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Carlton Hayes

(This is the first part in a three part essay. See essays two and three.

The American Historical Association, which once was a guild of pretentious professionals and is now a massive organization dedicated to political correctness, has had only one serious presidential election in its century and a quarter of existence. In 1945 young liberals tried to prevent Carlton Joseph Huntley Hayes from ascending to its symbolic high office.  Despite the fact that their alternative candidate turned down his nomination in no uncertain terms, Hayes “won” the election by a vote of only 110-66. He had recently returned from Spain, where he had served as the American Ambassador to the hated Franco; and perhaps worse, he was a Catholic. It is hard for contemporary Americans to remember a country in which Spain was a metaphor for international morality, and wherein anti-Catholicism was the most widely approved prejudice.

Hayes responded with one of the most notable speeches in the history of History in the United States: “The American Frontier–Frontier of What?” Even his enemies, the Schlesingers (father and son), for example, applauded its content. It would become one of the great intellectual building-blocks of the American victory over communism, the true spiritual crisis of the twentieth century.

Part I:  Catholic American (1882-1935)

The irony of Carlton Hayes being singled out for attacks by the progressives in his profession was that his life up to 1941 was a uniquely modern American life, and he had achieved a prominence granted to few history teachers. His textbooks on modern European History had educated literally generations of college students. His widow, Evelyn Carroll Hayes, told me in 1966 that his income from the books had been well into the millions of dollars, and that she was still getting royalties in six figures even after his death.  He was, in important ways, America’s History Teacher.

Carlton Hayes was both a country mouse and a city mouse. He grew up in Afton, New York (population 836) in the home of a country doctor, attended the local Baptist church, and was educated at the Afton Academy, one of those old country schools whose standards were high, both academically and in terms of discipline. Afton is on the Susquehanna River, the main branch of which rises in Otsego Lake in nearby Cooperstown, and which Hayes would, as an adult, canoe down all the way to the Chesapeake Bay. Hayes would never entirely separate himself from Afton, keeping the old homestead and writing there many summers, and even founding a little Catholic church in his middle years.

But when he went off to Columbia University, another place he never left, Hayes became devoted to New York City. This was not unusual in that age of change. Several members of my own family made the transition from country to city life, rural New York to the big city, in the same generation. According to Mrs. Hayes, Carlton was equally comfortable in Afton and in their large apartment a couple of blocks from Columbia all the days of his life.

Two other things captured Hayes in his years as an undergraduate and Ph.D student at Columbia: The “New History” and the Catholic Church. There is no satisfactory explanation for his religious conversion that appears in the Hayes papers. He was not an introspective man; he found it hard to express what came from deep within him, but he never hesitated to tell friends or foes where he stood on outward things. I suspect that he saw the historical inevitability of the Catholic faith, and he learned to love the liturgy. His conversion was private, as was most of his interior life. His Catholicism grew deeper almost in a constant beat with his maturity as a historian, and especially after his marriage to Evelyn Carroll. She was, in my memory, a tall and angular woman, one my grandparents would have called a “handsome woman,” as devoted to his memory as she was to his privacy during his morning working hours.

The “New History” will forever be associated with Columbia’s history faculty in the first two decades of the twentieth century. It meant essentially an expansion of the work of historians to include more of life than politics and diplomacy and war. Practically, it meant incorporating the insights of the relatively new “social sciences”–economics, especially, but also sociology, psychology, anthropology, etc.–into the writing of the human story.  Often it meant accepting the dictums of Marx, Freud, Darwin, and Einstein into a story that replaced Christianity or at least rendered it harmless.

Hayes came to the New History from the perspective of his faith, and was thus immune to its seduction by secular progress. He knew somehow deep within that teaching was a moral enterprise, but insisted for most of his life that historians had to try to hold to the “what” as opposed to the “perhaps.” Because of his faith he used the “social sciences” to enrich his writings without succumbing to their ideological temptations. And he could write. So, The Political and Cultural History of Modern Europe became the most popular textbook, in its many variations, ever published.

The great tragedy of the twentieth century, what we have chosen to call “World War I,” caused Hayes not only to serve his country, but to think about it as a national state, nor necessarily superior to the nation-states that had emerged since the Reformation. He wrote a series of books in the 1920s and 30s which established the study of nationalism as a force more important than either fascism or communism. Although most of his work is relentlessly objective, the cumulative effect is to show us how insidious and destructive nationalism is, how it replaces true patriotism with leviathan, how it forces Catholic subsidiarity into a managerial statism that plays itself out for the rest of the century. Nobody identified nationalism as such a nefarious force before Hayes, and nobody (except for perhaps John Lukacs) has worked it out better. And nobody else has better understood the difference between nationalism and true patriotism. For a while, he thought that FDR’s New Deal represented Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, which Hayes admired. Later on, he recanted.

As his Catholic faith matured, Carlton Hayes was determined to show how the American experiment intersected with Catholic subsidiarity. I find no evidence that he read Orestes Brownson, but eventually the two would likely shake hands in heaven. He helped to found Commonweal in the 1920s, a magazine devoted to orthodox religious principles but totally controlled by lay Catholics. He contributed several essays trying to show how the American republic and Catholic social theory should work in a symbiotic relationship. Unlike so many Americans of a Puritan background, Hayes was no triumphalist. America was good and unique, he thought, but not especially God-honored, a “city upon a hill” only as it acted like one. “As a Catholic,” says his biographer Arthur Hughes, “Hayes’ ambition was to prod his fellow communicants out of their parochialism and into a meaningful role in American society, particularly in the intellectual life.”

Hayes would get his wish, but not in the way he planned. The Spanish Civil War would turn the world upside down.

Read Parts Two and Three of this series.

Books on the topics in this article can be found at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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2 replies to this post
  1. In the USA it has not been recognized the contribution of Ambassador Hayes to the Allies victory in World War II. He was determinant in keeping Spain (with a million of experienced soldiers and able to take over Gibraltar and Morocco) out of the war and was also able to distract from Hitler's hands most of the Spanish wolfram that the germans badly needed for manufacturing their tanks and submarines. He left in Spain the impression of a being a person that understood and respected local history and traditions, and was widely respected because of this.

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