American Intellectual History

When the Puritans arrived in the so-called New World during the second quarter of the 1600s, they brought with them a simultaneously austere and hopeful vision of life in what would come to be called New England.  The Puritans’ brand of Christianity, drawn from the theology of John Calvin, emphasized man’s inherently sinful nature — his fundamental depravity — as well as his static position in a God-ordained social hierarchy.  Indeed, every school-age child would learn that some human beings were destined to be “low” and others “exalted,” and every child also would gather from his and her New England Primer that “In Adam’s fall / We sinned all.”  To the Puritan mind, pride — the chief of the seven deadly sins from the Christian Middle Ages — was the most heinous instance of putting one’s self before God.  It also was inescapable, leaving all human beings imprinted with the stain of original sin.

An extraordinarily self-scrutinizing people, the allegorically-minded Puritans sought signs of God’s favor and will in everyday events.  The Bible was the book around which all learning revolved, and Puritan scholarship also drew upon historical narrative to determine those nations whom God favored or condemned.  Not surprisingly, the Puritans saw themselves as modern-day Israelites — a “chosen people” whose task it was, as John Winthrop said in 1630, to be “a city on a hill” — a humble but steadfast beacon in the wilderness of America, a new promised land.

Many scholars see Puritanism as a conservative reaction to the putative excesses of the English Renaissance.  Like so many social and religious movements, Puritanism sought to stanch the flow of liberality that had emerged from the “media” of its day, in this case the English theatre.  One need only compare Puritan aesthetics (or lack thereof) with the works of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Kyd to see the great divide separating these virtual contemporaries.  In this sense, Puritanism was indeed a conservative backlash to the Elizabethan stage as well as to the Elizabethan era itself.

But Puritanism — even revived during The Great Awakening of the early 1700s — could not survive unchanged as two major forces collided with it.  The first was immigration: a flood of Europeans who brought with them myriad sects of Christianity (and Judaism, too) — forms of devotion that would inevitably dilute the Calvinist worldview.  In addition, the spirit of The Enlightenment (the 18th century Age of Reason) ran headlong into Puritanism. 

Admittedly, both Enlightenment and Puritan scholars shared an interest in the emerging realm of learning known as “natural philosophy” (later to be called “science”), but they parted company on theology.  The Enlightenment view of God might best be summed up by Alexander Pope, whose famous couplet “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan / The proper study of mankind is man” suggests that the province of knowledge is neither allegorical nor metaphysical but empirical.  Pope’s couplet essentially signals a shift in thinking — from faith to fact, from God to man.  Himself a Catholic, Pope nonetheless believed that reason, however flawed, is a useful tool for understanding and improving humankind.

This spirit of rational utility would pervade 18th century Europe and America. Thomas Jefferson, drawing upon John Locke’s phrase “life, liberty, and estate (or property)” wrote of man’s “unalienable” right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  By implication, man is not destined to live as either rich or poor, as the Puritans believed; rather he may be upwardly (or downwardly) mobile due to the force of his own industry and will. 

In theological matters, Jefferson likewise typified the spirit of the Enlightenment when he literally cut out all references to miraculous events in the New Testament and instead focused on Jesus’ simple morality.  A Deist like Benjamin Franklin, who joined Jefferson in doubting the divinity of the Nazarene, nonetheless lauded Christ’s “system of morals” and wrote — just a month before his own death — that he could not comment on the possible divinity of Jesus, “having never studied it.”  (Note the emphasis on study, on rational understanding.)  Franklin added, “[I] think it needless to busy myself with it [the question of Jesus’ divinity] now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.”  That’s wit, 18th century style.

In some instances, what had once been deemed vices were presently cast in a virtuous light.  For instance, pride — considered THE inescapable SIN by the Puritans — could now (if properly employed) become a force for advancement and societal well-being.  Economist Adam Smith wrote, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.”  Here pride and self-interest become vehicles of societal good; the fundamental premise of capitalism is articulated.

Similarly, in The Autobiography Franklin literally did away with the word “sin” and replaced it with a printing term, “errata” — a mistake that might be corrected upon review.  Next, Franklin set about methodically perfecting himself by charting his daily deeds of virtue and vice.  Although he admitted to never achieving complete perfection (chastity, for instance, was a difficult virtue for Ben to maintain) Franklin asserted that he had improved himself markedly.  Consider Franklin’s famous epigram “Honesty is the Best Policy” and you will see not a moral absolute at work but rather a Franklinian emphasis on utility, on the pragmatic benefits of virtue.

For Enlightenment thinkers, theocracies (like monarchies) were the enemy.  Too often man had been oppressed by the absolutist and unreflective dictates of priests, ministers, and kings.  Enshrined in the new democratic thinking about government was the separation between church and state — the right to worship independently, to not be dictated to, especially in religious matters. 

In addition to political pamphleteering, an emerging merchant press, and the revival of the stage in England, non-fiction writing about practical subjects became highly popular during the 18th century.  People wanted to learn about new machinery, better methods for raising crops, even demographic changes in the emerging American colonies.  Although a few voices within the Enlightenment itself warned against excessive or fruitless uses of reason (see Jonathan Swift’s attack on the Royal Society in Gulliver’s Travels), the spirit of the age was nonetheless one of hopeful, orderly, methodical, prudent, and rational progress.

For all that had been gained by the Enlightenment, something had been lost — or so felt a cadre of writers and thinkers who would later be called Romantics.  Nominally said to begin in 1789, Romanticism's date of origin is less important than the fact that the movement emerged as a mild corrective to The Enlightenment’s confidence in reason. 

For all of their differences, the Romantics shared the Enlightenment distrust of churches and monarchies.  Similarly, they believed that reason is useful, but that faculties like emotion, intuition, and imagination are even more indispensable to human happiness.  By nature, Romantics argued, man is born in a state of innocent goodness. William Wordsworth, one of the chief romantic poets in England, wrote, “Heaven lies about us in our infancy,” and Wordsworth went on to suggest that the innocent child “comes from God, who is our home.” 

Echoing his British contemporaries, Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau claimed that “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains,” thereby suggesting that human institutions corrupt and distort humankind.  Animal passions, including sexuality, were to be championed because they spring (so Romantics argued) from man’s essentially benign and benevolent nature.  In keeping with such notions, William Blake condemned institutions like the church for “Binding with briars / My joys and desires.”  Even the Enlightenment virtues of hard work, method, and prudence were targets for criticism.  As one scholar has said, the American tale-teller Washington Irving created Rip Van Winkle as a conscious foil to Benjamin Franklin by showing that Rip — a lover of children, animals, and all things uncontrived and humble — could “make a success out of failure."

Finally, Romantics believed that incipient industrialization and the influx of agrarian workers to burgeoning cities had robbed workers of their fundamental, natural decency.  By extricating themselves from the cycle of the seasons, the cycle of birth and death, people had lost touch with the simple divinity that suffuses God’s creation.  Only Walt Whitman, the wildly romantic American pantheist, would see in both city and country life equal measures of surpassing goodness.

It is clear that enormous changes in thought took place among intellectuals and common citizens in the two-hundred-year span between 1620 and 1820.  By 1850, America’s first novelist of genius, Nathaniel Hawthorne, would subtly remark upon those changes in what has become a staple of American high school English classes—The Scarlet Letter.  Hawthorne’s friend Herman Melville joined Hawthorne by speaking to the emerging skepticism of the mid-19th century in his work Moby-Dick, a tome-like meditation on the fundamental majesty, weirdness, inequity, and (at times) rapacity of creation.  Numerous movements would coincide or follow — naturalism, social-Darwinism, Marxism, existentialism, modernism, objectivism, post-modernism, among others — all offering different flavors of certitude or (more commonly) doubt.  But American intellectual and social life continues to be informed by three main conceptual strands: the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Enlightenment, and Romanticism.  In class we will attempt to show how these strands are manifest in contemporary life. 

What’s more, this trio of traditions loosely corresponds with three fundamental tendencies in the human psyche (what Sigmund Freud called the superego, the ego, and the id).  As such, American political and social experience can be seen as an ongoing dialogue — and an ongoing tension — resolved only temporarily as the political pendulum swings from one side to the other.

In class, we will consider the essays below as expressions of the tensions mentioned above. How — or if — you resolve those tensions is your choice.


Provocative Essays


"The Wrath of The Lamb"
by Lewis Lapham

"Jesus Without the Miracles"
by Erik Reece


Man is by nature evil; his soul is fallen
from grace and in need of redemption

Man cannot redeem himself without
God’s assistance (Grace)

History reveals God’s divine plan—
those who are favored and those
who are not—and it moves in a
linear fashion toward an end,
the Divine Judgment

God is present in matters great and
small; He is both omnipotent
and omniscient

Despite mankind’s fallen state,
God grants mankind dominion
over nature

A person’s social rank is essentially
static, ordained by God

The Enlightenment

Man is by nature neither evil nor good;
he is a tabula rasa (a blank slate)

God likely exists but does not necessarily
play a direct role in the lives of men

The universe operates according to rational,
mechanistic, predictable laws

Man has the capacity to understand
Nature’s laws and to improve his lot
by using those laws to his advantage

Rational, predictable, and mechanistic
laws apply not only to the material
world, but to the social realm;
consequently, mankind can fashion
governments and organizations that
will prove predictably advantageous. 
Institutions and organizations can be
improved over time through rational
analysis and continuous readjustment

Conduct should be governed by order,
process, prudence, and method

In the economic realm, each person
can improve his own individual lot
and thereby improve the condition of his
fellows (particularly through what Adam
Smith called capitalism’s “Unseen Hand”)


Man is by nature good

Divinity springs from nature,
not from man-made creations

Man’s proper relation to Nature is not
domination, but reverent co-existence

Animal passions, which had been historically
denigrated, are to be given proper reverence

Society and institutions tend to corrupt man;
individuals are best left unencumbered
by large organizations

Reason is valuable, but even more so
are faculties like imagination,
emotion, and intuition

— sources or subjects —

susan b. anthony
title page from anne bradstreet's 10th muse
warren buffet
bob dylan
thomas edison
jonathan edwards
benjamin franklin
sigmund freud
stephen jay gould
nathaniel hawthorne
zora neale hurston
thomas jefferson
jesus of nazareth (eastern orthodox depiction)
martin luther king, jr.
edna st. vincent millay
pat robertson
james mcneill whistler
walt whitman
jonathan winthrop