Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The American Mind, 150 Years Later



With the 150th anniversary of the shelling of Fort Sumter is fast approaching, I’m reminded how the 150 years since the American Civil war is not really all that long ago. Only five generations stand between this current age and the fire-eaters, although some might say particular figures from 1861 have mistakenly been seen in 2011 (such as Texas Governor Rick Perry). There are a number of media sources, particularly the New York Times, that are doing an excellent job covering the Civil War and its impact on American life and memory, and we should be thankful for this.

For those of you who do not know, my childhood love was the American Civil War. My parents did not believe that the summer months of vacation were a respite from school; far from it. We had math problems to do, summer sports camps and tennis lessons to attend, and chores to perform at the collective farm at 2321 Everest SE. However, I was lucky that my Dad was (and still is) a college professor and he often brought back books from the school library for me to read and write essays to improve my writing. While I first enjoyed the pictures from the books most of all (especially those of Braxton Bragg, a real piece of work), the twisted trail of the conflict was fascinating. Who can forget reading for the first time some of the speeches from the 1850s such as Steward’s “Irrepressible Conflict” or slogging through Bruce Catton’s trilogy at the age of ten?

Perhaps one of my favorite books on the American Civil War is George Fredrickson’s The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, I’d recommend taking a look. I came across this book in college after reading one of my all time favorite books The Education of Henry Adams, an autobiography that really provides an insightful look at the evolving intellectual ethos of the American ruling class between 1868 and 1914. Fredrickson work, published in 1965, looks at the intellectual struggles among the elites during the conflict. Fredrickson wrote his work in response to Stanley Elkins’ assertion in Slavery that intellectual life in the North centered on Concord, Massachusetts, meaning Emerson and others in his circle. Fredrickson uses an array of intellectual sources, including William James, George Templeton Strong, and Josephine Shaw Lovell, to convey the war’s impact on that was felt far beyond the battlefield. Indeed, The Inner Civil War persuasively argues that the war led many northern thinkers to turn away from questions on egalitarianism and individualism run amok towards a developing ideology promoting voluntary social organizations, the rise of the institutional state, and the role of citizens in a rapidly industrializing republic. While sometimes dry, The Inner Civil War is worth your time. In fact, I’d recommend that next time you take a vacation, take The Education of Henry Adams, The Inner Civil War, and Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, and you will come back with a much better understanding of American intellectual thought from 1850 to 1914.

Perhaps one of the tragedies of modern American intellectual life is the lack of time for thought and introspection in our public discourse. While we have a feast of information, we have very little time to digest the bounty before us. Responses on detailed political questions are given the twitter treatment within a 24 hour news cycle, and I can’t help but think that our minds and our public institutions have not yet adapted to such a breathtaking speed. Can you imagine John Calhoun theorizing about states’ rights on twitter? I can hardly think that he’d be able to explain defense of slavery as a positive good in 144 characters or less, although he might be able to better defend his changing political views from 1809 to 1850. However, Calhoun’s evolution reflects the second great failing in modern American politics, which is vies any change in thinking or belief as hypocrisy. We have talented people in every generation of American political life, but we don’t have the time and working out the complexities of dealing with the American democracy that earlier generations did. The enormous change in American life between 1815 and 1860 was perhaps the undoing of the American political process that led to the Civil War finally coming 150 years ago; the technologies that gave folks like Alexander Stephens and Benjamin Wade the telegraph, the penny newspaper and instant public contact to the institutions of government led to the political process becoming rather inflexible during the 1850s (along with a host of other problems). While the issues of the mind that battered the Northern intellectuals 150 years ago might have been as demanding as those facing our thinkers today, hopefully we can learn to use the new social media to carefully think and process challenges to the same degree in this present age.

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