Randall and the “blundering generation”

19 02 2008

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This is the third post in a series on James G. Randall

My first real encounter with James G. Randall came when I was an undergraduate history major at Eastern Illinois University. It came, as I imagine it did to thousands of other undergraduates, in the form of a textbook called The Civil War and Reconstruction. Written at the request of Allan Nevins, it served as the sine qua non for generations of students beginning to study the war.

To be honest, I didn’t read it. One of the bad habits I picked up in college was that it was easier to skim something than read it outright, because professors rarely referred to the book in their lectures. But that reprehensible habit was like eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without the bread. You got something to eat, but it ended up messy and unsatisfying. Twenty-three years later, I still haven’t read it. However, that will one day change.

After Randall’s Constitutional Problems Under Lincoln was published in 1926, the budding scholar turned his sights on his next book, although as his wife, Ruth (shown in the photo above next to her husband) recalled it caused Randall some consternation. Quoting from his diary, she writes “I have been somewhat perplexed as to what my ‘next book’ should be…have been somewhat reluctant to turn out another bk. in const. hist. but this seems to be what is expected of me.”

Randall toyed with the idea of writing a book on the Emancipation Proclamation or even a biography of Horace Greeley. Meanwhile, Randall had written an entry in the Dictionary of American Biography on Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury. After finishing the Chase piece, Randall confided to his diary that “I now find that I like biographical writing. Would like to write a biographical book.”

That Randall would eventually write a biography of Lincoln wasn’t a foregone conclusion, although in his research trips he realized something more substantial was sorely needed. According to Ruth, a trip in November 1928 to the Library of Congress revealed to her husband that while there was a great deal written on Lincoln “little of it met the standards of a historian and a part of it was made up of myth and legend.” However, it would take a few more years before Randall began what would become his greatest work.

That decision was pushed forward when Allen Johnson, editor of the Dictionary of American Biography, commissioned Randall to write a 10,000 word entry for the book. Johnson told Randall that while several better-known historians had lobbied for the plum, he and co-editor J. Franklin Jameson had agreed that Randall would be the best choice.

Ruth recalled that this lit a fire under her husband, and through him, to the graduate students he directed. “He made his seminar a Lincoln seminar and apparently had fired his graduate students with his own enthusiasm,” she writes. “His desire to write a book on Lincoln was growing stronger all the time. Then fate saw fit to interpose a detour.”

That detour was the invitation by Nevins to write The Civil War and Reconstruction. When Johnson accepted Randall’s biographical sketch, and even allowed him an extra 5,000 words, Randall was overjoyed, and it gave him a push on his next book. “In my study I wrote about 2300 words on my book, i.e., on the 1st chap, dealing with the South,” Randall wrote in his diary, three days after discovering that his Lincoln sketch had been accepted.

As anyone who has tried to write a book on such a broad topic as the Civil War could well understand, Randall at times wondered if he had bitten off more than he could chew. Ruth quotes from her husband’s diary twice to show the pressure he was under. “In the midst of a heat wave he recorded on July 30 that he had written 750 words ‘on my beastly Civil War book.’ The next day. With the thermometer at 97 degrees, he referred to his writing as ‘the fiendish task’.”

After months of research, writing, revising, more writing and then more revising, on March 20, 1937 Randall received six copies of the book from the publisher. “Great stir and excitement” he wrote in his diary. The next day the University of Illinois Illini quoted Nevins, who said the book was “a piece of literary history.” It added that it would “at once become standard for the period.”

In his preface, Randall complained that “Up to recent times the bulk of writing in the field has been superficial, traditionally narrow, and partisan. In the South there has been a familiar body of clichés for whose preservation local pride and patriotic organizations have been ever watchful; in the North there have been limitations of sectionalism, provincialism, Yankee tradition, and party prejudice which have marred the pages of some of the most respected writers.”

Randall sought to take advantage of sources long forgotten as well as approach the study from a fresh perspective, taking into account the various social and economic forces at work. “Military and political factors have neither been neglected nor emphasized for their own sake,” he said. “They have been projected against a cultural background; and while the doings and utterings of statesmen have been given their share of space, social and economic factors have received special emphasis.”

Randall was being somewhat disingenuous when he wrote that as a historian he had “no doctrines to disseminate.” Indeed, Randall’s work is one of the pioneers of the “blundering generation” school of historians who argued that the war was not inevitable and was the result of so-called statesmen who let extremists on both sides guide policy and drown out the more rationalist sides.

“The present writer is yet unconvinced that the tragic conflict has been proved to be inevitable,” Randall argued. “It is a common fallacy to ‘explain’ a war by noting a dispute. War histories we have in abundance, but the causation of peace, with its equally valid social and economic aspects, has received insufficient emphasis.” Later he added “Differences as great as those between ante-bellum North and South have existed on many a front without breaking down the processes of statesmanship and producing the debacle of war.”

Reviews of The Civil War and Reconstruction were generally favorable, although most felt that Randall gave reconstruction short shrift. One reviewer complained that only “Two hundred pages are devoted to the twelve years of Reconstruction, a rather more scanty treatment proportionally than is given to the rest of the subject” while another said “Dr. Randall’s last eight chapters on Reconstruction constitute a sort of epilogue to the other twenty-nine. In them there is very little that is new in fact or interpretation. They detract from the unity of the book.” Later the same reviewer says “it might be said with justice that here we have a definitive one-volume account of the Civil War. It cannot fairly be said that it is a definitive account of Reconstruction.”

Black historians also found fault with some of Randall’s conclusions. Carter G. Woodson, writing in the Journal of Negro History, said “the undersigned must take exception to some things which [Randall] has said about the South and part there played by the Negro. In the first place, we note that the author does not seem to think that the slaves were as cruelly treated as it has been said they were.” Woodson accused Randall of being a supporter of Ulrich B. Phillips, whose theories on the paternalism of white masters had since been questioned extensively.

Woodson also questioned Randall’s claims concerning the treatment of slave children as well as his claim that “chastity was a rare virtue among the blacks.” Randall also exaggerated by saying that slave owners often would buy the mate of a slave so as not to break up families. Woodson pointed to his own family as proof that wasn’t always true. “The author ought to know…that…the large majority of the blacks lived up to a much higher standard than his book would lead us to believe.”

One of the harshest reviews came from Randall’s friend, Avery Craven, who along with Charles Ramsdell and Randall are credited with the “blundering generation” school of historical thought in Civil War studies. In the Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Craven writes “Professor Randall’s book is hard to classify. Its form and style are those of a textbook. Yet its 959 pages of plodding detail will prevent any wide use in college classes (author’s note: wrong!). On the other hand, it is lacking inmost of the qualities usually supposed to attract the general reader. It was probably intended as a reference book for advanced students. But again it lacks something for this use because of its scope.”

Craven found fault not only with Randall’s handling of the Reconstruction period, but in his handling of the events leading up to the war. “The handling of neither of these complex periods is satisfactory in itself. As a study of the sectional struggle which culminated in civil war the work is quite inadequate…The real value of the work lies, therefore, in the war period itself, an adequate treatment of which draws the book out to quite unnecessary length for any of the uses suggested.”

Craven does praise the quality of scholarship in the book. “While the critical scholar will find little fresh or particularly penetrating, he will note a good balance maintained between the old and the revisionist points of view,” Craven wrote.

It’s interesting to note that 15 years later, when the MVHR published an article on what 103 polled historians felt were the “preferred works in American History” for the years 1936-1950, 35 voted for Randall’s book while only 22 voted for Craven’s book The Coming of the Civil War. In the category of preferred biographies, Randall’s Lincoln the President took third place with 74 votes while Craven’s Edmund Ruffin was near last with 25 votes.

Next: Randall begins his masterwork

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