Sean Wilentz

History as “an act of faith”

VTR Date: September 4, 2008

Princeton historian Sean Wilentz discusses notions of history.


GUEST: Sean Wilentz
VTR: 09/04/2008

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … and as I said in introducing last week’s program, every once in a while at this table, I’m privileged to share with you my enthusiasm for a book I’ve just read, an intriguing person I’ve just met – perhaps a sense of our distant or recent past I’ve newly encountered, agree with it or not.

Well, that’s surely the way I would comment about my guest once again today — Princeton historian Sean Wilentz — and about the many provocative insights of his superb chronicle of our times just published by Harper Collins…”The Age of Reagan … A History, 1974-2008″.

Now, his earlier histories have earned my guest both the Albert J. Beveridge Award of the American Historical Association and Columbia University’s prestigious Bancroft Prize … made him a Pulitzer Prize finalist, as well.

And today I would like to probe Professor Wilentz’s thoughts about all recorded history … starting with the late, great historian Charles A. Beard’s insight that differentiated it from “history as reality”, noting that it is, recorded history, essentially “an act of faith”.


HEFFNER: Do you accept that notion?

WILENTZ: Well, it’s an interesting way to put it. First of all, the privilege is mine, Richard, to be here.

HEFFNER: Thank you.

WILENTZ: But, you know, history is always impossible.

HEFFNER: Impossible?

WILENTZ: Impossible, we never get to the bottom of everything. History, as you know, Pieter Geyl the great Dutch historian, once put it … is “argument without end.”

So, that’s what keeps us in business, in part. But you know I am not of the persuasion that history is simply what … a bag of opinions or, or a bag of tricks we play on the dead. I think that’s the way Voltaire put it.

I think that there is such a thing as historical truth. I don’t think we’ll ever really get there, but I think we can try and we can come as close as we can given our resources and given the limitations of the human mind. With … always with … the knowledge that we’ll be … we’ll be proved wrong down the line. Or we’ll be proved only partially right.

A lot of it is a matter of emphasis. And you brought up Charles Beard, which is a good example. Charles Beard had a … he did many things with his life and with his intellect. But one of the things that he did was to come up with an idea of American history which basically involved a continuing battle between the forces of industrialism, capitalism, Alexander Hamilton is the kind of ???? for that versus the rural, small state Jeffersonian vision. And he saw value in both although I think secretly he … not so secretly, he was really a Hamiltonian.

But … he saw American history in that light. Now … and, and he proceeded … he and his wife Mary proceeded to write a book that was probably the most read … widely read … American history book of the … from the 1920’s, 30’s, 40’s called The Rise of American Civilization. Very influential. The kind of book that any historian that I know would love to write … be able to write, to have that kind of influence.

Nevertheless, while … what he and Mary Beard wrote about had a certain degree of sense to it, was compelling, was forceful. It left out one big thing. Slavery. As a force in American history.

Now you can see slavery as the great evasion … the subject that was, that was, that was the … that was evaded by generations except for Black historians … a few … a small group of Black historians and mostly marginalized in the Academy.

But you know, if you shift the emphasis away from simply agrarian versus industrial and make slavery a way of understanding that division, then American history looks very, very different.

Even though many of the categories can be the same, everything looks different.

So, so what I’m really getting at is it’s a matter of emphasis, more than a matter of someone having an idea “way out there”, or somebody having an idea “way out there” and they fight about it. It’s really often what, what goes on at the center. (Hiccup) Excuse me. And if you manage to, to shift to the discussion toward something that’s been neglected, then you can take the best of what has been written before, leave the other stuff behind and get better … get closer to the historical truth, which I think is out there, but ultimately is unattainable.

HEFFNER: How influential do you think Beard was?

WILENTZ: In his time?

HEFFNER: Not so much in the, the failure to deal with slavery …


HEFFNER: But in … well, the, the, the title of the great book An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution …


HEFFNER: … and I think the story goes when Charles … when Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia was asked whether he had read Beard’s last book … he said, “I certainly hope so”.

WILENTZ: Laughter

HEFFNER: But it was An Economic Interpretation …


HEFFNER: … leaving room for many others.

WILENTZ: Correct.

HEFFNER: It was the rest of us who made it …


HEFFNER: Something more than what he meant it to be.

WILENTZ: That, that’s very, very true. Beard had a … Beard was not a hedgehog, he was a fox in Isaiah Berlin’s terminology, he understood that there were many different things that were going on.

However, he did want to bring out something that had been neglected. And by bringing out what was neglected, he shifted the conversation about American politics. And I think that much of professional, historical writing over the next 30 to 40 years was either affirming what Beard had said, not only about the Constitution, but about other things or trying to refute it.

I mean the great historian Richard Hofstadter who was maybe … certainly one of the great American historians of the 20th century “cut his teeth” on Charles Beard. And much of his writing was a matter of his still coming to terms with Charles Beard. To the point where … towards the end of his tragically short life … he wrote an entire book devoted to Beard, Frederick Jackson Turner and Vernon Parrington, the three great so-called progressive historians. And the best chapters in there were about Beard. Beard was very much Hofstadter’s man. And he was not untypical in that respect.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, I, I … it’s clearly true that my interest in Beard comes from the fact that I was Hofstadter’s student …

WILENTZ: There you are.

HEFFNER: … but watched him change his mind, I thought …


HEFFNER: … watched him … and that’s why I raised the question of change …

WILENTZ: Well, that’s true. I mean if you’re looking at any individual historian, or any individual time, you do see shifts. I mean … the case of Hofstadter, that generation that came of age in the 30’s and the early 40’s, whose early writings as very much influenced as Hofstadter himself wrote in the Marxism of the 1930’s looked upon FDR as the … you know, the great devil who had undone the revolution that really should have come. Or something like that.

HEFFNER: He didn’t bring it about. He didn’t bring …

WILENTZ: Yes. Yes. He turned out not to be what he never said he was. (Laughter) He was, he was telling the truth.

But, but people thought of him that way as the great … you know, the aristocratic commoner … I mean the man who was going to be a, a great proletarian folk hero, or something. He was not that. And I think a lot of bitterness and frustration arose out of that. So if you read … when you read, as I hope all your viewers do … Hofstadter’s first really great book which is called The American Political Tradition, there is a final chapter about FDR which makes fun of him and makes him out to be a charlatan, a mountebank.

Published in ’48, so 1955, seven years later, at the end of The Age of Reform, which is his next great book, all of a sudden the New Deal looks a lot better. Now why that happens is complicated. People get … you know there is such a thing as 20/20 hindsight. There’s such a thing as Richard Nixon, which helps concentrate the mind wonderfully … ahmm, ahmm, as Vice President at the time that book was written. And I think maybe the frustration at Stevenson’s loss … I know that Hofstadter and that generation were very tied to Adlai Stevenson and they were disappointed when he did not make it.

That’s one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it might be simply that their old attachment to, you know, that 30’s Marxism had really faded. And it faded for political reasons as well as intellectual reasons. Especially as one realized where that had led the Soviet Union, where that had led the Communist Party in the United States. There were a lot of things that were changing in people’s minds.

But finally I think and … this is going to sound terribly idealistic. But finally I think …

HEFFNER: That’s permitted.

WILENTZ: (Laughter) Well, I know, but I don’t want to sound as if I’m, I’m completely out, out there in the ozone. But finally I think, you know, the force of, of documents, of reason, of understanding does compel people who are open enough, who have an open enough mind … to change … to change their minds.

I forget who it was who was accused of flip-flopping … which is a word that I cannot stand.

HEFFNER: It started with Kerry and it goes to …

WILENTZ: Well, that’s …

HEFFNER: … our candidates today.

WILENTZ: … well that’s fine. But sometimes it’s, you know, you know, when facts change, you better change your mind. And, and when your, when your understanding of things changes … when you have new things to, to consider if you don’t change your mind … then, you’re, you know, the classic Emersonian, you know, “hobgoblin of small minds”.

HEFFNER: But you know with, with Hofstadter … when, when I studied with him, one of … I remember so well, and wanted to ask you … about this. One of the … not overriding themes of our course work, but one of the things he always wanted to discuss had to do with journalism and history.


HEFFNER: And often at this table when sitting opposite me is a journalist, someone responsible for what appears in the press …


HEFFNER: … I talk about the responsibilities of the journalist being the responsibilities of the historian … and that was a subject that Dick Hofstadter …


HEFFNER: … was rather exercised about.


HEFFNER: and I wonder what you own sense of it is as you see, as you read the journals. Do they have the responsibility, the people who write in the press that you have as an historian?

WILENTZ: No. I mean …

HEFFNER: Why not?

WILENTZ: Well, because they’re reporting. I mean journalists aren’t …

HEFFNER: Aren’t you?

WILENTZ: Not in the same way.

HEFFNER: Oh, in, in …

WILENTZ: I’ll explain … I’ll explain why. I’ll explain why.


WILENTZ: Reporting means what happened yesterday. And getting as, as accurate an account as you can … a good journalist will give you as accurate an account as you can … as he or she can … of what happened yesterday. Because you have to keep people up-to-date with what’s going on around them.

Historians aren’t … don’t have that responsibility … they have a different responsibility, which is not simply to report accurately what happened two years ago, five years ago, five hundred years ago, five thousand years ago … but to give some sense for why it occurred and why it occurred the way it did, when it did.

And it’s the why that a responsible journalist, I think, tries to stay away from.

HEFFNER: Truly, you believe that?


HEFFNER: Tries to stay away from?

WILENTZ: Tries to stay away from. Because what you see when … you know … who, what, when, where, why … if you’re talking about the causal series of events … in other words, X picked up a gun and shot Y. And that’s why Y is dead. Okay, that’s a why that I can understand.

But if you’re trying to interpret things in, in a news story which imply a particular political interpretation, or a particular personal interpretation … the way that journalism has gone this way these days, I think then you actually start to get … it gets very, very slippery; it gets very, very slanted. And I don’t think that’s what they … what journalists owe the public.

I think opinion journalism is fine, but that’s a separate category … keep that in a separate category. What Walter Lippmann was doing or what I know Paul Krugman does today, is a different matter than what is going on in the front page. But I do think that the front page has begun to sound a lot more like an old opinion paper …


WILENTZ: … page than, than ever. Now why that is is a complicated story, too. It has to do in part with the irreverence that came out of the sixties. Came in part because of new journalism of, of New York magazine and afterward. It came about in part because newspapers need to get all the circulation they can. And so attitude often will substitute for accuracy in, in, in a … on, on the front page of a newspaper.

In the few newspapers that are left, I mean remember, I mean a lot of newspapers now are just working off wire services, etc. We’re talking about … you can count them practically on … well, not two hands, but four hands.

So, but I do think that all of that has come as a, come at a cost. Because, you know, readers are not being allowed to understand the facts or get the facts and then understand them. It becomes … compromised.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, I was so interested in your approach to The Age of Reagan in which you say … “I’m not going to get involved” … in a sense you said, “I’m not going to get involved in all the whys … the cultural whys …


HEFFNER: … the social whys, etc. I want to tell you what happened during this period.” And you obviously take so much joy in chronicling …


HEFFNER: … the years here that I still would think, you chronicle so well … you do it with an obvious sense of responsibility …


HEFFNER: … journalists don’t have the responsibility to chronicle as accurately as possible.

WILENTZ: Oh, absolutely. What they don’t have is the additional responsibility that I take up in the book which is to not necessarily give an … an all purpose explanation for why things happen, but to try to interpret what happened as well as to say, as well as to chronicle what happened.

I try … I mean one tries to be as accurate as possible, human beings are fallible, but we do our best. That’s why they have second editions.


WILENTZ: But, in terms of the integrity of the interpretation that’s another matter. So that in this book, for example, I take odds with what a lot of, of the earlier writers had, had to say about the character of Reaganism as a system of thought or as a political culture, or what Reaganism was all about.

I have my own view about all of that. And it’s just mine. And I put it out there. Now I’m not saying that that’s the only view, but it’s, it’s mine.

HEFFNER: Why do you say, “it’s just mine.”

WILENTZ: Well, I …

HEFFNER: Do you mean in “it’s mine alone” or “it’s just my point of view.”

WILENTZ: Oh, no. No, no. I’m not that modest. (Laugh)

HEFFNER: Well, good. All right.

WILENTZ: (Laughter) I mean I think it’s the truth.

HEFFNER: What is it?

WILENTZ: What is Reaganism?


WILENTZ: Reaganism is a form of Right Wing Republican Conservatism that Ronald Reagan concocted himself and projected. It was rooted in the fusion of economic, traditional economic conservatism and traditional social conservatism which occurred in the 1950’s.

Ronald Reagan was just turning to the Right was becoming a, a Reaganite (laugh) in the 1950’s. He took that fusion and he picked it up and he made something more out of it.

And what did he make more out of it? You can, you can judge it … one way to judge it is the difference between Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.

Ronald Reagan had a projection of the future, which is not usually associated with Conservatism. He had a disrespect for hierarchy, which is not … he believed in law and order, but he was not a person of great traditional hierarchical Burkean values. That was not him. He wasn’t a man of custom in quite that way. He believed in, you know, basic American virtues and thought that they had been undone. But that wasn’t so much going, you know, backward, he saw that that was the future. He projected it as the future. It’s like that film title, “Back to the Future.”


WILENTZ: That was his idea. He also projected it with a degree of almost sensuousness. I mean here was a man who was supposedly the, the great avatar of social conservatism and he certainly brought the so-called evangelical Right into the coalition, as never before.

Yet here was a man who was divorced once, who didn’t spend all that much time with his children early on. Who rarely went to church. Who was a Hollywood actor, who had plenty of gay friends including Rock Hudson and which really shook him on when the AIDS crisis hit.

I mean here is a guy who was just very, very different. And while he didn’t spell that out in so many words, it was there. He projected all of that. And that became as much a part of Reaganism as myth; as, as political culture as any set of ideas about tax rates, etc., I think.

HEFFNER: What … you said at the beginning of our first discussion …


HEFFNER: … the first program that you weren’t a prophet, you were a historian.


HEFFNER: Don’t historians figure, “well, I know this about the past and this about the past and this about the past … and of course, we’re going in this direction. I believe. At the moment. I think.”

WILENTZ: At their peril. (Laugh)

HEFFNER: At their peril.

WILENTZ: At their peril.

HEFFNER: Do you do it at your peril?

WILENTZ: Well sure, we do it … I mean we do it behind closed doors. We do it with each other. I would be … I would never do that in print.


WILENTZ: Because I don’t think that I know enough about chance …

HEFFNER: Hmmmph.

WILENTZ: I mean … in 196 … in 1960 …


WILENTZ: Who could have imagined the breakthroughs in Civil Rights that were to occur in the next four years. Few.

HEFFNER: You’re assuming then that they wouldn’t have occurred if John Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated.

WILENTZ: In part. In part. But, you know, the movement itself took on … took on dimensions under Dr. Martin Luther King’s leadership that it just didn’t have in 1960.

I mean, yes, there’d been the Montgomery bus boycott, etc., but to imagine what was going to occur in the streets in 1962 and in 196 … from 1961 on, really.

It’s not simply Kennedy’s assassination, it’s actually in some ways the hope that the Kennedy election brought to a lot of people, in generating those protests.

But my point is only that if you’d stood ???? history 1960 you would not have been able to predict any of that. I don’t think.

Now that’s not just a matter of chance. But it is a matter of, of, of a decent respect for the contingencies of the present and where things might lead. You know, there’s a, there’s a big version of that and there’s a little version of that.

The little version of that is, you know, there for but the want of a nail, I would have won the Battle of Agincourt, or something like that. Okay. Yes, there’s that kind of chance.

But then there are historical developments that are going on around us that we just don’t see. As historians. As citizens. And they’re rumbling way off stage, the stage that we see as reality around us every day. And I have a decent respect for that, I don’t know.

HEFFNER: Your analysis then isn’t something you would put before us now.

WILENTZ: I think that …

HEFFNER: As a historian.

WILENTZ: Well, I think … no … I, I would … I would go so far in, in this book, for example, because this is my first … I’m used to writing about Andrew Jackson … it’s nice and safe, they don’t get to talk back.

HEFFNER: I, I was going to ask you about that.

WILENTZ: But this is an exercise in what Theodore Draper called “present history”, as well as not so present history.

What I was trying to do by bringing it up to 2008 was twofold. Well, it had a particular purpose and that acquired another one.

The original purpose was to see what were the consequences of the Reagan Presidency and of this Conservative period.

And where did it lead? How did it lead? First to George H. W. Bush and what did Bush do with it? And then how that led to Clinton and onward. You know, I, I began this book, began thinking about this book before we understood what the current Administration was going to be doing.

So that became my first goal. Then as I was writing it, it became pretty clear to me that we were at the end of an era. That something was about to change. Now …

HEFFNER: Even despite the fact that Reagan was the great hero of the “Bushies”.

WILENTZ: Oh, sure.

HEFFNER: It was always Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan …

WILENTZ: Still is … I mean before the Republican Party a year ago, or a little bit more than a year ago, when the Republican’s candidates first got up … it was like that old TV show … not “What’s My Line” … “To Tell The Truth”.


WILENTZ: Everyone was Ronald Reagan. That’s a sign of a party falling apart, not of a, of a party that’s very hale and hardy. I mean they were all trying to claim it, but they each owned a piece of the coalition … John McCain was the one who could be most convincing to more groups in, in the coalition than others.

But, you know, that was, that was a party in decay … a coalition in decay. And it was pretty clear to me that something had changed. Now I may live to regret it, it’s true … but I do think I will stand … at least for the moment on my proposition that 2008 at least looks as if it’s going to be, you know, something’s going to change …something dramatic is about to happen. I don’t know what it is, I don’t know what direction it’s going to take. I don’t know how dramatic it will be, but the era that we’ve just passed through, I think we’ve passed through.

HEFFNER: And that’s why your title is that the age of Reagan ended 2008.

WILENTZ: That’s right. Now, I, I, I’m skimpy on the Bush years, I only give it an epilogue in the book. Again out of respect. We only know so much. It’s been a fairly secretive Administration anyway. But, you know, we could only talk about so much. There’s going to be a great deal more research done, I hope that there will be a reversal of the gutting of the Presidential records act that occurred in 2001, so that historians and scholars can actually to go back and find out more.

But you know, I, I, I … this is much harder to do. But to the extent that I was able to do it, I wanted to try and at least draw together some of the lineaments of this particular regime and how they were connected to what had gone before.

HEFFNER: You know, talking about future historians and we just have two minutes left. What about technology and the writing of history?


HEFFNER: Negative impact? Positive impact?

WILENTZ: It’s ambiguous as ever. There are many positives to the Internet and to the worldwide web. I mean I could not have written that book as quickly as I did without all of those advances.

The material that a … especially a contemporary historian … but not just contemporary historians … historians of the contemporary era, I mean …


WILENTZ: The availability of materials on the web is extraordinary. I mean it saves a great deal of time, a great deal of effort, especially when they’re searchable. I mean you can, you can do things even on Colonial history that you weren’t … that would have been impossible when I was coming up.

HEFFNER: But without the power of subpoena … seems to me so much is in email …


HEFFNER: … exchanges …

WILENTZ: … well …

HEFFNER: … the letters that you’ve gone back to …

WILENTZ: … that is, that is the downside. I mean the downside is that what’s going to be left to us is going to be a very, very doctored record. I mean unless you can get into ever hard drive in the federal government (laugh).

So, yes, no, no question. But you know, Richard, that actually began a long time ago. I mean that began with the telephone at least. I mean when all those orders were no longer being written out by hand … there was a sort of Golden Era when the typewriter was in and before the telephone.

Because stuff is much more legible, but they had to write everything down. I mean … not everything, obviously people talked. But even then there would often be memoranda that would have to be put down just for a record for themselves … to protect themselves.

So there was this kind of Golden Era for information; that has long since passed. So that’s the downside is that we’re never going to find out as much we’d like. We’re never going to get to the truth. We’re only going to have an approximation of the truth.

HEFFNER: Which is where we began …


HEFFNER: … which is probably the best place for us to end and for me to thank you … again for joining me on the Open Mind.

WILENTZ: It’s been a great, great pleasure.

HEFFNER: Thanks. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.