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Radicalism in America: Been There, Done That

Willamette Professor Seth Cotlar became a historian as a child. Sitting in his grandfather's black leather chair, he spent hours poring over old photos in shoeboxes.

Unfortunately, in the Allegheny Mountain mining town where he grew up, college-bound kids were discouraged from taking "soft" subjects like history, and were instead pushed toward the sciences so they could get into "above ground" jobs -- running the mines as engineers rather than working them.

Cotlar shifted through five majors in college before settling on history; it took him that long to realize people can get paid to do what they love.

The fledging historian soon discovered that he had been born in a remarkable year. In 1968 America seemed poised on the edge of rethinking and recreating society. Against the backdrop of what seemed like a senseless war, draft-age students marched for peace. Thousands of African-Americans boycotted for equal rights, the women's movement was born, and spiritual enlightenment seemed possible if only one meditated long enough.

"I was 12 during the election of 1980, and when my parents turned on the TV, Ronald Reagan was spewing invective against the long-haired hippies with their deviant lifestyles," Cotlar says. "He was explicitly running against the legacy of the '60s, saying that 'ordinary' Americans should take the country back, that these ideas are dangerous. He pointed to the extremist fringe of the movement and said, 'All you have to do is look at the Weather Underground to know what kind of people these are.'"

Cotlar was fascinated by the cultural and political tumult of the '60s and '70s, and his upcoming book, Making America Safe for Democracy: The Rise and Fall of Trans-Atlantic Radicalism in the Early American Republic, focuses on a parallel time in American history. During the 1790s, he says, the trans-Atlantic world was in foment over ideas put forward by Thomas Paine, whose celebrated treatise, The Rights of Man, was the most widely read pamphlet in America and Europe.

Paine's definition of democracy would have broadly expanded the rights of individuals, in accordance with the ideals of the French Revolution. America's experiment with democracy was still a work in progress, with different political factions arguing over how democracy should be defined.

"But just as America's 1960s antiwar movement became associated with drugs, loose lifestyles and violence, the political ideas behind the French Revolution were eventually thought to be dangerous and their promoters discredited," Cotlar says.

The man whose ideas had been embraced on both sides of the Atlantic took a hard fall. During Paine's 15-year sojourn in Europe, American leaders constructed a more moderate, non-revolutionary vision of democracy, one more limited in scope.

They discredited Paine's ideas by discrediting Paine, Cotlar says, branding him an atheist anarchist on the radical fringe. Attacks were ratcheted up in intensity to counter the broad appeal and influence of his ideas. By the time Paine returned to America, he was hard-pressed to find a single tavern owner who would take him in, and when he died, only six people attended his funeral.

Cotlar's book will be on bookshelves next year, and he's already begun work on his next book, about nostalgia in pre-Civil War America. "During the aggressive modernization of the past 150 years, Americans have consistently expressed nostalgia about a disappearing past," Cotlar says. "The idea of something being 'old fashioned' can only exist when the world is changing rapidly, losing its past. It's not just a psychological phenomenon, but also a historical phenomenon. People still have trouble talking about the costs of change."

Cotlar recently received a Millicent C. MacIntosh Fellowship, one of five awarded in the nation, to further his research. He'll also co-organize a 2009 conference on "Antiquities and Ruins in the Nineteenth Century," to be held at the Huntington Library in California. In addition, Cotlar serves on Willamette's Council on Diversity and Social Justice. "A vibrant intellectual community requires a wide range of perspectives," he says. "But diverse communities do not just emerge spontaneously. They must be built with some degree of intentionality."

Of course, none of these activities will interfere with Cotlar's other life -- political media junkie, father to a five-year-old son who drums to Beatles songs, and gardener of "things I can eat." History moves on, repeats itself, and doubles back, but some things never change.