WHEN THE ENGLISHMAN J. R. Pole began to read American history as an undergraduate shortly after World War II, the subject was in an intellectually more primitive state than it is now. The word "freedom," for instance, appeared in the titles of an extraordinary number of books about the American past, but the concept of freedom was rarely subject to analysis. The starkly simple idea to which most of the senior American historians of the 1940s subscribed was that there was either more freedom (the Revolution, Jefferson, Jackson) or there was less (the British Empire, Hamilton, the Bank of the United States), and that happiness always consisted in more.

Pole, like other historians who came of age in the '40s, has a more complicated view of the American past. Thus in "Historians and Early American Deocracy," the best known and most successfully argued of the essays he has chosen to reprint in Paths to the American past, he characteristically urges us to rise above our anachronistic habit of supposing that when Americans who were accustomed to an elitist political system felt grievances against their government, they must necessarily have wanted to express their dissatisfaction by applying the remedies of modern democracy. For in the colonial and early national periods, Pole points out, the great mass of the common people gave their consent to a concept of government that limited their own participation in ways that were at variance with modern democratic principles. Americans of that ear lived in "a Whig world" that was "pervaded by the belief in and a sense of the propriety of social order guided and strengthened by principles of dignity on the one hand and deference on the other."

Popular support of their leadership gave the privileged families of post-Revolutionary America an astonishing self-confidence. In the new state constitution of Virginia, for example, no special qualifications were listed which restricted membership in the legislature. The absence of such qualifications did not mean that democracy had triumphed in Virginia. On the contrary, it meant that the elite felt so secure about its hold on society that further buttressing by formal law was not deemed necessary. In spite of the amount of choice that was theoretically open to Virginia electors, there was a growing tendency for public office to become hereditary. The same family names occur in the political records from generation to generation. And this was no less true in New England and in South Carolina. In elegant summation, Pole says that "If this was democracy, it was a democracy that wore its cockade firmly pinned into its periwig."

The author's fascination with dignity and deference leads him somewhat astray, however, in his discussion of slavery. In a rush of uncritical enthusiasm, he endorses the historian Eugene D. Genovese's dubious contention that slavery was a form of paternalism based on a reciprocal system of patronage and dependence. While the slaves could scarcely be described as giving their consent to such governance, Pole would have us believe that paternalism at least enabled the slaves to defend themselves against dehumanization. The peculiar institution was distinguished, he insists, by the remarkable degree of autonomy that slaves managed to create and maintain for themselves, at least on the larger plantations. That claim in particular, as well as the paternalistic argument in general, flies in the face of the fact that the slavocracy was a viciously exploitative form of agrarian capitalism in which there was very little room -- as Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom! unforgettably demonstrates -- for reciprocal relationships or indeed for any expression of human sympathy.

Yet Professor Pole redeems his discussion of slavery by having the good sense -- and the courage -- to take a middle position between those historians who insist that slavery did no damage to the slave's personality and those who say that the system degraded him into a fawning Sambo. To the proponents of the Sambo thesis, he shrewdly rejoins that the observations of slave behavior on which theya have built their argument are more often observations of role-playing rather than of basic personality traits. At the same time, he cautions those historians who would explain away all the aberrations of slave behavior as a deliberate masquerade by pointing out that that sort of argument assumes rather too easily that roles are taken up and discarded voluntarily. "What are we to say," he asks, "when the mask melts into and transforms the face -- as in some cases it surely does?"

That searching question illustrates once again why we should be grateful that J. R. Pole's measured, sophisticated, British intelligence has been trained on the American past for the last 30 years. He has sought not to apologize for American history, but rather to make us think about its complexities. What American history was "actually about," not what it "ought to have been about," has been his prevailing concern.