the best podcast episode ever
As I've written before, my break from school has allowed me to catch up on some of the posting I've been meaning to do for a long time. At this point, then, I'd like to very highly recommend a podcast episode that originally went up on September 24 of last year. I probably listened to it that same week, but haven't been able to plug it appropriately until now. The episode in question appears in historian David Sehat's podcast Mindpop, and features an interview with historian Daniel Walker Howe.
I've listened to a lot of podcasts in my day, and even been on a couple. And academic ones, in my experience, can sometimes be a bit dull. Scholars often lack a perspective on what a non-academic should be expected to know and to understand, and academics can be far more interested in certain subjects than their listeners are. But this episode of Sehat's podcast, I thought, perfectly hit the sweet spot. It was informative, topical and thought-provoking all at once.
Daniel Walker Howe is an esteemed historian of the United States, best known for his Pulitzer-Prize-winning work What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. In this and other works, Howe emerges as the somewhat unabashed champion of the nineteenth century Whigs. Most people who are not historians, I suspect, have only the vaguest idea that there even were American Whigs, much less what that party actually stood for. Sehat addresses this issue immediately, by quickly having Howe explain two ideas: why the Whigs are a relevant subject in the era of Trump and what is important about them.
I will leave the specifics for the listener to discover for him/herself, but the gist is that the Whigs, according to Howe, were generally more pro-woman, more anti-slavery and more in favor of democracy than their opponents, the Jacksonian Democrats. This is not generally the way that they are presented today, when many see Andrew Jackson as the figure who represented the populist democratic wave (in particular among propertyless whites) of the early nineteenth century. If Howe is right, then, one might think that contemporary Americans would be more sympathetic to these nineteenth-century figures who were unfortunate enough to live in an era that would eventually be named after their most-loathed political enemy.
So what gives? Howe's answer is somewhat revealing in what it says about the history profession. He characterizes himself (in contemporary politics) as a "progressive Democrat" and stated further that "most functioning historians" are as well. "The problem," Howe argues, "doesn't really lie in the Whigs' policies and program." These, on his reading, should please liberals who look back at the nineteenth century. The issue, instead, is "who the Whigs were," which was "generally the more affluent people." Additionally, the party "tend[ed] to include the evangelical Protestants. These things are kind of off-putting, as I read it, for most historians today." To the extent that this is true, it is a fascinating example of the modern ability to understand the past being compromised by both politics (because these particular characteristics of the Whigs only look bad from inside the "liberal bubble") and presentism (because evangelicalism, for example, is unlikely to have meant then what it does now).
Sehat continually restates Howe's comments in his own words and sometimes in his own contexts, even while repeatedly checking in to ensure that he is not taking liberties with Howe's ideas. Howe, for his part, is generous in allowing these characterizations and helpful in correcting the rare misconception. Most important, he speaks in terms that are broad enough to avoid pedantic scholarly quibbles. The rare digressions into more obscure terrain (Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s take on Jackson, for example, and the liberational potential of antebellum evangelicalism) were brief but still fascinating.
Even the part of the interview that delves the furthest into scholarly turf battles is both respectful and illuminating. I am referring to the conflict between Howe and Sean Wilentz, another well-respected historian whose The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln clearly establishes its writer as a fan of the Democrats as against the Whigs. Wilentz, of course, did not participate in the interview. But both Sehat (whom I suspect of being a closet Wilentz partisan) and Howe characterized his work fairly. I enjoyed this part the most because in reading the great works of history I admit that I often miss the conflicts between writers themselves. They are often presented in a "subtle historical idiom" (a phrase I got from Sehat) that allows readers like me to emerge without having even noticed that they were there. So I felt somewhat validated by Howe's characterization of Wilentz's treatment of the Whigs. He does not say that Wilentz got anything wrong or even emphasized certain points more than Howe finds to be appropriate. Instead, he characterized his disagreement with Wilentz as almost one of tone or feeling. "it's subtle but unmistakable," he said, "that [Wilentz] doesn't identify with the Whigs, that in writing about them he distances himself from them."
Though I found that characterization personally gratifying, Sehat argued that Howe and Wilentz have a deeper disagreement that transcends not only the nineteenth century, but, arguably, history itself. This disagreement, I think it is fair to say, touches on some of the issues in Wilentz's more recent book The Politicians and the Egalitarians: The Hidden History of American Politics. To my recollection, however, the work is not mentioned. Listening to Sehat tell Howe that he was party to a disagreement of which he was not aware, and hearing Howe think that point through in real time, is quite an edifying experience.
Again, I will refer readers to the episode itself for the direct experience. I found the conversation between these two historians to be quite riveting. And it's less than 35 minutes long! Again, I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in US history or, really, intellectual life more broadly.