A Note on the Strange Career of Consensus History

Harvey Neptune
Black and white aerial photograph of a brand new sprawling subdivision

Aerial view of suburban Levittown, Pennsylvania, circa 1959. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In an article just published in the Journal of the Early Republic, I parenthetically characterized “consensus history” as a perverse construct. The point was to draw attention to what, in my view, is a “deep and pervasive misunderstanding” of the postwar “school” identified with historians Richard Hofstadter, Louis Hartz, David Potter, and, above all, Daniel Boorstin. Given the space, I couldn’t elaborate the problem with the orthodoxy that condemns these authors as patriotic embarrassments. This is thus a welcome opportunity to clear up some of the confusion about “consensus scholarship,” in particular, to indicate why the career of this school should be understood as a strange and essentially twisted tale of Cold War U.S. nationalism shaped by a deeply anti-Semitic ambivalence about the relationship of Jewish scholars to the writing of national history.

Much of the confusion about this school, it must be appreciated, derives from the duplicitous pen of one historian, John Higham. The key advertiser of “consensus writing” in the fifties and sixties, Higham at times feigned that the chief offense of Boorstin and the others was their excessive nationalism. But his ultimate worry was the opposite: a dubious patriotism. Higham discerned in “consensus history” a vaguely un-American literature, scholarship that indirectly subverted the moral reputation of hegemonic U.S. political culture. Informed by a conscious U.S. nationalism and its concomitant anti-Semitism, Higham objected to the school most fundamentally because of what he read as a doubtful contribution to the historical portrait of progressive American greatness. Indeed, to revisit his critical commentary on “consensus” is to recognize that the concept served less as a “school” than as a site of containment for the work of largely Jewish and Jewish-adjacent authors whose national loyalty seemed questionable. Over time, Higham equivocated less in discussing “consensus history” and, by the fateful year of 1989, confessed that he saw the authors as a set of a cosmopolitan, Jewish Marxists. With the Cold War passing into history, however, no one seemed fazed by Higham’s radical reversal of the wisdom he once promoted.

The primary publicist for “consensus history,” Higham did not, in fact, originate the concept—as many of us have believed. That distinction belongs to Richard Hofstadter, who, in 1956, gave notice of the emergence of a novel postwar school whose interpretation of the U.S. past abandoned the dramatic social conflict of interwar Progressives and, instead, focused on the existence of a “liberal consensus.”[1] Crucially, although Hofstadter believed that the leaders of the new school—Boorstin and Hartz—had been inspired by combining the subversive insights of Marx and Tocqueville, he didn’t admit it then. By the time Hofstadter did so a decade later in The Progressives (his criminally under-read classic), it was too late.[2]

For by the mid-sixties, Higham had treated Americanists to a thread of essays obscuring the left-friendly purpose of “consensus historians.” A dogged detractor of the school, Higham was then on the way to becoming his generation’s foremost student of U.S. historiography, and it is from him the profession has inherited its (mis)understanding of Boorstin and the others. Yet despite his literally defining role in the postwar field (or perhaps because of it), Higham’s pieces on the school have escaped close study. The result is that we have missed the extent to which the core concern in his early criticism of the school was the demoralizing revision of the U.S. past undertaken by a set of mostly minority authors.

That the field has overlooked Higham’s patriotic anxiety is attributable in part to the misleading character of his writing. His foundational set of essays on “consensus history” performed the equivalent of an interpretive head-fake. Witness his first allusion to the school in a 1957 article about a trend of “revisionism” Higham found within the study of U.S. anti-Semitism. He began by charging the revisionists, represented by Oscar Handlin and Richard Hofstadter, with having minimized the matter of anti-Semitism. Handlin and Hofstadter emphasized harmony and unity, according to Higham, and reflected the complacent mood of the postwar years, which he dubbed the “age of consensus.” Remarkably, however, Higham then switched up the criticism; the trouble with the revisionists, he now claimed, was their unbalanced depiction of anti-Semitism as pervasive, as infecting the entire national polity. Handlin and Hofstadter found anti-Jewishness not only within conservative circles but also within liberal sectors and the broader “tradition of dissent,” Higham complained. It was this blanket indictment of the nation that he ultimately challenged as his essay went on to defend the “tolerant traditions” of the U.S. and, disturbingly, to ask about “the role the minority group plays” in helping to “magnetize external antagonisms.”[3]

Higham’s second—and most memorable—piece on “consensus history,” published two years later in Commentary, betrayed a similar vacillation and patriotic concern. Targeting Boorstin as the exemplar of the new school, this essay started off by taking issue with the uncritical celebration of a harmonious U.S. society in his latest book, The Americans. Halfway, however, Higham swerved to another worry. Calling attention to the gap between the “substance and rhetoric” in the text, he expressed a suspicion that Boorstin was actually an ironist, a sophisticated mocker. Higham ended the piece, moreover, with a telling lament that the history-writing “cult” led by Boorstin “neutralizes some moral issues that have played a not entirely petty or ignoble part in the history of the United States.” Over the next few years, Higham continued to caution the profession about a “consensus” revision that “underplayed the issue of social justice,” presenting a paper at the AHA in 1960 and then publishing a version of it in the American Historical Review in 1962.[4]

Significantly, this AHR article lowered the Jewish profile of the disturbing new school, with Higham introducing (alongside David Potter) members like Clinton Rossiter and Helen and Edmund Morgan. This recasting deserves notice because although Higham muted the importance of Jewishness in these commentaries on “consensus history,” the racial minority status of the authors was critical to him. Indeed, Higham eventually began to admit that Jews were on his mind when writing about the school. His 1975 volume, Send These to Me: Jews and Other Immigrants in Urban America,included an essay that directly connected mid-twentieth-century Jewish assimilation to Higham’s previously articulated worry about the moral vacuum within “consensus” literature. “For Jews,” Higham wrote “the new situation created unexpected perplexities. Success and civic honor were sweet indeed. But the price of success was a certain loss of moral engagement.” Then, in 1989, he openly confessed the essential Jewishness of the school in the pages of the Journal of American History. “Many, if not most, of the leading consensus historians were secularized highly assimilated Jews. Themselves the sons of immigrants, they belonged to the first generation of Jewish students who encountered no serious obstacle in rising into the humanistic disciplines.” For Higham, the integration of Jews into the national society lay at the heart of the trouble with the postwar trend.[5]

Finally, this JAH essay admitted that “consensus history” belonged within a leftist intellectual tradition. Echoing Hofstadter, Higham now affirmed that the school had “opened a space in the Americanist historiographical tradition for Marxist ideas” and even went as far as to analogize the notions of “consensus” and “hegemony.” Thirty years after defaming Boorstin and the others as members of a conservative “cult,” Higham told on himself. Evidently, he no longer felt compelled to contain the subversive truth about “consensus history.”

This essay benefitted in crucial ways from the careful attention of Will Mackintosh, Santiago Pierre-Neptune and Bernadette Neptune. I give thanks.


[1] Richard Hofstadter, “Reading the Constitution Anew,” Commentary 22 3 (1956), 270.

[2] Richard Hofstadter, The Progressives: Turner, Beard, Parrington (New York, 1968).

[3] John Higham, “Anti-Semitism in the Gilded Age: A Reinterpretation,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 43, no. 4 (1957), 559–578.

[4] John Higham, “Beyond Consensus: The Historian as Moral Critic,” American Historical Review 67, no. 3 (1962), 609–25.

[5] John Higham, “Changing Paradigms: The Collapse of Consensus History,” 76 , no. 2, Journal of American History (1989), 464–65.

8 June 2023

About the Author

Harvey Neptune is associate professor of history at Temple University.

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