Carl Bridenbaugh, American colonial history and academic antisemitism: the paths to the 'Great Mutation'.

Author:Palmer, William
Position::Critical essay

On the evening of December 29, 1962, many of those attending the annual meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA) in Chicago gathered in the main ballroom of the Hilton Hotel to hear the annual presidential address. The address would be delivered by Carl Bridenbaugh, the outgoing AHA president, University Professor of History at Brown University and a distinguished historian of colonial America. AHA presidential addresses, like those of other learned societies, were often boilerplate affairs, although sometimes an outgoing president would use the occasion to rattle the cages of the association's membership. (1)

Bridenbaugh's speech fell into the second category. Entitled "The Great Mutation," it remains perhaps the most controversial AHA address ever delivered. Bridenbaugh began by recalling his idyllic boyhood on the outskirts of Philadelphia. He mourned the passage of a pastoral society and its replacement by a modern, urban culture, a process he called "the Great Mutation." There was nothing controversial about that idea, but he subsequently launched into a jeremiad. The younger generation of "urban-bred historians," Bridenbaugh contended, would find it impossible to recapture this culture, since they had no experience in it. Worse still, he said, these new historians were "products of lower-middle-class or foreign origins, and their emotions frequently get in the way of historical reconstructions. They find themselves, in a very real way, outsiders in our past ... [and] they have no experience to assist them." (2)

Bridenbaugh's use of such phrases as "urban-bred historians" and "products of lower-middle-class or foreign origins" appeared to be coded language for "Jews." But, despite its antisemitic overtones, the speech, at least initially, elicited a generally positive response. Several prominent historians wrote Bridenbaugh to compliment him on his speech. Catherine Drinker Bowen, the author of several popular historical biographies, told Bridenbaugh that he had said "many of the things [she had] wanted to say, and said them forcefully and wittily." Arthur Meier Schlesinger who had directed Bridenbaugh's doctoral dissertation at Harvard University, called the speech "an eloquent and acute critique." Marshall Smelser, a historian of the American colonies at the University of Notre Dame, also commented on the speech, telling Bridenbaugh, " [I]t was true, it was beautiful, and it was good." (3)

An understanding of intellectual history sometimes requires the study of bad ideas, and, despite the celebratory letters Bridenbaugh received from his colleagues, his speech raises a question: What had led an educated and cultured man to make such assertions? Little is known concerning Bridenbaugh's treatment of Jews in his personal life, and the two episodes that are known are contradictory and ultimately inconclusive. The first occurred in 1938, when Bridenbaugh helped the unemployed J.H. Hexter, who was Jewish, to find a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Hexter, who, like Bridenbaugh, held a doctorate from Harvard, had experienced such difficulty finding a job that Crane Brinton, a member of the Harvard faculty who had made a valiant effort on Hexter's behalf, feared that he might be "unemployable." (4)

The second episode came in the mid-1950s, after Bridenbaugh had been appointed the Margaret Byrne Professor of History at the University of California at Berkeley. Kenneth Stampp, a colleague at Berkeley, recalled that Bridenbaugh had once asked him if he had noticed that Joseph Levenson, a Jewish member of the history department, had supported only Jewish candidates for faculty positions. Stampp replied that he had not noticed this, and, upon reflection, he did not think that it was true. (5)

As time has passed, historians have paid closer attention to Bridenbaugh's speech, and they have justly cited it as one of the most blatant examples of the antisemitism that lingered in American academic life even after World War II. (6) But historians have not fully explored the other components of the speech, nor have they searched for the deeper sources of Bridenbaugh's views beyond a generalized antisemitism.

Several other lines of inquiry are worth pursuing. First, Bridenbaugh's expressed fear that urban-bred scholars would not understand American life, while the most contested point, was only one of several highly controversial ideas contained in his address. Second, Bridenbaugh's own historical work, now largely forgotten, was extremely important to an understanding of his speech, and it also anticipated many of the directions that the study of American colonial history would take. And, third, it can be argued that the main motivation for Bridenbaugh's speech and his concerns about "urban-bred" scholars came not simply from his nostalgia for his rustic Pennsylvania upbringing or from America's transformation from a rural to an urban society. Rather, they were embedded in a series of seismic shifts in academic life and in the historical profession generally, which emerged in full dress after World War II, and in which, ironically, he was both a winner and a loser.

Born outside Philadelphia in 1903, Bridenbaugh was educated in the city, but he spent Saturdays and vacations on its outskirts, roaming the countryside with his friends, swimming, fishing, trapping muskrats and engaging in other pursuits common to a rural youth. (7) He graduated from Dartmouth College in 192.5, and, from there, began graduate study in American history at Harvard with Schlesinger, one of the greatest American historians of the first half of the twentieth century. (8)

Schlesinger had been a graduate student at Columbia University, where, in 1912., his mentor, James Harvey Robinson, published The New History: Essays Illustrating the Modern Historical Outlook. Disliking the traditional emphasis on political and diplomatic history, Robinson attempted to redefine historical study. The "new history" meant that historians should study all aspects of human behavior and immerse themselves in the methods and research techniques of other disciplines. Robinson's approach greatly resembled that of the French Annales School, and his goal, no less than that of the Annales historians, was the creation of an histoire totale. (9)

Schlesinger was Robinson's most able disciple. Appointed to a senior position at Harvard in 1924, Schlesinger was the author of such important works as The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution (1918), New Viewpoints in American History (1922), and The Rise of the City, 1878-1898 (1933), all of which marked him as an innovative scholar. New Viewpoints in American History even contained a perceptive essay on the role of women in American history. (10) Schlesinger was also

a gifted supervisor of his graduate students, who included not only Bridenbaugh, but also such future luminaries as Paul Buck, John Hope Franklin and Oscar Handlin.

In the late 1920s, Bridenbaugh began teaching at MIT, and, in 1936, he received a doctorate from Harvard. He taught at Brown University from 1938 to 1942. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he accepted the position of director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg, Virginia, where he remained for five years. In 1950, he was appointed the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at the University of California at Berkeley, where he remained until 1962. At that time, he returned to Brown, where he stayed until his retirement in 1969. (11)

Bridenbaugh was a prolific scholar, and perhaps no one embodied the aspirations of the "new history" more than he. His early scholarship also reflected Schlesinger's influence--especially his interest in urban history. Bridenbaugh is most famous for his two books on the colonial American city, Cities in the Wilderness: The First Century of Urban Life in America, 1625-1742, published in 1938, and Cities in Revolt: Urban Life in America, 1743-1776, published in 1955. (11)

By any standard, the books are impressive. Bridenbaugh attempted not only to write an histoire totale, but also to embrace another Annales School precept, a broad comparative synthesis. Placed together, Cities in the Wilderness and Cities in Revolt explored what was transpiring in the colonies' five largest cities--Boston, Newport, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston--from their beginnings until the American Revolution.

Bridenbaugh appeared to cover virtually every aspect of urban society and culture in those five cities. In addition to the place of trade, taxes, government and religion in those cities, Bridenbaugh paid particular attention to people in groups, including merchants, lawyers, scientists, craftsmen, printers, workers and ruling elites. He also devoted attention to such things as porcine infestation and each city's strategy for dealing with such issues as fire, crime, water supply, garbage, disease and vice.

By the time of the publication of the second volume in 1955, Bridenbaugh had come to interpret the colonial cities as the crucible in which a distinctively American identity had emerged, and as the embodiment of the egalitarian ideals of the Enlightenment and New World exploration. On the basis of these conclusions, Bridenbaugh perceived the colonial cities as a central point of disjuncture between the old, hierarchical world of Europe and the brave new world of American individualism. In Bridenbaugh's retelling, it was almost as if historian Frederick Jackson Turner's view of a distinctively American character forged on the frontier had been transplanted to the city. (13)

But Bridenbaugh was not only a social historian following the lead of Schlesinger; he was also the author of numerous other books in which he displayed a daunting command of the sources and complexities of American colonial history. In Mitre and Sceptre: Transatlantic Faiths, Ideas, Personalities and Politics, 1689-1775,...

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