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Louis Hartz, the distinguished American political philosopher and intellectual historian, was to some degree a onebook celebrity scholar. His notable The Liberal Tradition in America, published in 1955, offered an original and influential interpretation of the American liberal paradigm that has remained at the center of debates over liberalism ever since. It was this book alone that defined Hartz’s career.
Hartz was born in 1918 in Youngstown, Ohio, to Russian immigrant parents, and grew up in Omaha. He spent most of his professional life at Harvard University. Hartz graduated from Harvard College in 1940 (supported in part by a scholarship from the Omaha WorldHerald, as well as by a job waiting tables), and earned his PhD from Harvard in 1946. Ten years later he was a professor in Harvard’s Department of Government and the celebrated author of The Liberal Tradition. His Harvard lectures on eighteenth and nineteenth century European thought, and on American political theory and historiography, were notable and influential.
Hartz’s doctoral dissertation on the political and economic doctrines behind constitutional and political thinking in Pennsylvania after the Revolution was published as Economic Policy and Democratic Thought: Pennsylvania, 1776–1860, and helped set the agenda for his thinking about American liberalism. His later work included a volume he edited called The Founding of New Societies (1964) and his lectures on European thought, edited by Paul Roazen and published in 1990 as The Necessity of Choice: Nineteenth Century European Political
Theory. The collection of essays published in The Founding of New Societies used the American founding experience as a comparative template to examine other new constitutions in Canada, Australia, and elsewhere. It also served to highlight Hartz’s own view of American liberalism as a unique manifestation rooted in a special history.
The core work in Hartz’s lifelong study of liberalism in its American and European settings, however, was The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought since the Revolution ( 1991); everything he taught and wrote revolved around its arguments. The book won both the Woodrow Wilson Prize in 1956 and the Lippincott Prize (for a significant work still in print fifteen years after its publication) several decades later. Samuel Beer’s summary of the book’s thesis— “America’s democratic capitalism was so powerful that it excluded any ideas of socialism or Toryism”—only touched the surface of Hartz’s argument, which focused on what Hartz understood to be America’s defining narrative as a centrist society dominated by Locke’s liberal consensualism. Locke might have appeared as a revolutionary figure and Enlightenment leader to France in the eighteenth century, as that country was deeply bound by feudalism. But in America, where landed property and feudal jurisdictions had never taken hold, Locke was a benign model of liberal consensus politics.
An historian as well as a theorist, Hartz embedded his argument about America’s putative centrist tendencies in the story of an exceptionalist country that, lacking a feudal past, was immune to socialist revolutionary appeals. In Hartz’s pithy words, “one of the central characteristics of a nonfeudal society is that it lacks a genuine revolutionary tradition, the tradition which in Europe has been linked with the Puritan and French revolutions.… And this being the case, it also lacks a tradition of reaction: lacking Robespierre it lacks Maistre, lacking Sydney it lacks Charles II” (1991, p. 5). No feudalism, no socialism; no traditionalism, no radicalism, and hence no reaction against radicalism. The result in the United States was a nation that never strayed too far from the center. Those individuals who did stray, whether Southern “feudalists” or modern socialists, exhibited in Hartz’s view a similar “fecklessness.”
Hartz used his analysis of liberalism in America to examine liberalism and revolution around the world. He worried less about the tyranny of the majority—a “puppy dog forever tethered to a lion’s leash”—than about whether people born equal could “ever understand peoples elsewhere that have to become so” (1991, p. 309). There is evidence enough today that they cannot.
Hartz became ill in the early 1970s and resigned from Harvard. His last years were tragic. He withdrew from family and friends and traveled the world with a kind of despondent urgency, stopping in London, Zurich, and New Delhi, and eventually reaching Turkey, where he died in 1986. A few years before his death he assembled extended but wildly uneven notes for a work to be called “A Synthesis of World History” (later privately printed as a typescript by Humanities Press in Zurich). This sprawling essay, an opus of Spenglerian ambitions, concludes with a turgid and frightening chapter on a Manichean “last battle” between Jihadists and pluralists. It envisioned an “explosion of fear” associated with a “drive for a single absolute” on the part of radical Islam and related movements, against which forces of diversity would be compelled to do battle—or witness the eclipse of civilization. Seen by many at the time as an expression of Hartz’s psychological problems, this final unfinished work today seems to exhibit a kind of perverse prescience, and reminds us that even after he had ceased to function as a scholar and teacher, Hartz continued to evince an ingenious mind informed by a brilliant if perfervid imagination. It was Hartz’s pedagogical and intellectual imagination that may explain why the author of a single great book written over a half century ago can continue to excite philosophers and historians into the new millennium.
- Diggins, John Patrick. 1984. The Lost Soul of American Politics: Virtue, Self-interest, and the Foundations of Liberalism. New York: Basic Books.
- Hartz, Louis. 1948. Economic Policy and Democratic Thought: Pennsylvania, 1776–1860. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Hartz, Louis, ed. 1964. The Founding of New Societies: Studies in the History of the United States, Latin America, South Africa, Canada, and Australia. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World.
- Hartz, Louis. 1990. The Necessity of Choice: Nineteenth-Century European Political Theory, ed. Paul Roazen. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
- Hartz, Louis. 1991. The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought since the Revolution. 2nd ed. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. First edition originally published in 1955 (New York: Harcourt Brace).
- Masur, Louis P., ed. 1999. The Challenge of American History. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
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