Arthur Meier Schlesinger Jr

views updated

Arthur Meier Schlesinger Jr.

Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Jr. (born 1917) was an outstanding historian of the United States and an influential activist in the Democratic Party. What was unique was the extent to which he brought his scholarship to bear upon his partisan politics.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. was born in 1917 with the name Arthur Bancroft Schlesinger, later changed by dropping his mother's maiden name and taking his father's full name. This emulation was one of many in the most famous father-son combination in the history of American historians, for Schlesinger Jr. was raised in the home of one of the leading historians of the 1920s and 1930s. Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. taught one of the first college courses in American social and cultural history (in the early 1920s), pioneered in the scholarship of social history, and, as a professor at Harvard between the two world wars, directed the graduate work of several students who became distinguished social and intellectual historians.

Precocious Arthur Jr. graduated from Harvard College summa cum laude at age 20 and published his honor's thesis one year later, Orestes A. Brownson: A Pilgrim's Progress (1939). He spent a year studying in England, but did not pursue further formal academic training. Membership in the Society of Fellows at Harvard allowed him to do the research for The Age of Jackson, published when he was only 27 in 1945. (After 1942 Schlesinger Jr. had been involved in the World War II effort in Washington, D.C. and overseas.) The Pulitzer Prize was awarded The Age of Jackson, and Schlesinger Jr. was appointed to the Harvard history department, where his father was still a professor.

Schlesinger Jr. moved his scholarly focus from the pre-Civil War period to that of the New Deal while he was a Harvard professor. Teaching American intellectual history from the colonies to the present, he concentrated his research upon the Age of Roosevelt and published the first three volumes covering the years to 1936: The Crisis of the Old Order (1957); The Coming of the New Deal (1958); and The Politics of Upheaval (1960). In the mid-1980s he resumed work on his multi-volume history of the New Deal.

If Schlesinger Jr. had only published these historical works he would be known to the educated public as well as to historians, for all of his books are well written and widely read. But it was his political involvements and the relation of his writing to these involvements which made Schlesinger a public figure of unusual interest.

He became the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at the City University of New York in 1966 and president of the American Institute of Arts and Letters in 1981.

Actively Supported Stevenson

Though Schlesinger Sr. (1888-1965) was a liberal, a Democrat throughout the 1920s, and a supporter of the New Deal, his scholarship did not visibly manifest his political views and his partisan political activity was slight. Schlesinger Jr. was more active personally in partisan politics, and his scholarship seemed to cast votes. The Age of Jackson, written during FDR's fourth term, argued that the pre-Civil War reform era was one of a series of alternating liberal cycles which followed conservative periods, each of which failed to address the nation's political, economic, and social problems. Schlesinger attempted to demonstrate that Jacksonian democracy was a conscious social movement emanating mainly from "have-nots" in the eastern and southern parts of the country. The alleged class conscious eastern radicalism and the regional alignment suggested, of course, links with the New Deal, and it was said that The Age of Jackson "voted" for Roosevelt, as well as Jackson.

In 1949 Schlesinger Jr. published The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom, a history of American social thought organized around the political issues of the post-World War II years. The Vital Center voted retrospectively for Truman in the election of 1948, both in terms of domestic New Deal programs and in the formulation of opposition to totalitarianism, whether of fascism on the right or communism on the left. Written for the moment, The Vital Center remains a remarkably enduring testament for the mainstream of the Democratic Party almost 40 years after it was published.

An active supporter of Adlai Stevenson in his unsuccessful bids for the presidency in 1952 and 1956, Schlesinger Jr. switched his speech-writing to John Kennedy for the election of 1960. Kennedy or Nixon: Does it Make Any Difference (1960) made his case for JFK. After serving in the White House as a special assistant to Kennedy and resigning his Harvard faculty position, Schlesinger wrote A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (1965), for which he was again awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

His political visibility obscured the fact that Schlesinger Jr. remained an acute scholarly commentator in book reviews on the monographic works of other historians in American intellectual, political, and social history. In addition, he served as editor of the History of American Presidential Elections (4 volumes, 1971) and in 1986 wrote 14 stylish essays describing The Cycles of American History.

Old Ideals Recycled

Following Bill Clinton's proclamation of a new covenant in his 1992 presidential acceptance speech, Schlesinger asserted that a new era had begun. He based his assertion on the cycles of American history theory put forth by his father. The elder Schlesinger predicted in 1939 that the New Deal would run out of steam in the mid-1940s. It would give way to a conservative tide, he predicted, which in turn would yield a new liberal epoch starting in 1962. The next conservative phase would begin around 1978.

On the strength of this record, it was logical to predict, as the younger Schlesinger did in 1986, that at some point, shortly before or after the year 1990, there should come a sharp change in the national mood and direction. The reason each phase recurred at roughly 30-year intervals, Schlesinger asserted, was because generational change was the cycle's mainspring. But because each generation kept faith with its youthful dreams, Schlesinger argued, the forward momentum was guaranteed.

During the 1990s, Schlesinger was among an increasing number of writers, analysts and political observers who recognized that all was not well with multiculturalism and politically correct trends.

Further Reading

The best essay on Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. as a historian was by Marcus Cunliffe, "Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.," in Pastmasters: Some Essays on American Historians, edited by Marcus Cunliffe and Robin Winks (1969). For an interesting analysis by Schlesinger Jr. of perhaps the most influential historian of his own age in his own field of scholarship see Schlesinger Jr., "Richard Hofstadter," in Pastmasters. For background on the historical profession in the United States during Schlesinger Jr.'s lifetime, see John Higham, History (1965), chapters I-III. Schlesinger has been featured on the A&E Biography television program; a brief biography can be accessed at the Website www.biography.com (July 1997). He has authored more than a dozen books. □

About this article

Arthur Meier Schlesinger Jr

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article