An Unsettled People: Social Order and Disorder in American History,
by Rowland Berthoff.
New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

A principal difficulty in writing significant social history is the necessity to harmonize certain diverse elements: the descriptive, or exposition of historical events, and the formal, or intellectual reconstruction of those events for finding synthetic form and understanding in social development. Many social histories veer markedly in the direction of recounting the minutiae of events, and neglect formal analysis; others, preoccupied with the formal or synthetic, are given to wrenching the raw stuff of history into an a priori frame.

A social history of extraordinary balance has been contributed by Professor Rowland Berthoff, who sets out both to describe and to understand what are essentially the Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft elements in the maturing of American society. What Dr. Berthoff seeks and finds are the configurations of social order in the American experience, an order which he approaches with the perspective and sensitivity of the disciplined historical commentator, rather than with the attitudes of the philosopher.

Rowland Berthoff does not provide us with a “theory” of social order; instead, he speculates about the formative cultural factors that have permeated and shaped the often restless and seemingly spontaneous course of American social metamorphosis. Indeed, he finds in the American historical experience more factors conducive to stability and order than do many of his historical colleagues—elements that stem from the persistence of traditional and intellectual currents often underemphasized by historians content to examine the more superficial character of the social environment.

It is to the colonial period that Professor Berthoff turns to discover many of the elemental factors in historical developments; and, in turn, this era reveals itself as a period fortuitously structured by traditional values, a recognition of the objective character of the social order, and a considerable restraint upon the rapaciousness of individual motivation. Tracing its roots, indeed, into European feudalism, Professor Berthoff argues that the colonial period exhibited, at once, a commendable stability and a rudimentary grasp of human equality that was substantially debauched by the individualistic excesses of the nineteenth century. He writes:

The spiritual, social and economic ideas that Americans inherited from their European past, varying in relative emphasis from region to region over the course of a century and a half, were perhaps less effective in holding back change than the practical circumstances of the New World. The barely tractable wilderness—waterways, forest, soil, aborigines—and the chronic shortage of labor for its exploitation or reduction were the most stubborn obstacles in the way of private enrichment and the general affluence of the commonwealth. Even while tempting men to shelve the spiritual and social ethic of the past in a rush of individualistic free enterprise, the North American continent bound them under iron laws of its own. Although circumstances did not precisely reinforce the old ideas of what was socially fitting, neither were those traditions swept away overnight—in fact, not until long after the end of the colonial era. The hemming in of economic progress kept the old European social values remarkably safe from radical upheaval. That would come later. [page 79]

Building from that thesis, Professor Berthoff offers a formidable account of the social history of the nineteenth century, in places almost accusatory in tone, as he charts the erosion of community and the civic ethic by the unleashing of egocentric individualism and an instability productive of a mounting sense of personal insecurity. He does more than provide a Weber-like or Durkheim-like analysis, but delves deeply into the wide range of nineteenth-century social practice and intellectual configuration.

There is in this view ofhistorical experience a profounder sense of the mandate of community, with its underlying paradigms of order, than is suggested by a more individualistically construed account of continental expansion. Professor Berthoff upholds the validity of the American sense of community, both in terms of the actuality of the communal injunction and inclination and the responsiveness of Americans to its summons. He offers this evaluation not on the basis of loose generalities (from which his book is pleasantly free), but upon a most detailed and scholarly persuasive range of historical illustration and commentary. His breadth and command of the widest spectrum of social history is impressive. It is this catholicity of exposure that permits him to find in the American social experience that obscured but vital predilection for community and order, a phenomenon rooted in the conviction that a prescriptive base exists for the maintenance of the genuine community. The premise that American social history reveals a continuing—if intermittent—commitment to the concept ofa prescriptive, cultural basis for community suggests the inference that the instabilities within American social development arise from failures to discriminate between a genuine community and a congregation constructed upon the ephemeral pressures of the moment, forms of organization which have a deracinating effect and which lead to the anxiety-ridden alienations that provoke threats to the maintenance of beneficial order and social peace.

Professor Berthoff’s book is a brilliant exposition of this thesis, conveyed in the scrupulous discipline of an historian of the first caliber. The implications of his extensive historical review forbid that the question of social order be relegated solely to a matter of retrospective reflection. The current century, quite obviously, has introduced new and threatening pressures directed against the inherent American quest for social stability, largely in the increasing destruction of a sense of community; a recognition of the mutualities that arise from the prescriptive base of social organization. Professor Berthoff comments:

If the log of a past voyage may be helpful in plotting a future course, the American experience at least refurbishes the truism that man is indeed a social animal. As such he has open to him the alternatives of a satisfactory or unsatisfactory structure for his society. The precise form of the social structure—small or large, rural or urban, egalitarian or hierarchical—is perhaps unimportant. But whenever Americans have acted as though they had a third option of no fixed structure at all, the resulting social disorder has proved intolerable to them no matter whether, as in the nineteenth century, they called it individual self-reliance or in the twentieth, by such names as pluralism, voluntarism, and personal affection. Social institutions may be good or abusively or neglectfully bad, but at times when Americans have simply flung institutional constraints aside, even in the honored name of pioneer individualism, free enterprise, and opportunity for all, they have found the consequences unacceptable. [page 44]

Professor Berthoff suggests that the second half of our century may well see a “higher freedom” for the individual based upon a “reasonable balance between change and order, economic mobility and social stability,” even a realization of the “long-troubled American dream.” One may devoutly hope so; and this hope may be buttressed by Professor Berthoff’s admirable historical credentials. The reviewer, deeply impressed by this thoughtful work, is left, however, with the thought that the explicit nature of the American community may not happily be left to the vagaries of historical flux and that Professor Berthoff’s analysis requires a wedding with a philosophically oriented conception of social order that can aid in the shaping of those social ends he admires and foresees. 

Donald A. Zoll is the author of Reason and Rebellion and The Twentieth-Century Mind.