We Hold These Ideas to Be Self-Evident

By Michael KimmageApril 29, 2019

We Hold These Ideas to Be Self-Evident

The Ideas That Made America by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen

A SOPHOMORE IN COLLEGE, I had the good fortune to take a two-semester course on American intellectual history. It kicked off in the fall of 1992. My teacher was Geoffrey Blodgett, who spent his entire career at Oberlin College inducting undergraduates into the history of ideas. In the beginning were the Puritans, whose progeny, having absorbed a taste for liberty and for republicanism, fought the American Revolution. Then came the Transcendentalists, the arguments over slavery, the shock of Darwinism, the philosophical unfolding of pragmatism and then the 20th-century cacophony — progressivism, socialism, modernism, neo-orthodoxy, et cetera. Professor Blodgett brought the course to a close with George Kennan, a Puritan at heart, studiously alert to original sin and to the dour political wisdom that followed from it. This course’s scope, variety, and explanatory punch were beguiling.

I was reminded of this course by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s elegant new book, The Ideas That Made America: A Brief History. Ratner-Rosenhagen is a leading scholar of American intellectual history and the author of, among other things, a wide-ranging and creative study of Nietzsche in American cultural and intellectual life. The Ideas That Made America is distillation and synthesis well constructed for an academic and a non-academic audience. It deserves a wide contemporary readership. Despite the 27 years that have passed since my class with Professor Blodgett (who received his PhD in 1961), Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book retraces the story he imparted to us novices several decades ago. It begins a century before the Puritans — with the coining of the word “America” in 1507 — and attributes a genuine grandeur to intellection and ideas. Discussing the American Revolution, Ratner-Rosenhagen states that “a prime factor in the causes of the war and the course of a new nation thereafter was the power of ideas.” The Puritans had bowed to this power. They were among those who bequeathed it to 19th- and 20th-century Americans: the Transcendentalists and pragmatists and progressives. Ratner-Rosenhagen’s concluding observation is that “the conversation of American thought continues” the battle of ideas, the intellectual contest, which was more or less Professor Blodgett’s concluding observation in the spring of 1993. What began in the 16th century is unfinished. The ideas keep on coming.

However similar, Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book is hardly identical to my undergraduate course. It reflects a generation of research and scholarly innovation as well as Ratner-Rosenhagen’s own fluid erudition. In tune with the title of her earlier book, The Worlds of American Intellectual History, Ratner-Rosenhagen merges the European with the non-European. John Eliot’s translation of the Bible into Massachusett in 1663 was, she points out, “the first bible printed in America.” Additionally, Ratner-Rosenhagen does not limit race to debates over slavery, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Civil Rights movement. Instead, she makes race a more consistent factor in American intellectual history, drawing on recent efforts to explore university histories and slavery. Georgetown University, for example, passed along “funding drawn from the slave economy by making enrollment tuition-free.” On such economic and moral foundations did study and learning make their way.

Ratner-Rosenhagen’s beautifully written book reflects other contributions to American intellectual history. She brings forward women whom earlier historians had either neglected or glossed over — Margaret Fuller, the 19th-century philosopher and woman of letters, for example — restoring them to their overdue prominence. Her book also includes fascinating and instructive images, many extracted from archives rather than museums, as if to suggest that intellectual history is not composed of words alone — it can be contained and revealed in images. This is a salutary message to students of the subject, as is the attention Ratner-Rosenhagen pays to Eastern philosophy and not just to European letters as an influence from abroad. Chronologically, she expands the historical canvas beyond the early Cold War, bringing in the postwar conservative movement, on the one hand, and academic postmodernism, on the other. The Ideas That Made America finishes in an ivory tower preoccupied with cosmopolitanism, culture wars, and the puzzles of American identity.


What were the ideas that made America? This is never explicitly laid out in The Ideas That Made America. An initial candidate would be Christianity, the faith of the Puritans. Ratner-Rosenhagen observes that “from the early republic through the Civil War, the Bible became the single most printed, distributed, and read (extensively and intensively) text in American society.” She does attribute a sense of American exceptionalism to the Puritan-Christian outlook, “the city on a hill” alluded to by John Winthrop and then adopted by Ronald Reagan, but this is as far as a particular Christian idea takes her. Christianity as such runs into Darwin in the middle of the 19th century, in her interpretation, turning the intellectual problems of a modern America into secular problems. Post-Darwin, the pragmatism of William James and John Dewey drove theological absolutes from American thought, after which postmodernism subjected everything to question. In this book, an intellectual Christianity does not survive modernity.

This excessively linear narrative is a missed opportunity. Beyond American exceptionalism and the popularity of the Bible is the continuous merging of intellect and piety in so many American minds: in Harriet Beecher Stowe, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King Jr., William F. Buckley Jr., Marilynne Robinson, and the list goes on. Each of these figures (with the exception of Robinson) is mentioned in The Ideas That Made America, but they are featured in the context of mostly secular arguments, and not as the practitioners of religious conviction in their own terms. For this reason in part, the role of religious ideas in American domestic and foreign policy is close to nonexistent in this book, though it is hardly nonexistent in the historical record.

Even American conservatism, which tends to lionize religious piety of one kind or another, appears as essentially secular in The Ideas That Made America: a mélange of anticommunism, libertarianism, and the fear of multiculturalism. Strangely, in a circumscribed work of intellectual history, Ratner-Rosenhagen devotes a paragraph to Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative polemicist of diminutive talent, but leaves out entirely the signature conservative book of the 20th century: Witness (1952), by Whittaker Chambers, an Augustinian memoir that dramatized the Cold War as a conflict between faith in God and faith in politics. (The three paragraphs Ratner-Rosenhagen devotes to the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung are especially costly in light of this particular omission.) Chambers’s impact on Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement illustrates the 20th-century salience of Christian ideas. Another regrettable absence is Irving Kristol, a Jewish (neo)conservative thinker who argued for more religious piety in American life and was among the most (politically) influential American intellectuals of the late 20th century.


The other candidate for an idea that made America in The Ideas That Made America is the Enlightenment. Ratner-Rosenhagen rightly places the Enlightenment complex of ideas at the beginning of her political story — the founding of the republic. Writing about the incipient republic, she notes that “the very fact of its existence as a nation founded on ideals rather than hereditary claims made it both a participant in and a source of the dramatic shift in Western thought known as the Enlightenment.” In general, Ratner-Rosenhagen follows the course of these non-hereditary ideals with enthusiasm. Writing about the new agnosticism fostered by Darwin’s insights, for instance, she argues that it “helped pave the way for change. It enabled a variety of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century freethinkers and secular humanists fight to keep the public sphere genuinely public, and not simply an extension of the church’s dominion.” This is the arc of reason or of agnosticism as progress.

Ratner-Rosenhagen characterizes the originating Enlightenment ideals not as static, but as a democratic possibility in tension with reality. After the Civil War, the fallout of Darwinism forced Americans to balance purposelessness with purpose, a task that “would fall to sensitive Americans in the following [late nineteenth-century] decades, who sought to use evolutionary theory as a way to foster a more just democracy.” (These sensitive Americans had to contend with the less sensitive souls who enlisted Darwin in the cause of scientific racism, eugenics, and a zero-sum survival-of-the-fittest view of political economy and imperialism.) It was the progressives whose conscience and imagination softened the inequities of American life circa 1900, Ratner-Rosenhagen contends. Their critiques “proved to be invaluable sites from which to study the vibrancy of American life and to consider ways to close the gap between democratic theory and social practice.”

If The Ideas That Made America has a hero, it is the progressive intellectual Randolph Bourne. At the beginning of her book, Ratner-Rosenhagen celebrates “epistemic humility” and intellectual history as the art of understanding what others think. For the most part, the book upholds epistemic humility, but with Bourne Ratner-Rosenhagen opts for epistemic identification. Bourne was an early apostle of multiculturalism and a courageous critic of World War I. Ratner-Rosenhagen lauds “the coruscating passion, acumen, and beauty of Bourne’s vision of a pluralistic, tolerant, and peaceful America, whose arguments against war are as relevant today as they were fearsome in 1917.” His was yet another intellect trying to close the gap between democratic theory and practice, though to what effect is hard to say: “Almost seven decades after Randolph Bourne pushed for a ‘trans-national America,’ his ideal still proved to be a distant dream for too many immigrants and their children,” Ratner-Rosenhagen writes.

Racial prejudice and Enlightenment tolerance collide in intricate ways in The Ideas That Made America. Ratner-Rosenhagen casts an edifying eye on the contradictions of the revolutionary generation, with their Enlightenment virtues and Enlightenment vices. With Thomas Jefferson these contradictions are acutely familiar. Ratner-Rosenhagen wisely focuses on Benjamin Franklin, showing his complicity with slavery. His failure to see the world around him coexisted with his exceptional capacities for intellectual perception. Nor was Franklin alone in his shortcomings: “[M]uch like many of the other brilliant but nevertheless all-too-human philosophes of the transatlantic Enlightenment, [Franklin] was blind to the social and economic conditions that made his quest for Enlightenment possible.”

Fast-forwarding to World War II, Ratner-Rosenhagen points out that it was fought (on the American side) by a segregated army. In and of itself, the war against Hitler did little to diminish American racism. Much like World War I, however, the friction between democratic ideal and a less-than-democratic reality spurred postwar intellectual revisions. Once World War II was over, “observers of American life recovered their temerity to call out the persistent gaps between America’s democratic rhetoric and its undemocratic practices and find new ways to close them,” Ratner-Rosenhagen writes with segregation and de-segregation in mind. The quest for an enlightened democracy was being carried out in new ways, some of which were reducing the blindness to social and economic conditions that had plagued earlier generations of thinkers and philosophes.

What complicates the Enlightenment as the idea that made America is, as Ratner-Rosenhagen chronicles, its fading away in the second half of the 20th century. On one side of this trajectory was American conservatism. Ratner-Rosenhagen describes Russell Kirk, author of the The Conservative Mind and a pivotal postwar conservative intellectual, as someone who “felt the need to put the word Enlightenment in scare quotes.” For him, it was too secular, too modern, too invested in technology. Granted, libertarians like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman were enamored of the Enlightenment, but their hold on conservative policy making was never as assured as their hold on conservative sentiment and rhetoric. Whittaker Chambers wrote Witness as a spiritual dissent from the Enlightenment.

The other side of the Enlightenment’s decline occurred on the academic left. In universities, postmodernism “encouraged scholars specializing in race, ethnicity, and gender to rethink the integrity and stability of their most basic terms of self-description,” Ratner-Rosenhagen writes, including terms like citizen, liberty, justice, and rights. Ideals whose integrity and stability were integral to the Enlightenment crumbled beneath the theories of “twentieth-century antifoundationalist thinkers.” In their rebellion against the Enlightenment, these 20th-century thinkers had been anticipated by Nietzsche, the subject of Ratner-Rosenhagen’s first book, and many of them adopted an anti-rational, mystical, “Nietzschean” style of argument that by the 1990s had permeated the humanities departments of American universities.

Contemplating late 20th-century American intellectual life, Ratner-Rosenhagen does not dwell so much on the English and comparative literature professors as she does on the philosopher Richard Rorty, a rationally inclined skeptic about reason and a lucid prose stylist who did not philosophize in the Enlightenment mode. He was an avid anti-foundationalist hoping for a “shared moral life” and “a durable cosmopolitanism,” both works in progress as far as the body politic was concerned. His angle of vision was captured in the title of his 1998 book, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America. Rorty’s intellectual friends could all “agree on the risks involved in his foundation-free postmodern effort to ‘achieve,’ not inherit, an America that could be home to all Americans.” Yet whatever the risks, Ratner-Rosenhagen’s description of Rorty could easily be used to describe The Ideas That Made America. Some ideas have been carried forward, her history teaches us, and some have been forgotten. (In a wonderful turn of phrase, Ratner-Rosenhagen writes that “powerful new ideas can come in the form of selective erasure of old ones.”) At no point has the country — the lived ideals of the American Revolution, that is — been properly achieved. And so the conversation continues.


The Ideas That Made America came out in early 2019. Mercifully, it is not a book about President Trump. The Trump administration is not yet history, and Trump is not a subject that attracts epistemic humility from anyone. Nor is he a president engaged in ideas as such, though Ratner-Rosenhagen might have looked into the intellectual legacy of both populism and isolationism — i.e., the books of Pat Buchanan — to complement the elitist conservatism of a William F. Buckley Jr. and the free-trading conservatism of the libertarians. The ignorance, impulsiveness, and fickleness of President Trump mean that the ideas buried in his speeches and his administration’s strategic documents have only a tenuous bearing on decision making and policy formation.

At the same time, the Trump era raises questions about the Enlightenment that should have been addressed somewhere in the final pages of this book. The Enlightenment is not just an abstract ideal of tolerance or democracy or rights; it is not only relevant to academia; it cannot slip away without there being significant political consequences. One might return here to the claim Ratner-Rosenhagen makes about the American Revolution and the power of (Enlightenment) ideas that was a cause of the revolutionary war and a guiding light to the new nation thereafter. If the power of ideas mattered then, it must matter now. The many anti-foundationalists of the left and the right, those who have chosen to reject the Enlightenment, do not help to explain Trump’s victory in 2016, but they will shape the long-term response to Trump and the country he is attempting to remake.

In this respect, it is startling that the US Constitution is mentioned only in passing in The Ideas That Made America, and The Federalist Papers not at all. In Federalist No. 1, Alexander Hamilton famously poses the question of whether “societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” This is a recurring question — and not just in American history. The Enlightenment thread in The Federalist Papers resides in the answer given to this question, which is that establishing good government from reflection and choice is possible, but it will require exceptional poise and balance, the triumph of process over passion, and the implementation of a constitutional order that is greater in force and persuasive energy than the temptations of tyranny. In a different sense, good government will require the preference for reflection and choice over brute force. It will require the spirit of the Enlightenment, which is the very thing to which monumental Washington, DC (from the Library of Congress to the Jefferson Memorial to the Lincoln Memorial), is dedicated.

One gets the impression, from the closing pages of The Ideas That Made America, that the Enlightenment is ancient history in America. If so, the Trump administration’s contempt for factual knowledge, rational inquiry, science, well-informed public deliberation, expertise, and good government itself may be the definitive American answer to Hamilton’s question, and not so much because of the tawdriness of the Trump administration, but because there are no longer the intellectual counterbalances to restore the spirit of the Enlightenment along the lines laid out in The Federalist Papers. This would be a revolution in American life and not a continuation of the comfortable old conversation. The past tense in Ratner-Rosenhagen’s title has an ominous ring in the Trump era.

An alternative reading of The Ideas That Made America is that it understates the Enlightenment’s staying power in American life. The Enlightenment is not without its eloquent defenders even in the 21st century; they may not be in the universities, but they are there in the public conversation, and they are there in public life (Rod Rosenstein comes to mind). Now is a good time to affirm the Enlightenment, the ideas embedded in the egalitarianism of the Declaration of Independence and the supreme rationalism of the Federalist Papers, as a usable past and a tradition upon which much of value has been and can still be built: the Enlightenment as an idea that makes America. There is no other foundation for American democracy and no other foundation for American foreign policy, whereas the anti-foundationalism of the Trump administration has uncorked a politics of un-reason from which American democracy may never recover. Those of us who studied with Professor Blodgett while the White House was serenely changing over from George H. W. Bush to Bill Clinton could never have imagined the high drama American intellectual history has become in the summer of 2019.


Michael Kimmage is a professor of history at the Catholic University of America.

LARB Contributor

Michael Kimmage is an associate professor of history at Catholic University. He is the author of In History's Grip: Philip Roth's Newark Trilogy, and The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers and the Lessons of Anti-Communism, as well as the translator of Wolfgang Koeppen's Journey through America.


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