U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Where Do Old Ideas Go?

Editor's Note

This is one in a series of posts examining The American Intellectual Tradition, 7th edition, a primary source anthology edited by David A. Hollinger and Charles Capper. You can find all posts in this series via this keyword/tag:  Hollinger and Capper.

This post examines some of the texts included in Volume I, Part Three: Protestant Awakening and Democratic Order.  Here are all the texts included in this section:

William Ellery Channing, “Unitarian Christianity” (1819)

Nathaniel William Taylor, Concio ad Clerum(1828)

Charles Grandison Finney, selection from Lectures of Revivals on Religion (1835)

John Humphrey Notes, selection fromThe Berean (1847)

William Lloyd Garrison, selection from Thoughts on African Colonization (1832); “Prospectus of The Liberator” (1837)

Sarah Grimke, selection from Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, and the Condition of Woman (1838)

George Bancroft, “The Office of the People in Art, Government, and Religion” (1835)

Orestes Brownson, “The Laboring Classes” (1840)

Catharine Beecher, selection from A Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841)

Henry C. Carey, selection from The Harmony of Interests (1851)

As I read through the selections in part three of Hollinger and Capper, I was struck both by how much possibility remains in ideas once used and set aside, and how much possibility and fallibility remain in a society that yet finds use for some old ideas indeed.

But I’m late writing this post today – our annual neighborhood garage sale is happening on this sunny first Saturday in May, and for the first time we are participating in the event.  After over twenty-five years of marriage, two kids grown to adulthood, three cross-country moves, the relocation of parents who now live nearby, and thirteen years and counting at the same address, we have accumulated a sizable pile of stuff that is still perfectly useful – but no longer useful to us.

Gone are the beach chairs and the umbrella, the twin bed shaped like a race car, the bucket full of baseballs, the batting tee, the discus, the shotput, the student guitar, the forty-year-old trumpet in its case, the push lawn-mower (boy, was that ever a dumb idea), the Wii Fit and Dance-Dance Revolution consoles and a stack of games, various beach toys, a spray rig for staining fences (purchased for $200, used once, and sold for $20), the stadium chairs, the croquet set, the dart board, the 12′ x 12′ tent, the pet steps, the cat carrier, and various and sundry other things.   At 2:00 pm, when the neighborhood sale officially ends, a local charity will be driving through to pick up everything still out on the driveway, leaving in return a donation receipt for income tax purposes.

How many lives will these material goods pass through?  How many more childhoods will they outlast?  Will we be driving along some day with our grandkids in the back seat and see that ridiculously heavy and brightly painted race car bed out on somebody’s driveway with a “For Sale” sign taped to it?  Will we sit suffering through another junior high school band recital twenty years from now and hear some child playing that old Elkhart trumpet that by that time will not simply be “vintage” but practically an antique?  It’s possible. You never know what someone will do with something you thought was beyond done.

This section of Hollinger and Capper covers the rise of Unitarianism, the Second Great Awakening, the age of antebellum moral reform, the rise of Jacksonian democracy (represented by George Bancroft), the conservative meliorism of the American Whigs, the Utopian millenarianism of various sects and secular movements, the moral absolutism of Garrisonian abolitionism and the egalitarian Biblical hermeneutics of Sarah Grimké.

Garrison famously ceased publication of The Liberator in 1865, because the publication had finally seen accomplished the great cause of slavery’s abolition in the United States.  Racism, which Ibrahim X. Kendi has found entangled in Garrison’s thinking, has lasted a little bit longer. (Side note:  I think this section of Hollinger and Capper would benefit from inclusion of a sermon from some Southern Methodist or Presbyterian stanning for the patriarchy and arguing for slavery as a positive good – I think you need to examine that strain of Christian apologetics right alongside Garrison and Grimké.)

There are all kinds of reasons for the persistence of racism, but the main reason that racism sticks around is that people find it useful.  If it were a truly outmoded idea, good for no purpose, accomplishing nothing for those who advance under its banner, it would be tossed onto the trash heap of human intellection and no one would ever take it up again.

But one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.  And investment in whiteness seems to be the only treasure some people have.

Meanwhile, Orestes Brownson, America’s very own radical Christian Marx avant la lettre, had other ideas about treasure on earth and treasure in heaven, and saw the possibility of a celestial equality in the here and now.

That too is a useful idea. Indeed, some people believe that if only we could bring into being some version of what Brownson saw as just, then there would be no more need for anyone to invest in whiteness.

Solving the economic inequality problem would solve the racism problem, one argument goes. Another argument, articulated to some degree by Sarah Grimké in this section and much later and more radically by the women of the Combahee River Collective, goes like this:  address the twin oppressions of sexism and racism, and economic justice will necessarily follow.

Old ideas, but new to somebody.

Some ideas are held dear, kept in the house, handed down. Some ideas are set out on the driveway, gone for a song, sold for parts, given away, no good for our use any more, but maybe good for somebody.  Or maybe not so good for anybody.

This morning we sold the medical-grade cart I used to wheel myself around with my knee propped up back when I broke my ankle roller-skating about a decade ago.  That was my last time on roller skates. We got five dollars for the cart.  But the rollerblades and kneepads – along with two Razor scooters, a pair of Everlast boxing gloves, and some sparring practice pads – are still sitting out there in the sun.

Some poor sap bought both pogo sticks.  That’s like buying a ten dollar ticket good for one three thousand dollar visit to the emergency room.

Ask me how I know.

Will ending economic oppression end the problem of racism?  Will ending the twin oppressions of racism and sexism do away with an unjust class hierarchy?

In our salvation, whether by and by or here and now, can we put any trust in our own work?  What if we try our very hardest in one salvific scheme or another? Is there any hope?

Ask Pelagius and Augustine.  Their ideas are still going around — round after round — and neither one is out of it yet.

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post. In my memory, that section of AIT has always stood column-like, planting a linear series of 19th-century stories chronicling “the rise of…” and extending into the 20th-century sky. So it’s interesting to take up your framing here of what Americans consider useful ideas, since around the same time, the country was abloom with new historical societies, amateur genealogists, and fledgling documentary editors. The guardianship of intellectual history–specifically, how to remember the American Revolution and reinterpret Christian patriotism for a slave-holding republic–found a new set of cultural leaders. Those early public historians may have found “the rise of…” an intriguing genre to create, but they were also desperate to identify which 17th and 18th-century ideas were up for renewal or retirement. (Spoiler: See Henry Adams). Public historians should give AIT a close read to see how we curated cultural memory in this period, and what we’d add to this collection.

  2. Sara — absolutely yes to a “the rise of…” paradigm in this section. Maybe that’s why this section and the next comprise my favorite period of the survey to teach — the moral reformers, Romantics, religious utopianists and idealists of various persuasions. Grand schemes, big ideas, huge arguments all find a hearing here. This is the roundhouse, if not the wheelhouse, of American intellectual history — the tracks are laid down here and spider out in all directions.

    I was struck all this week by the repurposing of ideas as I was reading this section alongside my students’ seminar papers for “US Cultural History Since 1970”– one wrote about Jonestown and Waco and public anxieties about the potential for separatist religious communities to turn into death cults, one wrote about hip hop as the protest music of Black urban youth, one wrote about attempts to channel the rhetoric of revolution into reformist schemes, one wrote about women’s rights v. women’s liberation and how caricatures of both approaches became fodder for advertisements targeting both men and women. And all I could think as I was reading my students’ take on the late 20th century was how deep and how far back some of these currents of thought and conflicts over meaning run in the American past. And on each one of those papers (and several others beside), I suggested ways they could continue research in their area of interest in earlier periods of American history. There’s something in the Age of Reform, the Age of Utopianism, the Age of the Transcendentalists, the Age of Jackson — the Age of Ages — for everybody.

    Also, reminder — if anyone reading this post or this series wants to write a guest post on any of the texts or thinkers covered in this section of the anthology (or an earlier section, or a later section), please contact any one of the bloggers with your post idea. Any of our bloggers can run guest posts, including posts for this series. Would love to read a deep dive into Garrison or Grimké or Beecher (any Beecher is fine, honestly) or Bancroft.

    All of these writers and their ideas are so much closer to our own time than we think, which either says a great deal about their ideas or a great deal about our times. Or both.

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