The Story of Carlton Hayes
Carlton Hayes, synonymous with European history to generations of twentieth-century American undergraduates, has been largely neglected since his death in 1964. He was a trailblazer, choosing to study what was then the unfashionable field of European history, and helping to restore (even more unfashionably) the credibility of American Catholic historical scholarship.
Born in Afton, New York, in May 1882, Hayes was raised as a Baptist by his mother, a piano teacher, and his father, a doctor. He graduated from high school at sixteen and spent two years engaged in private study before entering Columbia University in 1900. After graduating as the most distinguished student in his class, Hayes continued at Columbia, completing a master’s degree (1905) and doctorate (1909) that examined the Papal election of 1378 and the Germanic invasion of the Roman Empire respectively. This graduate work, combined with his 1904 conversion to Catholicism, began his lifelong fascination for Europe and its history.
As an adult convert, Hayes was educated entirely outside the Catholic educational system, and he developed a frustration with his American co-religionists’ low standards of scholarship. His American Catholic contemporaries concentrated almost exclusively on hagiographical biographies of European churchmen, as if thorough examinations of leading American clergy might somehow be heretical or damaging to Catholicism in the United States. In response, Hayes helped found the American Catholic Historical Association, which sought to not only develop greater understanding of Catholic history, but to encourage more thoughtful, vigorous, and wide-ranging scholarship on the part of Catholic historians.
Hayes’s early career was heavily influenced by Charles Beard, a proponent of “New History,” which emphasized the importance of cultural economic developments upon peoples over a period of time. Although New History had been condemned by Catholic historians as a “mythmaking for revolutionary ends,” Hayes employed it, however, to argue that Original Sin was integral to human existence. His two volume Political and Cultural History of Europe is filled with examples of such thought, none more so than his discussion of the Industrial Revolution in England. While Hayes praised the period’s inventors and innovators, and for the benefits to humankind their work offered, he sounded a note of caution:
It must be noted that in reference to all these admittedly desirable ends, we have used the word could. We know that few of them were actually realised for the English masses by the coming of machinery. This sad fact, however, was not the fault of machinery. Machinery was potentially a great blessing to mankind.
Similarly, Hayes criticised revolutionary France for simply substituting the absolutism of the Bourbons for the tyranny of the Jacobins. This he contrasted with the American colonists, whose success he attributed to their sense of, and fidelity to tradition, compared to Jacobins’ dramatic break with it. This observation was not nationalist one-upmanship but rather a reminder that the United States and her system of government owed much to the “Old World,” and that a rigorous study of Europe was integral to its preservation.
Hayes opposed American isolationism after World War I. He believed that isolationism, whether from history or one’s contemporaries, could encourage a misplaced sense of superiority and he hoped for closer cultural links between the United States and Europe, but. Unchallenged, an isolationist mindset could, paradoxically, result in idealistic foreign intervention that would repeat the mistakes that the United States had originally sought to escape. In this way, intellectual engagement would provide the means to a cautious internationalism. Hayes discussed this idea of unintended consequences in his Historical Evolution of Modern Nationalism (1931). Examining the development of nationalism in Europe since 1789, Hayes traced the roots of what he called the “integral nationalism” of Mussolini (and one would imagine, of Hitler after 1933) back to the liberal nationalism of Mazzini and Bentham.
As Europe descended into a war provoked by this integral nationalism, Hayes found himself swapping a lecture theatre in Morningside Heights for an embassy in Madrid. President Roosevelt selected him as the United States’ Ambassador to Spain apparently on account of both his extensive knowledge of Europe and his Catholicism, which the President hoped would encourage General Franco to remain neutral in World War II. While in Madrid between 1942 and 1945, Hayes was the target of much criticism from American commentators who did not grasp the strategic importance of Spanish neutrality and interpreted their Ambassador’s friendly relations with Franco as appeasement.
This criticism, in many cases from those who loudly championed Joseph Stalin, is as baffling as it is wrong. Hayes was neither a fascist nor an outright supporter of the Franco regime; indeed, he had asked that his name be removed from Commonweal’s masthead after it had pledged its support for Franco in 1936. By 1942, his opposition had softened as he realized that Franco was preferable to the fragmented Republican opposition. He also questioned the extent to which the Spanish were “exploited” or “oppressed,” reminding leftists in Europe and the United States them that no serious attempt to overthrow Franco had been made after 1939, and that Spaniards might actually have appreciated the relative stability that Franco had brought.
The apparent inability of many Americans to distinguish between Franco and Hitler greatly concerned Hayes. As the German defeat became increasingly likely, bringing with it a new geopolitical role for the United States, he became more convinced that Americans be aware of the realities of the new international situation. This was not to say Hayes wanted Americans to shed that which differentiated them from other Europeans, but rather understand that Europe was not a bland monolith with but one culture or heritage. Indeed, Hayes was concerned that the United States was not doing enough to showcase its particular specialities as well as its continuation with European culture. Hayes was aware that Europe would only repel potentially alluring and dangerous overtures if the United States could demonstrate that Western civilization was superior.
Time magazine’s September 17, 1945, issue marked the United States’ victory over Japan with a picture of a long country road leading off toward the horizon and the caption: “Americans could look once more at what they best remembered.” Time appeared to hope that, having seemingly defeated totalitarianism, the United States might simply return to life as it had been before Pearl Harbor. Hayes questioned this attitude during his presidential address to the American Historical Association, of which he was the first Catholic president, in Washington, D.C., in December 1945. His address was entitled “The American Frontier—Frontier of What?” and used Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 address to the AHA, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” as its starting point.
While he passed no comment on Turner’s thesis, Hayes urged the United States to view itself as the western frontier of Europe. While the founders had been frontiersmen themselves, they had maintained “lively contacts with, and solid knowledge of, the European civilization on whose boundaries they were.” Hayes noted that the nineteenth century, with its massive immigration from Europe, saw “Americans” develop on a different path to Europeans. The United States was now a nation of diverse linguistic, religious and ethnic origins, with each group desperate to be accepted. While nationalism in Europe developed out of an appreciation for the cultural or political achievements of one’s compatriots, which Hayes described as “a flower,” American nationalism was the fertilizer that encouraged the cultural or political development. Hayes argued that brought about an intense, and often artificial form of nationalism, that served to “inoculate us against Europe and built up an isolationist state of mind.”
In one of his final works, Nationalism: A Religion (1960), Hayes discussed the differences between nationalism and patriotism, a question that has also engaged John Lukacs (whose first teaching position in the United States was secured by Ross Hoffman, a friend of Hayes) during the remainder of the twentieth century. Hayes argued that patriotism was grounded in, among other things, the land and one’s ancestors, and complemented religion, whereas nationalism was rooted in ideas, and was often a replacement for religion. He questioned whether patriotism could exist in such a large and diverse country as the United States. While it was natural for him to feel affinity to south-central New York State, he questioned how he could be expected to do so for other regions of the country without “purposeful conscious education and training.”
The commonality between Europe and America Hayes saw extended beyond ancestral lineage to include the very civilization that Americans sought to preserve. Europe was not to be studied as an afterthought once one had gorged on the main course of America. Neither was it to be rounded up and presented as part of a generic “World History” that did little justice to the student or the subject. In much the same way as the United States contained wonderfully different climates, cultures, and traditions, Hayes’s Europe was no bland monolith, but was instead a region of great diversity that had bequeathed the world much in the spheres of the arts, humanities and sciences. For Carlton J. H. Hayes, Europe was not to be feared by Americans, but rather observed, learnt from, and, most importantly, enjoyed.
John Joseph Shanley writes from Edinburgh, Scotland.
Posted: April 5, 2010 in Essays.
What Holds America Together?
Volume 15, Number 1 (Autumn 1974)