U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Rethinking the Head-Heart Dichotomy in American History

180px-HeadandHeartIn the fall of 1786, after parting with the woman he loved, a disconsolate Thomas jefferson recorded a dialogue between his head and his heart. When this remarkable dialogue prompted one of my students recently to exclaim of Jefferson, “he was so weird!” I was thrilled. I recalled how Allan Bloom argues in the preface to the second edition of his translation of Plato’s Republic that when students say of philosophy “this is outrageous nonsense,” their passions really become involved with ideas. It is heartening that students could look at the Founder with whom most are somewhat familiar from popular American mythology, and declare him “weird.” I believe I am doing my job best as an intellectual historian and teacher if my students find complexities and problems in the most well-known, sanitized thinkers and texts from the American past, and if they identify with or find urgent relevance in the most obscured, seemingly distant thinkers and texts. Jefferson’ head-heart letter is an incredibly rich source for students, but historians, too, would do well to reexamine this letter and consider the challenges it poses to our traditional categories of reason and emotion, and our traditional understanding of Jefferson as “Enlightenment thinker.”

Jefferson’s adventures in Paris after the American Revolution include his becoming enamored with the twenty-six year old English painter, Maria Cosway. It was with a heavy heart and a broken wrist (in a failed romantic gesture, Jefferson had leapt over a small public fountain to greet Cosway, slipped, and injured himself) that Jefferson left his friend and her husband in Europe in 1786. Back in the United States, Jefferson aired his pain and longing to Cosway in a letter, the now-famous dialogue between his head and his heart. Any inspired conversation between intelligent parties tends to wander into several topics beyond the initial discussion, and it appears this also happened “when Jefferson dined alone.” The head-heart letter quickly becomes more than a discussion of the heart’s suffering in Maria Cosway’s absence as Jefferson’s organs debate moral philosophy and the relationship between America and Europe. Above all, Jefferson explores the proper role of reason and science and of emotion and sympathy in moral life, coming to surprising conclusions.

Jefferson’s heart claims dominion over all matters of emotion, justice, love, friendship, and morals. “To you [nature] allotted the field of science; to me, that of morals,” Jefferson’s heart tells his head.1 This association of love, justice, and morals with the heart suggests that Jefferson would also place religion in that category, and indeed, throughout the dialogue only Jefferson’s heart invokes God. Historians of religion in America, however, often present Jefferson as the embodiment of “head religion” as opposed to “heart religion.” In Head and Heart: A History of Christianity in America, historian Gary Wills’ operative definitions of head religion and heart religion make head religion synonymous with reason and the Enlightenment and heart religion synonymous with emotion and evangelicalism. “The emphasis of Enlightened religion is on the head. The emphasis of Evangelicals is on the heart,” Wills states.2 As a Deist and an intellectual product of the Enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson fits historians’ conventional “head religion” category. The dialogue between his head and his heart, however, complicates the issue by suggesting that Jefferson conceived of religion as a matter of the heart.

When Jefferson’s heart appears to hold out hope of seeing Cosway again, his head asks, “perhaps you flatter yourself they may come to America?” In response, Jefferson’s heart launches into a defense of the virtues of the United States. Reminding his head that Cosway is a landscape painter, Jefferson’s heart proclaims, “she wants only subjects worthy of immortality to render her pencil immortal. The Failing Spring, the Cascade of Niagara, the Passage of the Potomac through the Blue Mountains, the Natural Bridge. It is worth a voyage across the Atlantic to see these objects; much more to paint, and make them, and thereby ourselves, known to all ages.” Jefferson played the naturalist in his Notes on the State of Virginia, fist published in 1781, collecting data about nature and natural resources in the New World. As President, he sent Louis and Clark on a scientific expedition to gather intelligence on the Louisiana Purchase territory. In the head-heart letter, however, he suggests that is the job of an artist, not a scientist, to extol the virtues of the American wilderness. “Mountains, forests, rocks, rivers. With what majesty do we there ride above the storms!” cries Jefferson’s heart, “How sublime to look down into the workhouse of nature, to see her clouds, hail, snow, rain, thunder, all fabricated at our feet! And the glorious sun when rising as if out of a distant water, just gilding the tops of the mountains, and giving life to all nature?” Here Jefferson sounds like Henry David Thoreau— the naturalist as poet. “Nature,” Thoreau wrote, “will not speak through but along with [the poet]. His voice will not proceed from her midst, but, breathing on her, will make her the expression of his thought.”3 Jefferson’s commitment to science and his naturalist cataloging are often touted as examples of his Enlightenment mind. In the head-heart letter these pursuits are more poetic than scientific, and Jefferson counts them as projects of his heart, not his head.

After his heart offers rhapsodic musings about American landscapes, Jefferson’s head echoes a familiar European aspersion. “When you reflect that all Europe is made to believe we are a lawless banditti, in a state of absolute anarchy, cutting one another’s throats, and plundering without distinction, how can you expect that any reasonable creature would venture among us?” In a letter supposed to be about personal love-sickness, Jefferson cannot avoid writing about his love for America and addressing the most common European criticisms of the new nation. Perhaps his time in France and his love for a married English woman caused him to reflect on his country’s place in the world and in the eyes of Europe in particular. Or perhaps this problem of the image of America in the eyes of Europe was so important to Jefferson that he ways always writing about it. In the entire letter, the only point on which Jefferson’s head and heart can agree is the virtue of the United States. When his heart insists that “there is not a country on earth where there is greater tranquillity, where the laws are milder, or better obeyed: where every one is more attentive to his own business, or meddles less with that of others: where strangers are better received, more hospitably treated, and with a more sacred respect,” the head affirms simply: “True, you and I know this, but [Maria Cosway and her husband] do not know it.”

Jefferson’s heart is not finishing reflecting on the virtues of America. The heart notes that Americans are “opening rivers, digging navigable canals, making roads, building public schools, establishing academies, erecting busts and statues to our great men, protecting religious freedom, abolishing sanguinary punishments, reforming and improving our laws in general” and suggests, getting in a dig at British newspapers, that the Cosways will judge “for themselves whether these are not the occupations of a people at their ease, whether this is not better evidence of our true state than a London newspaper, hired to lie, and from which no truth can ever be extracted but by reversing everything it says.” Here projects of science, industry, and politics—the very substance of the Enlightenment project—are lovingly detailed by Jefferson’s heart, while his head appears somewhat bored. “I did not begin this lecture,” scolds the head, “with a view to learn from you what America is doing. Let us return then to our point.”

Returning to the point of Jefferson’s despair over his separation from Cosway, Jefferson’s head and heart end up debating moral philosophy, and offering a unique view of the American Revolution. When Jefferson’s head tells his heart that it places too much value on friendships, the heart has had enough. “Respect for myself now obliges me to recall you into the proper limits of your office,” the heart admonishes the head. “When nature assigned us the same habitation, she gave us over it a divided empire. To you she allotted the field of science; to me that of morals. When the circle is to be squared, or the orbit of a comet to be traced . . . take up the problem; it is yours; nature has given me no cognizance of it,” Jefferson’s heart explains to its stubborn interlocutor. “In like manner,” continues the heart, “in denying to you the feelings of sympathy, of benevolence, of gratitude, of justice, of love, of friendship, she has excluded you from their controul. To these she has adapted the mechanism of the heart. Morals were too essential to the happiness of man to be risked on the incertain [sic] combinations of the head. She laid their foundation therefore in sentiment, not in science.” With this beautiful passage Jefferson suggests that emotion, rather than reason, provides the foundation for moral judgement. Challenging one of the most basic Enlightenment assumptions, Jefferson’s heart further argues that not all men posses an equal capacity for reason; yet compassion resides in all, and is therefore the better moral guide.

These arguments echo French Enlightenment critic Jean Jacques Rousseau, and, indeed, Jefferson’s heart continues to preach about the limits of reason and the virtues of compassion in a manner reminiscent of Rousseau’s First and Second Discourses, his most scathing critiques of the Enlightenment. According to Rousseau, man reasons himself out of his natural compassion. The heart recounts how this depraved reasoning happened to poor Thomas Jefferson when a woman once asked him for charity in Philadelphia. “You whispered that she looked like a drunkard, and that half a dollar was enough to give her for the ale-house,” Jefferson’s heart accuses his head. “When I sought her out afterwards, and did what I should have done at first,” the heart declares, “you know that she employed the money immediately towards placing her child at school.” Compassion was truly a better guide!

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Jefferson praises his heart—that is emotion, not reason—for the success of the American Revolution. “If our country, when pressed with wrongs at the point of the bayonet, had been governed by its heads instead of its hearts, where should we have been now? Hanging on a gallows as high as Haman’s,” declares the heart.When the head, or rather the faculty of reason, “began to calculate and to compare wealth and numbers” in the contest against the British, the heart “supplied enthusiasm against wealth and numbers”; the heart “put our existence to the hazard when the hazard seemed against us”; the heart, declares Jefferson, “saved our country.”

In her masterful Passion is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution, published in 2008, Nicole Eustace argues against traditional literature that the American Revolution emphasized emotion over reason and made sentiment the foundation for natural rights. Jefferson’s letter supports her thesis and further suggests that historians unsettle their categories of reason, emotion, and Enlightenment, and their notions of where Jefferson fits as an Enlightenment figure. In the head-heart letter he articulates an “autocritique of the Enlightenment,” as historian Mark Hulliung has written of Rousseau.4

“In short, my friend, as far as my recollection serves me, I do not know that I ever did a good thing on your suggestion, or a dirty one without it,” Jefferson’s heart gets the last word in the letter. “Fill papers as you please with triangles and squares . . . but leave me to decide when and where friendships are to be contracted,” the heart begs the head (it appears that Jefferson’s architecture was simply the result of his head’s pleasure in drawing triangles and squares).

Historians and teachers of U.S. intellectual history should assign the head-heart letter a central place in Jefferson’s thought. It provides a fascinating example of American anxiety over the image of the United States in Europe. It expresses the moral philosophy of a particular historical moment. Most it important, it should challenge historians to rethink the head-heart dichotomy in American history. Through this letter, historians can recognize the protean character of Enlightenment thought, and explore traces of Romantic thought in Thomas Jefferson.

1All quotations from Jefferson’s letter come from the online text. <http://www.pbs.org/jefferson/archives/documents/frame_ih195811.htm>

2Gary Wills, Head and Heart: A History of Christianity in America (New York, 2007), 3.

3Henry David Thoreau, Journal Volume I, 74.

4Mark Hulliung, The Autocritique of the Enlightenment (Cambrdige, 1998).

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “When this remarkable dialogue prompted one of my students recently to exclaim of Jefferson, “he was so weird!” I was thrilled.”

    I loved this. I completely agree that experiencing a sensation of acute difference between you and a historical subject – especially one that inspires the somewhat comical, amused designation of ‘weird’ – opens up a river of questions and curiosity. And I think this benefit goes well beyond assisting students in engaging with the material; I think it compels us to question our own declarations of how we ought to engage with our historical subjects, exactly along the lines Jefferson’s own head/heart dialogue might encourage us to do.

    At the S-USIH conference, one of the presenters at some point said that we should not argue with our subjects; or something to that effect. Although I am sure if pressed they would clarify that they did not mean to say we should (or could) prevent ourselves from conducting our own separate thought-experiment of engaging in dialogue with our subjects’ thought compared to our own, the implication did seem clear that this was not to be incorporated as a method of historical thinking and writing.

    But I really think this is all wrong. (In fact, I think I somewhat furiously scribbled “You should *always* argue with your subjects” on my note-covered program.) I’m not going to go all-in here in the comments section about how we deal with bias & perspective by facing it 100 percent and never deluding ourselves that we are involved in some kind of objective investigation (largely because we are all supposed to know this stuff, right?), but I will say that there is a lot to be mused on about rethinking the often-declared (not universally, though) stance towards what to do with how you feel about your subjects.

    On the one hand, there are those like Corey Robin who have argued that actively disliking your subjects – in his case he harbors particular animus for Ayn Rand – need not be something that prevents a scholar from discerning something missed before or leads them to distorting what is already there, but can actually be revelatory. And I think he has a point, at least in some cases – if we approach subjects with an attempt at “neutrality,” the viewpoint incorporated into that approach, it seems to me, is that the subjects, whatever their foibles/historical circumstances, were basically decent people doing the best that they could. But what if they aren’t? What if their bad intentions really outweigh ones we can refrain from labeling with moral descriptors? Could we very possibly miss a lot of what is going on, then, by explaining it away otherwise or simply failing to take it seriously?

    But the reverse, when it comes to emotion, is also true. Through an acknowledged sense of difference – “he was so weird!” or “WTF?” – I think one can also get around to a sense of affection that encourages a lot of empathy perhaps difficult to come by without that fully human engagement. I know I feel this way about a lot of historical figures I’ve studied – and working through this sense of weirdness I’ve been more able to arrive at places of understanding and even affection (even if, albeit, on limited terms at times). Jefferson is an example of this for me, actually, as is Hamilton and many others. They don’t stop being weird to me – and seriously on the weirdness scale Jefferson is pretty high up there – but the goal is not necessarily to obliterate this sense of difference but engage with it honestly in a way that actually forces you to recognize the differences between this historical person and their historical time and yours.

    So anyway, sorry – just wrote another post to your post. But it was a delightful read!

    • Thanks, Robin, great points. In political theory classes in college I encountered some professors whose goal was to get students to agree with, or see great value in every text, even when two or more texts were in complete opposition (I’m told this is a Straussian pedagogy). I found that approach helpful because it forced students to overcome the “weirdness” and distance of a text, and really engage with thinkers. I also had a professor whose goal was the opposite– “argue with” every thinker. I think this approach also has the benefits you described. It gets students to challenge assumptions and values they take for granted. Combined, I think the two approaches were an important part of my education. Anyway, its an interesting question of posture toward a text or a thinker, with students and in our own work– perhaps for another blog post!

  2. Rivka,
    I always enjoy reading your posts (lots of interesting angles and novel glances to digest).

    Both Eustace’s and Wills’s books are on my future reading list; your post motivates me to whip them out.

    Just scanning the index of Wills’s Head and Heart, I noticed that both John Dewey and William James receive short shrift for their contribution to the discussion. It would seem that a book featuring the metaphorically rich title of “Head and Heart” would document what role the New Psychology played, with its end-of-century ruminations about what part the (literal) heart and head (brain, nervous system, etc.) contributed to religious belief and, in general, to the ethical and religious discourse during those (to my mind) key decades for understanding how the physical body interacts with both the environment and with one’s inherited beliefs from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

    How do you view the conversation about religion and the whole “head vs. heart” framework in the United States today? Has cultural media (film and music, for example) impacted the direction it has taken in the last century?

    There was recently another title published from the “Chicago History of American Religion” series that I’m hoping to grapple with during the winter break (Robert C. Fuller, The Body of Faith: A Biological History of Religion in America). I think his emphasis on the physical body is a great direction to take American religious studies (or religious studies as a whole).


  3. “These arguments echo French Enlightenment critic Jean Jacques Rousseau . . .

    Rousseau was Swiss (technically, Genevan), though he certainly was a critic of the (French) Enlightenment. And he definitely fits the bill of someone who is disliked by people who write about him – not least himself!

    • Ah, good catch! I meant critic of the French Enlightenment! Apologies, Rousseau– Citoyen de Geneve!

  4. Mark,

    Thank you for your comment. I haven’t read Fuller’s _The Body of Faith_ but it does indeed sound like an interesting direction to take studies of religion in U.S. history. I love Leigh Eric Schmidt’s _Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment_, which devotes a good amount of space to ideas about the body and the supernatural, particularly the ear, as the source of receiving God’s call. Following Catherine Albanese’s _Republic of Mind and Spirit_ (and taking some ques from Perry Miller), I’ve long believed that historians of religion in America could gain valuable insights from replacing the head-heart dichotomy with a mind-matter dichotomy, or spiritual-social. Any dichotomy like that is going to run into problems, of course, but I think the mind-matter, or spiritual-social, divide can be more generative than head-heart has been (as I think evidenced in some of the shortcomings of Wills’ book).

  5. Since I nitpicked earlier, I’ll ask a more substantial question: how (if at all) does the head-heart dichotomy track one of the basic issues in philosophy, viz. the mind-body problem?

    I’ll have to investigate some of the books mentioned here. I’ve gotten a bit spotty on what’s new in the American Enlightenment – and the eighteenth century generally.

    One more nitpick. Mark Hulliung’s book about Rousseau was published in 1994, not 1998. Amazon tells me it’s coming out in paperback next year. Only twenty years late. But better than never.

    Oh, and no song from The Head and the Heart as musical accompaniment?

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