Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

-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. The American intellectual landscape was in fact thick with trees, but they were of a nature that Hall (and with him the first generation of American pragmatists, William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, Chauncey Wright) preferred not to recognize as trees. Pragmatism feared the social divisiveness of political ideology, and therefore wanted to believe that American political ideologies were simply not ideas at all, but only agendas; and they personally resented the intrusive dominance of Protestant denominations and Protestant theology over those 300-odd American colleges, and so chose to read the intellectual life of those institutions as no life at all.

In fact, James, Peirce, Wright, and Hall spent large portions of their careers attempting to leverage off its pedestal a particular form of American philosophy, a form concerned principally with questions of epistemology and how the mind knows things, and known generically as "Scottish" or "common sense" realism. Pragmatism was convinced that epistemology was a null set, and that what mattered was finding out the best ways for the mind, or the person, to act. This is a perfectly valid ground for criticizing epistemology-based concerns; but Hall was not interested even in conceding that there was something worthwhile to criticize. And this worked in the 1880s and thereafter, first, because Hall's demotion of American intellectual life gelled neatly with a long pattern of self-indictment of American letters from Emerson to Mencken, and second, because Hall launched his strike at just the moment when American psychology was making its first effort to preempt philosophy as the authoritative interpreter of what a mind is.

The result has been that the conventional genealogy of American thought (if it extends further back than William James) usually begins with Benjamin Franklin, whose Autobiography is cheerfully read as a sort of proto-pragmatist manifesto, then continues through Emerson and Thoreau, stops off briefly with a few sociologists and conservationists, and finally arrives at James and Dewey. And even if the weight of modern scholarship on Jonathan Edwards forces some recognition of the great revivalist, it is usually only for his revivalism, or (more recently) as a prophet of Peirce's semiotics.

Never mind that Franklin's Autobiography is a highly unreliable text that wanders over such occultic ground as soul-transference; never mind that Emerson never wrote anything of a sustained philosophical nature longer than 37 pages; and never mind that "Scottish realists" like Francis Wayland at Brown University--or, for that matter, Francis Bowen at Harvard, or Mark Hopkins at Williams, or Charles Hodge at Princeton Seminary, or even Charles Finney at Oberlin--were deeply engaged in epistemological problems while Thoreau mucked gloomily around Walden Pond. Such a genealogy satisfies the predominant (and now renascent) spirit of pragmatism in modern American philosophy and rinses the development of American thought clean of any association with epistemology and its dangerous kin, theology. Even modern evangelical historians now rush to condemn their evangelical forebears' preoccupation with "Scottish realism." We have all joined the great pragmatic booboisie.

It would be hard to think of a more obvious American of the nineteenth century than Abraham Lincoln. People recognized this in his own day and have been recognizing it in a relentless hail of biography ever since. Not for a long time, however, has a Lincoln biography been so anxiously awaited as David Donald's Lincoln. The octogenarian Donald was the protégé of another famous Lincoln biographer, James G. Randall (so much so that the young Donald became a sort of honorary member of the Randall family), and he has toiled most of his life in the Lincoln vineyard. His first book, Lincoln's Herndon: A Biography (1948), revealed Donald's vivid literary gifts as well as a perky inclination to look at the subject of Abraham Lincoln from peculiar and revealing angles. The book not only chose to go at Lincoln through his raspy law partner and biographer, William Henry Herndon, but even the title became a puckish historical inversion: Herndon's sensational tell-all biography of Lincoln was billed on its title page as Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life, and Donald had only to reverse the first two terms to get a head-turning title for his own book.

In a subsequent academic career that stretched from Columbia to Harvard, Donald collaborated in revising and updating Randall's flagship textbook, The Civil War and Reconstruction, edited the diary of Civil War Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, produced a two-volume biography of Civil War senator Charles Sumner, and published a collection of Lincoln essays, Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era (2d ed., 1956), which are still some of the finest things written on Lincoln in this century.

Given the fact that Benjamin Thomas's classic Abraham Lincoln is now almost a half-century old and far behind advances in Lincoln research, and recognizing that the reputation of Stephen Oates's With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln (1977) has plummeted like a shot bird after charges of plagiarism were levied at it in 1991, there was every reason to expect that a Donald "Lincoln" would become the finest single-volume Lincoln biography of this century, too.

And it hasn't. Despite the expectations, Donald's 599-page Lincoln has a curiously bloodless, plodding quality to it. Although Donald had access to what Thomas did not (such as the authoritative nine-volume Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy Basler) and although he also had before him what Oates did not (Cullom Davis's massive Lincoln Legal Papers project, still under way in Illinois), Donald's Lincoln becomes a quagmire of facticity. He offers, at the very beginning, no explanation for why another Lincoln biography has now become necessary; neither is there any conclusion at the close to sum up the significance of Lincoln's life. Donald's Lincoln literally stops dead when Lincoln's heart stops beating on April 15, 1865. Above all, he deliberately disengages Lincoln as much as possible from the onrushing narrative of American political events, a peculiar decision since Lincoln committed so much of his life to the combat of political affairs. Donald would like to explain this strategy by insisting that he does not want to write "a general history" of Lincoln's times and wants to stick close to Lincoln himself. A fair enough request for a biography--except, that is, for a biography of Abraham Lincoln.

Oddly enough, Donald avoids attaching his narrative of Lincoln's life to Lincoln's context, only to wind up attaching that narrative to nearly every modern context of Lincoln interpretation. Every turn in the book contains a nod toward some Lincoln interpretive constituency, and after a while, Donald becomes so careful in accommodating everyone else's Lincoln that his own Lincoln ends up resembling an assembly of not-always harmonious interpretations. We get no sense of the Lincoln whose easily riled temper forced him into a lifelong school of the most rigid self-control, no sense of a marriage that nearly every close observer agreed was a "domestic hell," and very nearly no hint at all of Lincoln's secularized determination not only to do right, but to be seen and understood as doing right. We do not even get much of a glimpse of Lincoln's physical appearance, despite the fact that his outsize height allowed him to dominate any room he entered, and the fact that his platform performances as a speaker were often mesmerizing.

If there is one theme that Donald does use in an attempt to give unity to his Lincoln, it is Lincoln's fatalism (what Lincoln called in 1846 his "Doctrine of Necessity," in which all events were ineluctably the effects of causes and in which there could be no free will). Donald believes that this was Lincoln's core value, and that it explains Lincoln's most fundamental personality trait--"passivity." That the President who freed 4 million slaves and preserved the unity and liberty of the republic in the midst of the Civil War should be found passive is the one thing in this book most likely to surprise its readers.

But the curious thing is that Donald is not wrong: Lincoln grew up in a Hard-Shell Baptist family and never lost a sense of the most uncompromising version of divine predestination and human helplessness. The problem with this fascinating insight is that Donald has absolutely no idea what to do with it. And no wonder: Americans in the nineteenth century, as G. Stanley Hall would so elegantly put it, were not supposed to be much encumbered with "independence or initiative in matters of speculative thought."

Those who knew Lincoln personally often remarked on Lincoln's intellectual hobbies, especially philology (Lincoln once prepared a lecture for the entertainment circuit on the origin of language), while those who were his opponents, from Cartwright to Stephen A. Douglas, also knew--or learned the hard way--that Lincoln was a Whig-Republican ideologue of the most unrelenting stripe, who subjected all practical political considerations to a series of Whig-Republican litmus tests. But because so much of the history of American ideas has been written from the pragmatist presumption that American ideas before the 1870s were a quaint irrelevancy, and everything after the 1870s only a variation on pragmatic progressivism, it never seems to occur to Lincoln biographers--much less to David Donald--that Lincoln was anything other than a politically savvy Jacksonian who led his country to one triumphant compromise after another (as if the Thirteenth Amendment enshrines a compromise).

Despite a "defective" (his own word) education, Lincoln had an active and restless mind that caught the track of numerous ideas from the common currency of Springfield's lyceums, libraries, and newspapers. There was, in fact, less cultural distance between Springfield and Boston in 1850 than there is now, and Donald misses completely the echoes in Lincoln's "fatalism," not only of Calvinist predestination, but also Enlightenment mechanism of the Tom Paine variety and the psychological motive-theory of Benthamite utilitarianism. Donald is hardly less blind to Lincoln as a political ideologist: Donald dismisses political Whiggism in two pages, declares the Whig ideology dead by 1848, and as a result has no explanation for why Lincoln's administration accomplished the most far-reaching revolution in American domestic politics since Thomas Jefferson by enacting, piece by piece, the agenda of Henry Clay's "American System." Lincoln's "fatalism," as far as Donald seems able to present it, is just a mood; his politics are only people-management. Francis Wayland, whose Elements of Political Economy (1837) was Lincoln's political Bible, gets mentioned exactly twice, in passing, in Donald's Lincoln.

Lincoln was a politician, not a philosopher, so perhaps there is a measure of excuse in Donald's case for neglecting so utterly the mind of Abraham Lincoln in the life of Abraham Lincoln. There is less excuse for such neglect in Anne C. Rose's Voices of the Marketplace: American Thought and Culture, 1830-1860, where the main course is clearly "culture" rather than "thought." Her previous book, Victorian America and the Civil War (1992), is a study of cultural transformation, with culture meaning the "prerational" sets of "rituals, customs, and crafted material objects" rather than "the deliberate creation of intellectuals," and transformation meaning "the context of struggles over social power between competing interests such as classes, races, or sexes." As such, her interpretation of Victorian religion was an essay on attitudes rather than ideas, and in this new volume, that basic contention does not change much.

For Rose, American culture in the three decades before the Civil War was composed of three fundamental paradigms--democracy, Christianity, and capitalism--all of which underwent transformations characterized by increasing professionalization, a greater homogeneity of national culture, and an increasingly vast range of choices. In the case of American Christianity, this translated into an abandonment of revivalism in favor of religious gradualism (as typified by Horace Bushnell's Christian Nurture ), a vast outpouring of new and sometimes bizarre religious and reform movements, and even a peculiar confessional or high-church conservatism (in the form of John Williamson Nevin, Orestes Brownson, and George Templeton Strong).

This "transformation" does not, unfortunately, seem to have anything to do with what people thought about as Christians, and the general supposition of Rose's approach is that no one in America thought, exactly, about anything. It is not, in fact, until Rose begins to discuss "the languages of capitalism" that formal structures of ideas--in the form of Protestant theology and the "Scottish realists"--finally make an explicit appearance, and then it is only to claim that American "realism" induced a preoccupation with practice rather than thought, which coincided happily with the market revolution. For Rose, it is a "real question . . . whether Americans had patience for religious speculation at all. The theological minimalism of the Second Great Awakening in the nineteenth century did not reverse this trend, and rational thinking became more closely identified with the solution of practical tasks."

This nerveless blotting out of an entire intellectual generation has to be more than just a simple failure of historical imagination on Rose's part, if only because it is immediately followed by an entire chapter on Emerson and Thoreau (and Melville, Hawthorne, and Whitman and the "American Renaissance"). But then again, perhaps it helps to recall that Rose's first book was an interpretation of Transcendentalism as a Social Movement, 1830-1850 (1981); even Walden Pond becomes pragmatized. What Rose has done in Voices of the Marketplace is to recapitulate cheerfully all the conveniences of the secular genealogy on a smaller scale, right down to the implied suggestion in the title that the only voices in American thought before the Civil War were commodified ones. Perhaps the one single development in nineteenth-century American intellectual life Rose wholeheartedly seems to approve is the appointment as president of Harvard in 1869 of Charles William Eliot--who, of course, hired William James.

Several years after Hall's 1879 Mind article, Josiah Royce wrote an article of his own on "The Thoughtful Public in America," in which he insisted, contrary to Hall, that "When foreigners accuse us of extraordinary love for gain, and of practical materialism, they fail to see how largely we are a nation of idealists." The real problem of Americans was their unaccountable willingness to follow the pied piper of any "seemingly new and large-minded doctrine," and such a piper had only "to announce repeatedly to the public the high valuation that he sets upon his own ideas concerning noble topics in order to win a respectful hearing from any." Americans were, in Royce's estimate, a nation of idealist inebriates, suckled on creeds that induced them to think too much.

Significantly, Royce never published the article. It was the responsibility of pragmatism--and Royce considered himself a pragmatist--with the weight of Darwin on its brow, to sober Americans up and bring them to a genuine appreciation of evolutionary unhappiness. In so doing, however, it has been necessary to cheapen the vitality of the antebellum American intellectual tradition, and to cheapen antebellum American thinkers in the bargain. Whatever else one wishes to make of "Scottish realism," it decisively linked American collegiate philosophy with a substantial international repudiation of the naked, mechanistic phenomenalism of Hume, d'Holbach, and La Mettrie, even while the most radical exponents of the Edwardsean New Divinity were attempting to domesticate and convert it. It is easy to miss, when concentrating too much on the personalities and institutions of American collegiate life before the Civil War, how much the "Scottish realist" reply to Hume was cut from the same philosophical cloth as Kant: it was awakened from the same Berkelean slumbers as Kant, and it placed its bets for certainty on the same fundamental appeal to intuitive perception as Kant. It did not have much sympathy for the looser forms of Kantianism mediated to American Romantics by James Marsh's famous edition of Coleridge's Aids to Reflection, or to the Hegelianism on offer from European transplants like Frederick Augustus Rauch and Phillip Schaff.

Far from American thought being as parochial as Hall wanted to paint it, it was the philosophical transplants, the Edwardseans, and the "common sense" realists who actually preserved American intellectual life from parochialism after the Revolution and the Jeffersonian repudiation of Europe. Unhappily, if there is any glimmering in Rose of such a connection, it is not very apparent. And rather than "common sense" realism functioning as the toady of evangelical obscurantism, "common sense" realism gave Protestant evangelicalism a platform from which to speak ethically to a bourgeois culture in danger of losing all hold on morality, rather than withdrawing, as the pietist Awakenings often did, into come-outerism.

Abraham Lincoln did not need to be an evangelical himself in order to participate in that consensus; that his biographers have failed to see that as his context, or see that he had an intellectual context at all, is an interesting measure of how much we have surrendered in understanding the American mind.

Copyright(c) 1996 by Christianity Today, Inc/BOOKS & CULTURE, journal

November/December 1996, Vol. 2, No. 6, Page 25


Most ReadMost Shared