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Carlton Hayes

(part I, part II)

Part III:  Western Civilization (1946-1964)

Hayes said in his presidential address before the American Historical Association that it was important for Americans to avoid a messianic triumphalism in the aftermath of the war. “The American Frontier–Frontier of What?” was on one level a lament that Americans had forgotten that they were Europeans. The Turner Thesis, which had dominated the training of American historians since 1893, was an important but limiting idea, Hayes thought. It led to a kind of “intellectual isolationism,” a “babylonian captivity” of the historical imagination. It fostered the kind of nationalism that threatened to “strengthen our people’s missionary and messianic impulse,” an attitude that, in the absence of a clear and “realistic knowledge of other peoples and their historic cultures, may lead to the most dangerous consequence for the United States itself.”

He was not susceptible to the sappy internationalism of one-worlders, however. Hayes had a proposal for Americans that was based upon the Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian, Germanic origins of the West; but given the reality of communist domination of much of that West, he proposed “Atlantic Civilization,” a middle ground between “myopic nationalism” and “starry-eyed universalism.”  This was nothing less than the intellectual construction for what became NATO, an idea that has lost much of its appeal in the post Cold War era, but which was central to the survival of western culture after 1946. From a cultural point of view this speech/essay, widely circulated in academia and the media, was nearly as important as George Kennan’s “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.”

As his teaching career wound down–he would give his last lecture at Columbia in 1950, a half century after he entered as a freshman–Hayes spent most of his last two decades gathering honors, urging the United States to come to grips with strategic realities regarding Spain, bolstering Catholics colleges that were trying to maintain the faith, and defending Western Civilization.  The United States and Spain, An Interpretation came out in 1951, both a plea for Western culture and for recognizing Spain’s geopolitical importance, uncritical of Franco, with a dash of liberal-bashing; it pretty much ended his reputation as a tolerant and “moderate” Catholic.  That was all right with Carlton Hayes, who had never in any case backed down from his beliefs for the sake of popularity.

Alfred A. Knopf hounded Hayes to write his autobiography all during the decade of the 50s.  Knopf had a point.  The bestselling author of textbooks that educated over three generations of college students, the most visible Catholic academic in the country, a man who had managed to move from mind to matter, from the academic to the political realm quite successfully, a powerful voice for the restoration of our culture; it was an interesting story.  What Knopf did not know, and I suspect Hayes always did, was that he was not introspective.  He finished two very good chapters on his early life, from Afton to the completion of his education at Columbia, and then just made desultory notes on the rest.  I think I know why.  I spent years with Hayes–that is, with his books and papers and dispatches from Spain, doing a doctoral dissertation on his ambassadorship.  For all that he was a principled Catholic gentleman, a great teller of stories, a man unafraid to pull his scholarship into the public square, he was a humble man.  Bishop Sheen used to say that greatness in teaching meant that a man has a story where he comes out second best.  Hayes knew Sheen slightly, and admired him, and it is clear that like the great bishop, Hayes bowed down before things greater than he.  He could write about himself only so long.  A hint that tends to confirm my theory is when, in the early 30s, a young aspiring historian asked Hayes how he went about researching and writing his books, and what was his philosophy of history? Hayes replied that he simply read everything he could and then tried to make sense of it. And as for a philosophy of history, if one has a good understanding of human nature, one doesn’t need a philosophy of history.  John Lukacs, who came to the same conclusion, would make that insight into an important part of his Historical Consciousness many years later.

In 1954 Hayes gave the “Raymond Fred West Memorial Lectures” at Stanford University, which were published as Christianity and Western Civilization.  His purpose, he said, was “to set forth a thesis that certain distinctive features of Western civilization, specifically its ideals of freedom, limited government, and humanitarian compassion, have been inspired and given substance by its historic religion.” Furthermore, he argued, these achievements of the West depend for their renewal, indeed their survival, upon continuing that inspiration and holding fast to the faith.

This was his testimony to what he considered the glory of the West. Despite the great contributions of Greeks, Romans, Hebrews, and Germans, there simply would be no Western Civilization without Christianity.  Freedom, for example, was rooted in individuality, and the “Christian concept of individuality was basic to what St. James described as the perfect law of freedom, or liberty, and to what subsequent Christian philosophers associated with ‘natural rights.’” Thus in one short sentence Hayes demolishes the Enlightenment notion of a “state of nature” and a merely rational understanding of rights and puts them in the Christian context.  And that Christian understanding of rights “has been so persistent and effective that up to now every actual setback to personal liberty has been followed, sooner or later, by a fresh advance.”

This is perhaps his credo: “Personally, I must confess a conviction, derived not only from faith but from historical study, that whenever Christian ideals have been generally accepted and their practice sincerely attempted, there is a dynamic liberty; and that whenever Christianity has been ignored or rejected, persecuted or chained to the state, there is tyranny. I, for one, am sure that our liberty and its Christian basis are one and inseparable.” And “constitutional government, as we know and cherish it, is a heritage from the Christian Western Europe of the Middle Ages,”  just as is “a dynamic, progressive compassion in the broadest sense of the term.”

Hayes was not, in the usual sense of the word, a progressive (who would like to be thought “unprogressive,” he asks?); change is not always good–it is “not synonymous with progress; it may be retrogression”–and as noted above he was quite skeptical of the cult of progress. He usually voted for Democrats, thinking of them as the party of not only the Catholic workingman (which they were) but as the party closest to Catholic social theory. He thought that Americans led the world in materialism, although not, thank God, in its twin evil, nationalism, and their illegitimate child, imperialism. He didn’t live quite long enough to see the debacle in Vietnam, or other imperial adventures, nor did he witness the super-nationalism of some who call themselves conservatives.

By nature an optimist (Christians are not allowed to despair), Hayes had faith in the power of Western ideas and ideals. Nobody better understood that the challenges of fascism and communism were at their hearts matters of the spirit, that ideology is misplaced religion, and that the West was ultimately on the side of the Good, True, and Beautiful.  Looked at from the point of view of American intellectual history, Carlton Hayes helped lay the groundwork for a postwar flowering of Catholic thought. Indeed, he as much as anyone brought American Catholics into the public square. He dreaded he specialization and sectarianism and ideology that after his death came to dominate his beloved profession of history, and which have made him a rather forgotten man.  But his works on nationalism will endure; and his defense of the West will prove him a prophet, God willing.

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1 reply to this post
  1. Fascinating, John. I've been reading a bit about the Spanish Civil War lately and you've given me some new things to chew on. It is at once both fascinating and horrifying what happened there in the early 20th century. And I find that most people misunderstand the nature of the conflict, quickly chalking it up to a battle between democracy and fascism.

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