Book Reviews - Spring 2019

Freedom of Thought

The philosophical currents that shaped our nation

By John Kaag | March 4, 2019
Declaration of Independence, John Trumbull, 1819 (Wikimedia Commons)
Declaration of Independence, John Trumbull, 1819 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Ideas That Made America: A Brief History by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen; Oxford University Press, 220 pp., $18.95

Real presidents read books. When the Library of Congress was destroyed in the War of 1812, the former president Thomas Jefferson offered his collection to replace it, commenting that “I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from this collection … there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.” Congress agreed, purchasing the bulk of Jefferson’s library, 6,487 books, for $23,950. That this interaction between Congress and a president—this cooperation based in a common love of knowledge—is completely unthinkable today should be a cause of deep and sustained sadness.

The story of Jefferson and the congressional library is a telling vignette in Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s The Ideas That Made America, a quickly paced but surprisingly dense survey of thoughtful activity in the United States from the 1600s to the present. Her message is clear: American history is, has always been, and one hopes will remain an intellectual history. Thoughts, the most abstract and intangible of entities, matter, she contends, and arguably have mattered more in this country than in any other. In advancing this position, Ratner-Rosenhagen’s latest book is not unlike Carlin Romano’s America the Philosophical or Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club. This slender volume is no monument, but it provides a clear master narrative of the American past at a moment when people are feeling particularly whiplashed by instability, partisanship, and uncertainty. More important, the book offers a reader the opportunity to think through an array of distinctly American ideas, and thereby become the sort of intellectual who is prepared to remake a country.

“In the beginning was the word,” Ratner-Rosenhagen writes, “and the word was ‘America.’ ” Before there was a nation, there were ideas, clear yet often contradictory, about what this country should become. Ratner-Rosenhagen explains that when the Puritans arrived in the New World, they imported a philosophically sophisticated and religiously inflected idea about belonging. In coming to America, they had chosen exile, which ensured their religious freedom but also jeopardized their claims to a cultural heritage. They risked losing, in historian Jill Lepore’s words, their “Englishness.” To counteract this danger and to guard against pitching into savagery, they created a New England, which was to be an exceptional place, one that stood not only as a political exemplar but more crucially as a moral one.

“The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people,” John Winthrop proclaimed. “He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, ‘the Lord make it like that of New England.’ For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” There was, however, a flip side to this seemingly noble goal. In her opening chapter, Ratner-Rosenhagen deftly explains how the wedding of strict morality and exceptionalism had the natural, yet very ugly, offspring of xenophobia, exclusion, and oppression. Only certain types of people could live freely in America’s city upon a hill. Only certain types of ideas got to matter. “We may speak of a ‘war of ideas,’ which may have truth to it, but only as metaphor,” she writes. “In the case of Native American ideas during the first century of contact with Europeans, it was actual physical warfare—violent, bloody warfare—as well as disease and loss of land, that drove their ways of understanding to fade from historical memory.”

Strict morality and exceptionalism gave birth to xenophobia, exclusion, and oppression. Only certain people could live freely in the city upon the hill.

When we look back on the Founding Fathers, we don’t see the ideas that were wiped away in the founding. Instead, as Ratner-Rosenhagen writes, we see Enlightenment ideals—liberty, equality, the light of reason—shot through with a persistent Christian sensibility. These truths were supposed to be universal and self-evident, but in practice they weren’t. “Despite Enlightenment thinkers’ passion for comprehensive vision,” she writes, “many of their intellectual and moral viewpoints were obstructed by some rather profound blind spots, even for their own time.” For example, Jefferson may have restocked the congressional library, but his book learning did little to straighten his warped views on race. Similarly, the most “enlightened” centers of the young nation—its fledgling colleges such as Harvard—were rooted in the antithetical practices of slavery. “At most colleges,” Ratner-Rosenhagen observes, “the remuneration for the president came in the form of an annual income and slaves.” Such inconsistencies abound, and she details many of them, but one thing is notably clear: “in the case of the American Revolution, a prime factor in the causes of the war and the course of a new nation thereafter was the power of ideas.”

Ratner-Rosenhagen, author of American Nietzsche (2012), is most at ease when she focuses on Nietzsche’s 19th-century American contemporaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller. Their American transcendentalism—a rich strain of Romantic thought that replaced traditional republicanism in the 1830s—stood against the alienation and commodification of modern industrial life. In an especially trenchant moment of the book, Ratner-Rosenhagen explains that Emerson, writing in 1837, saw “Americans as caught up in the immediacy of making a living while forgetting what makes life worth living. [He] warned: ‘See already the tragic consequence. The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.’ ” Which leads one to ask, what is the mind of the country feeding on today?

Nineteenth-century intellectual life in the United States, despite its sprawl, has a number of well-defined through lines: transcendentalism, the Industrial Revolution, the rise of Darwinism, the Civil War, the failures of Reconstruction, and the emergence of American pragmatism. There are other themes, but the period invites historical summary. The subsequent century does not: after World War I, ideas in and about America proliferated so quickly that it is difficult to prioritize them, much less describe them at length in a “brief history,” as Ratner-Rosenhagen’s subtitle has it. She is occasionally at pains to maintain a cohesive narrative in her closing chapters, but she provides a type of shorthand to understand the intellectual tensions that arose in the 20th century: the interwar period featured a struggle between modernization and tradition; the 1950s were the golden years of cultural criticism; 1962 launched the counterculture against universalism in all its forms; postmodern theory of the 1980s, which announced the “death of the subject,” stood in tension with antiracist activists who wanted their subjectivity to be counted.

A reader may finish The Ideas That Made America with a question: How did we cover so much intellectual ground in so little time? I humbly suggest another: What ideas come next, or is this the end of the story?

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