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  • Carl Bridenbaugh, American Colonial History and Academic Antisemitism: The Paths to the ‘Great Mutation’
  • William Palmer (bio)

On the evening of December 29, 1962, many of those attending the annual meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA) in Chicago gathered in the main ballroom of the Hilton Hotel to hear the annual presidential address. The address would be delivered by Carl Bridenbaugh, the outgoing AHA president, University Professor of History at Brown University and a distinguished historian of colonial America. AHA presidential addresses, like those of other learned societies, were often boilerplate affairs, although sometimes an outgoing president would use the occasion to rattle the cages of the association’s membership.1

Bridenbaugh’s speech fell into the second category. Entitled “The Great Mutation,” it remains perhaps the most controversial AHA address ever delivered. Bridenbaugh began by recalling his idyllic boyhood on the outskirts of Philadelphia. He mourned the passage of a pastoral society and its replacement by a modern, urban culture, a process he called “the Great Mutation.” There was nothing controversial about that idea, but he subsequently launched into a jeremiad. The younger generation of “urban-bred historians,” Bridenbaugh contended, would find it impossible to recapture this culture, since they had no experience in it. Worse still, he said, these new historians were “products of lower-middle-class or foreign origins, and their emotions frequently get in the way of historical reconstructions. They find themselves, in a very real way, outsiders in our past . . . [and] they have no experience to assist them.”2

Bridenbaugh’s use of such phrases as “urban-bred historians” and “products of lower-middle- class or foreign origins” appeared to be coded language for “Jews.” But, despite its antisemitic overtones, the speech, at least initially, elicited a generally positive response. Several prominent [End Page 153] historians wrote Bridenbaugh to compliment him on his speech. Catherine Drinker Bowen, the author of several popular historical biographies, told Bridenbaugh that he had said “many of the things [she had] wanted to say, and said them forcefully and wittily.” Arthur Meier Schlesinger who had directed Bridenbaugh’s doctoral dissertation at Harvard University, called the speech “an eloquent and acute critique.” Marshall Smelser, a historian of the American colonies at the University of Notre Dame, also commented on the speech, telling Bridenbaugh, “[I]t was true, it was beautiful, and it was good.”3

An understanding of intellectual history sometimes requires the study of bad ideas, and, despite the celebratory letters Bridenbaugh received from his colleagues, his speech raises a question: What had led an educated and cultured man to make such assertions? Little is known concerning Bridenbaugh’s treatment of Jews in his personal life, and the two episodes that are known are contradictory and ultimately inconclusive. The first occurred in 1938, when Bridenbaugh helped the unemployed J.H. Hexter, who was Jewish, to find a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Hexter, who, like Bridenbaugh, held a doctorate from Harvard, had experienced such difficulty finding a job that Crane Brinton, a member of the Harvard faculty who had made a valiant effort on Hexter’s behalf, feared that he might be “unemployable.”4

The second episode came in the mid-1950s, after Bridenbaugh had been appointed the Margaret Byrne Professor of History at the University of California at Berkeley. Kenneth Stampp, a colleague at Berkeley, recalled that Bridenbaugh had once asked him if he had noticed that Joseph Levenson, a Jewish member of the history department, had supported only Jewish candidates for faculty positions. Stampp replied that he had not noticed this, and, upon reflection, he did not think that it was true.5

As time has passed, historians have paid closer attention to Bridenbaugh’s speech, and they have justly cited it as one of the most blatant [End Page 154] examples of the antisemitism that lingered in American academic life even after World War II.6 But historians have not fully explored the other components of the speech, nor have they searched for the deeper sources of Bridenbaugh’s views beyond a generalized antisemitism.

Several other lines of inquiry are worth pursuing. First, Bridenbaugh’s expressed fear that urban-bred scholars would not...


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