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The Battle over Radical History, Part 3

Read the original review by John Summers here, the response from Staughton Lynd here, and the response from Carl Mirra here.

Staughton Lynd balks before this statement: “Lynd was never a historian who selects significant problems for study, but one who knows most of the answers in advance.” Yet nothing in his letter warrants a claim to the contrary. “The reality is that regarding one issue after another,” he writes, “I reached conclusions quite different from my initial presuppositions.” Which presuppositions he once held, why, how, and when they changed, he does not say.

In fact, the statement that Mr. Lynd finds so “egregiously” mistaken is a paraphrase of a candid self-assessment he offered in a 1968 essay, “Historical Past and Existential Present.” There he said he had “mixed feelings” about his decision to begin his historical career by testing the thesis contained in Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. “On one hand it still makes sense to me that, like any other scientist, the historian should formulate hypotheses and test them against a restricted range of data, such as what happened in a limited area, or in one man’s life. On the other hand I am now more conscious that I selected a range of data which I could be pretty certain would substantiate a thesis I hoped was true. I studied opposition to the Constitution of Duchess County, New York, because Duchess County had a history of landlord-tenant conflict very likely to be connected with how groups aligned themselves for or against ratification of the Constitution. The bias involved in my selection of Duchess County did not necessarily invalidate my findings, but it raised serious question as to their generalizability.”

Anyone interested in how far Mr. Lynd’s findings have been generalized, and what kind of methodological questions they have raised, may consult the lively historiographical debate over power, class, race, and ideology in the founding of the United States. To compare Gary B. Nash’s The Unknown American Revolution with Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution, for example, is to decide between histories that evince contempt for dead white men of ideas and those that stress their blindnesses, ironies, and unintended consequences.

But anyone interested in the issues raised by Mr. Lynd’s attempt to annul the distinction between scholarship and activism—issues like anachronism, presentism, and objectivity—should not expect to find them engaged by Carl Mirra. Rather than challenging my contention that his biography is best read as a collaboration, Mirra’s letter throws away the presumption of independence, calling his subject “a mentor and friend,” and ruling out of bounds informed criticism that reaches conclusions contrary to his own.

That radical history trades in such double-standards may remind us that its animus took form as ressentiment, rather than dialectical inquiry.

John Summers

Read the original review by John Summers here, the response from Staughton Lynd here, and the response from Carl Mirra here.