Following E. P. Thompson’s work on the British working class in the 1960s historians of what we usually call the “new social history” have attempted to produce history that would not rest on texts authored by elites, but on other forms of evidence culled from the archive. Recently I have been preoccupied with the question if that is something intellectual historians should attempt as well. And if they do would it still be intellectual history?
Another work by E. P. Thompson perhaps best captures this question. In 1971 Thompson published “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” which attempted to sketch a framework for the mentality of the English plebs when faced with economic pressure. According to this formulation there are certain red lines that the English crowd would not tolerate, which the historian could tease out. There were unspoken assumptions within communities that were usually well understood, and when the elites abrogated these terms the crowd would rise up to uphold them. Thompson’s work focused on food riots, but other scholars have attempted to apply this framework to a whole set of corporate (1) assumptions.
To what extent can we regard such an attempt to penetrate into the realm of assumptions, emotions, and instincts as intellectual history? For though it surely falls to some extent within the many registers of human cognition, the evidence we have is only circumstantial. We do not know—and cannot even get a good feel for—what ideas those pre-articulated instincts helped form. We cannot even be certain that this pre-articulated layer of thought that we hypothesize about really existed.
Such problems are not only reserved for the actions of historical subalterns. Take for instance a famous document like the Declaration of Independence. It talks about “self evident truths,” but to what extent did the people who wrote the Declaration believe what they wrote? And even if they believed what they wrote, to what extent would they be likely to act on those ideas? We know that to a significant extent they were not prepared to hold themselves accountable to the notion that “all men are created equal.” Thomas Jefferson did not release his slaves after writing the Declaration, and though he said much on account of slavery—and even acted to some extent on his ideas, as in his work on the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 for example—should we not attempt to formulate an intellectual history that fully accounts for his actions?
Take for example John Adams’ reply to his wife Abigail in response to her famous “Remember the Ladies” request. “As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh,” he wrote to his wife less than three months before the Declaration of Independence was made public. And he continued with a jeering tone to dismiss all those groups of non-white and non-elite men who have recently decided to challenge “the bonds of government.” In other words it would seem that there was much else that was “self evident” about the Declaration of Independence. Even if those who wrote it thought they believed it, we can tell that there is a pre-articulated—and is some ways more significant—intellectual level that evinced very different convictions.
Now in this particular instance I presented some textual evidence to support my case, but can we imagine an intellectual history that does not rely on classically authored texts at all? What ever we might call it, it seems worthwhile to understand this level of cognition that in many—perhaps most—regards has shaped historical reality more than fully articulated ideas have.
 By corporate I refer to premodern notions of community bonds.
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