An Introduction to Intellectual History in the United States

A nation’s history is generally preserved in writing, symbols, documents, and if the list is shortened to a minimum is pared down to textbooks used in teaching. Other venues are tightly focused on ideas or biographies of important leaders which focus on actions and their consequences which change a nation’s culture or economics, freedom and other matters of consequence.

For example, in a particular period of time on planet earth, a single person, Rene Descartes, was thinking, and realized that simply by being able to think he must be alive. He wrote out the syllogism and published it in, a compilation of physics and metaphysics. He dedicated his work to Princess Elizabeth, daughter of Elizabeth Stuart, titular queen of Bohemia, and thereafter in 1644 to others, where his thoughts spread throughout Europe and spontaneously caused others to act similarly and share their ideas in what became The Enlightenment. The variety of people’s interests and ideas had consequences for many improvements in understanding of government, medicine, science, mathematics, philosophy, and other subjects. Most of the people who came into contact with Enlightenment Ideas followed their interests and likewise spread methods, reason, truth, understanding which gave new enlightenment to a variety of subjects; religion, government, liberty, et al. Interestingly, the same subjects gave different results in each of two different nations between 1775 and 1789. The United States of America adopted The Enlightenment of John Locke’s Two Treatises on government. These essays produced an orderly change among the population of the Thirteen English-speaking colonies which was already highly literate, economically successful, expressed a need for self-government, and which they achieved quickly.

France was about eighty percent illiterate, attempting to change from its middle-ages feudalism, but was unable to articulate its next steps to something else. The French embraced slogans, among their large uneducated population, which was inadequate thought. Napoleon Bonaparte seized the opportunity to lead the under-class and put them in the Army which subdued the former upper class, and more. The Enlightenment came to an end when Napoleon attempted following the French Revolution to subdue the Continent of Europe from the British Isles to Russia. In the meantime, in North America, the people and the leaders of the already existing governments of the Thirteen Colonies, seamlessly together separated from England and unified the colonies under a Declaration of Independence and a written Constitution that unified North America under an enlightened democratic republic which was ratified by people.

American Intellectual History had its beginning on an exact date, November 18, 1620 with the signing of the Mayflower Compact, a political document governing political matters among the one-hundred one passengers, both Puritans and Strangers alike in a democratic structure. Governor Carver would sign a peace treaty with the Indian Massasoit, only 124 days thereafter.

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I undertook the idea to introduce an essay on America’s Intellectual History when I could find a source that covered at least three-hundred twenty-five years, or more. That period is from The Mayflower Compact to the end of World War II in 1945. My source is The Great Courses: The American Mind, taught by Professor Allen C. Guelzo, Gettysburg College. He summarized the most important intellectual history under six primary themes. I quote Professor Guelzo:

“No question has shown up more often, from the Puritans to Lincoln to B.F. Skinner (a Professor of Psychology whose primary research objects have been as a behaviorist). The idea that behavior is determined by its consequences be they reinforcements or punishments.” This provides a basis for which each individual person will adhere more or less to the behavior with which he is familiar, again and again. Is it more important for us to act or think? It appears to me Americans embrace action.

“From the first lecture to the thirty-sixth, religious ideas have defied every prediction of their demise and remained a living part of American intellectual life. Religion and Enlightenment [two separate themes, both intellectually embraced] have, in fact, formed the two souls in the American consciousness, struggling together in almost every lecture, like Esau and Jacob.”

“The Fourth is the power of liberal capitalism, which made its debut in Lecture Nine and was still at front stage in this last lecture.

“The Fifth is pragmatism, which was born out of the distress of the Civil War Era, and which together with Darwinism, turned Americans away from traditional philosophical and social thinking.

“The Sixth is the dilemma posed by the American ascent to world power through two World Wars, and the responsibilities that have come with it.“

Professor Guelzo’s lectures were published in 2005, so there is much that has changed since then that has not been considered in the above. April 30, 2023
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