Big Ideas in the History of the Early American Republic

Our Own Ideals, and the Ideals of the Early Republic

In the early American republic (from the establishment of the constitution to some time in the 1840s, or even up to the Civil war), citizens were hotly engaged in defining the good life, and how to bring it about.  From that time to the present, historians and political scientists have reflected on the experience of that period, often using it to define or illustrate positions in the current hot arguments about the good life, or what our government should do for us, or do to some of us, or how good citizens, or good (or sane) individuals should act, or how the U.S. should act in the world of nations.

In politics, the current party system took shape, after several decades of experimentation.  From the ratification of the constitution through the civil war, hardly twenty years ever went by without major restructuring of party institutions.  That was the U.S.' period of experimentation, for since then, party change has occurred only gradually, within existing party institutions.

A major subtext was that there were always some people fighting to abolish slavery and others fighting to retain it (or put off ending slavery until some distant day when it would be "safe" to do so).  One reason it was a "subtext", as opposed to being in the foreground, throughout most of the period was that southern slaveholders came to view public criticism of slavery as a major cause of slave revolts (which they viewed with the utmost horror), so they strenously sought to suppress all discussion of the subject, especially within Congress.  I believe, though this is no doubt very controversial, that all it took to drive the South out of the union was to have a party in power which contended that slavery was wrong.  No concession to the legal unassailability of slavery could overcome their objection to having a vocal critic of slavery in the White House.

There was much ideological conflict over the bigness or smallness, and the style, of government.  A new economic framework was established, especially in the north-east -- of specialized work, to get money, to use in getting goods produced by other specialists; in which work and domestic life were thoroughly disengaged for the first time.  Money became central to life, and everyone, whether they realized it or not, had a big stake in stabilizing the supply and value of money, and making its institutional forms more fair.

Another big transformation of this period was that the "artificial person" of the modern corporation largely assumed its present shape, as did the style of co-action between government and business.

In this period, sociologically, some would say that modern American emerged.  Basic ways of behaving in society, of educating the young, and of just thinking about the world changed radically to the point where few people can imagine where we came from, and one of the major enterprises of history today is to somehow bring us in contact with ancestors whose ways of thinking are profoundly foreign to us, and to trace, largely through this period, how we went from that to what we are now.

On the surface, illegitimate births declined early in the period, while later in the period, drunkenness was greatly reduced by the temporance movement.  On the other hand, entertainments once thought to be sinful, like "frivolous" reading, playgoing, and dancing, surged in popularity.

In the religious arena, enlightenment skepticism or deism or "natural religion" had mostly seen its day in the United States (or at least the day was passed when a president could publically espouse such views).  Religion was on the upswing, and becoming a much more emotional affair.  At the same time, certain ideas, rooted in reform protestantism for 300 years, almost totally lost their grip; particularly the idea that people had no agency in saving themselves.

One should be careful of generalizations, however, because religious and spiritual beliefs went in so many different directions, with some very strict sects arising, and some of the older denominations becoming more formal, social, and liturgical.

Narrative and Prescriptions for living

Current historical debates on (classical) republicanism vs liberalism are often driven by the political beliefs and agendas of the protagonists in the debates. In this context, liberalism is closest to modern day libertarianism, while the "classic republican" ideology perhaps bolsters communitarian values.  Much of this goes on in the old style of associating a past figure with a certain prescription for living, or governing, and either bolstering or tearing down the perception of that individual, according to whether one favors, or opposes, the prescription.  It often seems, in the minds of such debators, that whatever assertion one makes about the past is made in order to shape today's agenda.

Those who would, for example, make Thomas Jefferson a symbol of their ideology may take umbrage at any apparent historical facts, put forth for whatever reason, that reflect badly on his character.

Big Ideas as "Big Picture"

Not all Big Ideas seem linked to ideology. Some searchers after a deeper, more conceptual approach to early republic history look for inner meanings in reform movements, or outbreaks of religious fervor (or both in conjunction). These theorized inner meanings may be enlisted to support a more sweeping view of history.  At the extreme, one might look at everything that went on in the 1830s, as fodder for an explaination of why the  Civil War occurred. Or, we may argue backwards when looking at the revival and reform juggernaut -- postulating that a certain personality type, economic situation, or place in the birth order makes one likely to become a reformer or be swept up in religious revivals.

A Word or Two About Big Ideas at the Time of the Early American Republic

As noted before, the early American republic was itself quite a battleground of big ideas. It was widely believed, by those who lived through it, to be a time of unique historical importance. America had achieved freedom and democracy on an unprecedented scale, and it appeared to many that these ideas of freedom and democracy were engulfing the world, as the French, Greeks and Latin Americans became caught up in their revolutions, often giving much credit to the American Revolution for inspiration. (See Jacksonian Miscellanies: 7/1/97 "What We Did on the 4th of July", and 6/17/97 "Home Economics and the Millennium".

The apparent fact of living at a climax in history was interpreted in many conflicting ways; interpretations were, more often than not, tightly connected to religious ideas, and reflected belief in a special time called the millennium, as predicted in the book of Revelations.

Where did Americans get their "Big Ideas" of freedom and democracy?  They were continuing a ferment of ideas that had been brewing for the last couple of centuries or so. English history of the century and a half prior to the United States' founding is amazingly rich in revolutions, and in religious and political and politico-philosophical movements, all with articulate spokesmen who were still being read by nineteenth century Americans (and are still read today).

Ideological Background of the Early Republic

The Enlightenment, in the decades before the American Revolution, was a dramatic upsurge of confidence in reason, and belief that nature, ethics, and even God, were best revealed by careful study of, and reasoning about, the world around us, rather than by ancient books, institutions claiming a special relationship with God,  or logical arguments stretched way beyond the breaking point.

Protestantism, starting about 200 years before the Enlightenment, helped clear the way for a revolution of ideas by making the Bible its uncontested supreme authority, and asserting that no one person's interpretation of its contents was privileged (at least in theory). This ushered in an era of intense reason and disputation aimed at uncovering the all-important truth that could be gotten from interpreting this book.

England's "Protestant Reformation", based at first on political expediency, destroyed the English Catholic church without satisfying the longings of many of the people who, like Christian in Pilgrim's Progress, sought the all-important truth that would make the difference between Heaven and Hell. This partial vacuum existed at one of the greatest times ever for the development of religious ideas throughout Europe as a whole, and may largely account for the unusual profusion of sects in the England of the next century.

Many members of the new sects, such as "Quakers" and "Puritans" came to America to escape religious persecution (or rather to escape persecution in a world ruled by people who had terribly erroneous ideas; "religious persecution" too readily suggests that the Puritans embraced its opposite: "religious tolerance", a great anachronism) and to set up a new world on their own terms. In the "new world", these sects mixed uneasily with each other, with orthodox Anglicans, and with followers of new Protestant faiths, such as the Methodists and Baptists.

Meanwhile, European Enlightenment writers like John Locke, and especially a number of Scottish philosophers, helped inspire the political thinking of the American Revolution, and meanwhile inspired a liberal drift in American religion, especially among New England Congregationalists, in the general direction of Unitarianism.

I think it is fair to say that the deepest scholarship on the history of American political ideas seems to leave off somewhere in the 1790s, if they get that far, or even get as far as America (Murrin, Pocock, Henretta, Jack P. Green). After that, we seem to be studying political behavior.  [Exceptions: Daniel Walker Howe....?]

For large transformations of thinking that do occur in our period, one might look at ideas of race and gender, and the movement away from ideas of predestination, of an angry and/or inscrutable God, and of religious conversion as a total transformation of the soul.  Also, there is a turning away from a deep sense of hierarchy in society, and towards an orthodoxy, at least, of "universal equality", but a universal equality with some people left out.  In the last very few years, there has been an academic exploration of race that no longer asks "How did white people get those ideas about black (and other minority) people?"  Instead it asks "How and why did this group of people come to construct the idea of 'whiteness' and endow it with such importance"?

A Survey of Domains of "Big Ideas" in History of the Early American Republic