The Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI) has as one of its core missions continuing education through civic outreach. During the academic year, the AHI sponsors each semester at its headquarters a continuing education class free of charge and open to the public. The theme of the class changes from semester to semester. For the spring semester 2017, AHI Resident Fellow Dr. David Frisk developed a course “The Culture and Politics of the 1960s.” The course has set a record for attendance with more than fifty persons, who gather on Monday evening in the AHI’s Brown-Erlanger Presidential Room for two hours of lecture and conversation. The course has attracted many persons from the surrounding community and schools, both newcomers and “regulars.” Dr. Frisk, who holds a Ph.D. in political science from the Claremont Graduate University, has taught courses at the AHI since 2013.
The class consists of persons young and old, many of whom remember the 1960s as Vietnam draftees, young adults, college students, or children. All are interested in learning about the political and social developments of the influential decade from a historical perspective. As with all AHI continuing education courses, required readings have been provided to members of the class free of charge. Classes cover such topics as the civil rights movement, Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson and the “War on Poverty,” Barry Goldwater and the conservative movement, and Richard Nixon’s presidency. Dr. Frisk chose as the required textbook, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (2015), now in its fifth edition, co-authored by AHI Academic Adviser Maurice Isserman.
Dr. Isserman, Publius Virgilius Rogers Professor of American History at Hamilton College, treated the class to a guest lecture on March 6. He spoke as both a scholar of the 1960s and as a participant in the New Left and the anti-War movement. He discussed joining the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) in 1968, during his freshman year at Reed College, and brought along memorabilia that included anti-war pamphlets, copies of New Left Notes, political buttons, and his FBI file. He compared the philosophical basis of the New Left to the antinomian tradition of Anne Hutchinson in Puritan America. Like Hutchinson, the New Left fabricated their own ideologies, rejecting both the strictures of the Old Left and what they saw as a corrupt American society.
Isserman traced the origins of the New Left to the civil rights movement, arguing that the civil rights movement formed the “template” and “electrified” the 1960s generation; it demonstrated that one could “make history” by “putting bodies on the line.” Another seminal event was the assassination of President John Kennedy. After that, “One’s capacity for surprise waned.” As the Vietnam War became the big issue, a common feeling pervaded that “no big legislative victories were possible.” In the mid-1960s, a “door swung open” for larger protests against the Vietnam War, especially after the Watts riots in 1965. Other turning points included the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964, when large groups of Northern, mostly white, college students traveled to the South to integrate the political process through Freedom Schools, voter-registration drives, and the establishment of a new political party.
By the late 1960s, Isserman observed, the New Left had come to possess an almost millenarian fervor. While the majority of those involved in the movement remained peaceful, some like the Weatherman, took up violence. The New Left differed from the Old Left by virtue of strategy and goals. The New Left evinced a fascination with revolution, but did not conceptualize a goal. Rather, revolution would be a process, as the Port Huron Statement, the manifesto of the SDS authored by Tom Hayden in 1962 stated. A “reformist statement,” it outlined a revolution within the institutions, namely the universities, to be implemented incrementally. Unlike the Old Left, there was no discussion of what a post-revolutionary society would look like.
In reflecting back on those heady times, Isserman stated, “The great error of the New Left was mistaking revolution for moral choice.” Questions from the audience in the packed house abounded and then lines formed for Isserman to sign copies of his book. His talk was the topic of discussion the following week as class members chatted before the beginning of the lecture. Cathleen, a first-time participant from New Hartford, said she very much enjoyed both Isserman’s lecture and the book. “He lived it and had a clear perspective on the situation,” she said. She had seen the notice for the class in the Observer-Dispatch. “I have always had an affinity for the 1960s,” she said, adding that the “political climate today makes the topic important.”
Jack Majtan, another first-time participant from Little Falls, New York, thought that Isserman’s talk was “absolutely fantastic” and said he very much liked the readings assigned in the class. Both said they enjoyed all the classes so far and were glad to have the opportunity to learn about the AHI and attend. For his part, Isserman was impressed by the caliber of discussion and range of questions asked. He has participated in many AHI-sponsored events. In 2008, he served as a panelist at the inaugural Carl B. Menges Colloquium on the topic of “Liberty and Slavery,” and in 2012, he presented on “The Election of 1960.” He has co-taught courses at Hamilton College with AHI Executive Director Robert Paquette and participated in a number of AHI-sponsored events on the Hamilton College campus. In April 2016, for example, he provided informed commentary on a panel that discussed the film “The Best of Enemies,” which documented the fiery debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, televised on ABC during the 1968 presidential election.
“Maurice Isserman has, arguably, the highest national profile of any member of the Hamilton College faculty,” said AHI Executive Director Robert Paquette. “During my years at Hamilton College, I have found him to be not only a valued colleague but a man of principle. Virtually alone at Hamilton among those on the academic left, he has risen to defend both me and the work of the AHI. The AHI is indeed proud to sponsor his appearance and to acquaint an enthusiastic crowd of adult learners with his important book.”
By Mary Grabar, AHI Resident Fellow