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George M. Fredrickson (1934–2008)

Author of Racism: A Short History

25+ Works 1,162 Members 8 Reviews

About the Author

Historian George M. Fredrickson was born in Bristol, Connecticut on July 16, 1934. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1956 and then studied in Norway on a Fulbright scholarship. After serving in the Navy for three years, he earned a doctorate from Harvard University in 1964. He show more taught at numerous universities including Harvard University, Northwestern University and Stanford University. He retired from teaching in 2002. During his career, he wrote eight books and edited four more. His book White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Some of his other works include The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crises of the Union, Racism: A Short History and Big Enough to Be Inconsistent: Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race. He died from heart failure on February 25, 2008. (Bowker Author Biography) show less
Image credit: Stanford University

Works by George M. Fredrickson

Racism: A Short History (2002) 268 copies
America, past and present (1983) — Author — 120 copies
Prejudice (Belknap Press) (1982) 17 copies
William Lloyd Garrison (1968) 12 copies

Associated Works

Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror (1997) — Contributor — 53 copies
Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century (2010) — Contributor — 37 copies
The Modern Historiography Reader: Western Sources (2008) — Contributor — 36 copies
The Evolution of Southern Culture (1988) — Contributor — 15 copies


Common Knowledge



5295. Great Lives Observed William Lloyd Garrison, Edited by George M. Fredrickson (read 21 Jul 2015) This book consists of parts of Garrison's writings, mostly drawn from his paper, The Liberator, which he started in 1831 and continued till 1866--when what he sought, the end of slavery in the US, had been accomplished. and then excerpts from his contemporaries' comments about him, and finally parts from what historians have had to say about him. The book presents a good picture and one must conclude that while some of his positions in regard to how to assail slavery were questionable, his aim was so admirable that we should admire the man. I found my admiration for him was highest as I read what Southerners who were his contemporaries had to say about him. It is clear that some of them would have killed him if they had had a chance. .… (more)
Schmerguls | Jul 21, 2015 |
Did the Civil War change everything, or almost everything? The war seems so momentous in American history that scholars have often seemed to debate its influence in more or less these terms. This intellectual history, first published in 1965, argues instead for a measure of continuity behind the crisis. Fredrickson argues that the war, and intellectuals' response to the war, undermined radical individualism in favor of bureaucracy, corporatism, and conservatism, spurring the postwar growth of formal institutions in social and cultural life. But rather than creating something entirely new, the war accelerated trends that were already under way.

The book focuses on the New England intelligentsia, a class that had occupied a relatively marginal role in antebellum society. With the coming of war, this class transformed itself “from a demoralized gentry without a clearly defined social role into a self-confident modernizing elite.” Fredrickson’s three-part study follows this development from the antebellum decades through the war itself and into the early years of the twentieth century.

The Civil War generation grew up under the sway of the Jacksonian era (1828-1836), which had bequeathed the United States an innate suspicion of institutions and intellectualism. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s individualist creed of “self-culture” suited the ideological climate of the times. Similarly, William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionism, although not a mainstream movement, urged Americans to fulfill their personal integrity by ridding themselves of the most corrupt of all institutions. Most radical of all was the democratic idealism typified by George Bancroft and Walt Whitman, for whom the popular will, when not corrupted by political institutions such as the Democratic Party, was an infallible guide to divine truth.

America had its conservative intellectuals as well, nostalgic for a more deferential, less humanitarian past, and distrustful of the undisciplined masses. These conservatives, such as Orestes A. Brownson, were thoroughly out of step with antebellum society. Unexpectedly, the crisis of impending civil war united radical democrats and conservatives behind the Union cause, albeit for different reasons and with different expectations.

The eight chapters at the heart of the book discuss intellectual responses to secession and rebellion, the outburst of popular patriotism, growing wartime suffering, the sacrifice of young members of the elite class, voluntarism, the emancipation of slaves, the question of loyalty to government, and, finally, a new form of anti-intellectualism among a rising generation of battle-scarred scholars. Except for Whitman and, notably, Abraham Lincoln, whose public rhetoric described the war as a struggle to save democracy, most northern intellectuals tempered their enthusiasm for democracy and the individual, rallied around the flag, and discovered a new appreciation for patriotism and unswerving loyalty.

Conservatives welcomed the war as an opportunity to assault what Charles Eliot Norton called the “feeble sentimentalities” of an excessively democratic era, marshaling Darwinist ideas to justify the war’s wastage of human life for “great and durable results.”

Other conservatives formed the influential United States Sanitary Commission to impose “practical good sense” on the public’s spontaneous impulse to relieve suffering. Far from being a beacon of benevolence, the USSC was, in Fredrickson's view, an ideological organization devoted to training Americans to submit to order and discipline. Providing aid to soldiers through paid agents rather than volunteers, which the USSC did quite effectively, was mostly a means to this higher end.

Moral reform also gave way to wartime pragmatism as abolitionists, including Garrison himself, united with conservatives in casting the emancipation of slaves as primarily a means to victory. Even the death in battle of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, a symbol to many of the war as an anti-slavery crusade, was also of use to conservatives. Shaw’s cousin Francis Parkman used the elite Bostonian’s death to help establish the political myth of a worthy American aristocracy entitled to rule over the majority.

Fredrickson’s concluding section traces the war’s legacy in the changed intellectual climate of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, characterized by nationalism, imperialism, the growth of elite-controlled institutions, and esteem for the “strenuous life” of warlike adventurism over the life of the mind.

This 1965 work has held up remarkably well, justifying a 1993 reprint with no changes other than a new preface. Fredrickson, best known today as a leading scholar of the history and consequences of racism, pursued this study (his first book) under the guidance of Perry Miller, the influential intellectual historian of New England Puritanism. The book is influenced as well by Stanley Elkins’ unfortunate claim that the transcendentalist followers of Ralph Waldo Emerson comprised the only noteworthy intellectual community in the antebellum United States. Therefore The Inner Civil War focuses tightly on Massachusetts, describing the concerns and conflicts of Concord transcendentalists, Boston Brahmins, and a few other individuals with Bay State connections, none of whom resided further west than New York City.

In the preface to the 1993 edition, Fredrickson admits to being “slightly embarrassed” by his book’s elitist concern with those whom he called in 1965 “the few who have a genuine concern for ideas.” He also admits that his choice of individuals to study was somewhat arbitrary. In his favor, the book is remarkable for its time in that it takes note of women who were not named Harriet Beecher Stowe, as well as several male intellectuals not usually listed among the “great men” of the period.

Of particular interest to Fredrickson is Wendell Phillips, an abolitionist who maintained his ideological commitment to racial equality in the face of open hostility, even as other erstwhile idealists succumbed to the lure of Social Darwinist thought or simply professed to be bored with the plight of the southern Negro. Some frustrated abolitionists were lost to the political fringe, but Phillips does not appear to be one of these. Fredrickson’s account of Phillips’ career maintains critical distance, yet also suggests the possibility of a different postbellum consensus in the North, had a critical mass of northern opinion opted, as Phillips consistently did, for racial justice over white supremacy.
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Muscogulus | 2 other reviews | Oct 7, 2013 |
The title defines the thesis of the book. That Abraham Lincoln was 'big enough to be inconsistent'. As a man, Lincoln believed in freedom for all people; however, some of his ideas were racist - he did not believe in interracial marriage or that a black man was necessarily equal to a white man. He did believe that a black man should be free to make his own fortune in the world. He also promoted the idea of relocating blacks to another country while still campaigning for their freedom. It is the belief of the author that over time, Lincoln's attitudes were changing and shifting to greater equality for all.… (more)
phoenixcomet | Jul 29, 2009 |
I used this during my years in college and it definitely was helpful. It provides a healthy overview of American history. Of course it does not go in depth, but that's because it is a textbook. It's a great reference and starting off point.
Angelic55blonde | 2 other reviews | Apr 3, 2008 |


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