John P. Diggins, 73, Historian, Dies





John P. Diggins, an intellectual historian who brought a provocative, revisionist approach to the history of the American left and right, and to figures as varied as Thorstein Veblen, Max Weber, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, died Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 73 and lived in Manhattan.

The cause was complications of colon cancer, said his companion, Elizabeth Harlan.

Mr. Diggins, who taught at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, roamed widely as he traced the intellectual contours of American political thought from the signing of the Declaration of Independence to the present day. His interest in the twists and turns of ideology, and the evolution of ideas, led him to explore pivotal thinkers all along the political spectrum whose preoccupations and struggles led him to the deeper questions of American identity and self-definition.

He was fascinated, for example, by a fault line in American thought: the great divide that he perceived between the Declaration of Independence, whose language of self-fulfillment presupposed the golden rule of civic virtue, and the Constitution, whose careful attention to property rights and the pursuit of gain reflected the harsher American value of “power, struggle and self-assertion,” as he put it in his book on Lincoln, “On Hallowed Ground” (2000).

It was Lincoln’s mission, he wrote, and a continuing challenge for Americans today, to revalidate the language of the declaration.

“He was the most philosophical-minded of the American historians,” said the political historian Paul Berman, a writer in residence at New York University. “He was always trying to get at the big questions, about heroism, virtue and the conflict between utopian aspirations and the disappointments of life. His work was a kind of ongoing meditation.”...



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Alonzo Hamby - 2/4/2009

Jack Diggins was an American original--a young man from a modest family who originally went to college to play basketball and developed into a premier scholar whose work spilled over from academia into the realm of political controversy.

To my mind, he was the most interesting person to do American intellectual history since Perry Miller.

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