Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: As remembered by E.J. Dionne

Historians in the News

"No intellectual phenomenon has been more surprising in recent years than the revival in the United States of conservatism as a respectable social philosophy."

Thus wrote that lion of American liberalism, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., in 1955, long before the Reagan and Gingrich revolutions. Here was a historian whose understanding of the past afforded him remarkable perspective on the future.

Schlesinger's death last week at 89 raises the question of whether the liberalism to which he was devoted -- "I remain to this day a New Dealer, unreconstructed and unrepentant," he wrote in a memoir published in 2000 -- will be buried with him.

The short answer that arises from the body of Schlesinger's brilliant work is that reports of liberalism's death are always premature. Liberalism will rise again and again because renewing the public sphere and reviving concern for the less privileged and less powerful are what free citizens demand at the end of a conservative era.

Consider these words from Schlesinger in 1960: "At periodic moments in our history, our country has paused on the threshold of a new epoch in our national life, unable for a moment to open the door, but aware that it must advance if it is to preserve its national vitality and identity. One feels that we are approaching such a moment now -- that the mood which has dominated the nation for a decade is beginning to seem thin and irrelevant; that it no longer interprets our desires and needs as a people; that new forces, new energies, new values are straining for expression and for release."

Like John Kenneth Galbraith, his friend and fellow worker in liberalism's vineyards, Schlesinger worried about "the classical condition of private opulence and public squalor." He said of the 1950s: "We have chosen in this decade to invest not in people but in things. We have chosen to allocate our resources to undertakings which bring short-run profits to individuals rather than to those which bring long-run profits to the nation."...
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