U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Intellectual History as Lived Ideology: Facing Promiscuous Critters in our Midst

Though I started a series of posts on agency last time, I thought to break it up by first posting my presentation at the round table at the conference last weekend, titled “is there still a place for ideas in early American history?” 

Just several months before he helped draft the 1776 Declaration of Independence John Adams received a letter from his wife Abigail containing an impassioned request: “remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.” In response the usually grave John Adams had nothing but jeering wit: “[w]e have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight” (my italics). By invoking in mirth the notion of female despotism, John Adams merely rehearsed a popular sartorial trope of the day, used by men to silence women. Indeed, in her conduct book, A Wife, published twenty years earlier, in 1756, Eliza Haywood warned British wives to beware so as not to appear as if they have any sway in household matters, for “a husband is no sooner known to have follow’d the counsel of his wife, than his companions cry out, that he is under a petticoat government.” (1)

Just about six years after John Adams received his wife’s request, on the very opposite western edge of Pennsylvania a group of Washington county militia rangers organized for an expedition into Indian country. They set out to investigate rumors that the neutral Moravian Indians of nearby Gnadenhutten had hosted an Indian raiding party on its way back from west Pennsylvania. Although the Moravian Indians  received the Pennsylvania militia men with open hands and hospitality, after three days of cool deliberation, in the corporate egalitarian tradition of white frontiersmen, the Washington County militia took a vote and decided to murder the Moravians like cattle, quite literally. They herded ninety seven men, women, and children into the mission’s cabins and slaughtered them systematically as one would livestock.

What unites these two anecdotes, is that they both resonate with the ultimate resolution of the revolutionary period in America, which embodied a peculiar combination of democratic ideas, on the one hand, and genocide, slavery, and disenfranchisement, on the other. Indeed, when Americans fully settled on the term democracy for their ascendant form of self-rule during the Jacksonian period, much less than half of the population of the U.S. were the beneficiaries of that designation, while the rest suffered under numerous forms of oppression.

What also unites these two very different anecdotes is that both the condescending humor of Adams, as well as the eerie combination of a majoritarian procedure and homicidal racism in the case of the Washington County militia, involve various registers of cognitive processes. Though neither conform to what we usually have in mind when we think of early U.S. intellectual history, I would like to argue that these are exactly the kinds of intellectual subject-matter that we must grapple with if we are to challenge self-complementary founding fables.

Indeed, if we are committed to tell history as objectively as we can, perhaps the ultimate and most daunting task for historians of national foundations is to challenge the very origins of our field. The history of the founding of the US—it’s very raison d’être—has shrouded American history in celebratory myths. Historians have all too often been eager participants, forging American ideology in ways that deliberately set out to blind us to uncomfortable truths. And though for many decades American historians have frustrated traditional narratives by incorporating transnational perspectives and affording agency to the peoples at the margins of traditional historiography, we have yet to fully dismantle that original complex of historiography and ideology and its offshoots over the years.

In other words, not only is there still a place for ideas in early American history, I would argue that only a history of ideas as lived ideology could fully deliver the kind of analysis most necessary, as, I hope, we inch towards a national history that is forthcoming, transparent, and truthful.

Examining and assessing that ideology, however, requires that we yoke disparate historically contingent attitudes that to all appearances do not fit well together—as the examples with which I opened this paper attest. How do corporate convictions and democratic procedures make sense alongside genocidal slaughter? How do grave notions about the rights of man and scornful attitudes towards the aspirations of one half of humanity become bedfellows? American historians—even when they did address the dark underbelly of American history—have by and large regarded these two different attitudes as only incidentally related rather than mutually enabling. In this way we can imagine the nation’s history as a process of incremental democratization.

Written in the well established tradition of celebratory historiography, Sean Wilentz’s prize winning The Rise of American Democracy is a recent product of this ideological project. “The mysterious rise of American democracy was an extraordinary part of the most profound political transformation in modern history,” declares Willentz, explaining that this amounted to “the triumph of popular government and of the proposition… that sovereignty rightly belongs to the mass of ordinary individual and equal citizens.” Let us examine the numerous conceits this passage participates in. First, the mesmerizing words “mysterious” and “rise” help establish the myth of “the most profound political transformation in modern history.” Moreover, Wilentz uses such constructs as “popular government,” and “the mass of ordinary individual and equal citizens” as though these are self evident. It is more of an unfortunate side note that, as he concedes earlier in the preface, by our standards of full enfranchisement “American democracy of the mid nineteenth century was hardly a democracy at all.” For Wilentz then maintains that “to impose current categories of democracy on the past is to block any understanding of how our own, more elevated standards originated.” Invoking the threat of presentism, he commits his narrative to a framework informed by hindsight.(2)

Ultimately, if we are to understand American ideology for how it operated historically; as it did when John Adams had the insolence to invoke the notion of petticoat government while framing egalitarian guidelines for republican self rule; as it operated for the liberty zealous militia men when they voted in favor of murderous violence; we must view it as a whole and explain it as a whole. That the attitudes at very the epicenter of American ideology as it shaped over the years seem contradictory does not mean that they do not complement one another. “Attitudes,” as Barbara Fields noted in reference to the historical attraction between democracy and racism, “are promiscuous critters and do not mind cohabiting with their opposites. Indeed, they sometimes seem to be happier that way.” (3)

[1] Margaret A. Hogan, and C. James Taylor, My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 110-3. Eliza Haywood, The wife. By Mira, one of the authors of The Female Spectator, and Epstles for Ladies (London: printed for T. Gardner, 1756), 105.

[2] Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, (New York; London: Norton & Company, 2005), xvii, 4-5.

[3] Barbara Fields, “Ideology and Race in American History,” Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward, ed. J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson. (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 155.

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