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The Return of Staughton Lynd

For the generation that came of age intellectually in the 1970s and 80s, Staughton Lynd’s Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism (1968) was one of those tattered Vintage paperback (number V-488 to be precise) you came across browsing in used bookstores.  It was like Black Power (or any text by Richard Hofstadter).  Something you couldn’t help being exposed to even if you didn’t necessarily feel drawn to it.  And Intellectual Origins could seem off-putting: the cover said Radicalism but it came with a red, white, and blue spread eagle motif.  Still, apparent mixed message notwithstanding, many students might have been moved to give it a look or three because the author has been so right on about Vietnam.

I picked up my copy while trolling for course books during my freshman or sophomore year in college.  It had a great impact on me and continues to shape my sense of the past.  Lynd’s chief lesson was that a dissenting tradition informed the American Revolution – a tradition that survived the capture of the Revolution by conservative nationalists – not least because it was older, broader, and more idealistic than the discourse upheld by conventional minders of the Revolution’s legacy.

Intellectual Origins came out a year after Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution and, as the title implies, issued a potent and intentional challenge to that book’s interpretation of Revolutionary politics.  Radicalism, bourgeois or otherwise, cannot be understood as merely a “contagion of liberty” resulting from the Revolution.  Nor can it be grasped in terms of anti-conspiratorial ideology derived from early-eighteenth-century “real whig” opposition writings.  There was an earlier radical tradition, religious but no less radical for being so, that trusted in ordinary people’s consciences.  It was not so much American as Anglo (but not only that), in some iterations explicitly internationalist, and dissenting with respect to both church and state depending on the time and place.  We see echoes of it in many different sorts of attacks on wealth and power throughout U.S. history.  This tradition included Garrisonian abolitionism, native socialisms, aspects of Jefferson and Lincoln as well as Tom Paine.  Radicals could claim a true and thoughtful, not merely rhetorical or mythical, connection to the American past—as some of them have done ever since.

That this view was ever controversial, or that it raised some hackles in 1968, may now need explaining.  Between 1961 and 1968 Staughton Lynd published a body of work—articles and anthologies as well as the two works of history republished in 2009 by Cambridge University Press—that was remarkable for its breadth and vision.  Indeed, the rapid publication of his essay collection Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution (1967) and Intellectual Origins by trade presses reflected the demand for his research and teaching, as well as the recognition he had already achieved among historians during the same years and, to a significant extent, before he became famous as an antiwar activist.  He certainly had every reason, while working on Intellectual Origins, to believe that he’d earned the right, and perhaps even had the responsibility, to creatively combine his political work and his historical writing—and that there would be a ready crossover audience for such an effort.  He had been hired by Yale because of his standing, in the public eye and in the profession, as perhaps the best “New Left” historian yet to emerge.  His writings on the possible confluences of history and activism were also widely admired and anthologized.  Being at Yale, in turn, made it even more likely that he would be turned to as a leader and speaker by the movement, whether at demonstrations against the war or at meetings of the American Historical Association.

Lynd emphasized, in the conclusion of Intellectual Origins, that the book was for “radicals.”  While writing it, he described himself in one of the many new magazines of politics and culture springing up at the time as “more and more committed to the thesis that the professor of history should also be a historical protagonist.”  He was also trying to “save the Movement of the Sixties” as he put it recently, from bad ideas and their effects (particularly “pop Marxism,” violent as opposed to peaceful revolutionism, and an avant-gardism that distrusted popular traditions).  If there was a usable, vital radical tradition, a historian could play an extremely important role as “the custodian of such memories and dreams.”

Lynd’s own sense of American memories and dreams had been decisively shaped, as he describes in his new memoir with Alice Lynd, Stepping Stones, by his initial decision, in 1961, to turn down ivy-league offers and teach at historically black Spelman College in Atlanta.  His dialogue with students and faculty there (he mentions Alice Walker and Howard Zinn), and his experience as a leader in the 1964 Mississippi Freeedom School project, undoubtedly helped him seek a synthesis.  “I did better scholarship on the Constitution while I was teaching five courses at Spelman, and traveling across town to borrow books from the Emory University library, than when I came to Yale,” he writes in his recent book with Andrej Grubacic, Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism and Radical History.  (A Staughton Lynd Reader is also forthcoming in April 2010 from PM Press.)

His 1967 and 1968 books were in fact well received in the mainstream press and by well-respected historians.  Given their subject matter and broad ambitions, it is hard to imagine much better reviews.  Yet it’s now an established fact that the Yale history department, with the assent of the liberal historians who had hired him, had decided to get rid of Lynd for political reasons and chose to construe Intellectual Origins as an excuse, with an assist from Eugene D. Genovese, a historian and critic from the left whose objections had little to do with the merits of Lynd’s account of ideas in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.

Wittingly or not, Genovese seems to have functioned as something of a hired gun.  C. Vann Woodward was showing his review around the history department before it appeared it print, and Genovese was invited to teach at Yale for a year soon afterward.  Lynd’s neo-Marxism contended with Genovese’s more orthodox variety; his emphasis on abolitionists and founding fathers challenged Genovese’s exclusive interest in the old South.  Genovese had also publicly attacked Lynd’s politics before he reviewed Lynd’s two books in the New York Review of Books.  The review deliberately conflated the issues, calling Lynd a “demagogue” and wielding its title, “Abolitionist,” as a slur.  For Genovese, Lynd’s insistence on slavery as an issue during the Revolutionary era, and on the abolitionists as carrying on a broader tradition, was simply ahistorical.  Real abolitionism meant support for slavery’s antithesis, wage labor, which was unthinkable in the pre-capitalist, revolutionary era (or among slaveholders who were not capitalists)—an a priori assumption that, it subsequently became clearer, undergirded Genovese’s own work.  Genovese went further in denouncing Lynd’s elaboration and celebration of rights, natural law doctrines, and conscience as politically irresponsible.  In a subsequent exchange of letters in NYRB (which scholar Gary B. Nash remembers as deeply influential even as he recalls his wonder at Genovese’s vitriol), Lynd insisted “the Founding Fathers morally condemned slavery.”  Other countries abolished slavery between the Revolution and the 1820s:  “it is not in the least anachronistic to ask why the United States failed to do likewise.”

There’s still much at stake in this debate. If one ignores the part about capitalism and antislavery, Genovese’s argument that all talk about slavery’s relationship to the Revolution and the founding of the republic is anachronism or presentism is basically the same one now associated with Bernard Bailyn’s most famous student Gordon S. Wood (who also used the term “anachronistic” with respect to Lynd in 1969).  But even Genovese has admitted, recently, that slavery “loomed over the Constitutional Convention.”  To preserve his “honorable” planter class who “defended principles,” Genovese, however, has amplified their apologies for “slavery in the abstract,” ignoring the rise of racial defenses of slavery designed to deflect natural rights doctrines.  (Wood, for his part, complains publicly about books on slavery pouring from the presses, while carefully segregating the subject from his irony-laced narratives about founding fathers and “democratic” capitalism.)

More or less blacklisted from the history business, Lynd has raised tough questions about the academic life and its limits, urging radical historians to cast their net wider.  He also asks why historians have stopped doing “structural analysis” or proposing “big ideas that could be tested” (nor, I’d add, doing so while writing as clearly and accessibly as Lynd).  Lynd has commented that the academic profession now grants legitimacy to “stories of cancer-stricken chimney sweeps and unwed mothers so long as their authors still cede the main story to their more conservative colleagues.”  This is a point of tremendous importance. Even Gary Nash’s 2005 The Unknown American Revolution rests content to treat its story and characters as “alternative” – and to avoid a clash of interpretations over the Constitution, though that text has long been a battleground, and is bound to spark conflicts going forward.

What is striking in retrospect about Intellectual Origins is that Lynd did not claim more for the traditions he investigated than he could plausibly demonstrate.  For the variety of intellectual history-cum-radical memory Lynd practiced, it wasn’t necessary to trace strains of thought that flowed with the mainstream or became ideology.  What mattered were ideas that endured and came to inspire radical players in American life.

Ideas of this kind were implicit in the revolutionary mindset limned by Bailyn.  But he soon lashed out at historians like Lynd who focused on figures who called for fundamental social change.  Lynd, in turn, objected that Bailyn’s revolutionary consensus marginalized both John Locke and Thomas Paine, even while citing them, and neglected natural rights as a source of radicalism.  Bailyn’s “real whig” opposition sources of republican ideology also dismissed the radical side of the English Civil War and its legacies.  More recent historians like Jonathan Scott see the late seventeenth century as a time of “troubles” that sparked an “extraordinary intellectual fertility” which was international in scope and productive of precisely the radicalizing questions of conscience that Lynd highlights.  Writers on the left of the American Revolution, including especially Paine and Jefferson, began following the footsteps of the originary English rebels by questioning the inalienability of private property—the bedrock of government for Locke, but also the source of a potent critique of slavery (as a violation of inalienable property in one’s own person).

In the United States, the property question could never be divorced from the slavery question.  In Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution, Lynd explained how and why the Revolutionaries crafted a “compromise of 1787”: northern capitalists and the plantocracy securing each others’ interests, in the process keeping the antislavery and levelling radicals at bay.  Just as persuasively, Lynd showed how Jefferson and his political heirs conceived of American history as driven by embattled farmers against conspiring urban elites.  The roots of such orthodox progressive history lie in the so-called great compromises of the early republic (Though abolitionists tried to undo that orthodoxy by forcing the nation to confront what they called its original sin).  Just as importantly, Lynd excavated the roots of contemporary American historical imagination in the abolitionists’ own debate about whether the constitution was proslavery (William Lloyd Garrison) or in the last instance antislavery (Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln).

Intellectual Origins tells the sunnier side of the story: an important strain of radical and cosmopolitan thinking survived the compromises that secured northern (mercantile) private property by solidifying southern (slave) property.  Given that certain figures in the founders’ generation “demythologized” private property, the Revolutionary mind-set could still be a resource for those who argued against slavery, despite the Constitution’s turn toward the safeguarding of property as a greater good.  And, indeed, the struggle against racial slavery could be about more than that:  more even than a defense of a free labor system construed as the opposite of chattel slavery.  It might become, like the ideology of the Revolution itself, a site of internationalism in a nationalist age and of a critique of
capitalism insofar as contemporary capitalism relied on slave labor.

While the mainstreaming of antislavery in the north may have had much to do with its compatibility with wage labor, there were other aspects of abolitionism, especially in its more uncompromising versions, that existed in tension with the status quo antebellum and pointed toward democratic expansions of the political landscape.  It was the radical democratic imperatives of abolitionism, including advocacy of the right to free speech, perhaps as much as the insistence on free labor in the territories, that upset the political consensus over slavery.  On this score, recent appreciations of the abolitionists can be read as an extended footnote to Lynd.  What’s news here is the recognition now given to the role played by African American activists and thinkers.  The irreverent populists, influential Quakers, working-class William Lloyd Garrison, and anti-capitalist Henry David Thoreau we meet in Intellectual Origins, all of whom thought long and hard before acting to change history, are now familiar figures who live in your local Barnes and Noble.

Lynd was unusual, however, in underscoring the connection of abolitionism to the Revolutionary generation.  But that wasn’t a sign of willful nativism.  He refused to choose between a Revolutionary American and a cosmopolitan internationalist tradition, finding the influences twinned in radical and antislavery figures like Thomas Paine and Wendell Phillips.  His double-truth telling here anticipated a major theme in recent work on nineteenth and twentieth century America which promote a “post-nationalist” and post-imperial approach, focusing on black and white internationalists like David Walker and Frederick Douglass, who riffed on both the Revolution and its limits.  This new body of scholarship, though, tends not to go back to the roots of the story in the seventeenth century.  The few writers who do get back, like Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh in The Many-Headed Hydra and Linebaugh in his mind-blowing Magna Charta Manifesto, get attacked as romanticists and nit-picked for factual errors that are somehow excusable in works that celebrate radicals and runaways without raising issues of class, like Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution.

A look back at Lynd suggests that contemporary radicals may be all too invested in the myth of American consensus (in other words, they’ve read too much Bailyn and Wood, and not enough Lynd).  Lynd gives us a glimpse of a lost synthesis of American history that has rich implications for our own time.  In Lynd’s vision, wars—and, in America, the unavoidable turmoil that war provokes in the politics of race and class—generate crises that spur creative reassessments of social relations.  Lynd’s work reminds us that in times of national crisis people have often entered or re-entered politics to “cast their whole vote,” regardless of the previous rules of the political game.  Lynd’s account of the sources of radicalism in America before and after 1776 seems right on time now as well as being more in tune with recent scholarship than with mainstream work published circa 1968.

Even forty years later, Intellectual Origins and Class Conflict, Slavery and the U.S. Constitution seem remarkably fresh –in part because the bulk of the historical profession refused Lynd’s implicit challenge to develop a new synthesis encompassing both the Revolution and the Civil War.  His books and more recent reflections bear close scrutiny because he provides moral clarity –“The American Revolution had the possibility of abolishing slavery [but] the revolutionary leadership failed to act” – missing from the work of other historians, even those who lean left.  There’s nothing namby-pamby about the sense of possibility that’s alive in Lynd’s version of the past (He sees the Civil War as the first American revolution because “millions of dollars of slave property was confiscated without compensation”).  Lynd’s return – or rather, our return to Lynd – can remind us that radicals are always down for the count, and always getting up.