A Student of History

June 11, 2008

Historian Sean Wilentz & the Clinton campaign

Filed under: The Academy,The world today — John Maass @ 8:29 am

Is Princeton historian Sean Wilentz a whore for the Clinton campaign?  Kevin Mattson sure thinks so, as noted in a lively exchange on HNN.  I think Wilentz’s response makes himself look worse than Mattson’s initial summary.  And see his Hillary puff piece at Salon.com.

My question is: how are we to take the “gratuitously patronizing” Wilentz’s new book on the Reagan years seriously as a piece of balanced, objective scholarship when his extreme partisanship is so well known now?  This is the guy, you should recall, who argues that W may be the “worst president in all of American history.” 

According to the Princeton University website, “Sean Wilentz studies U.S. social and political history, specializing in the early nation and Jacksonian democracy. He received his Ph.D. in history from Yale University (1980) after earning bachelor’s degrees from Columbia University (1972) and Balliol College, Oxford University (1974). Chants Democratic (1984), which won several national prizes, including the Albert J. Beveridge Award of the American Historical Association, shows how the working class emerged in New York City and examines the changes in politics and political thought that came with it. It has recently been republished with a new preface in a 20th-anniversary edition. In The Kingdom of Matthias (1994), Wilentz and coauthor Paul Johnson tell the story of a bizarre religious cult that sprang up in New York City in the 1830s, exploring in the process the darker corners of the 19th-century religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening. Professor Wilentz is also the coauthor and coeditor of The Key of Liberty (1993) and the editor of several other books, including Major Problems in the Early Republic (1992) and The Rose and the Briar (2004, Greil Marcus coeditor), a collection of historical essays and artistic creations inspired by American ballads. His most recent book is The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (2005). A contributing editor to the New Republic, Professor Wilentz lectures frequently and has written some two hundred articles, reviews, and op-ed pieces for publications such as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, the American Scholar, the Nation, Le Monde, and Salon. He is the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History and the director of the Program in American Studies.”


  1. To answer your question John, we can’t take Wilentz seriously. We are dealing with an increasingly cultural marxist philosophy when it comes to historiography. Though I’m sure you are already aware of that.

    Comment by Richard Williams — June 11, 2008 @ 1:25 pm | Reply

  2. Unfortunately, Wilentz is just a prominent example of the lunacy that seems to have taken ahold of many historians. There was the report earlier this year that 61% of “professional historians” opined that Bush II was the worst president ever. BDS apparently trumps professionalism every time.

    The good news is that the dissociation between current political beliefs and the ability to write history seems to run both ways. Wilentz wrote a perfectly decent book on antebellum America, and another nut-job, Eric Foner, has written excellent books on the ideology of the early Republican party and Reconstruction.

    Comment by elektratig — June 13, 2008 @ 4:33 am | Reply

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