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-by Allen C. Guelzo
The Lost History of American Intellectual Life
By David Herbert Donald
599 pp.; $35
Voices of the Marketplace: American Thought and Culture, 1830-1860
By Anne C. Rose
187 pp.; $27.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper
One of the great difficulties in understanding the history of American ideas is that so few people believe there is any such history. In 1879, in the fourth volume of the fledgling British philosophical quarterly Mind, the premier American psychologist, G. Stanley Hall, surveyed the nearly 300 Protestant or state-related colleges and universities in America and concluded that most of them were intellectually worthless. Even in state-chartered, nonsectarian colleges, the atmosphere was "pervaded with the spirit of some distinct religious party, yet strictly evangelical," and the study of philosophy in particular was "determined by the convictions of constituencies and trustees, while professors are to a great extent without independence or initiative in matters of speculative thought."
Hall's swingeing indictment of American collegiate philosophy was promptly seconded in articles in the 1880s by William James and John Dewey, and from there canonized by American cultural historians from Merle Curti to Robert Wiebe as a sort of received wisdom. Pick them up at almost any page, and you will find that before 1879, and especially before the Civil War, the American mind was an unforested landscape, preoccupied with politics and business rather than ideas.
But Hall's article distorted some fundamental aspects of "the American mind." As Daniel Walker Howe and and the whole tribe of "republican theorists" from J. G. A. Pocock to James Kloppenberg have demonstrated, Americans before the Civil War were militantly attached, not just to politics, but to explicit brands of republican political ideology; and they already possessed a homegrown brand of American phenomenology in the extraordinary outgrowths of the New Divinity (the intellectual heirs of Jonathan Edwards) and transplants of formal theological confessionalism. ...