February 6, 2006


"Live" with David Hackett Fischer (The American Enterprise, March 2006)

TAE: In Liberty and Freedom, you list a handful of groups in American history that have “put themselves outside the broad tradition of liberty and freedom”—among them certain apologists for slavery, early-twentieth-century Communists, and “elements of the academic left in American universities during the late twentieth century.” Are there any signs that this last group is withering?

FISCHER: Yes, things are changing very rapidly in academe. I think it was partly a generational phenomenon. The generation that came of age in the 1960s is now approaching retirement in the universities, and their children and grandchildren are very different in the way they think about the world. The excesses of these movements always build in their own corrections.

TAE: A lot of serious works about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American history are enjoying popular success. Are we at the beginning of a new age of history writing?

FISCHER: During the 1970s and ’80s, the history sections moved to the back of the bookstore, and other disciplines in the universities cultivated non-historical or even anti-historical ways of thinking: They looked for timeless abstractions in the social sciences, or theoretical models in economics that transcended era and place. Then in the ’90s a sudden change appeared. Econometric history began to flourish. We got new historical movements in literature departments. My colleagues in literature are increasingly writing historically about their subjects. In philosophy, the history of ideas is what’s growing. The most rapidly expanding field in political science is called Politics in History.

I scratch my head about this. Why is it happening? Did people suddenly discover that history was happening to them, via the collapse of the Soviet Union? Or was it a revulsion against those timeless abstractions, those models like Marx and Freud, that didn’t seem to work very well as the world changed? Whatever it was, it’s a thought revolution of profound importance.

Then there’s the special case of the popularity of the Revolution and the early Republic. We’ve been through other periods of popularity of certain fields: World War II in the 1990s and the Civil War in the 1960s. They were driven by anniversaries. The Revolution and early Republic booms are not anniversary-connected.

We’ve been through many previous waves of rising interest in the Founders. In 1824-26 it was the death of Adams and Jefferson on the same day, and Lafayette’s visit, that were the spark. In the 1870s it was the centennial. Interest focused on nation-building, and the leading figures were Washington and Hamilton. In the late 1930s and early ’40s the focus was democracy, and the favorites were Jefferson and Madison. In our own time it has been John and Abigail Adams and other Founders. Washington’s back in the thick of it. Clearly people are looking for something. I think they’re looking for enduring values.

TAE: As though we’ve lost our way?

FISCHER: Many people are finding a way in these memories.

Not only is his Washington's Crossing fabulous but Borders has a boatload of his Libertyy and Freedom, which originally cost $50, in their remainder bins for $6.00 these days.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 6, 2006 6:27 AM
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