U.S. Intellectual History Blog

William Appleman Williams, an intellectual historian of early America

contoursWe usually think of William Appleman Williams as a revisionist diplomatic historian of the Wisconsin school. On its face, this reputation does not seem to jive very well with early American intellectual history. After all, it was one of Williams’ greatest influences, Charles Beard, whose supposed disregard for intellectual history has irked many champions of early American intellectual history over the years. Contrary to such an impression however, Williams was one of the most original and insightful intellectual historians of the early United States, yet is rarely given credit for that. In fact, in some ways we have come full circle, back to the synthesis Williams arrived at in his account of the intellectual foundations of the United States.

Before Bernard Bailyn, J.G.A. Pocock, and others formulated what some regard as the republican synthesis and before others, including Drew McCoy and Joyce Appleby, pushed back and retrieved the role of liberalism in American thought, Williams was already working with a synthesis that accounted for both Locke and Harrington without neglecting either’s significance as a formative thinker. Furthermore, he did so in a way that was designed to undermine the myth of American exceptionalism, when—among other claims—he demonstrated quite convincingly that the foundational document of the United States, the Constitution, was informed by a strong feudal current of thought. James Madison, as Williams notes, even admitted that his design for the Constitution’s checks and balances was feudal in nature.

Williams’ conceptual framework for the colonial, revolutionary and early republic periods, as he promoted it in his sweeping account The Contours of American History (1961), was ‘mercantilism’. Much like we might miss the meaning of the synthesis we call republicanism if we merely think of it as a political outlook, viewing Williams’ notion of mercantilism merely as an economic doctrine does great disservice to his formulation. While the foundations of mercantilism, as Williams casts it, rest first and foremost on the political economy of British and Dutch colonialism, it is a full moral view of the world that spans all facets of individual and social life. Whereas Bailyn and Pocock worked with ‘ideology’ and ‘vocabulary’, respectively, for conceptualizing republicanism, Williams employed the similar notion of ‘weltanschauung’, which he understood as a “definition of the world combined with an explanation of how it works.” He furthermore argued that in order to apply this conceptual category we must recognize that “the vast majority of significant figures on the stage of history act consciously and purposefully”—surely a statement that Pocock and Bailyn, as well as most readers of this blog, can agree with.(1)

In The Contours of American History, Williams uses the concept of weltanschauung to parse United States history into three different periods, each of which, he suggests, “is characterized and powered by a basic view of the world.” In this vein, the first of these eras is the Age of Mercantilism, periodized by Williams from 1740 to 1828.(2) Here one is struck by how Hegelian and hence ideational this framework is, which attests, I think, to the independent originality of Williams’ scholarship. Though something of a Beardian, clearly in touch with Marxism, and an inspiration to New Left historians, in Contours, his most comprehensive analysis of U.S. history, he chooses a framework that stresses ideas. (At times his Hegelian account is a tad hyperbolic, check out this quote in p. 283 of Contours: “But the dynamic spirit of laissez nous faire rose like a phoenix from the Compromise of 1850 and demanded fulfillment. Its chosen instruments were Senators Seward and Douglas, and a mystic young corporation lawyer from Illinois, named Abraham Lincoln”).

Much as he does with American history writ large, Williams casts the age of mercantilism in tragic terms. In common to almost all American mercantilists, according to Williams, was a commitment to a corporate notion of a commonwealth. Tragically however, they failed in their attempts to square their commitment to the commonwealth and to society as more than a sum of its parts with their allegiance to both property rights and to expansion   (economic and colonial). Suffering under the yoke of its internal contradictions, mercantilism ultimately could not maintain a firm grasp on its corporate origins. As a result America ushered in the age of laissez nous faire, as individualism recast people as ends unto themselves. According to Williams, no group of thinkers better captured this transition than the transcendentalists, especially Emerson and Whitman, but also Thoreau. Furthermore, as part of this new weltanschauung, the United States recast its commitment to expansion as its reason for being. Thus the age of laissez nous faire was also the age of manifest destiny.

Most striking perhaps in reading Williams’ account of key thinkers of early America, such as the three Adamses (Samuel, John, and John Quincy), Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Gallatin, and many more is his empathy and willingness to grapple with and even commend their corporate understanding of society. Here is no caricature of progressive and neo-progressive history that resents its subject matter to begin with, but a sincere effort to engage with the ideas of a diverse array of historical actors. Indeed, mercantilism as Williams casts it is wide enough to contain both Hamilton and Jefferson and their very different visions of empire. Its very formulation seems much more in touch with how contemporaries viewed themselves and their ideas than republicanism or liberalism, and as a framework—especially when compared with the world view that it gave way to, laissez faire—seems no less if not more useful for outlining early American thought.

It is impossible to do full justice in this limited post to mercantilism, as expounded by Williams, but suffice it to say that in some regards it seems ahead of the debates between historians about republicanism and liberalism that dominated the historiography from the 1960s to roughly 1990. Unfortunately, historians to this day tend to write Williams off as too ideologically committed. Had we fully listened to what he had to say, we might have realized that in some ways we are still contributing to the tragedy of American history. For, unlike Williams’ scholarship, the republican-liberal historiographical debate helped turn our attention away from associating American intellectual history with empire, slavery and genocide. To be sure, intellectual histories of early America have been very interesting, absorbing, and insightful, yet functioned as smoke screens nonetheless. As Williams shows us time and again, Americans have been very adept at employing their best and most sincere efforts, only to collude with empire yet again.

I will devote a future post to say a few words about how Williams’ notion of mercantilism anticipated and in some ways proves more compelling than Sven Beckert’s recent concept of ‘war capitalism’.

[1] William Appleman Williams, The Contours of American History (Verso, 2011 [1961]), p. 20-1.

[2] The next two are the Age of Laissez Nous Faire 1819-1896, and the Age of Corporation Capitalism, 1882-1960s.

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