David Hackett Fischer: Interviewed by American Enterprise Institute
David Hackett Fischer, one of our country’s foremost historians, has described his work as “a deep affirmation of American values.” He combines social history with classic narrative, a synthesis that reaches its apex in Paul Revere’s Ride (1994) and his Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington’s Crossing (2004).
Fischer’s ambitious “cultural history of the United States” includes the much-praised Albion’s Seed (1989), which identifies the enduring folkways that British immigrants carried to the New World, and his latest book Liberty and Freedom (2004).
Professor Fischer, who will deliver the American Enterprise Institute’s annual Irving Kristol Lecture in D.C. on March 8, spoke with TAE associate editor Bill Kauffman in his office at Brandeis University.
TAE: How did growing up in Baltimore shape you as a historian?
FISCHER: I’m an American mongrel: part German, part English. On my mother’s side we have memories of old Maryland, and uncles and cousins from the backcountry with names like Westmoreland. Others of my ancestors were Quakers. They all had various ideas of who they were and who I should be.
A lot of history had happened around Baltimore. I had an aunt who was blind and in her 90s. She told a story to my cousins and my brother and me—it was a big sprawling family—about a July day when from her home on a farm north of Baltimore there was a sound like the wind in the trees. She went outside and there was no wind. She looked up the road and saw a line of wagons as far as she could see. They were the wounded from Gettysburg.
That was told to us when we were very small, and I think that’s the recipe for making a historian. It was the immediacy of those events—the sense that they were happening to us in some way.
TAE: You grew up with a proprietary attitude toward the country—like it’s yours?
FISCHER: I would say so. My ancestors had fought in every major war. My father was superintendent of the school system in Baltimore in the 1950s when I was of an impressionable age. In 1954 he was implementing Brown v. Board of Education. I would hear these things discussed around the table, and then the next morning I’d see them in the newspaper.
So I had a sense of connection to the choices and decisions that were being made in the country. It also made me think that choices make a difference.
TAE: Your religious background is Protestant and you end up teaching at Brandeis.
FISCHER: My parents were both Lutheran and I was confirmed in a Lutheran church. Then I married a Methodist and we encouraged our children in the Protestant spirit to find their own way. One became an Episcopalian and the other became a Unitarian and is now a Buddhist. I live in a town that’s predominantly Roman Catholic and I teach very comfortably in my 85th semester at Brandeis, which calls itself non-sectarian Jewish.
TAE: Did you have any expectations about Jewishness that were either confirmed or shattered upon coming to Brandeis?
FISCHER: I found a kind of excitement that I didn’t find anywhere else. There were other schools that I had offers from at the same time. One was an old New England school and the people who interviewed me there were interested in who my grandparents were and where I got my sportcoats. I had another offer from a Big Ten school. They wanted to know if I could teach the General Survey course. I said, “How big is the class?” They said it’s usually about 500 students. And then I went to a very good Southern school and they said, “We normally have gatherings to talk about subjects of current concern. Do you want to come over and join us?” I said I would be delighted. What’s the subject? “Capital punishment.” So I went over, rehearsing my arguments against capital punishment—and the discussion was about methods of execution.
Then I came to Brandeis, and I met two people: John Roche and Leonard Levy. They were extraordinary characters, hard as nails, devoted to a scholar’s quest. As I arrived, they were having a furious argument about substantive and procedural due process. Their fists were on the table, the coffee cups were flying, and halfway through the conversation they turned to me and said, “Who are you?” I thought: this is the place for me.
TAE: The great forgotten upstate New York novelist Harold Frederic once had a character complain that “I cannot read or listen to the inflated accounts” of the role played in the Revolution by Massachusetts and Virginia “without smashing my pipe in wrath.” Have Massachusetts and Virginia claimed too much credit for the American founding?
FISCHER: I would say no. Virginia was nearly as large as the next two states combined. It dominated by weight of numbers, but also by several extraordinary traditions of leadership, which gave us not only George Washington but also Robert E. Lee, George Marshall, and others. They are very similar people in many ways. And there is another style of leadership in New England that I’ve always had high respect for. At Trenton, 60 percent of Washington’s army were New Englanders. They were very important in those critical first three years of the war. They dominated the army at Saratoga.
TAE: Your first book was about the Federalist Party—conservatives navigating the Jeffersonian era. If you look at the kind of government we have now, did Hamilton and the Federalists really win?
FISCHER: I don’t think of Hamilton as the model Federalist. The most important Federalist,
I think, was George Washingon. But there have been extraordinary reversals, like Abraham Lincoln’s story of the two wrestlers on the frontier who wrestled themselves into each other’s coats. So that lobbyists on K Street look like friends of Hamilton and talk like Thomas Jefferson.
It’s these interesting permutations and the way these legacies persist that are more striking than a single line of apostolic descent from any group in early America.
TAE: In Historians’ Fallacies, you lamented the “simple-minded moralizing” school of history. Are we living today in a golden age of simple-minded moralizing—you know, Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, therefore they were morally repugnant?
FISCHER: I quoted in that book a British historian who said that what British readers want to know about Napoleon is whether he was a good or a bad man. People want that sort of simple answer to a complex question. These people you speak of were very complicated, and we are increasingly getting simple answers to complex judgments of people in the past.
TAE: In Liberty and Freedom, you list a handful of groups in American history that have “put themselves outside the broad tradition of liberty and freedom”—among them certain apologists for slavery, early-twentieth-century Communists, and “elements of the academic left in American universities during the late twentieth century.” Are there any signs that this last group is withering?
FISCHER: Yes, things are changing very rapidly in academe. I think it was partly a generational phenomenon. The generation that came of age in the 1960s is now approaching retirement in the universities, and their children and grandchildren are very different in the way they think about the world. The excesses of these movements always build in their own corrections.
TAE: A lot of serious works about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American history are enjoying popular success. Are we at the beginning of a new age of history writing?
FISCHER: During the 1970s and ’80s, the history sections moved to the back of the bookstore, and other disciplines in the universities cultivated non-historical or even anti-historical ways of thinking: They looked for timeless abstractions in the social sciences, or theoretical models in economics that transcended era and place. Then in the ’90s a sudden change appeared. Econometric history began to flourish. We got new historical movements in literature departments. My colleagues in literature are increasingly writing historically about their subjects. In philosophy, the history of ideas is what’s growing. The most rapidly expanding field in political science is called Politics in History.
I scratch my head about this. Why is it happening? Did people suddenly discover that history was happening to them, via the collapse of the Soviet Union? Or was it a revulsion against those timeless abstractions, those models like Marx and Freud, that didn’t seem to work very well as the world changed? Whatever it was, it’s a thought revolution of profound importance.
Then there’s the special case of the popularity of the Revolution and the early Republic. We’ve been through other periods of popularity of certain fields: World War II in the 1990s and the Civil War in the 1960s. They were driven by anniversaries. The Revolution and early Republic booms are not anniversary-connected.
We’ve been through many previous waves of rising interest in the Founders. In 1824-26 it was the death of Adams and Jefferson on the same day, and Lafayette’s visit, that were the spark. In the 1870s it was the centennial. Interest focused on nation-building, and the leading figures were Washington and Hamilton. In the late 1930s and early ’40s the focus was democracy, and the favorites were Jefferson and Madison. In our own time it has been John and Abigail Adams and other Founders. Washington’s back in the thick of it. Clearly people are looking for something. I think they’re looking for enduring values.
TAE: As though we’ve lost our way?
FISCHER: Many people are finding a way in these memories.
TAE: Judging from the books my daughter brings home from elementary school, kids today are learning that the Revolutionary and Civil Wars were fought primarily by runaway slaves and girls who dressed as boys in order to carry a gun. Is this didacticism more of a problem now in elementary grades and high school than in the university?
FISCHER: There are lags. Whatever was in fashion in the universities remains in fashion in other places a little bit longer. But what’s really interesting is to see how military history is rapidly expanding. I was down at the annual conference of the Society for Military History in Charleston last year, and their morale has never been higher. They have a sense that history is with them. And the morale amongst the social and cultural historians has never been lower: they think that history is against them. About ten or 15 years ago it was quite the other way. And I think that’s a straw in the wind. I’m very bullish about the way things are going. Each lunacy we go through holds open the possibility of a revisionist movement that is rational, mature, and thoughtful, and that’s what we need. These are exciting times for a historian.
TAE: Are there lessons we might draw from Washington’s Crossing that would apply to the current Iraq war?
FISCHER: I wrote that book before the Iraq war, and I think the answer is yes—not only from Washington’s Crossing but also from Paul Revere’s Ride. In the past, we’d gotten into wars in two different ways. Some of our leaders were very careful to, as Sam Adams said, stay in the right and put your enemy in the wrong. They were careful about who fired the first shot. Not only at Lexington and Concord but also George Washington, Lincoln, and FDR in 1941. On the other side are figures in American history who adopted the doctrine of preemption, always with disastrous results. General Gage in 1774 decided he would make a preemptive strike against the armaments of New England. Jefferson Davis and Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens explicitly justified the attack on Fort Sumter as a preemptive strike. What they did was to unite their opponents and divide their supporters.
I believe that we should have gone to war against Saddam Hussein, but we should have done it in a different way. He gave us a cause for war almost every week—firing on our aircraft, supporting Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines when they were murdering American missionaries, subsidizing terror bombers in the Middle East who were killing American civilians. We had cause for war against this man. I think the Baathists were as much of a menace to us as al-Qaeda or the Iranian leaders. They are our mortal enemies, and we have to deal with them.
But we did it the wrong way. We divided our supporters. We rallied our enemies. We did it on a shoestring. We did it not only as we did in Vietnam—trying to fight a major war without raising taxes—but we tried to fight a major war while we reduced taxes.
I still have high hopes for Iraq. I think there’s something going right over there. This great experiment in opening society in Iraq could still succeed. It will be a very long labor, and we have in the past sometimes shown remarkable stamina. We were 40 years in the Cold War, which is really quite amazing. I hope we can find the stamina to stay with this one.
TAE: We hear the word “freedom” all the time today but the word “liberty” seldom. Are freedom and liberty antithetical?
FISCHER: I don’t see it that way. But freedom is related to the rights of belonging—citizenship, voting, that kind of thing—while liberty is linked to the rights of independence. These two ideas are deeply embedded in our culture. They are susceptible to an infinite variety of combinations, and most of our ideas mix them in some way. There is always a tension, but the great majority of American ideas are created out of a combination. That’s what makes it such a rich and fertile tradition.
TAE: The word “liberty,” a rhetorical cornerstone of the Democratic Party throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, pretty much disappeared during the New Deal, and has seldom been on Democrat lips since. Is this a mistake?
FISCHER: Absolutely. The worst mistake that Kerry and Gore made was that the value of liberty was rarely mentioned. This was another instance of a party losing touch with the core values of society. The results when parties do that are always the same: they lose elections. I’m a card-carrying Independent. I really hope that the Democrats can reconstruct these great American values in a way that will give them new meaning and give them something other to do than complain about the Republicans.
TAE: Have you ever voted for a Republican for President?
FISCHER: I’ve never voted for a Republican for President in a general election, but I voted in the Republican primary for John McCain, who is my ideal of a strong centrist leader.
TAE: You’ve written that “every American generation without exception has become more free and has enlarged the meaning of liberty and freedom in one way or another.” This current generation is free to watch 200 channels on TV or have sex with strangers, but how has its political liberty been enlarged?
FISCHER: The main growth of liberty and freedom is the continuing expansion of the meaning of privacy—say, the expansion of freedom for gay Americans.
TAE: Have we lost or are we losing the practice of self-rule, so that citizenship is reduced to the almost meaningless act of going into a voting booth and pulling a lever for some stranger you see on TV?
FISCHER: I am deeply concerned about the abdication of participation in the public sphere.
But I’ve done a fair amount of work on the history of town meetings in America, and town meeting participation has traditionally been low as far back as we can trace it into the seventeenth century. Then something comes on the books that is hugely controversial: it might be the Stamp Act, or it could be a leash law—something that really touches lives—and suddenly participation jumps.
Also, civic participation can take new forms. I was having conversations at the Army War College with battalion commanders just back from Iraq about the way e-mail and the Internet have transformed relationships up and down the chain of command as people make suggestions and offer thoughts. I’m told there are some problems with the blogs soldiers are keeping. There’s this exchange developing, with much more open systems of command. So that’s a movement in a direction of greater participation.
TAE: Are there any figures in contemporary American politics you admire?
FISCHER: I find it very difficult to find a high leader in the White House since Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. The only exception is Ronald Reagan. I’m a little to the left of center, but I have high respect for Ronald Reagan, who changed the tone of this country and led it forward. He was truly a leader of a free republic. There are other leaders around the world whom I admire. Tony Blair is a marvel. I tend to be, as I think most Americans are, a little bit to the left of center on domestic questions and a little bit to the right of center on foreign and military affairs, and I think that’s exactly where Tony Blair is. He also has a largeness of spirit which Lincoln, FDR, and Washington had.
TAE: Do you worry about the effect that current levels of immigration will have on American culture?
FISCHER: No. The openness of this system has always been one of its greatest strengths, and I see no more warrant in the nativism of our time than in that of the 1790s or the 1920s. The nativist fears in those periods were falsified by events. We’re getting extraordinary creativity from our immigrants.
TAE: Has there been any effort to make a movie of Paul Revere’s Ride?
FISCHER: There’s been a lot of talk, but it hasn’t worked as a screenplay. We had trouble building a character for Paul Revere that supplied the dramatic materials the producers wanted. Also, Hollywood is dependent increasingly on foreign markets.
TAE: Do you prefer the old America of your studies to twenty-first-century America?
FISCHER: No. We’ve been living through a period of deep change, and interesting times. The idea that we’re somehow a degenerate species doesn’t hold up when suddenly this generation is tested by 9/11. The fire is still in the American soul, as it was in 1776.
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