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Susan Jacoby on William Goetzmann’s ‘Beyond the Revolution’
Posted on Apr 10, 2009
By Susan Jacoby
During the past half-century, American scholars have tended to place more emphasis on the anti-intellectual and anti-rational strains in our national character and history than on the vibrant, cosmopolitan intellectualism that played such a critical role in the founding of the new republic and has continued to exert a strong influence even during periods of popular reaction against what the cultural right has now dubbed “the elites.” Since the publication of Richard Hofstadter’s “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” in 1963, cultural analysts of widely varying political persuasions have mulled over, in voices ranging from sorrow to apocalyptic fury, a seemingly endless set of new examples of hostility to reason and an excess of knowledge (or what ideologues on either the right or the left consider the wrong kind of knowledge).
As Hofstadter pointed out, many of these forces—from religious fundamentalism to suspicion of alien, “un-American” philosophies—are endemic to American culture, but they have mutated more expansively at a time when 24/7 video and digital infotainment mounts a continuous assault on the public’s attention span and memory. The eight years of George W. Bush’s administration, with its clear preference for the faith-based over the “reality-based” world, was the last straw, not the first, for those of us who envy Hofstadter because he was able to write about anti-intellectualism without having to study the content of cable “all-the-news-that-reinforces-your-views” shows, blogger rantings or the oxymoronically titled “reality TV.”
In “Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought From Paine to Pragmatism,” Pulitzer Prize-winning historian William H. Goetzmann provides a timely reminder that the undeniable anti-intellectual currents in American culture have always been opposed, with varying degrees of success, by a strong intellectual tradition, rooted not in the idea of American exceptionalism but in world culture. Although Goetzmann focuses on American intellectual history from the Revolution to the Civil War, his narrative seems freshly relevant at a time when the most anti-intellectual administration in American history has been succeeded by a president who campaigned on a promise to restore science and evidence to American policymaking.
In his 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and Scientist in the Winning of the American West,” Goetzmann—professor emeritus in history and American studies at the University of Texas at Austin—challenged Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis that America owed its unique civilization almost entirely to the presence of a vast western frontier offering infinite possibilities for economic exploitation. Goetzmann’s narrative was both persuasive and exciting, and it began with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s intellectual and physical daring in accepting President Thomas Jefferson’s commission to explore and provide extensive information about the new territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase.
Unfortunately, the intellectual history in “Beyond the Revolution” does not lend itself to a unifying narrative. Tracing the connections that link Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Fenimore Cooper, Margaret Fuller, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, Victoria Woodhull and John C. Calhoun is very much akin to an attempt to herd butterflies.
Some of these people have a good deal to do with one another, in a historical as well as intellectual sense, but others can be connected only by straining to define each of them as intellectuals. If Woodhull, who started her public life as a spiritualist and ended it as a half-baked Marxist (with time out for exposing the adulterous adventures of Henry Ward Beecher, the most prominent American cleric of the late 19th century) was a serious intellectual, then I am the newest sensation on “American Idol.”
Goetzmann’s strongest chapters are his early ones, in which he examines the intellectually gifted men who made the American Revolution. The author consistently emphasizes that the early republic was designed and run, for the most part, not by fools who saw themselves as independent of European thought and their own country as an unsullied Eden but by thinkers who understood and acknowledged their debt to the European, Scottish and English Enlightenment.
Intellectualism and rationalism are not, of course, identical, but the United States was supremely fortunate that its most eminent Founders were not only intellectuals (a term not used until the 19th century) but had ideals that were rooted in Enlightenment reason. True to their Enlightenment values, they perceived no contradiction between the life of the mind and an active role in the world; they would have seen the aphorism “those who can’t do, teach” as utterly false.
Yet in his eagerness to give American intellectuals their proper due, the author frequently fails to give sufficient weight to the anti-rational, anti-intellectual forces arrayed against those whose highest values were learning and reason. The book properly begins with Thomas Paine and his famous statement, “We have it our power to begin the world anew.” Paine, born in England in 1737, is the perfect example of the internationalist Enlightenment influence on the founders. He did not immigrate to colonial America until 1774, and he arrived in Philadelphia with just two assets—his writing ability and a note of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin, who was serving as colonial Pennsylvania’s representative in London when he met Paine.
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