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Why John Dewey Should Matter to Historians

The role of knowledge and truth in the Constitutional order was Dewey’s central project

This is the first essay in a four-part series, in which three historians respond to Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States (New York: W.W. Norton, 2018). These essays originated as part of a roundtable held at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in April 2019. Tomorrow we will hear from Malinda Maynor Lowery about the importance of Native American histories to understanding an American “national history;” on Wednesday, executive editor Claire Bond Potter will address the nature of grand historical visions; and on Thursday, Jill Lepore responds to the group.

These Truths: A History of the United States is the book that Henry Steel Commager tried to write forty years ago, but did not. Commager’s 1979 volume, Empire of Reason, took seriously the Enlightenment foundation for the nation, but his account of the many ostensibly relevant episodes in American history lacked convincing adhesives of the sort that Jill Lepore is now able to provide. Commager’s disjointed account, moreover, displayed a complacent spirit, its author apparently oblivious to the portentous signs visible even in the 1970s that the Great Republic might prove vulnerable to the mendacity that so obviously inspires Lepore’s truth-affirming yet anxious and foreboding work, which she is deeply right to describe as “an old-fashioned civics book” as well as an empirically grounded history.

“Have the courage to use your own understanding,” wrote Immanuel Kant. “Dare to know.” Of all the governments established during Kant’s generation, that of the United States of America was the most conspicuously linked to this Enlightenment ideal and was the most enduring. The democracy envisioned by Franklin, Jefferson, and Hamilton was intended, as Jill Lepore repeatedly quotes Hamilton, to enable people to be ruled by “reason and choice” rather than by “force and accident.”

Close attention to Lepore’s classical Enlightenment themes can enable readers to play, more honestly and more productively than we might otherwise might, the game that any book purporting to be a history of whole national experience invites; the game, that is, of identifying things left out, or misleadingly presented, or exaggerated. Yes, I can play the game, and I will do so in a moment. But first I want to say as plainly as I can that this is a great book. It has earned our critical scrutiny, yes, but it has also earned our praise. She does not allow the struggle over the legacy of the Enlightenment to get in the way of recognizing the centrality of white supremacy to American history. Readers would do well, as they proceed from one page to the next, to ask themselves: if you had only one page to say what was historically significant about this or that individual or event or movement, could you provide a more accurate treatment than Lepore has given us? Ask yourself this question on the next page and the next page and the next page. Most of us professional historians can find some pages where our answer is “yes,” we could probably reflect more accurately contemporary scholarship on this or that topic, say, populism, or the military history of World War II. Okay, now do that 789 times. After performing this exercise in self-interrogation 789 times, ask yourself just how much weight to assign to the faults you do find with the book.

So, to the inevitable game.

Where is John Dewey? Lepore seems not to realize that of all the 20th century thinkers, Dewey is her greatest ally. Dewey is mentioned only once, as a critic of the Creel Commission. Lepore does a great job with Frederick Douglass and Margaret Fuller, thus showing how a sequence of democratic theorists built upon and updated under shifting circumstances the “dare to know” foundations of the nation, but when she gets to democratic theory in the 20th century she is unfortunately side-tracked by Walter Lippmann. Lepore is correct that Lippmann foresaw more presciently than Dewey the vulnerability of public opinion to manipulation and deceit, and her account of Lippmann in relation to the Scopes Trial is exactly right. But Dewey, from his 1916 Democracy and Education all the way through his writings of the 1940s, advanced Lepore’s basic understanding of the role of knowledge and truth in the American constitutional order. Dewey was a democratic socialist, to the left of the New Deal, but he never suggested, as Lepore notes Lippmann having done, that FDR might be justified in assuming dictatorial powers. Lepore also reminds us that Lippmann found much to admire in Herbert Hoover. Not Dewey. Dewey’s heart was pure. Like Jill’s.

My second round of our little game has to do with religion. An admirable and important feature of this book is Lepore’s consistent emphasis on the secularity of the American constitutional order. Today’s voters need be made aware that the U.S. constitution does not mention God, and in that omission departed from the governance practices of the entire North Atlantic West. Voters should also be made aware that God was front and center in the constitution of the Confederacy. From time to time Lepore does remind us that Protestantism carried within it strongly anti-intellectual elements, even outside the South, visible in the nineteenth century and then among 20th century fundamentalists, but the intellectually obscurantist tendencies of evangelical Protestantism, including in the influence of Billy Graham, whom she mentions only in passing, constitute a more substantial part of Lepore’s story than she acknowledges. Richard Hofstadter was right about this portentous thread in American history.

It is a matter of emphasis. While Lepore does a spectacular job explaining to readers the coming of the internet, and analyzing the significance of the deregulation of communications by the administrations of Reagan and Clinton, and on the role of political consultants and pollsters, she might well have condensed that part of her book in order to devote more space to evangelical Protestantism’s role in diminishing the capacity of many voters to appreciate science and modern learning generally. Lepore is no doubt correct to point to the discrediting of reason on the part of some campus sectarians, but their threat to democracy pales in comparison with what evangelicalism has done to make voters accept the lies of Donald Trump and approve of the policies and practices of his truth-denying appointees. A denial of modern standards of cognitive plausibility gives rise to the liar and the cheat. Lepore also gives short shrift to liberal, ecumenical Protestantism’s support for education and science. Relevant is not just the Social Gospel, which she handles well, but the larger accommodation with the Enlightenment that is the dominant theme of liberal Protestantism from William Ellery Channing on through the Darwinian controversy and the Higher Criticism to the present. The ecumenical-evangelical divide in Protestantism is a huge reality in American life, highly relevant to Lepore’s concerns. Martin Luther King, Jr., was many things, but his profound witness for the truth owes much to his being a standard-issue ecumenical Protestant, right out of the Boston University School of Theology.

A third round. Immigration and the resulting demographic diversity is more important than Lepore acknowledges as a threat to the ability of millions of Americans to achieve solidarity. She observes correctly that in the 1970 census, less than 5% of Americans were foreign born, decidedly the lowest figure in the entire history of the United States before or since. But what demands greater emphasis is the fact that equality made its greatest gains in the United States during the Great Immigration Interregnum, between the immigration exclusion act of 1924 and beginning of the migrations resulting from the Hart-Celler Act of 1965. The New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society, the Civil Right Act, and the Voting rights Act were all put in place when white voters did not fear greater ethnoracial diversity. But if you chart the increase of foreign born from 1980 to the present, you will find that the chart matches almost exactly a chart showing the increase of a gap in household income. The popularity of Reagan Revolution and later deregulation of the economy, and the tax revolts of which Proposition 13 in California is the most famous, had several sources, but surely one major source was that millions of empowered white people did not want their tax money going to help people whom they perceived as significantly different from themselves.

Yes, the widely studied white backlash against the civil rights gains for African Americans is part of this, but studies of Western Europe of the last several decades, as well as the United States, suggest that demographic diversity resulting from immigration is a substantial threat to social democracy. When Francis Fukuyama and others offer “getting to Denmark” as a social goal for the United States they usually forget that the social democracies of Western Europe were built in some of the most ethnoracially homogeneous societies in the industrialized world. And look at them now, when their centuries-old homogeneity is threatened by demographic diversity. Might Lepore’s bedrock American truths — political equality, natural rights, and popular sovereignty — have been easier to hang on to during the last several decades if immigration had been subject to more restrictions? This is a difficult, and in many ways uncomfortable question. I simply flag it as something that even the best of our truth-seeking, truth-telling, and truth-affirming scholars, like Lepore, have yet to address as forthrightly as the question demands.

I conclude these remarks by noting how rare it is for a book so deeply engaged in the politics of the present to be so convincing in its claims about the past. These Truths is one of the most formidable analytic and moral achievements of any historian in our time.

David A. Hollinger, University of California, Berkeley, is the author of eight books, including the forthcomingWhen This Mask of Flesh is Broken (Outskirts Press, 2019).

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