An Interview With James Macgregor Burns

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James MacGregor Burns describes himself as a “part-time politician.” He has earned the title by serving as a delegate to four Democratic National Conventions, by membership on two commissions to revise Democratic party charters, and by a run for Congress in 1958. He is also a professor of political science at Williams College, from which he was graduated in 1939. Since 1949 he has written eight widely known books on the men and the forces that shape American government. Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox won acclaim when published in 1956. Its sequel, Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom , took the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award in 1971. He has managed also to write many articles on matters of statecraft, to be coauthor of a textbook on American government, and to win a term as president of the American Political Science Association.

But it is history that concerns him as we talk on the porch of his farmhouse on the east slope of the Taconic Range, just inside the border of his native Massachusetts. He is awaiting publication of The Vineyard of Liberty, the first of three volumes that he is writing under the general title of “The American Experiment.” The first volume covers the years from 1787 to 1860; the next will bring the story down to 1932, he now thinks; and the final one will go on from there. This is Burns’s first formal book devoted entirely to history, but he notes that his “first nonacademic job” was as a combat historian in the Pacific in World War II. So he is, in a sense, “returning” to historianship—and, as he explains, happily so.

For whom did you write The Vineyard of Liberty?

It’s for the intelligent lay audience that feels it has forgotten a lot of American history and would like to be reminded of important aspects of it in a human, narrative form, in a book that has some of the breadth of a textbook but isn’t one.

Do you think that audience is out there? At AMERICAN HERITAGE we live by the faith that it is.

AMERICAN HERITAGE proves it’s there.

What’s the theme of your story?

The book is about values—what this country is all about. It’s also about the confusion of values. And above all, it’s a book about leadership, especially in that early period that I call the sunburst of leadership. When you get back to the founders in reality, they look just as great as they do in mythology.

What is the confusion of values you’re referring to?

Liberty was an incredibly evocative term to those early Americans. They were willing to fight and die for it. But they defined it in a variety of ways—for example, the liberty to have slaves and the liberty to be free of slavery. Political liberty—from Britain—and civil liberties after independence. The power and intensity of their belief in liberty was balanced by the sheer variety of interpretations of the term. That was the tragedy of the Civil War, with everyone prating about liberty while they fought. I end the book with three songs, all of them about freedom—one sung by Northern troops, one by Southern troops, and one by Union black troops, all talking about freedom and thinking of different things.

Where did equality come in?

They believed in something called equality, as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, with almost as much intensity. But here again there was a great diffusion of definitions, some of them contradictory. When it came to balancing the value of liberty against the value of equality, there was still more confusion. What came out of it all was a kind of fuzzy American ideology. And that has practical consequences right down to the present.

For example?

Liberty can be both positive and negative. To the early Americans it was essentially liberty from things—from England, or from government especially—very individualistic. But they didn’t always think of the extent to which the intervention of government might be necessary to help some other person realize his or her liberty; the question of slavery is the best example.

Americans are great at general, pious formulations. We’re also great at practicalities: “How do we do this tomorrow?” But the linkage between the two is often very weak, so that when people are in power, there is no strategy—there are no norms by which to set up a hierarchy among certain kinds of freedom. For example, what comes next when there’s an issue? What do you go for primarily? What are the priorities? Instead, we like to do one thing one day and something quite different the next. While the leaders in my book made great abstract speeches about liberty, they first kept slavery intact, then suddenly abolished it, then let the ex-slaves sink back into something close to slavery.

You’re very interested in leadership.