The latest issue of the New York Times Book Review includes a short review of William Freehling’s latest study by Eric Foner. Foner basically summarizes Freehling’s argument, but unfortunately never really penetrates the surface of what is a sophisticated and well-argued book. More to the point I thought that Foner nitpicked at some of Freehling’s references. At one point he criticizes Freehling’s emphasis on the role of individual decisions as a salient factor in understanding the triumph of Lower South secessionists over their more conservative brothers in the Upper South:
There is no question that “Secessionists Triumphant” is peopled by a colorful cast of characters, from William L. Yancey, a hotheaded secessionist who tried to inspire Southerners with a sense of nationhood, to James Henry Hammond, a South Carolina planter who preyed on his female slaves. But Freehling’s fondness for individual stories puts undue emphasis on psychological explanations, with words like “frustration” and “rage” sprinkling the text. Moreover, the attempt to assume a popular literary style often seems forced. (Was the pro-slavery theorist George Fitzhugh really dealing in “sound bites”?)
It’s difficult to know why Foner is so troubled by psychological explanations given that Freehling’s book is the result of a great deal of time spent thinking about the motivations and emotional states of these important historical actors. There are indeed a handful of such references, but I don’t find that they overly detract from the other points made which buttress his central claims. Perhaps that is not what is bothering Foner:
I think it’s time to declare a moratorium on scholars’ denigrating other scholars for failing to achieve popularity. As Freehling’s own extensive footnotes demonstrate, those much-maligned specialized studies are the building blocks of historical knowledge. Nor is his dismissal of what he calls “multicultural social history” in favor of the study of politics persuasive. Surely, the task of the historian is to integrate the two.
If I remember correctly, Freehling makes a point in one of the early footnotes for professional historians to write for a general audience, which involves a change of style. Again, I think Foner is nitpicking here. Freehling does not suggest that the more specialized studies have no place, but that professional historians have resisted taking the opportunity to write books that are readable, but do not sacrifice scholarship, for a general audience. Freehling does not want historians to write to achieve popularity, but to educate a wide audience. Finally, I believe that Freehling is trying to resurrect a traditional style of political history that has tended in recent years to take a backseat to social history. Perhaps in trying to emphasize the importance of individual decisions within the highest seats of government there is a danger of painting a picture that does give short thrift to the kinds of forces at work from the bottom-up that exercise influence. In highlighting those political decisions, however, it may be worth the price.