The legacy of historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

Bringing out the dead.
March 1 2007 6:50 PM

Not Just Camelot's Historian

The vibrant scholarship of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

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Indeed, Schlesinger's own decision to join the Kennedy team and forsake his old hero Adlai Stevenson resulted from his recognition that Stevenson lacked the comfort with politics and power that would be necessary to govern well. Schlesinger concluded by mid-1960 that Stevenson was showing too much "frivolity, distractedness, over-interest in words and phrases," while Kennedy "gives a sense of cool, measured, intelligent concern with action and power. … [Though] less creative personally, he might be more so politically." Yet when asked which figure in his lifetime he would have liked to have seen in the White House, he invariably answered, "Adlai Stevenson." Hope and realism coexisted.

Schlesinger favored liberal realism over left-wing utopianism because the latter philosophy posited the existence of a future free from struggle, whereas Schlesinger, deeply influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr, subscribed to a secularized idea of original sin that considered human nature inherently flawed. (He joked that he and his fellow admirers of the midcentury theologian called themselves "Atheists for Niebuhr.") And from John Dewey he took the insight of democracy as a practice that won't ever coast to a halt in some well-functioning steady state but must continually be renewed through purposeful engagement and action.

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It made sense, then, that Schlesinger found stories of dramatic struggle throughout the American past, from the Age of Jackson to the Age of Roosevelt, and he told them with insight, commitment, and panache. But it made sense, too, that he also found implacable conflict in his own age—in the indifference of the Eisenhower years, the dedication to reform of the Kennedys, the power lust of Nixon, and the unthinking willfulness of George W. Bush. If Arthur Schlesinger spent rather too much time, by his own lights, joining the battles of a given day, it was because he believed that the state of American democracy, not just in the future but in the present, was worth it.

Correction, March 1, 2007: The article originally and incorrectly described Patrice Lumuba as being a leader from Ghana. He was the prime minister of the Congo. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.