Brad Snyder, The House of Truth: A Washington Political Salon and the Foundations of American Liberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 811 pages.
Reviewed by Drew Maciag
When I learned of the impending publication of Brad Snyder’s House of Truth I assumed his book would be similar to Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club, but that it would substitute liberalism (in place of pragmatism) as its featured, newly influential, mode of thinking. I must confess to a personal weakness for books that chronicle the paradigm-shifting exploits of small groups of writers, artists, academics, activists, and assorted intellectuals who supplant outmoded ideas with fresher, more sophisticated, and more timely alternatives. Granted there are drawbacks to books of this genre, which tend to suggest that history (or modern society) “advances” thanks to the top-down interventions of intellectual elites. Nevertheless there is something rewarding about getting a close-up, behind-the-scenes view of how certain creative thinkers and advocates contributed to “revolutions” in collective consciousness. There is probably a nostalgic attraction to such books as well. Before the advent of professional think tanks (and long before blogs existed!) there were informal clubs, coffeehouse cliques, and private salons that hosted philosophical discussions of worldly topics; so books that examine them seem to be peering into a lost world—or at least into an older system of networking—that is no longer predominant in the twenty-first century.
House of Truth traces the ascent of early twentieth-century liberalism via a series of interconnected biographic portraits of (mostly) up-and-coming, highly-educated, well-connected men, along with sketches of their social and professional milieu. But the book also contains large amounts of other material that is difficult to categorize. Curiously, the Library of Congress call number classifies the volume as “United States Local History: District of Columbia,” probably because the House of Truth was a brick-and-mortar reality: a row house at 1727 Nineteenth St. (near DuPont Circle) where some of liberalism’s movers and shakers lived or regularly visited between 1912 and 1919—though the book’s action extends through the 1920s and ends in the 1930s. After the opening chapters the house itself recedes from view, except as a symbolic home for a developing political outlook. The book’s idiosyncratic nature stems from the author’s hybrid background. Snyder is a law professor at the University of Wisconsin who has written two successful general-audience books on baseball. Therefore his House of Truth focuses heavily on legal matters (Supreme Court decisions, the Sacco-Vanzetti case, faculty squabbles at Harvard Law School) yet is supplemented by everything from the efforts of the sculptor Gutzon Borglum to carve a Confederate Memorial on a Georgia mountain, to a paragraph about the White House’s African-American butler, to stories about the founding of the New Republic, to the travails of the Ku Klux Klan, to brief detours describing some of the women (mostly wives, plus a few activists) associated with the House of Truth’s male characters.
In short, Snyder casts a very wide net of coverage in hopes of attracting the widest possible readership. The result is simultaneously appealing and distracting. Granted, the various diversions are interesting, but his core story about the development of liberalism tends to unfold in fits and starts. At 811 pages (579 of text), House of Truth requires patience and fortitude on the part of any reader who expects the book to deliver unencumbered intellectual insights. Snyder has mastered the smooth, clear, matter-of-fact style that is common among popular authors; while the upside to this style is accessibility, the downside is absence of analytical rigor and avoidance of unnecessary risk. This book is unlikely to disturb readers regardless of their political persuasion, but it probably will not excite them either. Nor is it likely to challenge academic readers intellectually, although it may inform them on many particulars.
As to the L-word itself, Snyder uses it pretty much as Americans have commonly applied the term since the New Deal. That is, not in the nineteenth-century “classical-liberal” sense that tended to stress limitations on government’s authority to curb property rights and restrict “free enterprise,” but rather to champion government’s affirmative role in securing rights for workers, criminal defendants, dissenters, and the oppressed (although failure to adequately confront racial issues is noted), and to ensure greater economic equity. Snyder quotes too often from too many letters; nevertheless, his direct quotations reveal an unexpectedly common use of “liberal” (rather than “progressive”) by House of Truth participants after WWI. He admits that the two terms were often used interchangeably, and that replacing one with the other “may have been a clever rebranding.” Still, it is notable that so many avowedly “liberal” principles articulated by House of Truth members during the 1910s and 1920s turned out to be prototypical of FDR’s economic, social and tax policies in the 1930s, and of Supreme Court decisions in the post-WWII era (especially during the Warren Court). In fact, since readers of this book already know how future political events unfolded, it is difficult not to sense the New Deal and postwar liberalism waiting in the wings. Of course that outcome was not inevitable. But House of Truth demonstrates how the intellectual ground was prepared for just such an ideological transformation, once political circumstances provided the opportunity.
By far the two most imposing characters in the book are Oliver Wendell Holmes and Felix Frankfurter. Holmes was the living icon of legal realism. He was not a liberal—in fact he was skeptical of the effectiveness of most government reforms—but he paved the way for liberalism by destabilizing the traditional Natural Law and other restrictive procedural and constitutional habits of the judiciary, which had been used to invalidate social and economic legislation. The much younger Frankfurter (who was more generationally typical of the House of Truth crowd) admired Holmes and shared his judicial philosophy, but was more of an activist on civil liberties and state regulation of business. He was also more directly political, as a long-time advisor to—and encourager of—Franklin Roosevelt (predating his presidency) and as a recruiter who brought legions of young liberal lawyers into government service. In fact, while Holmes embodies the greatest presence in the book, his presence is static (settled, established); Frankfurter’s presence is active: he is in constant, impatient motion. As such, Frankfurter’s story serves as the best single example of what Snyder appears to be aiming at regarding the contemporary relevance of his study (which contains a huge cast of characters, including such big names as Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, Louis Brandeis, and Theodore Roosevelt). More than anyone else, Frankfurter represented praxis; to evoke Carl Becker: he was more a philosophe than a philosopher, concerned with implementing ideas rather than devising them.
When Snyder says his book is about “the foundations of American liberalism,” he is not talking about the history of liberalism as an idea. He makes no sustained effort to examine its roots or to contrast it with alternative traditions. Rather, he is describing the origins of a liberal intellectual, political, and communications structure that began as an interpersonal network and grew into an institutional and legal framework that reigned for nearly a century. The real story is less about where liberalism once lived, than about how it ultimately went to work.
Drew Maciag is author of Edmund Burke in America (2013); he is currently working on two book projects, tentatively entitled: “John F. Kennedy and the Quest for Modernity,” and “Too Much of Nothing: America in the 1970s.”