The Magazine

John Roberts's Other Papers

From the August 8, 2005 issue: Portrait of the judge as an undergraduate.

Aug 8, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 44 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Reading "The Utopian Conservative," one is struck again and again by the lucidity of young Roberts's prose, the ease with which he writes, and the style that emerges from his plain language. "Only a national bank could insure uniformity and fluidity of currency," he writes, "a common concern of the California pioneer, the Kentucky drover, the Alabama planter, and the New York laborer." Later in the essay, noting a change in Webster's thought, Roberts writes, "Silken cords of affection had replaced iron bonds of interest." These are lovely constructions--sentences you'd expect to find in a Jacques Barzun essay, not in a Harvard undergraduate paper.

On March 25, 1976, about the time he was finishing "The Utopian Conservative," Roberts submitted his paper on the British Liberal party as his senior honors thesis. This essay is considerably longer--a dense 166 pages, plus 9 pages of endnotes and bibliographical material--and includes cartoon illustrations from Punch. There are a few hundred footnotes. To support his argument, Roberts draws from songs, pamphlets, speeches, and letters of the era. It's clear, too, that he's immersed himself in the secondary literature. An early reference is to the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb's Victorian Minds.

"Established institutions are periodically assailed by new social forces which test their ability to survive," Roberts begins. The British Liberal party, he argues, was no different. It had to cope with the rise of the masses in general and the rise of labor unions in particular--what politicians and critics of the Edwardian era referred to as "the social problem." The Liberal party formed its last government in 1906, and held power until 1915, then declined precipitously. Roberts's central question: "Did the Liberal Party decline because it refused to adapt to the modern polity, with its large proportion of working-class electors, or must the cause of decline be sought elsewhere?"

Roberts's argument is a complex one, difficult to distill here, but suffice it to say that the Liberal party's problem was that it won working-class votes when it adopted a reform program, and not when it didn't. Like any good historian, Roberts acknowledges throughout the limitations of his argument, and he is reluctant to draw conclusions, even though "it is not easy for a student to leave a problem unsolved."
More important, for our purposes, is Roberts's technique. He explains: "Rather than measuring the final product against some pre-determined standard and finding it either acceptable or wanting, I hope to examine the matrix from which reform emerged." And, more important still, at times Roberts's thesis reads like a legal brief: He always clearly states exactly what will be accomplished in each chapter, and in each section of each chapter, and sometimes in each paragraph of each section of each chapter. By the end of the thesis it is clear that Roberts has given up history for the law.

Two things stand out in these old term papers. One is Roberts's sense of humor. "The Websterian leader should be non-partisan," Roberts writes in "The Utopian Conservative": "above demagoguery, concerned for the public good, and, above all, the Websterian leader should be . . . Webster." And here's Roberts on David Lloyd George, the last Liberal prime minister: "Passion, intellect, and determination, or, if you prefer--as many did then and now--zealotry, deviousness, and obduracy, were the characteristics which propelled Lloyd George." Clever lines, both--well worth a chuckle, and evidence, one likes to think, of Roberts's reported love of P.G. Wodehouse.

The other striking thing is the emphasis Roberts places on the individual. His histories include room for social, cultural, and demographic phenomena, but also clear out a space for individual action. Roberts concludes his thesis by pointing out that "the individual initiative of the [Liberal] Party's most dynamic leaders" helped to counteract forces in the party that "inhibited an energetic confrontation of the social problem." Lloyd George and Winston Churchill were "doctors" helping the Liberal party to survive. They were "the gods of Liberal reform." As they went, so did their party.
This runs against the current of most contemporary academic historians, who view history either as driven by abstract and mechanical economic structures, or as the constant conspiring of the powerful against the powerless. But neither does Roberts embrace the "Great Man Theory of History" or any other overarching approach. Instead he appropriately acknowledges the impact men like Daniel Webster, David Lloyd George, and Winston Churchill had on the politics and everyday life of their times.