George Fredrickson, 73, Historian, Dies
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Published: March 7, 2008
George M. Fredrickson, a historian who cast new light on the study of race and who helped define the field of comparative history with a penetrating examination of racial relations in the United States and South Africa, died on Feb. 25 at his home in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 73.
The cause was heart failure, his wife, Hélène, said.
Mr. Fredrickson is often credited with breaking ground in the use of comparative history to escape provincialism and suggest broader, more thematic judgments about historical forces. This was particularly evident in his book “White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History” (1981), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
David Brion Davis, a Yale historian, said in an interview Thursday that “White Supremacy” was “a landmark book and a model that has not been superseded” in the field of comparative history.
In the early history of the United States, Mr. Fredrickson wrote, whites needed an ideology of racial superiority to justify importing slaves and uprooting and killing American Indians while pushing to establish an agrarian economy in their new land.
South Africa, by contrast, historically had more tolerance of racial mixing and a more pragmatic definition of whiteness, in large part because of a shortage of “pure” Europeans, especially women, Mr. Fredrickson wrote.
The countries differed in laws governing race. The United States had founding documents promising equality that over many years it tried, fitfully, to live up to. In Mr. Fredrickson’s view, the United States, with its history of slavery before the Civil War, had a worse racial past than South Africa did but a better means, in law, to move on to better relations.
South Africa’s early race relations, while never smooth, were more benign, he said. But in contrast to the American experience, the country’s race relations dramatically worsened, with the establishment of apartheid in 1948, laws that required irrevocable racial segregation. (In 1992, more than a decade after Mr. Fredrickson’s book, South Africans voted to end apartheid.)
Yet in Mr. Fredrickson’s judgment both countries had a huge similarity: both required an ideology of equality of white males to justify “dehumanization of blacks.”
It is this sort of examination of historical differences that constitutes comparative history, with the aim of recognizing patterns and making generalizations. Mr. Davis said the approach had been used to “globalize” the understanding of American history.
In a review of “White Supremacy” in The Washington Post, Jim Hoagland, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the paper for his coverage of apartheid in South Africa in 1971, wrote that the book “deftly picks apart the tangled threads of two brands of white power and traces them back to their sources.”
In Mr. Fredrickson’s first book, “The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union” (1965), he dug through mountains of original documents to tell of the dilemma abolitionists faced during the war: whether to criticize the Lincoln administration for lagging in its antislavery commitment or to remain silent in the hope that a Northern victory would free the slaves.
One of Mr. Fredrickson’s most-discussed books was “Racism: A Short History” (2002), in which he used specific examples like the Holocaust, apartheid and legal segregation in America’s South to reach theoretical conclusions about the subject. He believed, for example, that the idea that racial differences are inherently unbridgeable could be traced to the Enlightenment.
The argument of an earlier age, that all men are equal before God, lost force once rationality was seen to rule, Mr. Fredrickson wrote. Only by postulating scientific explanations for racial differences could slavery and colonial subjugation be justified.
“A line had been crossed that gave ‘race’ a new and more comprehensive significance,” he wrote. His research showed that the word racism first came into present usage under the Nazis.
George Marsh Fredrickson was born on July 16, 1934, in Bristol, Conn. He spent his high school years in Sioux Falls, S.D., graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1956, studied in Norway on a Fulbright scholarship, then served in the Navy for three years.
He earned his doctorate from Harvard in 1964. He taught there for three years, then moved to Northwestern University, where he became the William Smith Mason professor of American History. In 1984 he became the Edgar E. Robinson professor of United States history at Stanford University, from which he retired in 2002.
In addition to his wife of 52 years, the former Hélène Osouf, Mr. Fredrickson is survived by his daughters Anne Hope Fredrickson, of Grass Valley, Calif., Laurel Fredrickson, of Durham, N.C., and Caroline Fredrickson, of Silver Spring, Md.; his son, Thomas, of Brooklyn; his sister, Lois Rose, of Great Barrington, Mass.; and four grandchildren.
Mr. Fredrickson wrote eight books and edited four more. His last was published this year. It concerns Lincoln’s changing, often ambiguous views on slavery, emancipation and states’ rights. Mr. Fredrickson took the title from W. E. B. Du Bois’s comment on the subject: “Big Enough to Be Inconsistent: Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race.”
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