Meet the Sarah Palin Enthusiast Who May Have Been the Best American Historian of His Generation

tags: Martin J. Sklar

Martin J. Sklar—an American historian and political thinker—died on April 27 at his home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Sklar’s final wishes were to have neither a funeral nor an obituary. I hadn't talked to him in almost a decade, but my suspicion is that these were the wishes of a man who felt he had not been given his due in life, and would not get it in death. I don’t intend what follows as an obituary, nor as a tribute to the man (toward whom I had mixed feelings), but as an appreciation of his very substantial, but insufficiently recognized, intellectual contribution to American history.

Sklar was a historian and was proud of his profession. He was also a dedicated teacher. He got into a fight with his colleagues at Bucknell, he once told me, because he insisted that the regular senior faculty should teach the introductory survey courses. He was as an assiduous scholar of Progressive Era foreign and economic policy—his book, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916, is the definitive account of the battle over anti-trust legislation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—but he was also concerned with the big questions about history and politics that Hegel, Marx, and Burckhardt and American historians from Bancroft, Turner, and Beard to Hofstadter, Hartz, and Williams tried to answer.

These include: Is there a reason to history? Are there discernible conflicts and concerns that move history along in one direction rather than another? Are there recognizable stages of history, and if so, which stage are we in, and toward which are we headed? What is the historical relationship, if any, between our politics, culture, and morality and the imperatives of economic production and expansion? What, if any, have been the principles that have guided Americans? What lies behind the century old contest between liberalism and conservatism and between left and right? Does it make sense to talk of American exceptionalism or of an American Century or an American empire? Sklar looked for answers to these question as they might bear upon present. A political activist as well as historian, he sought from history what Van Wyck Brooks called a “usable past.” 

That concern with contemporary politics set Sklar off from many of his professional colleagues, who have tried to avoid drawing conclusions about the present from the past. The pitfall of avoiding the present is the trivialization of the past through research driven merely by the quest for scholarly novelty. Historical journals are filled with contributions of which one could justly ask, “So what?” or which unconsciously mimic the most banal conventional terms of contemporary thinking. On the other hand, there are pitfalls to using the past to draw lessons about the present. Passionate political convictions can shape one’s perception of the past as well as present. Sklar did not avoid this trap.

Many of Sklar’s most original notions bear the imprint of the times in which he wrote and of the causes he espoused. He went from a Communist Party sympathizer to New Left activist and ended up as a fan of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. Initially, he was too faithful to the Marxist dream of socialist revolution. Later, he appears to have rationalized his loss of faith in Marxian socialism by insisting that the right is really the left. But Sklar would not be the first important historian to have had sharp and sharply changing political convictions. Beard springs to mind, as does Eugene Genovese, or the Israeli historian Benny Morris... 

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