Skip to main content

An Interview With James Macgregor Burns

July 2024
4min read

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.

Yes, particularly in intellectual leadership. Leadership , my 1978 book, has led me to conclude that the great leaders of history have been intellectual leaders—though they were other things at the same time. “Intellectual leadership” sounds like a pretentious and limiting term, but I’m referring also to inventors of machines, and to entrepreneurs who are inventors of ideas. I see all kinds of ideas as the cutting edge of history.

You refer in the book to three “cadres” of leadership—a first, of national figures like the Presidents; a second, composed of influential people at the state level; and then a third. Who are the members of this “third cadre”?

They are the locally significant people, the town editor and the preacher, the interest-group activists and reformers. The perfect example would be convention delegates—and I don’t just mean political conventions. These are the ones who link up their own communities with other centers. They also connect to higher levels—they bring grass-roots ideas to people at the top of the pyramid and take new concepts back home with them. It’s hard to deal with these people in a book, because there are thousands of them. But I believe they constitute a great corps of leadership from which higher-cadre leaders come.

You intersperse your text with biographical vignettes, bits of song, little scenes. What’s behind that technique?

Well, the simple answer is that it gives variety to the text, and the vignettes help me to get at the third cadre. And I like a good story. Of course, after a while you have to do some generalizing. What I did here, and also in my two Roosevelt biographies, was to “bootleg” some generalization and some theory into each section without beating the reader over the head. That’s been my essential literary strategy.

Are you trying to write like the great nineteenth-century historians?

They were marvelous synthesizers, and we need that. On the other hand, they were very opinionated, and I’m not sure about some of the data that they used. Today’s specialist scholars really get into things; what they’re doing in voting analysis, for example, is just remarkable. The question is: Can you combine narrative that conveys to people the life and blood and guts and songs and poetry and crises of our history with the analysis and ideas that give it all meaning?

You start with an epigraph from Ecclesiastes. It’s the passage in which the speaker says that the things he has done in life are “vanity,” but he learned that “wisdom excelleth folly as far as light excelleth darkness.” Why?

The words about wisdom are the controlling metaphor. Above all, it’s our brains that we have to turn to. We do have to work within constraints established by great social, economic, and biological forces. But what we have going for us, essentially, is our capacity to think—the ability to anticipate, to plan, to define objectives, to resolve great conflicts.

You’re a political scientist and a historian-biographer. Which craft do you like to practice best?

You have to do both, but history is more fun.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.