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October 15: Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (1917)

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

It was on this date, October 15, 1917, that American historian Arthur Meier Schlesinger Jr. was born Arthur Bancroft Schlesinger in Columbus, Ohio. The son of a prominent American historian of the same name (and taking his father’s middle name during his writing career), Arthur Jr. attended Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard University and was professor of history at Harvard from 1946 to 1961. He was speech writer, special assistant and “court historian” for President John F. Kennedy, having been primary speechwriter and adviser to Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson II before that. He later became Professor of Humanities of the City University of New York. From May 2005 to his death, he was a contributor to The Huffington Post.

Among his many histories and popular writings were The Age of Jackson (1945), which won a Pulitzer Prize for history; the multi-volume Age of Roosevelt (1957-1960); and A Thousand Days (1965), a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Kennedy Administration. He popularized the term “imperial presidency,” occasioned by the Nixon administration, in his 1973 book of the same name, in which he argued that the U.S. Presidency was out of control and had exceeded its Constitutional limits. A leading opponent of multiculturalism in the 1980s, he articulated this stance in his controversial 1991 book, The Disuniting of America.

During the celebrations for his 80th birthday, Schlesinger, in his trademark dotted bowtie, articulated his personal credo: “I’m an unrepentant and unreconstructed liberal and New Dealer,” he said. “That means I favor the use of government to improve opportunities and to enlarge freedoms for ordinary people.” He died at age 89 in Manhattan, New York, on 28 February 2007. He is claimed by the Unitarian Church and wrote his first biography, published in 1938, about the 19th century Catholic convert and social activist Orestes Brownson. It was in a 1989 speech at Brown University, on the inauguration of Vartan Gregorian as president, that Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. mused on religion’s “enthusiastic justifications” for slavery, persecution, torture and genocide, concluding,

As a historian, I confess to a certain amusement when I hear the Judeo-Christian tradition praised as the source for our present-day concern for human rights.... In fact, the great religious ages were notable for their indifference to human rights... Human rights is not a religious idea. It is a secular idea, the product of the last four centuries of Western history.... The basic human rights documents – the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man – were written by political, not religious, leaders.*

* Quoted in James A. Haught, 2000 Years of Disbelief, 1996. Also: “What is surprising is for a similarly dim view of religion to be expressed by a mainstream historian like Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who in a speech at Brown University in 1989 deplored religion’s ‘enthusiastic justifications’ for slavery, persecution, torture and genocide.” Quoted in Christianity On Trial: Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry (2000) by Vincent Carol and David Shiflett.

Originally published October 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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March 13: Percival Lowell

The Japanese “accept our material civilization, but they reject our creeds,” wrote Lowell. “At most, Christianity succeeds only in making them doubters of what lies beyond this life.”

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