Ideas and Actions

One of the frustrating things in life is trying to match the present with what is coming and, if we fail to do that, search through the past for clues.  There is, however, the problem of how people in the past knew what they were doing?  There is ample evidence that much of the time they did not.  I have recently read one new history book and reflected on a previous one on the same period and subject.

 Doris Kearns Goodwin has recently written A Bully Pulpit, a long but fascinating book about how Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and a group of writers for McClure’s magazine collaborated to prize the hands of early capitalists such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J. P.Morgan from control of the new industrial economy and from the democratic political apparatus which they had bought.

 Roosevelt in all his elected capacities was educated by writers for McClure’s about the increasing economic inequality in American society.  He, in turn, enlisted Taft in the political struggle to bring some regulation to monopolistic capitalism.  McClure’s educated the growing middle class about issues their writers described so thoroughly in well written articles.

 Goodwin’s is a story of popular democracy, properly led, overcoming greed and avarice bound up in new and complex forms of organization.  Through education and political will our society provided a more prosperous and equal life for its citizens.

 More than forty years before, Richard Hofstadter wrote The Progressive Historians about the ideas of Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles A. Beard and Vernon L. Parrington.  Turner made the case that it was in moving west that Americans developed their ideas of becoming, and helping others become, more prosperous, self directed citizens.  Beard saw that government depended upon the will of the people in control at any one timeParrington wrote on the history of literature (primarily American) which he saw as a reflection of the national political mind.

 Even with the simple explanation of these two books, it is possible to ask what do they have to do with each other.  One is about deeds and the other primarily about ideas.  How can I make a comparison, expand my understanding of the world I live in and set my actions in a particular direction?  Do Hofstadter’s interpretations matter any more?  At the time I read him I thought I had a better grip on that period of time.  Now I really wonder.  Goodwin’s story certainly maintained my interest and attention better than Hofstadter’s, but can I draw more understanding and intelligent actions from it?   I think so, but how much am I depending on what I got from Hofstadter in building that understanding?

AN INVITATION:  I am savoring all 750 pages of THE BULLY PULPIT.  I would enjoy discussing it with those of you who read it.  JGB

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