The Partisan Historian

"The Partisan Historian," review of The Cycles of American History, by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., American Spectator, February 1987.


The author of these sparkling essays (republished, but rewritten) is much more partisan than most other historians think proper. Whereas they see partisanship as a danger to be guarded against and try to prevent their politics from dictating their conclusions, Schlesinger sees no reason why an intelligent person like himself should suppress his political wisdom when he sits down to write history. Everything he says of the past has immediate reference to a recent or present-day partisan controversy, and the reader is never left in suspense as to what that connection might be. For a person of his intelligence, he has the least ironical of minds.

Schlesinger wears his liberal heart on his sleeve, and under his sleeve he uses his elbow to seek out abrasive contact with his Republican and conservative opponents. He has an instinct, not for the jugular but for the sore point (Nixon, Agnew, and Watergate), as if his intent were to cause maximum irritation to his opponents without running the risk of inadvertently killing them. For Schlesinger without his enemies would be without his life. Even the partisan—especially he—needs his opponents; and he needs them precisely for the sake of his partisanship. This is the unintended irony of Schlesinger’s book, whose title is taken from his essay on the liberal and conservative cycles of American history.

When a historian  speaks of cycles in history, he seems to step back from the partisanship of the moment and to look at it in the perspective of the whole. Indeed, if cycles are meant literally as circular returns to the beginning, the historian who speaks of them admits the relative insignificance of history, since in this view nothing historical would be lasting. At the least it would seem that partisan victories and defeats would lose their clarity, and that both triumph and despair would begin to blur. But not for Schlesinger. He uses the cycles to relieve his present suffering, nothing more. Because of them, he knows that his fellow-liberals will rise again, maybe soon. It does occur to him that thereafter they must fall again, but he draws no conclusions from this. His belief in cycles does not amount to a generous admission that his partisanship is not always appropriate, much less that he is wrong 50 percent of the time. It merely tells him why he wins only 50 percent of the time.

UNZ [pdf]