This past week I’ve been savoring Daniel Walker Howe’s The Political Culture of the American Whigs and I also recently re-read Eric Foner’s Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. What’s rather remarkable about that fact is that I am not just reading them as classics in the genre of history—as one might read Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s Age of Jackson or Merle Curti’s Growth of American Thought—but as the still undisputed best sources on their respective subjects. Free Soil was first published in 1970, PCotAW in 1979, giving both a remarkable longevity.
Reading a large sheaf of quite recent articles alongside these books, I have been struck by not only the deference still accorded to the two books, but also by the way they are cited almost as if they haven’t aged. Often, scholars will acknowledge the continuing relevance and value of a classic either by enthusing that “it has not been surpassed,” “the best source on this remains…” or some such phrase, or by delicately indicating that, even if parts may need revision or updating, other scholars may still find much of it useful. But for these two books, there is little of that hedging: they are footnoted as if they were twenty or more years younger, as if the lack of a newer book to cover the same ground does not need to be explained. But I do think that lack needs to be explained, and I hope to begin suggesting some possibilities here.
First of all, we ought to acknowledge that both Free Soil and PCotAW are marvels of the craft: richly written with a winning authorial voice, impeccably insightful both at the micro-level of biography and the macro-level of national politics. Deeply researched, both Foner and Howe exude the confidence of judgment that comes from a sort of marination in their subjects’ writings. But quality alone does not give books this kind of longevity—or if it does, it is at least not an independent variable.
Assuming that quality plays some role, we might speculate that fortunate timing also has had something to do with the works’ prolonged success. But the question of timing is far from straightforward. For the timing of these books’ publication can be thought of as fortuitous on a few different levels—disciplinary, intellectual, and political.
In disciplinary terms, the secret to these books’ success is their position at the hinge of the history profession’s adjustment to the new social history. Both Foner and Howe deftly wove together elements of the emerging paradigm with the strongest aspects of the old. More concretely, their books emulated the sweep and liveliness of the mid-century classics of American Studies, with its confidence in the representativeness of “typical” or “leading” men—even if neither book sought to circumscribe as large a subject as “the American Mind,” both books burned with the same ambition to capture the “Republican Mind” or the “Whig Mind” in the round: as a political, intellectual, religious, and social phenomenon. This unspecialized or holistic approach was the most valuable legacy that Howe and Foner took from the old paradigm’s leading practitioners (Hofstadter, Commager, Welter, et al.), because it set them apart from the more focused monographs of the intellectual historians, political historians, or social historians to come.
The need for books that covered this area and provided this holistic kind of history did not fade out, but the current of young scholars eager to dig into the flabby surfeit of, say, Henry Clay’s collected works had clearly begun to flow towards a different outlet. So these two books stood tall in bibliographies—not as relics, but as ready and reliable answers to important but no longer central questions. They combined utility with security—indispensable enough not to be retired but old-fashioned enough not to elicit either emulation or revision. Free Soil and PCotAW never really acquired any rivals because few if any historians for the next few decades displayed any desire to write in that holistic manner.
And yet, Foner and Howe were both theoretically informed enough to lay down guiderails between their works and the new social history: their works remained readable and citable by social and (later) cultural historians who needed a source to provide a broad framework or a set of terms onto which they could map their more local histories. Howe, in particular, clearly anticipated the cultural turn: he was avidly reading Clifford Geertz and his book is dotted with brief theoretical swerves that would have offered the sophisticated scholars of the Eighties points of engagement.
Another way of saying this is that Foner and Howe approached the problem of meaning with one foot in the fluid, protean world of “discourse” and the other in the older, anchored land of “thought.” This formulation places the matter in a broader context, moving from purely professional issues into a more general realm of intellectual shifts and realignments. Howe in particular expended great effort at the beginning of his book justifying a variety of terms and choices, but “ideology” and “political culture” stand out as ones about which he clearly felt acute unease. The reason for this was, I think, that terms like “ideology” or “political culture” or even “hegemony”—words that historians were picking up with a kind of desperate avidity in the 1970s—acted as a half-way house between those two worlds of “thought” in the past and “discourse” in the future. Words like “ideology” opened an intellectual space between meaning as something that could reside stably and legibly within typical or representative individuals on the one hand, and meaning as something that pulsed through texts and even through bodies: half-legible, slippery, incessant, amorphous.
That is not to say that theoretically adventurous historians like Foner or Howe anticipated the full-blown arrival of post-structuralism within the discipline of history, but it is to say that it becomes clear in retrospect that they responded to some of the same intellectual pressures which were driving other scholars in the human sciences to hunt for alternative hermeneutic models. We can mark Foner’s interest in “ideology” or Howe’s experimentation with “political culture” as a kind of index of the desire that historians were beginning to feel for a more plastic, less blocky way of describing the human process of making meaning.
On both professional and intellectual levels, then, Free Soil and PCotAW fit in serendipitously between two paradigms: neither too old-fashioned nor too newfangled, a happy medium of the grandeur of the past’s breadth and the glory of the future’s sophistication. Politically, these works did not so much benefit from occupying a “between” space—although it used to be common to see the 1970s as a kind of interregnum or no man’s land, in economic and political history, that is no longer au courant, and for good reason.
Eric Foner’s politics are such an integral part of his scholarly profile that it is difficult not to read what we know into his work. I know less about Daniel Walker Howe’s politics, but even if it is clear from PCotAW that he deeply admired many aspects of Whiggery, one could forego any knowledge of either man’s personal views and still come to some conclusions about the way that political events after, say, 1968 shaped both books. And the conclusion one would reach might seem at first surprising or even counter-intuitive: both books evince a firm confidence in the stability and ultimate efficacy of party politics to meet and surmount serious crises.
There are many reasons why that conclusion would seem not to work: after the tumult of the 1960s, who still had faith in the two major parties—or in any two-party system? And wasn’t Howe writing about the last time in U.S. history that a major party had collapsed in on itself? And yet, what is more striking about this period—the hurly-burly of dissent, or the fact that both major parties survived such a decade?
Of course, that survival occurred within at least the early stages of a fundamental regional and racial realignment—the Democratic Party of 1956 and the Democratic Party of 1972 were significantly different in numerous ways. But that was also, I think, part of the point underlying both Foner and Howe’s books: parties could change. Parties could even change themselves. In the 1850s, that change required a (couple of) name changes, but Howe especially emphasized the continuity of (Conscience) Whigs and the new Republican Party. Spurred on by exemplary dissidents, parties could become instruments of profound social change—for the better.
Howe had the benefit of being able to look back not only on the 1960s, but on Watergate and Vietnam as well, and the conclusion that he drew was clear: strong parties—as long as they checked rather than colluded with the executive—were bulwarks for liberty rather than seeds of disunion. After describing Whig opposition to the Mexican-American War, Howe laid bare the moral of the story:
By the twentieth century the country-party tradition in political thought [which the American Whigs followed] had been forgotten. The English constitutional struggles with the Stuarts and the teachings of classical or early modern authors no longer constituted, as they had for the Whigs, resources for helping to recognize threatening contemporary political trends. By coincidence (or not), American historians were rediscovering the country-party tradition at about the same time that the nation as a whole was rediscovering the dangers of presidential usurpations and executive wars. (95)
It’s a striking reading: the recovery during the late 1960s and the 1970s of the idea of republicanism as a response—conscious or not—to the Vietnam War and especially to Nixon.
As I read these books, those political parallels or echoes seemed to be crumbling before me as I held them up to our own time. It is difficult to find the same kind of guarded optimism in our present that shines forth humbly but uninterruptedly in these two books. Perhaps that is a sign that their forty plus year spell as the definitive work on their subjects will also soon be coming to an end. We may need a new history of the Whigs and their political culture, a new history of the ideology of the early Republican Party.
 There have, of course, been subsequent books about the Whig and Republican Parties, but none—as I’ll argue more in a moment—has really replaced or attempted to challenge Howe and Foner’s total reconstructions of those parties’ ideologies.