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Henry Bragdon: In defense of the American ideal

Peter Nelson

The late Exeter scholar called the title of his iconic text History of a Free People an aspiration worth believing in. 

July 20, 2018

“All the above looks as though I were defending the USA at all costs while waving the Star Spangled Banner and nudging my pet eagle to get him to scream.

These words come toward the end of an extraordinary letter in the Academy Archives written by a man remembered as one of Exeter’s finest and most inspiring history teachers, Henry Bragdon, who served on the faculty from 1945 until 1974. He was also an eminent history scholar who co-authored perhaps the most successful American history textbook as well as an acclaimed study of Woodrow Wilson.

The letter, reproduced in full below, is Bragdon’s response to a letter he received in the fall of 1961 from a teacher in England who had written regarding Bragdon’s textbook, History of a Free People, which was first published in 1954 and republished in at least nine subsequent editions. It was considered for many years the definitive American history textbook (outselling all of the publisher’s other titles — with the exception of Gone With the Wind).

Specifically it was on the matter of the textbook’s title that his English correspondent challenged Bragdon. How, he asked, could he legitimately call the U.S. “a free nation” when the United States keeps a large minority of its population in a subordinated position simply because of their skin color?

We must envision the fraught era of 1961, when this letter was written. It was in the midst of the Civil Rights movement in America, when the Freedom Rides were taking place in the South (to test the recent Supreme Court ruling banning segregation on interstate public transport), sit-ins were frequent and community organizing and voter registration drives for African-Americans were gearing up. Clearly, it was all of this turmoil in America that had moved Bragdon’s British correspondent deeply enough to sense a hollowness in the phrase “History of a Free People.”

Bragdon’s reply to this question could have risked being either overly perfunctory or overly defensive. Instead, I think, it is a very honest and thoughtful engagement of the issue. It is also a case study in the mindset of progressive liberal (white, male, intellectual) idealism in the mid-20th century.

Bragdon begins his letter by conceding that the point is well taken, but that choosing a book’s title is mainly decided by the publisher, sometimes with advice of the author. As it was first published in the middle of the McCarthy era, they chose the phrase Free People as a subtle rebuke to anti-Communist extremism. They wished to emphasize the importance of civil liberties in a democratic society — though admitting that the words were “to some degree an aspiration rather than a fact.” No society anywhere is ever completely “free,” and unfortunately, in the U.S. individuals enjoy different degrees of freedom.

But, Bragdon continues, the U.S. arguably scores pretty high in relative freedom. Comparing the U.S. directly against Great Britain, he says that while his country might fall short in the area of civil liberties and racial equality, he believes that it is better off in terms of economic freedom and social mobility than Britain.

Then, on the page 2, he comes to the heart of the matter that his correspondent ostensibly has intended for him to address: “the Negro.” Bragdon concedes that when it comes to racial equality, conditions in America are still unacceptable — “farthest from its professed ideals” … “this ridiculous business of segregation and discrimination.” But it is here where Bragdon truly embodies the historian’s ethos that society must not be seen as static but rather always as a dynamic entity, a process. “[E]ven here it is remarkable what progress has been made since the (World War II),” he observes, naming several examples of ways in which opportunities and conditions have substantially improved for African-Americans in the previous 15 years.

Not wishing to come off as arrogantly complacent about America (“waving the Star Spangled Banner and nudging my pet eagle to get him to scream”), Bragdon merely wants his British correspondent and his students to know that Americans are conscious of the problems and are grappling with them forthrightly, and that, so far, things have been improving.

It is notable how many of Henry Bragdon’s Exeter colleagues have remarked on his optimism and idealism — one biographer described it as "an unshakeable conviction that mankind could and would progress." This letter certainly displays that idealism, the idea of the “shining city on a hill” and the incessant march of progress. But for us, the tantalizing question is: how optimistic would Bragdon feel about racial progress, were he alive today? Would Rodney King, Ferguson, Black Lives Matter and Charlottesville — as well as Exeter’s own shortcomings on the matters of diversity, equity and inclusion — force him to reassess his country’s commitment to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence? Or would he, perhaps, be encouraged by the 2008 election of Barack Obama as a sign that a cleansing tide was on the rise, slow but irresistible? Would he, as Obama did after the election of Donald Trump, merely opt for the neutral view that we’re about to find out just how resilient America’s institutions are, at home and around the world?

Bragdon left the classroom at the end of the 1972 academic year. He died in 1980, but his legacy lives on at Exeter through The Henry Bragdon Public Service & Interest Fellows Fund, started in 2006. The fund brings to campus speakers who have demonstrated special accomplishment and prominence in their professional and personal lives. The objective of the visits is to encourage discussion of issues relating to public service.

I would like to close with a passage from the prologue to the first (1954) edition History of a Free People, as it is remarkably close to the sentiments expressed in Bragdon’s letter:

"But to say that American ideals have not been fully carried out is merely to say that Americans, being human, are not perfect. Taken as a whole, the history of the United States has been that of a bold and exciting experiment in founding a society on faith in human intelligence, human freedom, and human brotherhood. So far this experiment has been a success. Its future success depends on the intelligence, goodwill, and sense of responsibility of coming generations."

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