U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On Daniel Walker Howe and Ideas Through Lives

I am revisiting Daniel Walker Howe’s charming study The Political Culture of the American Whigs because I’m writing about antebellum Americans’ notions of what “Western Civilization” was or what the phrase meant or what the idea signified.

What does this have to do with late 20thcentury debates on the canon?  Probably not as much as countless other aspects of this project that I should be working on.  In fact, I could easily deal with antebellum American conceptions of Western Civilization in a paragraph or two (if I addressed them at all), give another paragraph or two to the civilizational discourse of the late 19thcentury filled with its angst about the New Immigration and imperiled white masculinity, and then just sort of carom into Columbia and the post-World War I curriculum, and then segue from there to an overview of Stanford’s various iterations of a “Civilization(s)” course.  Slam, bam, a chapter, ma’am.

But no.  I am taking my time.  So I’m fraternizing with Whigs, and free Black newspaper publishers, and Cherokee editorialists opposing Indian Removal, and Albert Gallatin, and Edward Everett, and John Quincy Adams, and the Know Nothings, and the Texas Annexationists, and whoever else my archival spelunking drags to the surface of my cerebellum.

Hey, any excuse to get back to 19thcentury American cultural history; I have been happy there.

Which brings me back to Daniel Walker Howe, whose writing I so admire.  What Hath God Wrought is, in my mind, the very best of the volumes in the Oxford Series on American History.

Howe’s introduction to The Political Culture of the American Whigs – an introduction that is only ten pages long – is worth reading if you’re interested in the historiography of intellectual history, and in the ways that the (narrowly) “intellectual” has to some respects been situated within the larger field of the (broadly) “cultural,” and how and when that shift came about – the mechanics of its coming about.

Howe’s book – a series of biographical case studies – is itself a case study of this moment in the development of our field. Published just a couple of years after Wingspread, the book is a transitional document, an intermediate specimen in the shift between a high “intellectual history” and a broad(er) “cultural history of thought.”  Whether or not Howe actually executes “the cultural turn” in this work, he definitely has his turn signal on, and you can read that intention very clearly in his introduction.

When the project first took shape in my mind, I expected to call the book that resulted “The Political Thought of the American Whigs.” After living with the sources for a while and discussing the work with others, I realized the inadequacy of the term “political thought” to describe what I was studying.  Not only the explicit analyses and proposals of the Whigs, but also the mood, metaphors, values, and style of Whig political attitudes mattered. Nor could these altogether be divorced from actions. “Political thought” would have suggested a history of theory alone, but what I needed was an expression that would subsume thought and feeling, word and deed.  So I selected the more inclusive term “political culture.” (1-2)

Later in the introduction Howe suggests that drawing sharp distinctions between thought and feeling, word and deed, can be misleading. Those binaries are heuristic, but not wholistic, and his work was an attempt to describe the totality of the Whig experience.  Thoughts are felt, feelings reveal thought.  Words are deeds, action can take the form of speech.

Howe invokes Geertz in reflection on the limits of the term “ideology” and on Howe’s own preference for “the broader expression ‘culture.’”  Howe doesn’t toss in the phrase “thick description,” but as he describes his own project, that seems to be what he is aiming at:  “I attempt here to show how the political ideas of the Whigs derived from their whole experience of life: the attitudes they grew up with, the problems they confronted, the purposes they conceived.”  To do this, Howe says, he has structured his work around interlocking or overlapping biographies of various Whigs.   (2-3)

Howe defends biography as a fruitful avenue to intellectual (or cultural) history because such an approach “offers advantages of accuracy and subtlety that too often are lost in collective portraits of an age or movement.”  (3) By “accuracy,” I think he means a deep dive into detail, an emphasis on the idiographic, the particular.  By “subtlety,” I think he means an approach to history that rejects those sharp binaries between word and deed, thought and feeling – and rejects particularly the equation of the “intellectual” with the theoretical, the demotion (and it is a demotion) of thought to the realm of abstract ideas or ideals.  Here’s how Howe explains it:

“Ideas do not exist of themselves,” a historian has recently reminded us.  “They have to be thought; they are the creation of human minds.” One could press the point even further and say that ideas are the creation of entire human personalities—“breathing, excreting, hating, mocking….” (3)*

In the pages that follow Howe doesn’t spend much time on the breathing and excreting – though heaven knows it’s important that intellectual historians in the late 1970s were at least talking about the relationship between ideas and embodied life — but he does give the hating and mocking its due.  At the very least, he has offered a dated but serviceable foundational model for looking at ideas through lives, a model that many scholars since Howe have deployed and further developed to great effect.  (I’m thinking of our own Sara Georgini’s Household Gods, for example.)

The biographical is certainly not the approach I am taking in my own project.  It’s the approach I’m studiously trying to avoid.  I would rather write anything than a thick description of all the breathing and excreting going on at Stanford in the 1980s. All of it was just…a lot.

And who knows – maybe a deep dive into the history of the idea of “Western Civilization” before it was ever a class in a college catalog is just what someone needs to read. It feels like what I need to write at the moment.  And feeling and thought, emotion and reason, are never discrete (nor perhaps even discreet), but intimately and inextricably intertwined in every human endeavor. Or so Daniel Walker Howe has argued.

_____

*Per Howe’s endnotes, two historians quoted here are D.H. Meyer and John Dunn.

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