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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Not Up To Par

By Victoria G.T. Bassetti

Liberty and Power: 1600-1760 Volume One of Liberty in America--1600 to the Present

By Oscar and Lilian Handlin

Harper and Row

233 pages, $16.95

IF OSCAR HANDLIN wrote this book in an effort to get tenure at Harvard University, would he get it?

Certainly, in his bold attack on both a time period and a broad subject, Handlin, Loeb University Professor Emeritus, and his wife Lilian Handlin should win kudos. Few historians, even as well respected as Handlin, would be gutsy enough to tackle such an imposing task.

In this brief but dense book, Handlin and his wife tackle issues of power, space, family relations, conceptions of rights and religion in pre-revolutionary America, and throughout, a thousand little anecdotes from every colony and every time illustrate their points.

But for all the bravery that it took to take on Liberty and Power, the execution does not live up to what one might expect from one of America's preeminent historians.

Handlin follows a time-honored Harvard path--illuminate the broadest themes of American history by covering everything. At its best, this tradition has produced Adams University Professor Bernard Bailyn's Ideological Origins of the American Revolution and Gordon Wood's The Creation of the American Republic. Those books covered an immense era with breathtaking skill. Few books on American history offer such a bravado assault on the origins of American society and do so with such consummate insight and originality.

The alternate approach, and an equally satisfying tack, is more intimate. More recent historians have sought to bring broad themes out in relief by focusing on small communities and individuals.

THE PITFALLS OF heroic history writing are amply revealed in the Handlins' book. Wood and Bailyn were guided by a brilliant refinement and reinterpretation of American history. But where such an epic approach is not guided by inspiration, the result is often technically satisfying but not terribly original work.

For example, one of the Handlins' principle points is the way necessity and space shaped Americans' modification of European traditions of power and liberty. The massive amount of land available to the colonists had a "corrosive effect" that "redefined the social order."

In time, American settlers developed a new sense of consent to government that involved not only the right to consent to acts of government but also to refuse to consent. From the exercise of this new theory of consent emerged a new system of rights based not on "order and status," but on agreement.

"Government they understood as a necessity, but as a product of human intentions.... When Americans thought of rights or the consent of the governed, therefore, they had in mind the actualities of their own experience," the Handlins write.

Such an interpretation of the shaping of the American ideology is not new. Indeed, most every high school sophomore has learned a simpler, not-so-well documented version of it.

What the Handlins' approach lacks is a look at the material basis of the "actualities" of colonial experience. There is little sense of social structure or social relations except as conveyed by occasional anecdotes. If we learn about family, church and enterprise in the book, we learn about them in a haphazard way, in sharp contrast to the way, for example, Mary Ryan illuminates social and ideological change in her book Cradle of the Middle Class The social structure was the framework in which the colonists developed their new society, and without fully revealing it, the Handlins miss the mark.

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