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Susan Jacoby on William Goetzmann’s ‘Beyond the Revolution’

Posted on Apr 10, 2009
book cover

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.”


book cover


Beyond the Revolution


By William H. Goetzmann


Basic Books, 480 pages


Buy the book


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.

To see long excerpts from “Beyond the Revolution,” click here.

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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By Trithoverlies, April 17, 2009 at 11:38 pm Link to this comment

What does you Vitrolic hatred of the last 8 Years have to do with what this article is about? Bush for your Imformation did more to keep anymore terrorist attacks from happening, (not Man made desasters) as The director of Homeland Security called terrorist acts. Torture 3 top Terrorist were put through water boarding and thane Bush stoppped the program.  As to sleep deprevation many more Americans survive on weeks of it while it was only used on thirty select terrorist and it is not torture unless you are one of the leftiost that doesn’t believe any socialist Country does this Stop ragging on the U.S.A. and get real about the true enemy of Freedom The Radical Facist Muslims and their wanting to bring Saria Law to a neighborhood near you and get made at the socalled Judges that say American Common Law can Live side-by-side when both are Diametrically opposed to each other. I have had it with the My Country is alway wrong attitude of the far left so if you want to criticize a Country for Human Rights Abusses why don’t you say someting about Iran where Homosexuals are being hung, or Venezuela where peoples property rights are being stolen by Hugeo “Oh” Hugo Cheapvest “Oh” I mean Chevez, and our darling North Korean starve your people to death dictator.
            John R. Bloxson Jr.
P.S. Paine died a pulper screaming begging for his life as the death angel came to take him away. He was not an Internationalist but a good rebel rouser, so good in fact the french used his writings to justify the murder of many innocent people by the Guillotine during the Aftermath of the French Revolution.

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By Trithoverlies, April 16, 2009 at 12:08 am Link to this comment

One comment Faith Based is reality based because it works while your secular based leads only to recidavism so Secular Progressive you are on the wrong side in this Your ways brought us from 23% in poverty in 1967 to 37%in poverty in 1999 what a great record you have of straightening out the mess you and your social Scientist created starting with the war on the family removing the Father from the Home so the kids could eat was real smart wasn’t it. It lead instead to higher brith rates of unwed teen mothers no interaction and support from boys calling themselves men based on the number of kid they had fathered but weren’t supporting. So yes seculaism has realy worked in the inner city and in the rural towns as well, Secular Socialism is broken and can’t be fixed. It has never worked, and will never work so go live in Europe where secularism is destroying their countries. Live there for a few years and I believe it will be a mind altering experiance.
              John R. Bloxson Jr.

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By OzarkMichael, April 15, 2009 at 10:48 am Link to this comment

Who believes we need a new strong emperor type...

Not me.

... that will as a majority of just one claim our rights to life as a people by taking full control of our military and set the stage for a refreshed America with a rejuvenated people?

Dont get me wrong, I like to feel as refreshed and rejuvinated as the next guy. Its the “new strong emperor type” that turns me off. Its a bit of a high price to pay.

But then again i am old school. A “majority of just one” that can “claim our rights to life” could just as easily use that power against our rights and our lives. 

If that were so then who believes that President OBAMA can be that man if pushed along by us?

I believe he could be that man. So while you push him to be the emperor type I am gonna pull him back to being just a President.

Who has a plan that will provide a smooth bloodless change?

I assume you refer to the empowerment of Emperor Obama as the smooth and bloodless plan? OK, I approve of the smooth and bloodless approach. I hope your plan succeeds only on that point but in nothing else.

Keep it smooth.

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By eileen fleming, April 15, 2009 at 6:14 am Link to this comment

“Soon after I had published the pamphlet “Common Sense” [on Feb. 14, 1776] in America, I saw the exceeding probability that a revolution in the system of government would be followed by a revolution in the system of religion… The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”-Tom Paine

A few months ago, I was invited to speak at a university of supposed higher learning about what I know from my 6 trips to Israel Palestine.

Only 2 students knew Israel had nuclear weapons and NOT one student had even heard of Mordechai Vanunu’s freedom of speech trial, conviction and Supreme Court appeal fighting 3 months in jail for speaking to foreign media in 2004.

The 5th year of restrictions that deny Vanunu the RIGHT to leave the state and the RIGHT to speak to non-Israelis expire April 21, 2009.

A ROTC student in particular felt very threatened by the information I delivered.

I was accused of propaganda, but what I did was disturb their POV with Common Sense and truth; and the truth can only set one free, if one loves the truth.

States and Nations have obligations. Human beings have RIGHTS.


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By John Harry, April 13, 2009 at 1:29 pm Link to this comment
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Susan Jacoby, I love you (intellectually, of course).

I won’t buy William Goetzmann’s ‘Beyond the Revolution’ but I will look for more on Thomas Paine…..

Good work. Susan Jacoby is always a delight.

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By rollzone, April 12, 2009 at 9:38 am Link to this comment

hello. i thought so i am in volume two. intellectuals inspire debate, and historical reference is choice. i was mistaken that this novel does not espouse an evolution of intellectuality, from our agrarian roots, and benevolent spy; Benjamin Franklin- to the present, sophisticated, cosmopolitan passenger of planet earth. should science ever duplicate the id- beyond its primitive ego replications of artificial intilligence- this will be a lively debate. the book looks entertaining.

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By geronimo, April 11, 2009 at 10:26 pm Link to this comment
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If Thomas Paine were alive today wouldn’t he be repeating his famous “We have it in our power to begin anew?”  And this time around wouldn’t he be adding something like “What’s more, yes we can?”

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By P. T., April 10, 2009 at 11:27 pm Link to this comment

The unevenness of this book, ranging from fascinating stories combining intellect and adventurousness to stultifying attempts to pin the intellectual label on unsuitable donkeys, only reinforces the wisdom of the chestnut that every decent high school English teacher proffers to aspiring adolescent authors: “Write about what you know.”

Translation:  Write stuff that I agree with.

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By Wilberforce, April 10, 2009 at 7:57 pm Link to this comment
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I am so going to read it. The book sounds fantabulosa, with one exception. There is no such thing as biblically literal religion. It’s right name is fundamentalism. Fundys only claim to take the bible literally even as the cherry pick it to shreds and ignore its authoritative message. Don’t covet, don’t bear false witness, give to the poor, show mercy to the oppressed, replenish the earth, pray in secret, etc… They’ve ignored all that from day one, as well as the bulk of the prophets and gospels. And only a serious dupe would consider them to be literalists.

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By OzarkMichael, April 10, 2009 at 5:51 pm Link to this comment

Thomas Paine finally saw a Revolution he dreamed of… the Revolution in France. Paine defended it, went out on a limb to vouch for its greatness. Paine went so far as to attack Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France”. 

Edmund Burke was unpopular in his home in Great Britain when he wrote in support the American Revolution because he realized it was a conservative/religious revolution so it was bound to succeed. He warned Britain not to fight America.

Years later he shocked everyone in Britain by writing AGAINST the French Revolution, when many in British society thought it was a great thing. He saw that the French Revolution was against religion and conservatism and warned it was a recipe for disaster.

Edmund Burke is, by Leftist wisdom, obviously not an intellectual, since he is a conservative who sided with many Americans who saw the French Revolution as folly.

Paine thought the French Revolution was an advance on the American one. Paine put his reputation on the line with his support of the French Revolution and his attack on Burke.

Paine would be disgraced. In his own lifetime the outcome proved him completely and irrefutably wrong. I am sorry to hear that he died a ruined man.

Ah, but Paine’s view is the forerunner of the Truthdig outlook. So Paine will be forever enshrined as the ‘intellectual’.  And anyone who disagreed with Paine then, or disagrees with Truthdig now, is called ‘anti-intellectual’ and sometimes much worse.

Burke’s insight into the problems of France proved to be prophetic. Too bad Burke is an ‘anti-intellectual’ or more of you would would read him.

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By Goddamnathiest, April 10, 2009 at 4:57 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Living in the bible belt most of my life, I understand the “fear” of “intellectuals.” I see it as questioning things that people don’t want questioned. This in turn, causes people to “think” and question their ideas and beliefs.
  Looking back on western civilization, it took almost 1,500 years for a “rebirth” or renaissance of scientific study and research to happen.  Even then, such individuals as Galileo ended up under house arrest when they went against the “Church” by having his book released. 
  No longer was the earth nor man at the center of the Universe. 
  The results of educating “man” and letting them use reason, logic, and the scientific process threaten those whose “beliefs” they “threaten” by exposing them for what they truly are: simply beliefs.  Beliefs based on simple explanations made in a much much more simpler time.

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By Ivan Hentschel, April 10, 2009 at 4:42 pm Link to this comment
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I haven’t read it yet (and probably won’t) but this sounds like a fair estimation. Time is thusly saved.

But who is Dwight Baker and why is he saying all these terrible things about life?

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By Inherit The Wind, April 10, 2009 at 8:47 am Link to this comment

You know what, DB?
Sometimes you truly surprise me. I would never have thought that a radical fundamentalist like you would also be a liberal and understand predatory practices that ARE the failing of capitalism that Rand never accepted or understood.

Still, what you described sounded an awful lot like the plot of “There Will Be Blood”, based on a Upton Sinclair’s “Oil!”

These posts on drilling for gas are the most coherent and compelling things you have written here at TD—I congratulate on them.

BTW, you may be interested in trying to find an obscure Upton Sinclair novel called “They Call Me Carpenter” about Jesus coming again in 1922 in California.  It’s long out of print but I think it’s available as an eBook.  Sinclair’s message was basically he’d be crucified all over again in modern times.

Don’t worry—soon I’ll be ripping you to shreds all over again, but this time, you came up with a really interesting story.  I wonder if it’s documented that the gas drilling of the late 60’s was deliberately killed by cutting off funding from the banks.  Of course, T.Boone Pickens is now heavily into Texas and Oklahoma gas…..Was he behind it then? He’s in his 80’s now and that was 40 years ago.

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By godistwaddle, April 10, 2009 at 3:36 am Link to this comment

Herding butterflies. Not needing to herd to large barns of a Sunday to bleat their ignorance and stupidity aloud with the other ovines, intellectuals and rationalists often take advantage of solitude to think, write, and reflect.

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