American History Expert, James Kloppenberg, Speaks at TCD

Posted on: 29 March 2011

Renowned author and Harvard history professor James Kloppenberg’s lecture titled ‘Barack Obama and the American Democratic Tradition’,  was  based on his recent book, Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition in which he  argues that Barack Obama is the first American president since Woodrow Wilson who can be understood through his own writings.  He explores Obama’s ideas through a detailed look at his writings and by tracing the influences on Obama, both past and present, placing him in the context of a long-standing democratic tradition of compromise and experimentation in American politics and thought.  In his lecture, Professor Kloppenberg updated the argument he conveys in the book by indicating how Obama’s latest actions as president can be explained by his pragmatic intellectual framework. 

Pictured at TCD were Professor Brian McGing, Head of School of Histories & Humanities; Dr Daniel Geary, Mark Pigott Lecturer in US History, Department of History; Karyn Posner-Mullen, Director of Public Affairs, US Embassy; James Kloppenberg, Charles Warren Professor of History, Harvard University.

James T. Kloppenberg is one of the leading experts on American history working today.  He is the Charles Warren Professor of American History and chair of the History Department at Harvard University. In addition to his recent work on Obama, his books include Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870-1920; The Virtues of Liberalism; and A Companion to American Thought.

The lecture, which was sponsored by the University of Dublin Fund made up of Trinity graduates living in the US, and the Department of History, is the first in an Annual Lecture Series in American History.  It was organised by Dr Daniel Geary, an American citizen, and the Mark Pigott Lecturer in US History, who has taught American history at Trinity since 2008.

In his latest book James T. Kloppenberg demonstrates the influences that have shaped Obama’s distinctive worldview, including Nietzsche and Niebuhr, Ellison and Rawls, and recent theorists engaged in debates about feminism, critical race theory, and cultural norms.  Examining Obama’s views on the Constitution, slavery and the Civil War, the New Deal, and the civil rights movement, Kloppenberg shows Obama’s sophisticated understanding of American history.  Obama’s interest in compromise, reasoned public debate, and the patient nurturing of civility is a sign of strength, not weakness, Kloppenberg argues. He locates its roots in Madison, Lincoln, and especially in the philosophical pragmatism of William James and John Dewey, which nourished generations of American progressives, black and white, female and male, through much of the twentieth century, albeit with mixed results.

Reading Obama reveals the sources of Obama’s commitment to democratic deliberation: the books he has read, the visionaries who have inspired him, the social movements and personal struggles that have shaped his thinking.  Kloppenberg shows that Obama’s positions on social justice, religion, race, family, and America’s role in the world do not stem from a desire to please everyone but from deeply rooted, although currently unfashionable, convictions about how a democracy must deal with difference and conflict.