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Hanging Together: Unity and Diversity in American Culture

Hanging Together: Unity and Diversity in American Culture


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This book presents three decades of writings by one of America’s most distinguished historians. John Higham, renowned for his influential works on immigration, ethnicity, political symbolism, and the writing of history, here traces the changing contours of American culture since its beginnings, focusing on the ways that an extraordinarily mobile society has allowed divergent ethnic, class, and ideological groups to “hang together” as Americans.

The book includes classic essays by Higham and more recent writings, some of which have been substantially revised for this publication. Topics range widely from the evolution of American national symbols and the fate of our national character to new perspectives on the New Deal, on other major turning points, and on changes in race relations after major American wars. Yet they are unified by an underlying theme: that a heterogeneous society and an inclusive national culture need each other.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300088182
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 06/10/2001
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

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Chapter One

Hanging Together
Divergent Unities in American History

For about a decade American historical writing has been characterizedby a repudiation of consensus and an invocation of community.Present-day historians seem substantially agreed that many of theirpredecessors overemphasized unities in American history and society. Yetperhaps never before have so much interest and effort gone into a searchfor those times and places in which a high degree of solidarity obtained. Onfirst notice, we have here a curious contradiction. The repudiation of consensuswas supposed to permit a rediscovery of profound conflicts in ourpast. It has done so only to a very limited degree. The exciting advances incontemporary scholarship have more to do with understanding cohesivestructures: the New England town, the family, the ethnic subculture, theprofessional and trade associations, the political machines.

    A moment's reflection dispels the paradox. Historians who are interestedin the issues of consensus and community are actually trying todistinguish between true and false communities, between the social arrangementsthat sustain participants and those that coerce or scatter them.The term "consensus" is commonly applied to a factitious conformity, arisingfrom manipulation and acquiescence. When we speak of "community"we refer to a more authentic, more truly shared bond. To look at Americanhistoriography in this light suggests that for some time historians of quitedifferent persuasions have beenasking the same questions, though givingdifferent answers. The so-called consensus historians who came to the forein the 1950s—Richard Hofstadter, David Potter, Louis Hartz, and DanielBoorstin—created the conceptual universe their present-day critics andsuccessors inhabit. Both groups have been studying the possibilities andthe limits of social solidarity in our peculiarly amorphous country.

    A striking feature of this grand enterprise is the high proportion ofnegative conclusions it has so far produced. At first many historians describedan all-embracing community, shaped by a common national character.Before long this kind of community began to seem too thin, evenillusory, to have much significance. Interest in national character has survivedonly to the extent that it can be treated—as Michael Kammen does—asa bundle of contradictions. The locus of community has shifted tosmaller, presumably more homogeneous entities. The more closely theseare examined, however, the more they reveal their own fissures and stultifications.A remarkable number of recent studies focus on the points atwhich or the ways in which American communities have failed. A smallarmy of historians has been trying to determine how and when the earlyNew England towns came apart. Some say it was during the era of theGreat Awakening; but Michael H. Frisch argues that Springfield, Massachusetts,kept its organic wholeness until the middle of the nineteenthcentury. Michael Zuckerman, on the other hand, insists that the cohesivenessof the New England towns was always contrived, that it rested on anintolerance of differences, and that it has never broken down but rather hasspread throughout American group life. Survival of "the massive coercionof the monolithic community," Zuckerman sternly remarks, "belies thebelief that we are a liberal society." Taking a different tack but reaching anequally gloomy verdict, Sam Bass Warner, Jr., portrays the entire span ofAmerican urban history as a story of "endless failures ... to build andmaintain humane cities." With some important exceptions the search forcommunity has led American historians either to a rediscovery of consensusor to a scene of alienation and disorder.

    Bemused with so much failure, a reader must wonder what kind ofsocial integration, what experience of unity, might qualify as successful. Bywhat criteria do our historians distribute praise and blame among differentkinds of communities? May we call one parochial because it is small andself-sustaining and another weak because it is large and nonexclusive?Under what conditions should we expect a unifying force to bind peoplemore closely together, or to respect their partial autonomy, or release themcompletely? I ask these questions to suggest that the quality and nature ofsocial cohesion pose fundamental dilemmas for Americans. Historians cannotresolve the dilemmas, but they can ask the past to clarify their shapeand duration.

    America has exhibited not only an enormous variety of communitiesbut also some underlying differences in the forms of unity our peopleshave sought. Much of the confusion in current scholarship seems to arisefrom a propensity to judge one pattern of social integration by criteriaderived from another, and thus to demean the first at the expense of thesecond. American history has been in considerable measure a strugglebetween rival ways of getting together. In actual experience the alternativeshave overlapped very greatly. Instead of facing a clear choice betweencommensurate loyalties, Americans have commonly been enmeshed indivergent systems of integration. That is not a condition peculiar to America.It is intrinsic to modern life. This essay sketches in barest outlinethree adhesive forces that have pulled people in different directions whereverthe process of modernization has occurred. I intend to point up,not the uniqueness of American experience, but rather the special saliencehere of disparities every modernizing society seems to confront.I shall concentrate on the sequential unfolding of three forms of unity,which American historians have studied only in fragmentary ways. ObviouslyI shall not take account of all cohesive structures. In particular I leaveaside the working of sheer political or economic domination, in order toconcentrate on types of integration that function through consent, whethertacit or explicit.

    At the most elementary level, the peoples of America have participatedin what Clifford Geertz has called "primordial" unity: a corporate feeling ofoneness that infuses a particular, concrete, unquestioned set of inheritedrelationships. The primordial tie is so much taken for granted that it may benameless. It binds one to kin, to neighbors, to memories of a distinct place,and to the symbols and rites and customs associated with that heritage. It istherefore localized, specific, yet undefinable. Primordial consciousness differsin its intimacy and unbounded concreteness from what we ordinarilydescribe as ethnic feeling. The modern ethnic group is a federation ofprimordial collectivities. It depends on a conceptual simplification andextension of primordial sentiments. It comes about through encounterswith outsiders and reflects in part their perceptions.

    Primordial ties vary enormously, in character and strength, betweengroups and over time. In American history the primordial bond has probablybeen most intense and pervasive within the separate Indian tribes andkin groups. Among Indians primordial unity permeated every dimension oflife. As a result, the development of a wider ethnic consciousness—a pan-Indianidentity—came very slowly; and when primordial solidarity hasgiven way under pressure from the dominant white society, the psychologicalconsequences have often been unbearably painful and demoralizing.

    Primordial attachments flourished also among those immigrants whoarrived in America with little, if any, sense of nationality, who knew themselvesas the people of a particular Norwegian valley, the sons of a certainCalabrian village, the members of an eastern European shtetl, the countryfolk of one small district on the Chinese coast. So far as their circumstancespermitted, immigrants re-created those local solidarities in the New World.Chinese clustered under the shelter of their warring district companies.Eastern European Jews ordinarily limited their synagogues, their mutualaid societies, and often their workshops to "landmen," so that the wholeround of daily life could occur within a circle of fellow townspeople. Italianpeasants grouped themselves by village or province on the streets of NewYork. Often the people from a particular locality would maintain a conspicuousconformity in dress and avoid competing with one another in business.

    It would be a mistake to suppose that primordial identities have originatedonly outside native white American society and have lingered only onits fringes. Solidarities of this kind emerge wherever people live togetherlong enough to enclose their daily experience in a skein of common memories.Perhaps the most tenacious primordial attachments among Americanwhites developed in the eastern counties of the South in the late seventeenthand eighteenth centuries and spread into the lower MississippiValley in the nineteenth century. There alone the archaic Elizabethan term"kinsfolk" survived, slightly Americanized into "kinfolks." It was a constantreminder that complex networks of personal relationships extend far beyondthe household. No sharp line separates antecedents from neighbors,kin from community. In the world of kinfolks, vestiges of a folk society anda folk memory endured. Here is the root of that concrete sense of place andbelonging which Thornton Wilder and C. Vann Woodward have describedas one of the hallmarks of a southerner. Whereas most Americans soughttheir identity in abstractions, southerners resisted the abstract in clingingto "the blessing of being located—contained."

    Other Americans, abstract and dislocated, have sometimes greatly enviedthat attachment to past and to place and have contributed enthusiasticallyto the celebration of it. American yearnings for a lost primordialworld shaped the northern image of the South in the nineteenth centuryand invested it with immense nostalgia. It was an Ohio-born minstrel whocomposed what became the war song of the Confederacy and a polyglotNew York audience that first popularized it:

I wish I was in de land ob cotton,
Old times dar am not forgotten;
Look away, look away ...

    In adverting to southerners and to the land of cotton, we are indeedlooking away. We are looking away from New York; but we are also lookingbeyond the primordial matrix. We have entered a larger universe, whereprimordial experience is transmuted into a collective image that can focusthe allegiance of people with roughly similar linguistic and geographicalorigins. The creation of group identities grounded in primordial life hascontinued to be a significant industry in American popular culture: it hasgiven us the Down-Easter, the Hoosier, and the cowboy, to name but a few;and our own time has brought forth new species, such as the hippie, whichhave not yet acquired a stable geographic base. But the multiplication ofethnic and regional groups cannot disguise a long-term tendency for primordialties to come apart. The peopling of America required at the veryoutset a profound rupture in primordial solidarity, and the enormous mobilitythat has churned American society ever since has given special importanceto other integrative mechanisms. The most powerful of these in theeighteenth and nineteenth centuries was ideological.

    Since I propose to talk at some length about the importance of ideologyin American history, I must say at the outset how I am using that elusiveterm. I do not, like many of the critics of ideology, restrict it to rigid,totalistic outlooks; nor do I limit it to secular political creeds. On the otherhand, I wish to avoid also the looser usage that describes any rationale for asocial loyalty as an ideology. A culture or a group may or may not have anideology, depending on the degree to which its goals are explicitly formulatedand also endowed with transcendent significance. Ideology is thereforea variable in history; perhaps it may even give us a measure of theimportance of ideas in motivating and directing a society. American historians,defending their particular bailiwicks and points of view, have characteristicallyargued over the causal force of ideas in history without sufficientlyappreciating that ideas may be enormously more significant in oneera or society than in another. We have therefore overlooked one of thegreat systemic changes in American history.

    To come more directly to the matter of definition, I wish to designate asideologies those explicit systems of general beliefs that give large bodies ofpeople a common identity and purpose, a common program of action, and astandard for self-criticism. Being relatively formalized and explicit, ideologycontrasts with a wider, older, more ambiguous fund of myth and tradition. Itincludes doctrines or theories on the one hand and policies or prescriptionson the other. Accordingly, it links social action with fundamental beliefs,collective identity with the course of history. This combination of generalitywith directional thrust has enabled ideology to function as an importantunifying force. Arising in the course of modernization when an unreflectiveculture fractures, ideology provides a new basis for solidarity.

    Ideological unity assumed its special importance in America at theoutset. One large part of early American society was founded upon anideology. Elsewhere ideologies arose out of dissatisfaction with the existingsocial order. In the Old World this was the case with Puritanism. It constitutedthe first great ideological movement in English history. As a revolutionaryforce, it cut through established institutions and relations like alaser beam. Yet Puritanism ultimately failed in England, and after itsshattering defeat in 1660 ideology never again provided the primary basisfor social integration. America, on the other hand, had no preexisting structurefor Puritans to overthrow. Here ideology arrived not as a subversive ordivisive force but as a bedrock of order, purpose, and cohesion.

    If ideological unity was from the outset fundamental in New England,primordial unity was correspondingly weak. The researches of SumnerChilton Powell suggest that the early settlers of New England towns couldnot rely very much on the local familiarities and affinities of primordialexperience. The first settlers of Sudbury came from widely scattered partsof England; they melded together a surprising variety of customs and practices.In addition to a common English culture, however, they possessedan ideology that put a heavy stress on mutuality and discipline. It boundthem with written covenants, taught them formal creeds, and commandedthem to subordinate all private concerns to one collective end. Since theNew England colonies adopted a loose, decentralized government in bothchurch and state, they entrusted to ideology much of the regulative functionthat elsewhere belonged in the hands of constituted rulers. In place ofhierarchical authority, the Puritans substituted a voluntary mobilization ofbelief. In doing so, they originated an especially American combination:institutional decentralization and ideological uniformity.

    Although Puritanism was never overthrown, its pristine vitality ebbedtoward the end of the seventeenth century. The remarkable social cohesionof the preceding decades in New England diminished. During the nexthalf-century a rising consciousness of the common English heritage unitingall parts of the British Empire helped to stabilize colonial life. Butthe programmatic fervor of ideology subsided. About this first decline ofideology in American history we know very little, except that it provedshort-lived. American Christianity recovered in the eighteenth century anideological thrust that sustained it into the early twentieth. With the dispersionof population from the clustered settlements of the seventeenth century,the original Puritan reliance on ideological mobilization revived and intensified.

    The Puritans had needed the discipline of ideology to hold their ranks,to stave off fragmentation. Their descendants had to cope with a societyalready fragmented. To encompass a people rushing away from one another—apeople straining the last ligaments of a common life in their pursuitof land and freedom—Americans put their ideological inheritance toexpanded uses. What had been a discipline became also an incitement.Exploding churches turned the full power of the Word outward to reachthe unconverted and to penetrate a culture no single group could dominate.This produced, of course, enormous conflicts. It split congregationsand multiplied competing sects. Like any other integrative mechanism,ideology divides as well as unites. Nevertheless, the point remains: theGreat Awakening marks the moment in American history when ideologyundertook the task of forging a new solidarity among individuals who hadlost through migration and competition any corporate identity.

    The new solidarity was very difficult to achieve and not fully workedout until the Second Great Awakening in the early nineteenth century.Gradually, however, the impulse toward union broke through the theologicaland ecclesiastical fences that had separated Protestant bodies in thepast. Whereas the Puritans had generally insisted that a single comprehensivefaith should enclose a tightly knit society, eighteenth-century Christiansdeveloped an intellectual framework that accommodated unprecedenteddiversities. What I shall call the Protestant ideology had as itsworking principle a distinction between two levels of belief. Specific creedsand confessions adorned the more formal, visible level. They served asidentifying marks for particular segments of the population and as concretesymbols of a pervasive freedom of choice. At a deeper level, unaffected bythe clash of creeds, dwelled the inclusive truths, which required neitherdebate nor strict definition. Thus the Protestant ideology accepted conflictbetween "denominations" as permanent, legitimate, and inspiriting, for theconflict could be seen to rest on and to demonstrate the worth of certainunifying ideals. As time passed, theological doctrines acquired a largelyhonorific, ceremonial status in America's pantheon of religions. The basicideology stood guard, and one could question its tenets only at the riskof heresy.

    This dynamic relation between ideals shared by the great majority ofpeople and distinct creeds that attracted only limited followings helps toexplain an anomaly puzzling to European observers of nineteenth-centuryAmerica. How could intense religious activity proceed unobstructed in asetting that seemed largely secular? In actuality secular life was suffusedwith a pan-Protestant ideology that claimed to be civic and universal.Pledged to leave private beliefs undisturbed, it was vague enough thatincreasing numbers of Jews and Catholics could embrace it. But it infuseda generalized piety in school textbooks and civic oratory. At the same timethe Protestant ideology gave a special focus and initiative to the Protestantchurches. It offered them a unifying purpose. It encouraged their membersto feel a praetorian responsibility for the whole society.

    Necessarily, the tenets of the Protestant ideology were few and simple.First among them was the conviction that no compulsion should rule thechoice of faith. Genuine religious commitment is a private and voluntaryact. While it remains so, a pure religion and a sturdy morality will undergirdAmerican institutions. The great diversity of churches guarantees that noone of them can corrupt this truth or reduce an energetic people to apathy.


Excerpted from Hanging Together by JOHN HIGHAM. Copyright © 2001 by John Higham. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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