germany and France. This invective, however well-intentioned, leave the mistaken impression that the violently anti-Jewish demonstrators who are raging through European cities are the left over accessories from the Nazi regime. Only by looking at pictures could one guess that the troublemakers are Muslim immigrants who have been allowed to settle in Western European countries. Although a serious problem is occurring, let’s not pretend it’s more of the evil European past. We are dealing with an unprecedented problem that was caused by an unwise immigration policy.