Mordred Had a Good Point

By Oman, Nathan B. | Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Mordred Had a Good Point


Oman, Nathan B., Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought


Mordred Had a Good Point Gary Topping. Leonard J. Arrington: A Historian's Life. Norman: The Arthur H. Clark Company, an imprint of the University of Oklahoma Press, 2008. 251 pp. Cloth: $39.95. ISBN: 978-0- 87062-363-9

Reviewed by Nathan B. Oman

It is difficult not to like Leonard Arrington. By all accounts, he was an exceptionally generous and decent man. His Great Basin Kingdom was a kind of Big Bang of Mormon historiography, doing more than any other volume to create the New Mormon History. In addition, Arrington was an enormously productive researcher and scholarly entrepreneur, churning out articles and monographs at a prodigious rate and helping to found such institutions as the Mormon History Association and the Journal of Mormon History. Finally, he was a mentor of rare abilities, indentifying, encouraging, and supporting dozens of junior scholars who went on to make major contributions to our understanding of the Mormon past. Not surprisingly, Garry Topping's generous-even at times hagiographic-biography is sure to please those who remember Leonard personally. In recounting Arrington's intellectual and professional career, however, the book also provides a useful moment of ref lection on the turbulent world of Mormon studies in the last decades of the twentieth century.

With one exception, Arrington's life was largely devoid of the kind of drama that makes for a page-turning biography. Reading the book, I was reminded of a comment by William Blackstone's most recent biographer. Blackstone was the first university professor of English law; and through his four-volume Commentaries on the Laws of England, he had an enormous inf luence on the development of law in the United States and Britain. Nevertheless, his biographer observes, "Blackstone's relatively short lifespan was not saturated with drama or sensation."1 The same could be said of Arrington's much longer life. With the exception of his dramatic tenure as Church Historian, what excitement there was in Leonard Arrington's life lies in the story of his intellectual career and his contribution to the scholarly study of Mormonism.

Arrington was first and foremost an economic historian, and Topping does a workmanlike job of running down the inf luences on Arrington's early thought. The book, unfortunately, makes little or no attempt to place Arrington's intellectual training in the broader history of eco- nomic thought. In many ways, Arrington's graduate training in economics came just prior to a sea change in the discipline. When he arrived in North Carolina from Idaho to begin his graduate schooling in 1939, economics was dominated by thinkers whose intellectual roots lay in the Progressive Era. By the end of the 1930s, their ideas dominated not only the academy but also public policy. In retrospect, it has become common to see the New Deal as a triumph of Keynesian economics. At the heart of Keynesianism is a general equilibrium model of the economy that insists that the state can alleviate the business cycle by propping up aggregate demand in times of downturn through deficit spending. While the New Deal provided public relief through iconic programs such as the Works Progress Administration, the heart of its economic program did not lie in Keynesian pump-priming. Indeed, Franklin D. Roosevelt ran a deficit for only one year during the 1930s, and it was a minor one at that.

Rather, what the Progressive economists prescribed in the Great Depression was the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, which aimed to cartelize all of the major sectors of the American economy and subject them to "rational" control via a system of exhaustive administrative regulation. Once purged of the "wasteful . . . irrationality" of the unrestrained market, so the thinking went, business would pick up and prosperity would return. The original NIRA was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, but FDR succeeded in bullying the court into abandoning its hostility to the New Deal and pushed forward with similarly motivated policies.

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