One day soon, someone will write the history of the bankers, fund managers, lawyers and accountants who helped make our present financial crisis. When they do, they’ll need to be careful not to lose sight of the far larger group of people – really, everyone – who were also part of that process, the suffering they endured and the resistance they enacted. It would need to be a cultural, intellectual, legal, political, and social history that gave account not only of how the financial elite thought and acted, but how that thought and action was shaped by structures and events. It would see the world reflected in their eyes. In that moment, it might show a little sympathy.
That’s how I feel about my own project, a history of power and ideology among American elites in the 1780s. The first question that troubles me – why study elites? – tends to dissolve into a slightly different one – what does it mean to study elites? To be meaningful it has to be a way of studying how historical change happens and how the conditions of life are produced. Elites are both separate and inseparable from the rest of society, linked in a complex, ambivalent embrace that constitutes a kind of class struggle. And class struggle is history in action.
My point of departure is an effort to take elites seriously as ethical and cultural subjects as well as material agents. Rational self-interest (however we might try to understand that) does just as poor a job of explaining them as it does for anyone else. But the historiography of class struggle is too often read in that straightforwardly material way. It’s ironic that Charles Beard now stands as a paragon of precisely that approach (“discredited,” “outdated,” etc.) when his work actually framed itself as a study in complex class identity. He showed the way, but his Cold War critics saw only the end of the road.
Personal and class identities, motives, and subjectivities are formed and continually re-formed in dynamic interaction with a world that is more than material. The historians who have done most to illuminate this process in relation to America’s founders seem to have been the most sceptical about their role in class struggle itself – Douglass Adair being a notable example, along with Eric McKitrick and Stanley Elkins who I’ll be writing about here next month. More recently scholars like Andrew Trees, Eric Slauter, and Carol Smith-Rosenberg have in quite different ways added to the complex picture of identity-formation, and linked it to the politics of the founding. The legal, political, and rhetorical strategies available to any individual or group shape, and are shaped by, the ways they imagine themselves and others.
It’s in trying to understand how America’s founders imagined themselves that I think sympathy has a role. In his post here, Michael D. Hattem pointed out Henry Wiencek’s insight on Jefferson – “This S.O.B. is utterly cold.” It might be more helpful to think of our subjects as warm: that is, as humans who lived. Like us, they hold inconsistent positions and do contradictory things; they look out for themselves but they also care about others; they have ideas about justice and goodness; sometimes they have faith. Historians can try to show how all these aspects of real human life fit into the problem of historical change and conditions – of power, ideology, and class struggle. In turn, a bit of sympathy might help us think about our own complex role in those things.