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History in a Broader Context



     There has long been a justified concern that the melting pot is not melting, and that the United States might fall apart. The American flag has been described as "the symbol of a fissiparous country's unity." C-Span's splendid series on the American presidents was an attempt to arouse interest in American history as a unifying factor, but it failed to show how American history fits into a broader picture. Having been born and educated in Europe, taught in Canada before coming to the United States, and having devoted much of my life to the study of Latin America, I was acutely aware of this. In particular, U.S. history dovetails with that of Great Britain.
     One historian who is bridging the Atlantic gap is Kevin Phillips, who has combined history with public service and print and air journalism. His latest book The Cousins' War shows how the two histories have developed in tandem. The American War was really a continuation of the English Civil War. He is an acute follower of the current scene, as a C-Span interview today showed. I can only speculate as to why his assessment of it coincides almost exactly with mine.
     Attention should be called also to the publications of the Liberty Press, which puts out a handsome catalog (call 800/955-8335). Its equally handsome books include volumes which show how the debate among the Founding Fathers was a continuation of a bitter debate in England. The tradition of the parliamentarians was expressed in the mid-eighteenth century motion that the power of the King was increasing unduly and should be curbed.
     Samuel Johnson defended the crown against the American revolutionaries, as reported in Samuel Johnson: Political Writings, edited by Donald J. Greene. The basic problem of politics is the nature of man about which Thomas Hobbes had serious reservations. Michael Oakeshott's Hobbes on Civil Association deals largely with his Leviathan, described as "the greatest masterpiece of political philosophy in the English language." A more general book is F.W. Maitland, A Historical Sketch of Liberty and Equality. The influence of Locke on the American Revolution is so well known that it needs no comment.
     The Ango-American debate was interrupted by the French Revolution, about which Americans were very divided. Eulogies of Jefferson are usually so uncritical that they fail to realize that he was quite mixed up about the French Revolution, and in promoting the westward expansion of the United States he was an imperialist like Napoleon. The American critics of the French Revolution were in the tradition of Burke, who was sympathetic to the American Revolution. The history of the debate about the French Revolution is told in Lord Acton's Lectures on the French Revolution, of which we now have an edition with a foreword by Stephen J. Tonsor.
     Political events are the foam and ripples on the stream of the intellectual history, which these books help us to navigate.

Ronald Hilton - 2/7/00


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