Righting the Lockean Checklist of America’s Revolutionary Thoughts

In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, Boston reformer Lydia Maria Child published The Patriarchal Institution, a 55-page collection of quotations on slavery ranging from the Founders to the most vocal proslavery Southerners. Child hoped the book would reveal the increasing betrayal of American ideals she witnessed in her lifetime. Above all, the abolitionist gathered this evidence to vindicate the Declaration of Independence and its principles of equality and liberty. “It is for [the American people] to decide,” she wrote in that fateful year, “whether our fathers were mistaken in considering Freedom a blessing; whether our Declaration of Independence embodies eternal principles, or is mere ‘rhetorical flourish.’” “Slavery and Freedom are antagonistic elements,” she announced. “One must inevitably destroy the other.” These two great historical forces competed for the soul of America. Only one would be, and could be, victorious, and Child had no doubt which side would win. 

Clemson University political theorist C. Bradley Thompson gives Child and her dialectic of history the last word in America’s Revolutionary Mind. Thompson uses Child to convey his own sense of urgency and to rally those who would fight on the right side of history. As in Child’s day, the American people once again have to choose. “We can accept the Declaration’s freedom principles as true,” he warns, “or we can adopt very different moral principles.” Thompson’s celebration of the Declaration seeks to inspire a new generation of Americans to reclaim and defend these “freedom principles.”

To this end, Thompson engages in an extended close reading of the Declaration of Independence. He has read a great deal of 18th-century primary material, and through his selections and quotations he makes the strongest possible case for John Locke’s preeminence in America’s revolutionary mind. Thompson mounts an energetic defense of the Lockean origins of colonial revolutionary thought, of Locke’s impact on the Declaration, and of Locke’s title to be the key to the American mind at large. Thompson’s Locke is a kind of Holy Spirit brooding over the creation of the United States, and America’s Revolutionary Mind unfolds like a systematic theology of the doctrines of the Declaration: the laws of nature, self-evident truths, equality, natural rights, government by consent, and the right of revolution. 

All About Locke

Thompson is not shy, and his book brims with big promises. He claims his analysis is the first major reinterpretation of the American Revolution since the early work of Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood more than 50 years ago, both of whom he criticizes (Wood more than Bailyn) for their relativism, historicism, and reliance on social-scientific methods and assumptions. In an essay for American Political Thought, Thompson lays out his case against Bailyn and Wood and offers as a corrective what he calls “the new moral history,” of which he envisions himself to be the founder. As I said, Thompson is not shy. He gives a lot of good advice in this essay regarding historians’ need to handle with care the relationship between people, ideas, and events. He is right to say that they need to place individual actors, endowed with choice and agency, at the center of the history of ideas. And one can only say “amen” to his caution that historians ought to be aware of unintended consequences, acknowledge the role of contingency, and practice “epistemological modesty.” All good advice, but it is hard to see how it is new. 

One would never guess from Thompson’s use of Nathanael Emmons and Samuel McKlintock, for instance, that these preachers focused on redemption in Christ in the sermons he quotes and not on the Enlightenment.

Conscientious historians have been abiding by these principles for generations. More telling is Thompson’s call for historians to follow the lead of political theorists, especially, it seems, under the banner of Leo Strauss and Harry Jaffa, in handling the text itself as the most important context for ideas. Historians do this in their own way, and good historians avoid cherry picking evidence, knowing that cherry picking is still cherry picking even when we end up with a big basket of fruit. Thompson is also right to say that historians must avoid cutting and pasting snippets of quotations to prove an ideological point. 

Yet Thompson himself uses snippets of quotations to make his own ideological points. He presupposes that Locke was the key to America, looks for him diligently, finds him everywhere, and not only finds him everywhere but seems to find only him. The consequences of this technique appear in his handling of colonial and revolutionary sermons, to take just one example. He cites dozens of sermons, but he does so in a way that strips them of their biblical and theological content. Ministers of the gospel end up sounding like political theorists when in fact they refer to Locke merely incidentally. Thompson nearly erases Christianity from his “moral history.” If the new moral history seeks “to discern patterns of moral belief and action that may reveal the existence of a common moral order,” and if “the history of human events is, for better or worse, the history of men and women acting according to a conception of what they think is good, right, just, and true,” then how can Christianity not be part of that story, indeed, the most significant part of that story for most Americans in the 18th century? One would never guess from Thompson’s use of Nathanael Emmons and Samuel McKlintock, for instance, that these preachers focused on redemption in Christ in the sermons he quotes and not on the Enlightenment. Thompson correctly quotes McClintock’s postmillennialist vision of human intellect “rising to a degree of perfection hitherto unknown,” but the sentence does not end there. McClintock continues, “and, which is the most joyful part of the scene, [imagination] sees the benevolent religion of the divine Saviour extended far and wide, and christian [sic] churches planted where satan’s [sic] seat now is.” This aspiration is far from the Enlightenment rationalist, materialist, secular, individualist regime Thompson tries to construct. 

But Thompson’s selection and use of evidence is not my main concern here. I will focus instead on what Thompson gets wrong about post-revolutionary America. I raised this point recently in my review here of Brad Watson’s Progressivism: The Strange History of a Bad Idea, and I’d like to elaborate in more detail on the gaps in West Coast Straussians’ account of 19th-century intellectual history. 

“Teutonic Philosophy” in America

In his epilogue, Thompson observes that “beginning in the late 1830s, as new philosophical ideas began to seep into America from Europe, some Americans—most notably Southern slaveholders and their Northern allies—began to openly challenge whether the Declaration’s self-evident truths were actually true.” The implication here, especially in its larger context, is that the appropriation of German thought in America was largely a phenomenon of the South and its Northern sympathizers. In a revealing endnote, moreover, Thompson writes, “Northern postbellum intellectuals were, like their Southern antebellum counterparts, deeply influenced by Hegel’s philosophy of history.” There are two problems with this sentence. First, where is the evidence that antebellum Southerners were “deeply influenced” by Hegel? Second, the adjective “postbellum” in the claim about Northern intellectuals is utterly misleading. The adjective misdirects the reader away from how deep and wide German influence was in the pre-Civil War North. Americans didn’t have to wait for the Progressives to lure them into German philosophy; some of them had been using the giants of German Idealism to reconstruct their minds since the beginning of the 19th century, especially in and around Boston, some in a conservative direction but many more in a radical one. 

New England transcendentalists studied and appropriated German historians, philosophers, theologians, and biblical higher critics to carry liberal Unitarianism even farther away from Christian orthodoxy than had the old guard of William Ellery Channing and Andrews Norton. From Kant to Fichte to Schelling to Hegel, German idealists, broadly defined, increasingly informed the liberal Unitarian and reformist critique of American religion, education, politics, and society. Frederic Henry Hedge, Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Ripley (of Brook Farm fame), Margaret Fuller, James Freeman Clarke, and Theodore Parker led the march, armed with firsthand knowledge of the German texts or with fresh translations thanks to Ripley’s series, Specimens of Foreign Standard Literature. In some cases, the first English translations of significant German literature, philosophy, and theology appeared in the United States before they did in England. By 1840, so great was the public appetite for German thought that the North American Review complained of the “German mania” sweeping America, or so it seemed from the provincialism of Boston. Debates about Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel appeared everywhere in newspapers, periodicals, and histories of philosophy.

Southern intellectuals were no strangers to these giants of philosophy. Michael O’Brien’s definitive two-volume Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860 amply demonstrates that, despite Henry Adams’s sneer (“strictly, the Southerner has no mind”), there was in fact a lively and copious Southern mind conversant in Continental literature, criticism, art, philosophy, and theology. Well-traveled and well-read, Southerners added these works to their libraries, often read them in the original, reviewed them, and debated their merits, generally preferring French authors to German. They knew Carlyle and Coleridge, Victor Cousin and Comte, Goethe, Schiller, Kant, and Hegel. 

But Thompson turns this needed correction into a distortion. For example, he claims that “many Southern intellectuals” (my italics) relied on Hegel’s philosophy of history, a claim nowhere supported by O’Brien’s work, which he cites in his notes. Virginian Jesse Burton Harrison was indeed the first American known to have cited Hegel’s yet-unpublished philosophy of history (not the first to mention Hegel, as Thompson says). But Harrison did so briefly in a long essay about “English Civilization,” lamenting the dominance of empiricism over the English mind. Even the Hegelian South Carolinian James Warley Miles, whom Thompson discusses in the same paragraph, was an odd exception to Southern thought. 

For too long, historians missed the degree to which Southerners read German and other European literature. O’Brien tried to correct that misunderstanding. Thompson tips to the other extreme and misses the more obvious and significant story. It was the Northern Mind—and we should speak of a distinctly Northern Mind as much as we do a Southern and not let any region monopolize the “American Mind”—became steeped in German idealism beyond anything known in the South. As the “Yankee Exodus” carried New Englanders across New York and Pennsylvania, into the Midwest, and on to California, these cultural missionaries brought German Idealism and Scottish Common Sense Realism with them to the communities they formed and the colleges and seminaries they founded. In Cincinnati, Calvin Stowe, husband of Harriet Beecher Stowe, raised the alarm in 1845 about German philosophy’s penetration of the West and rallied supporters of the good old Lockeanism. But other transplants embraced the “Teutonic Philosophy,” to Stowe’s consternation. Independently, a school of St. Louis Hegelians sprang up among the German immigrants of Missouri in the 1840s. Western Hegelians and New England Kantians stayed in close communication, teaming up in the 1870s at the Concord School of Philosophy (1879-1888), the brainchild of Bronson Alcott, Emerson, veteran abolitionist Franklin Sanborn, and William Torrey Harris, popularizer of Hegel, founder of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, and later U.S. Commissioner of Education. Julia Ward Howe, who called Kant her “Master” and read him daily in German, presented two lectures at the School’s 1881 centennial of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

Thompson’s (and by extension, Jaffa’s) version of 19th-century America obscures more than it illuminates.

This whole trend in Northern thought matters because it is a truer story than Thompson tells, and it undermines his effort to trace the origins of Progressivism to the antebellum South. He is looking for someone to blame for Progressivism’s assault on the Declaration of Independence, natural rights, and limited Constitutional government, and he finds the guilty party in German historicism and relativism as mediated by the South and then revived by progressive intellectuals. All the telltale signs were present already below the Mason-Dixon line. Fatefully, the South embraced the “German Historical School” in the nineteenth century to protect its interests, replacing “nature” with “history.” “Many Southern intellectuals,” Thompson claims, not only imported and applied Hegel’s philosophy of history and thus sank into the mire of relativism, but many were “pre-Marxian socialists” who anticipated the revolutionary Communist’s ideas and slogans. After the Civil War, the disease of “Kant, Hegel, Marx, and eventually Nietzsche” infected the North and the rest of America. Out of this intellectual mix came pragmatism and progressivism, Thompson claims, as well as the historicism, relativism, and nihilism that afflict America in the 21st-century and threaten to rob our youth of hope and inspiration. 

Anyone familiar with Harry Jaffa’s account of the genealogy of progressivism will recognize Thompson’s debt to The New Birth of Freedom, a debt Thompson acknowledges and one that “careful readers” will notice, as he writes for The American Mind. “Both volumes,” he says, “explicate and defend the founders’ (and Lincoln’s) moral and political philosophy as true, which means that both books go beyond a mere description of past individuals, ideas, actions and events. . . . [They] are more than just studies in the history of political philosophy. Each presents a moral-political philosophy that transcends the ideas of their subjects.”

Thompson’s (and by extension, Jaffa’s) version of 19th-century America obscures more than it illuminates. The complex history of German idealism and historicism in America doesn’t stand a chance in the midst of these powerful, simplistic, and oft-repeated assumptions about the timing, geography, and identity of the shock troops of the German invasion. 

Unfortunately for Thompson, Lydia Maria Child herself upends the case he tries to make about when, how, and by whose hands German thought took hold in America. His reliance on her is deeply ironic. Born in Massachusetts in 1802, she became a liberal Unitarian and women’s rights activist, and joined the circle of New England transcendentalists and reformers. Her brother, Convers Francis, a Unitarian minister and member of the Transcendentalist Club, preached the radical theologian Theodore Parker’s ordination sermon. Child wrote popular novels, a biography of Germaine de Stael whose books introduced her and many other Americans to a host of German poets and philosophers, and a three-volume history of the “progress of religious ideas,” and edited the National Anti-Slavery Standard. Her popular “Letters from New-York” for that paper ranged widely over the intellectual currents of the time, introducing dozens of German authors to her readers. Her intellectual heroes included Kant and Hegel, finding Hegel’s Philosophy of History and his conception of “spirit” particularly compelling. Lydia Moland’s forthcoming biography of Child will do much to flesh out this story. Once we know Child’s debt to Hegel, we read her interpretation of the dialectic between “Freedom” and “Slavery” in 1860 with new eyes.

“Throw all the Thunderheads Overboard”

In Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, published in 1851, Stubbs and Flask drag the corpse of their “Right Whale” to the Pequod and witness the head of their prey being hoisted to the ship’s port side, counterbalancing the “prodigious head” of the Sperm Whale already tied to the starboard. The narrator, Ishmael, explains that Captain Ahab’s listing boat now “regained her even keel; though sorely strained, you may well believe.” Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Ishmael transforms the spectacle into a philosophical allegory. “So, when on one side you hoist in Locke’s head, you go over that way; but now, on the other side, hoist in Kant’s and you come back again; but in very poor plight. Thus, some minds for ever keep trimming boat. Oh, ye foolish! throw all these thunderheads overboard, and then you will float light and right.” 

It is tempting to interpret this passage as Melville’s appeal to Americans at mid-century to stop their constant intellectual “trimming” (that is, anxiously correcting their listing boat) and to be neither obsessively Lockean nor obsessively Kantian but rather achieve (or return to?) some third, more stable way, perhaps less ideological. Whether or not that was so, Melville clearly understood the heated contest between Locke and Kant underway in America since at least the 1820s. Lockean epistemology—profoundly influential in American education, political philosophy, economics, and theology—faced modification by Common Sense Realism and then an attempted overturning by Kant and German idealism more broadly. 

Thompson’s book is the Lockean whale head tied to the Pequod, and the boat lists too far to starboard. I don’t deny Thompson’s right to tell his story. He tells it with energy and conviction. He offers it as a celebration of the American experience, an embodiment of what Nietzsche called “monumental history,” meant to inspire the young to action. It constructs the most robust case imaginable for Locke’s centrality to the American identity and mission. But the book badly needs the counterbalance of English constitutionalism, Christianity, Common Sense Realism, Classical Greece, and especially Rome to bring our understanding of the Founding to an even keel. Tying Kant and his successors so tightly to an imagined Southern side of the boat doesn’t bring the ship upright. If anything, the boat lists more than ever. The ship of American intellectual history is “sorely strained” and in “poor plight” if historians and political theorists try simply to counterpoise Locke and Kant in this way. The real story is more complex, interesting, and full of surprises.

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