They hadn’t developed the inexact science of public-opinion polling in time for the American presidential election of 1860, but I have been re-reading enough history to offer a guess at what the ratings might have been at this stage in the campaign. The front-runner was William Seward, later Lincoln’s secretary of state, backed for the nomination by up to 40% of Republicans.
The next largest Republican preference was for anyone other than Seward, but there was a range of fairly hopefuls, ambitious thrusters, and 'favourite sons', none of them really into double figures. Among them was the Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln, whom I rate at about 8% among his fellow Republicans. But if Democrats (already splitting into northern and southern factions) and independents are included in the count of first-preferences for the next president, I can’t award Lincoln much more than 3%.
I offer this historical speculation partly as a warning against premature assumptions about the outcome of this year’s conventions, even though three modern developments make it more difficult for outsiders to stay in the race: the enormous cost of campaigning, the destructive power of bad results in early primaries, and the influence of the great posse of pollsters now riding behind Dr Gallup.
But I also want to share other first-fruits of my old-age rediscovery of the American history which was the excitement and delight of my distant student youth. That was a time when British universities were learning that there was more to history than Macaulay and Stubbs’ Charters and I had the tutorial inspiration of such enthusiasts as Esmond Wright and Max Beloff. As Wordsworth wrote of a French revolution that didn’t work out as well as the American one: 'Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven'.
For the United States was still a brave new world, fascinating both in affinities with most things British and adaptation of them to utterly different conditions and a population of increasingly heterogeneous origins. The way to discover its history was also made smoother by two assumptions with which my generation grew up. One was that, even though it had long since seceded from the empire, the USA wasn’t a 'foreign country' as that term was generally understood. The other was that, even if they turned up late for the fighting, Americans were something more than wartime allies. Naïve we may have been, but we inherited a 'special relationship' and took it for granted before our political leaders made so much of the term.
What has startled me in my recent rediscovery of American history is the extent to which it was a mutual relationship – perhaps in cultural matters, if not political ones, even stronger on the American side. I have been re-reading some of the historians who in the mid-20th century had formed America’s interpretation of its past and offered it to Britain’s new wave of excited explorers. I’ve been comparing their approach and judgements, mainly from the era of FD Roosevelt, with those fashionable in Obama’s America. The names may mean nothing to most readers but I list some to help more academic ones get their bearings: Randall, Nevins, Woodward, Morrison, Commager, and Seymour.
Re-reading them, as well as civil war military historians, I was struck by how deeply immersed in English literature and British history these writers were, and how often they shared these admirable qualities with the (mainly 19th-century) politicians they were writing about, even those whose stump repertoire included twisting the lion’s tail. But what struck me next was that I hadn’t noticed this the first time round: I had just taken our common culture for granted. It stands out now in contrast to much written in or about modern America.
Thorough familiarity with the King James Bible was to be expected and perhaps also frequent invocations, more rhetorical than historical, of Magna Carta. Shakespeare claimed almost equal respect: Lincoln could quote fluently from memory and was enough of a literary critic as well as theatregoer to argue that, although the comedies were best enjoyed when performed, tragedies were even more impressive when read. (Someone should ask Donald Trump if he agrees.)
Nor is it surprising to rediscover the popularity of Dickens among his American contemporaries or to be reminded of the impact of Sir Walter Scott. He has even been held responsible for the American civil war, mainly by those who blame Tories for all the ills that flesh is heir to, thanks to the romanticism with which he allegedly inflamed the south. But the best-attested case of this inflammation in the war itself is a northern one: senator Edward Baker, serving as a colonel, was killed at a minor battle on the Potomac after belting out a couplet from the 'Lady of the Lake' about some heroic bugler’s blast being 'worth a thousand men'.
There are two more surprising discoveries, applying both to the historians and their subjects. One is the way that some British politicians – notably the elder Pitt, Edmund Burke, John Bright, even Arthur Balfour later – are extensively quoted and affectionately endowed with a kind of honorary US citizenship. The other is that American audiences and readers were expected to be familiar with the fame and possibly the works of a wide range of British authors from Milton and Sterne to Carlyle and Matthew Arnold. It ain’t now necessarily so.
Times and fashions change. Neither Shakespeare nor Scott enlivens the soundbites of this year’s White House hopefuls, and American historians often adopt new perspectives in which British cultural and political affinities are much less visible. That is only partly because, in power politics, Britain no longer counts for so much in the world. It is also because much American thinking seems polarised between a far-right reversion to isolationism, in political thinking if not in foreign policy, and a leftist tendency, strong among liberal academics and media people, to replace a complacent pride in American traditions and institutions of British ancestry with an exaggerated sense of guilt about some of their limitations and partial failures.
My rediscovery of American history has brought some new discoveries, some instructive and some discouraging, in contrasts between the old, confident interpretations of the 1950’s (mainly by men who matured under Woodrow Wilson and reached their prime under Roosevelt) and an often radical revisionism strongly influenced by the rise of feminism and an 'anti-racism' going far beyond the removal of discrimination and segregation.
A convenient digest of the new dogmatism can be found in the vast Oxford 'Companion to US History'. Its grudging and mean-spirited entry on Robert E Lee, noblest soldier ever to fight for a dubious cause, is half the length of kinder ones for sexual harassment campaigners and the National Woman’s Party. The one on Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, might have been drafted by the vindictive faction which almost succeeded in impeaching him for pursuing, without Lincoln’s tact or skill, the reconciliatory approach to reconstruction in the south which his predecessor had begun. Jack Johnson, the boxer, is better treated.
Some of the historical revision is probably justified. The historians whom I admired had twinges of conscience about the extent which those who inherited the Declaration of Independence respected the rights of Indian tribes (now known as nations of Native Americans) to 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' but no more than twinges. They could also, even though they recognised it, be patronising about the impact of women’s organisations on good works and social concerns, including those leading to the unhappy experiment with prohibition.
These scholarly historians (most of them moderate liberals in politics) had something which the United States is in danger of losing: a conscientious self-confidence with a sense of high purpose, capacity for self-criticism, and respect for its cultural ancestry. That many of them were also of British Isles descent, which more and more Americans aren’t, was not all that significant, for the British connection of the United States isn’t mainly a matter of ethnicity. It’s one of ideas and values in law, politics, education, and literature, expressed in the robust English adopted and sometimes adapted by successive waves of immigrants, even the ones who came as slaves.
These ideas and values don’t look their best in the limited choices available for this year’s Democratic nomination or in the squabbling rabble which Republican aspirants sometimes appear to be. None has shown even the silken-smooth ability of the outgoing president to talk a good campaign. But the unexpected can happen. The crippled FD Roosevelt lasted into a fourth term. Truman made the grade. A movie actor made quite a decent president. And, way back, Lincoln (according to my rather belated calculation) was rating only single figures at this stage in the campaign of 1860.