"Live" with TAE: One of Today's Most Readable Historians Discusses Religion, Regional Identity, Political Correctness, America's Founding, the Nation's Wars, and Leadership
Kauffman, Bill, The American Enterprise
David Hackett Fischer, one of our country's foremost historians, has described his work as "a deep affirmation of American values." He combines social history with classic narrative, a synthesis that reaches its apex in Paul Revere's Ride (1994) and his Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington's Crossing (2004).
Fischer's ambitious "cultural history of the United States" includes the much-praised Albion's Seed (1989), which identifies the enduring folkways that British immigrants carried to the New World, and his latest book Liberty and Freedom (2004).
Professor Fischer, who will deliver the American Enterprise Institute's annual Irving Kristol Lecture in D.C. on March 8, spoke with TAE associate editor Bill Kauffman in his office at Brandeis University.
TAE: How did growing up in Baltimore shape you as a historian?
FISCHER: I'm an American mongrel: part German, part English. On my mother's side we have memories of old Maryland, and uncles and cousins from the backcountry with names like Westmoreland. Others of my ancestors were Quakers. They all had various ideas of who they were and who I should be.
A lot of history had happened around Baltimore. I had an aunt who was blind and in her 90s. She told a story to my cousins and my brother and me--it was a big sprawling family--about a July day when from her home on a farm north of Baltimore there was a sound like the wind in the trees. She went outside and there was no wind. She looked up the road and saw a line of wagons as far as she could see. They were the wounded from Gettysburg.
That was told to us when we were very small, and I think that's the recipe for making a historian. It was the immediacy of those events--the sense that they were happening to us in some way.
TAE: You grew up with a proprietary attitude toward the country--like it's yours?
FISCHER: I would say so. My ancestors had fought in every major war. My father was superintendent of the school system in Baltimore in the 1950s when I was of an impressionable age. In 1954 he was implementing Brown v. Board of Education. I would hear these things discussed around the table, and then the next morning I'd see them in the newspaper. So I had a sense of connection to the choices and decisions that were being made in the country. It also made me think that choices make a difference.
TAE: Your religious background is Protestant and you end up teaching at Brandeis.
FISCHER: My parents were both Lutheran and I was confirmed in a Lutheran church. Then I married a Methodist and we encouraged our children in the Protestant spirit to find their own way. One became an Episcopalian and the other became a Unitarian and is now a Buddhist. I live in a town that's predominantly Roman Catholic and I teach very comfortably in my 85th semester at Brandeis, which calls itself non-sectarian Jewish.
TAE: Did you have any expectations about Jewishness that were either confirmed or shattered upon coming to Brandeis?
FISCHER: I found a kind of excitement that I didn't find anywhere else. There were other schools that I had offers from at the same time. One was an old New England school and the people who interviewed me there were interested in who my grandparents were and where I got my sportcoats. I had another offer from a Big Ten school. They wanted to know if I could teach the General Survey course. I said, "How big is the class?" They said it's usually about 500 students. And then I went to a very good Southern school and they said, "We normally have gatherings to talk about subjects of current concern. Do you want to come over and join us?" I said I would be delighted. What's the subject? "Capital punishment." So I went over, rehearsing my arguments against capital punishment--and the discussion was about methods of execution.
Then I came to Brandeis, and I met two people: John Roche and Leonard Levy. They were extraordinary characters, hard as nails, devoted to a scholar's quest. …