One of the consequences of the Trump victory has been to make historical parallels more ubiquitous than ever. Some say we’re living through the 1930s, or perhaps returning to the days of the Know-Nothings – a party of nativists from the decade before the American Civil War. Is Trump the second coming of President Andrew Jackson? In some senses, these comparisons suggest Trump’s views are somehow ‘backward’ – that he belongs to whatever time his supporters desperately want to return to. He is still easier for some to picture in a textbook about the 18 or 1930s, than on today’s news.
Far from evidence that we are beginning to ‘think historically,’ or ‘put Trump in historical context,’ these analogies sometimes suggest an unwillingness to understand the President as a truly contemporary figure. In my view, we need to do more to reconsider the way we make sense of ‘historical development’ itself, rather than make too many comparisons with years gone by. In fact, I think the Trump Presidency has begun to force us to ‘think historically’ in a more interesting sense: by getting us to reckon with the ‘place’ we assign ourselves in stories about the past.
One historical narrative, popular during the 1990s, is beginning to look less and less convincing, although it was recently resurrected by a man who did so much to define that decade – Tony Blair. In an interview at the end of last year with the New Statesman, Blair explained:
‘Of course history has a direction…there is progress, we are making progress, even in our own countries…there’s a lot to celebrate. There is absolutely no reason to be pessimistic about the human condition.’
In what I think are less strident and more qualified terms, President Obama nonetheless agreed with this central premise, when he offered up some comfort after the victory of Donald Trump:
‘The path this country has taken has never been a straight line, we zig and zag and sometimes we move in ways some people think is forwards and others think is moving backwards.’
This view of history echoes a figure described as the ‘chief intellectual spokesperson’ of the antebellum Democratic Party, the historian and diplomat George Bancroft. As a leading light of the antebellum Democrats, Bancroft was among the most significant architects of the contemporary liberal world-view. Despite popular comparisons between Trump and ‘backward,’ or ‘reactionary,’ Jacksonians, Bancroft’s life and work suggest a different course. As I’ll explore in this post, Trump’s language about ‘spheres of interest,’ and of America taking a less ideological role on the world stage, would have been repellent to him and his readers.
George Bancroft’s historical output was prodigious – his themes grand, and rather overblown to modern ears. As a young man, he studied in Germany, attending lectures by Hegel that inspired his ideas about the ‘spirit of the age.’ In terms of policy prescriptions, the historian championed self-government for states and nations, at a time of liberal revolutions in Europe and Latin America. He advocated territorial expansion, free trade and popular sovereignty. He took a relatively laissez-faire attitude to both culture and economics, and was a supporter of immigration from Europe. These might seem familiar tenants of US policy, but only because they defined the post-WWII liberal order. In fact, the moment the Civil War began, Bancroft’s vision of liberal internationalism began to wane for most of the next century, particularly his faith in free trade.
Behind these policies was a view history that became incredibly popular before the American Civil War: a narrative not only of technological and scientific but also moral and political progress, preordained by divine providence. George Bancroft was its most articulate advocate, proclaiming ‘the exact measure of the progress of civilisation is the degree to which the intelligence of the common mind has prevailed over wealth and brute force.’ Bancroft believed history was tending towards an ideal state, with humankind becoming morally better as it became more technologically sophisticated. Just like engineering, the social sciences could unlock ‘truths’ – in this case about the human condition – which would allow men to live alongside each other peacefully.
For Bancroft, the nation was a mere stepping-stone to an internationalist social order. In his 1854 lecture before the New York Historical Society, entitled ‘The Necessity, the Reality and the Promise of the Progress of Humankind,’ he explained that ‘with each successive year, a larger number of minds in each separate nationality inquires into man’s end and nature,’ and since ‘truth and the laws of god are unchangeable,’ ‘the nations are drawn to each other as members of one family and their mutual acquisitions become a common property.’ In the realm of morality, greater philosophical inquiry would make everyone aware of their common humanity whilst political economy would ‘solve the question of the commercial intercourse of nations by demonstrating that they are all naturally fellow workers and friends.’
Bancroft’s argument is eerily similar to Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ thesis – a view of history popularised in the 1990s. Historian Daniel Howe has even said of the antebellum Democrats that they sought ‘liberation from history.’ As well as supporting many of the same policies as Bancroft, Fukuyama put forward a ‘non-ideological’ vision of liberal internationalism, whereby all would be uplifted through the effects of globalisation. Deep-rooted social conflicts and inequalities between nations would ‘flatten’ under the effects of global capitalism. In this view, ideological contests become obsolete, as people realise the universal benefits of liberal democracy, and even the nation state fades away.
These predictions are reminiscent of Bancroft’s, and will possibly turn out to be just as misguided. At their heart, I think both perspectives remove what Reinhold Niebuhr called ‘the embarrassing factor of power’ from political affairs. Just as Democrats like Bancroft provided no satisfactory solutions to the problem of slavery, issues of class and nationality are not just ‘blind spots’ in the contemporary liberal vision: they are structures of power the liberal worldview is not equipped to understand. In my view, some of Bancroft’s conservative critics from the antebellum Whig party offer us some clue as to why.
Caleb Sprague Henry was one such figure – an American Protestant Episcopal clergyman, translator, editor and Professor of History and Philosophy at New York University, who, by attacking the historian head on, became Bancroft’s chief intellectual rival.
On the surface, Henry shared many of Bancroft’s central concerns. Both men, for example, saw the development of American intellectual culture as central to becoming a stable, independent nation. Bancroft celebrated authors (especially Democrats) like William C. Bryant as apostles of republican freedom whilst Henry also wanted to strengthen America’s literary class.
Despite sharing these interests, Henry disagreed with Bancroft and the ‘Young America’ faction of the Democrats, explicitly challenging the historian and the progressive company he kept. Henry was particularly scathing of the idea that moral progress could be achieved in a secular context. As a Protestant minister, he certainly did believe in the elevation – even salvation – of mankind. But, unlike Bancroft, Henry saw this as a religious transformation. The idea of social or political advancement, which is so popular now, was simply incomprehensible in the absence of religious faith.
In a lecture entitled ‘Bancroft’s View of Progress,’ delivered before the New Jersey Historical Society, Caleb Henry described Bancroft’s assertion that the ‘last political state of the world…is ever more excellent than the old’ as ‘pernicious rigmarole.’ It was untrue to ‘tell mankind at this age that they are going gloriously onward in a perpetual movement towards something better.’ Without Protestant piety, the enlightened society Bancroft hoped to create, through technological progress, free trade and territorial expansion, was ‘only the increase and expansion of what we are now.’
In fact, Henry argued that global interconnectedness might actually result in greater conflict, rather than political unity. ‘The widest extension of commercial relations,’ could – perhaps – increase material prosperity (although Henry did not really think so). However, it would definitely not transform the human character, or replace the role of Protestant faith in making man more virtuous. The discovery of ‘universal laws,’ through humanistic, political or scientific inquiry, did not mean men would become more tolerant of each other, more rational or more aware of their common humanity. Henry recognised ‘there was simply ‘no security against the collision of interest, ambition, pride’ – at least not in a religious vacuum. Indeed, contemporary history was reinforcing Henry’s argument: ‘the late Mexican war has proved that the civilisation of the 19th century has been no more a security for peace on this than on the other side of the ocean.’
Caleb Henry also attacked Bancroft’s view of democracy as an inherent moral good. The theologian took the historian to task for claiming that the ‘multitude is wiser than the philosopher.’ He had no time for the idea that majoritarian rule went hand in hand with social liberalism. Even if ‘all the nations of the earth had free governments,’ they would ‘not contain the guarantees of rational progress.’ The majority of people could become wise, but only if their views conformed to God’s will. There was nothing inherently moral about the voice of the masses.
Despite his more conservative politics, Henry joined the new Republican Party that emerged in 1854 to oppose the extension of slavery into western territories. By contrast, Bancroft remained a Democrat until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. Many historians have described the Northern members of the Democratic Party as ‘doughfaces,’ or ‘Northern men with Southern sympathies.’ However, to me, this label doesn’t sufficiently capture Bancroft’s genuinely progressive instincts. He earnestly upheld the principle of ‘popular sovereignty’ in new territories as a means of solving the conflict over the extension of slavery. Just a few decades after the right of suffrage became widely accepted in America, Bancroft argued that unorganised bands of new settlers should decide the fate of slavery in places like Kansas. This was a policy that genuine conservatives like Sidney George Fischer abhorred.
A decade earlier, in 1844, Bancroft had argued that the United States should go to war with Mexico. He justified the conflict on the grounds that Americans should extend ‘liberal principles’ over the continent. Promoting slavery was not, for the historian, a cause for concern, since the tropical climate of the new territories would ‘naturally’ draw African Americans out of the original 13 colonies towards new land nearer the equator. What resulted was a huge lunge for power on the part of the Southern states and one of the boldest power attempts to perpetuate slavery the modern world has ever seen. Moreover, 25,000 Mexicans were killed or wounded in battle and thousands of Indians were displaced from their homes in the expansion that followed.
The point here is not that Bancroft was a secret agent of the Slave Power, or that he was consciously upholding a ‘fig leaf’ for slaveholders. In fact, it was Bancroft’s strident commitment to a liberal international order – both political and intellectual – that made him push the idea of power to the very periphery of his political vision. The liberal world-view of the antebellum Democrats drove the party to invade Mexico and expand slavery. Even when it was clear that Southerners were extending their political reach, Bancroft’s ‘progressive’ faith in popular rule was so great that he left the question of slavery to the whims of popular sovereignty. For antebellum Democrats, there was no contradiction between ‘liberalism’ and ‘democracy,’ nor any doubt about the fate of social progress in the United States – so confident were they in their teleological view of the past. In my view, Bancroft reaffirms the instincts of the English conservative writer Samuel Johnson, when he asked ‘how is that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?’
By contrast, conservatives like Caleb Henry generally understood that people were part of ‘organic communities,’ with their actions entwined in infinitely complex ways: one person’s increased liberty invariably impacted upon another. In this view, conflicts could not be resolved, but merely contained within a political unit, tied together by the bonds of nationality and a shared culture. The political freedoms Americans enjoyed were the result of a convergence of complex historical forces, rather than enlightened ideas. They could not, therefore, simply be transplanted from one territory to another. Similarly, Henry understood that voting was a political privilege. Unlike freedom from slavery, it was not a ‘natural right’ that would automatically materialise once political oppression was taken away. Without the traditions and institutions of the nation, the political process would crumble.
Another thinker who understood the limits of ‘liberal internationalism’ in the mid-19th century was the French historian and philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville. Like Caleb Henry, he was sceptical of efforts to create a liberal global order. He also saw that the nation was a fragile construction, containing a multitude of competing interests within the same political community. It might have been a ‘social construct’ but perhaps a necessary one. The liberal faith that an enlightened intellectual culture could take the strain of political unification was the more dangerous fiction.
Whilst every page of Bancroft’s histories anticipated a political millennium, Tocqueville saw that liberal thought would lead to new and deeper social conflicts. American Democrats might have presented a rosier picture of international cooperation but Tocqueville saw the United States hurtling towards civil war. In his history, ‘The Ancien Régime et la Révolution,’ published at the same time as Bancroft’s ‘History of the United States,’ in 1856, Tocqueville explained how the French Revolution popularised a radical cosmopolitanism that began to replace the nation as a site of political belonging.
Like Bancroft, the French aristocrat saw that technologies such as the printing press and the steamship were making the world more interconnected from the late 18th century. Political alliances were emerging between groups scattered throughout the world. As such, the French Revolution represented a fundamentally new form of political upheaval. Unlike the English and even American Revolutions, the French overturned the political order in the name of ‘universal rights’ rather than their rights as a particular national group. Whilst place and tradition had always formed the bedrock of national identity, Tocqueville saw that people living millions of miles apart were increasingly connected through ideological affinities. In his view, ‘the Revolution created, beyond the separate nationalities, a common intellectual homeland where men of all nations could become citizens.’
However, unlike Bancroft, Tocqueville noted that this construction of this ‘intellectual homeland’ created new divisions whilst dealing in the rhetoric of universality and human rights. People might have discovered kinship and sympathy with distant revolutions, but they became more intolerant of those closer to home. As Tocqueville explained, we could see the Revolution ‘uniting or dividing men despite their laws, traditions, personality or language; it turned fellow citizens into enemies, strangers into brothers.’ During times of heightened internationalism, Tocqueville saw that nations tend to divide against themselves. Conversely, Bancroft maintained his faith in a converging international order in the face of the American Civil War – a conflict that broke out in 1861 and remains the bloodiest war in the nation’s history.
As Caleb Henry and Alexis de Tocqueville saw so clearly, advances in science and technology do not map neatly onto the social realm. Whilst many 19th century Americans put their faith in ‘moral progress,’ Henry recognised ‘ ‘individuals, the nation, the race, can go the road downward as well as the road upward.’ Try as they might to extract it, liberals must face up to the fact that competing interests will always dominate the political realm, even when we least intend it. Drawing the boundaries of power lies at the heart of every political decision. The likes of Tony Blair might pose as ‘non-ideological’ pragmatists. Nonetheless, they subscribe to a liberal world-view that is difficult to achieve in a secular context – a fact Caleb S. Henry understood.
Moreover, Tocqueville’s view of internationalism seems incredibly relevant to today’s climate. Whilst we are now seamlessly connected to people across the globe, many find themselves more and more confounded by the beliefs of those closer to home. Evidently, internationalism has a complex and complementary relationship with nationalism that isn’t accounted for in the progressive view of historical development that crystallised in the mid-19th century. Far from making nationalism redundant, globalisation merely modifies and reconfigures it. By rooting our communities in ‘universal principles,’ we draw divisions in new and more violent ways.
As some have argued, Trump is a strikingly modern figure because he deals – in alarming ways – with the language of power. He views relations between states in transactional terms of costs and benefits, laying out ‘spheres of interest,’ rather than liberal values. Thus, I think those who talk of returning to the 1930s are perhaps wide of the mark. At that time, competing ideologies, resting on grand theories of history, flourished. The US is instead returning to the more historically ‘normal’ role it carved out in the late 19th century: as one of many great powers, scrambling for increasingly scarce resources on a disordered world stage.
 Jason Cowley, “Tony Blair’s Unfinished Business,” (http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/11/tony-blair-s-unfinished-business),
 Barack Obama (https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2016/11/09/president-obama-speaks-results-election).
 G. Bancroft, ‘The Office of the People in Art, Government and Religion,’ 1835, p.426-427
 G. Bancroft, ‘The Necessity, the Reality and the Promise of the Progress of Humankind,’ Literary and Historical Miscellanies, (New York: Harper and Bros, 1855), 504.
 Daniel W. Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs, (The University of Chicago Press, 1979), p.70.
 R. Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, (The University of Chicago Press, 2010).
 Caleb S. Henry, ‘Remarks on Mr Bancroft’s Oration on Human Progress,’ (https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=w54RAAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&output=reader&hl=en&pg=GBS.PA264), p.264
 Ibid, 265
 Ibid, 290.
 Caleb S. Henry, ‘The Historical Destination of the Human Race’ p. 226
 Ibid, 226.
 C.S. Henry, ‘The Historical Destination of the Human Race,’ p. 245
 C.S. Henry, ‘Remarks on Mr Bancroft’s Oration on Human Progress,’ p.275
 Ibid, p.221
 A. Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution, (Penguin Classics, 1998), 25.
 C.S. Henry, ‘Remarks on Mr Bancroft’s Oration on Human Progress,’ p.285