Finally, America is the subject of a theme popular among French intellectuals of the post-modernist period: the end of history. “The homogenization of thoughts. Louis MENAND'S The Metaphysical Club is a history of ideas, or as he characterizes it in the subtitle,A Story of Ideas in America. The subtitle suggests a humility. Read The Metaphysical Club PDF - A Story of Ideas in America by Louis Menand Farrar, Straus and Giroux | The Metaphysical Club is the.
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IT IS A REMARKABLE FACT about the United States that it fought a civil war without ~lndergoing a change in its form of government. The Constitution was not . Request PDF on ResearchGate | On Apr 1, , Shira Wolosky and others published The Metaphysical Club. A group portrait of four men—Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charles Peirce, and John Dewey—who changed the way America thought. Because.
The new Fugitive Slave Law was the least-debated item in the Compromise of , but it radicalized the North. Save For Later. It was not a matter of choosing sides. What was that attitude? Holmes was by then one of the editors of the Harvard Magazine, which was running articles supporting abolition, the admission of women to Harvard, and curricular reform. It is what permits the continual state of upheaval that capitalism thrives on.
The result is a map of crossing lines and motions, interacting and volatile, of the claims, interchanges, proposals, and imaginings that at once registered and shaped American cultural life and the most American of all philosophies. She is the author of Emily Dickinson: Her volume on nineteenth-century poetry in the Cambridge History of American Literature is forthcoming.
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Those assumptions changed because the country became a different place. As with every change, there was gain and there was loss.
This story, if it has been told in the right way, should help make possible a better measure of both. John Brown in Osawatomie, Kansas, in , the year he and his sons abducted five proslavery settlers in Pottawatomie and split their skulls open with cutlasses.
From a daguerreotype by John Bowles. He stood six feet three inches tall and had a soldierly bearing. The war was the central experience of his life, and he kept its memory alive. Every year he drank a glass of wine in observance of the anniversary of the battle of Antietam, where he had been shot in the neck and left, briefly behind enemy lines, for dead. But Holmes hated the war.
He fought bravely and he was resilient, but he was not strong in a brute sense, and as the war went on the physical ordeal was punishing. He was wounded three times in all, the third time in an engagement leading up to the battle of Chancellorsville, when he was shot in the foot.
He hoped the foot would have to be amputated so he could be discharged, but it was spared, and he served out his commission. Many of his friends were killed in battle, some of them in front of his eyes. Those glasses of wine were toasts to pain.
Holmes recovered from the wounds. The effects of the mental ordeal were permanent. He had gone off to fight because of his moral beliefs, which he held with singular fervor. The war did more than make him lose those beliefs.
It made him lose his belief in beliefs. It impressed on his mind, in the most graphic and indelible way, a certain idea about the limits of ideas. This idea he stuck to, with a grimness and, at times, a cynicism that have occasionally repelled people who have studied his life and thought. But it is the idea that underlies many of the opinions he wrote, long after the war ended, as an associate justice on the United States Supreme Court.
To understand the road Holmes had to travel in order to write those opinions, we have to go back to one of the worlds the Civil War made obsolete, the world of prewar Boston. We think of the Civil War as a war to save the union and to abolish slavery, but before the fighting began most people regarded these as incompatible ideals.
Northerners who wanted to preserve the union did not wish to see slavery extended into the territories; some of them hoped it would wither away in the states where it persisted. But many Northern businessmen believed that losing the South would mean economic catastrophe, and many of their employees believed that freeing the slaves would mean lower wages. They feared secession far more than they disliked slavery, and they were unwilling to risk the former by trying to pressure the South into giving up the latter.
The abolitionists were careless of the future of the union. If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off was the text they preached. They despised the unionists as people who put self-interest ahead of righteousness, and they considered any measure short of abolition or partition to be a bargain with evil. They baited the unionists with charges of hypocrisy and greed; the unionists responded by accusing the abolitionists of goading the South into secession, and by trying to run them out of town and sometimes to kill them.
Before there was a war against the South, there was a war within the North. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. The Holmeses were related to families that had prospered in New England since the time of the Puritans—the Olivers, the Wendells, the Quincys, the Bradstreets, the Cabots, the Jacksons, and the Lees—but they were not exceptionally wealthy. Holmes was a professor; his father, Abiel, had been a minister. His own mind was a mixture of enlightenment and conformity: Holmes had become famous in , the year after he graduated from Harvard, when he wrote a popular poem protesting the breakup of the U.
Constitution, Old Ironsides. After college he tried the law but quickly switched to medicine. He studied in Paris, and in , when he was thirty-four, published a paper on the causes of puerperal or childbed fever that turned out to be a landmark work in the germ theory of disease. He showed that the disease was carried from childbirth to childbirth by the attending physician; it was a controversial paper among the medical establishment. He joined the faculty of the Harvard Medical School, where he eventually served as dean.
But his celebrity came from his activities as a belletrist. He was one of the first members of the Saturday Club, a literary dining and conversation society whose participants included Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. He wrote hundreds of verses and three novels.
Many people, and not only Bostonians, believed him to be the greatest talker they had ever heard. Yet he was unabashedly provincial.
His chief ambition was to represent the Boston point of view in all things. He also suffered from asthma, which made travel uncomfortable. On the other hand, he regarded the Boston point of view as pretty much the only point of view worth representing. He considered Boston the thinking centre of the continent, and therefore of the planet. Boston State-House is the hub of the solar system. In , for example, while he was serving as dean of the Medical School, he was approached by a black man named Martin Delany who requested admission.
Delany was an exceptional character.
He was already thirty-eight years old in , and his credentials for admission to medical school were unimpeachable, although he had been turned down by four schools, including the University of Pennsylvania, before he tried Harvard. As it happened, two other black candidates, Daniel Laing, Jr. Snowden, both from Massachusetts, had applied for admission in the same year. Laing and Snowden were sponsored by the American Colonization Society, a group that advocated resettling African-Americans in Liberia as a solution to the problem of slavery.
They promised to emigrate as soon as they received their degrees; Delany made it clear that he intended to practice in the United States. Holmes could see no reason not to admit all three.
He also arranged to admit on the understanding that she would not sit in the regular anatomy class the first woman to attend Harvard Medical School, Harriet Hunt, another Bostonian—though it was his view that for the most part the education of women was a wasteful practice. The medical students revolted. They notified the faculty of their objection to the presence of a woman at the lectures, and Delany, Laing, and Snowden were ostracized.
In December sixty students, a majority of the student body, met and approved a petition resolving that we cannot consent to be identified as fellow students with blacks, whose company we would not keep in the streets, and whose Society as associates we would not tolerate in our houses, and that "we feel our grievances to be but the beginning of an evil, which, if not checked will increase, and that the number of respectable white students will, in future, be in an inverse ratio to that of blacks.
A slightly smaller group, of forty-eight students, submitted a dissenting petition, noting that as unpleasant as the situation was, they would feel it a far greater evil, if, in the present state of public feeling, a medical college in Boston could refuse to this unfortunate class any privileges of education, which it is in the power of the profession to bestow. Delany, Laing, and Snowden were not permitted to register for the following term.
Harriet Hunt had already withdrawn her application on the advice of the faculty. Laing ended up at Dartmouth, where he received his degree; Snowden returned to study privately with a surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital. In , he reapplied to Harvard and was rejected.
He expected his cause to be taken up by the Boston abolitionists, who were then embattled in a series of highly publicized efforts on behalf of escaped slaves being hunted down under the Fugitive Slave Law of In October, a few weeks before Delany arrived in Cambridge, a Boston vigilance committee, led by the minister Theodore Parker, had run out of town two agents who were trying to hunt down William and Ellen Craft, a black couple who had escaped from Georgia disguised as a white gentleman and his manservant.
In February , after a black waiter and former slave known as Shadrach was seized by slave catchers in a Boston coffeehouse, an antislavery posse stormed the federal courthouse where he was being held, overwhelmed the marshals, and got him safely onto the underground railroad to Canada where he eventually opened his own restaurant.
In April, soldiers and armed deputies, marching in the dead of night, succeeded in escorting a third fugitive, seventeen-year-old Thomas Sims of Georgia, to the ship in Boston Harbor waiting to return him to slavery. No one seems to have complained about the fate of Harriet Hunt, either. Harvard Medical School did not admit a woman until Part of the reason was that the abolitionists disapproved of the meliorist policies of the American Colonization Society, and were not disposed to enter into a grievance on their behalf.
But Delany concluded that the antislavery activists were more offended by the notion of Southerners presuming to send their agents into Northern cities to retrieve their property than they were by discrimination against any particular black man already in their midst. And he was not wrong. For the politics of slavery in antebellum Boston was a complicated business. The mill towns that sprang up in the Merrimack Valley north of Boston around —Haverhill, Lawrence, Lowell—were heavily dependent on Southern cotton, which they made into finished goods and then sold, along with footwear, machine parts, rubber goods, and other manufactured products, back to the South.
The dependency ran in both directions, for the South had no real industrial base of its own: That act—really a series of acts—dealt with the status of slavery in the new territories and in California in a manner satisfactory to the South. It also responded to Southern demands for reinforcement of the fugitive slave laws.
Laws affirming the property rights of slaveholders in former slaves who had escaped across state lines had been on the books since ; under the terms of the Compromise, their enforcement became for the first time a federal responsibility, which meant that Southern slaveholders could enlist federal marshals and magistrates in their efforts to hunt down and retrieve refugees in the North—thereby trumping the authority of local officials and state liberty laws.
The new Fugitive Slave Law was the least-debated item in the Compromise of , but it radicalized the North. It pushed many previously passive unionists into active animosity toward the South—not because they considered the law an encroachment on the liberties of black Americans, but because they considered it an encroachment on the liberties of Northern whites.
It was a degradation which the North would not permit, wrote Ulysses S. Grant near the end of his life, and he regarded it as the prime instigator of the war: A Northerner might therefore resent and resist the mandates of the Fugitive Slave Law without being an advocate of abolition.
Richard Henry Dana, for example, considered himself a political conservative; but he risked his life representing fugitives and their protectors in federal court in Boston.
He was not only attacked in the streets for his efforts; he was snubbed socially, as was his friend Charles Sumner, who had denounced the Compromise, in a speech at Faneuil Hall, as belonging to the immortal catalogue of national crimes dating back to ancient Rome. The year before, he had rented Dana his summer home.
Ticknor is a representative figure of the prewar Boston establishment. He occupies the place where its business, legal, and academic interests intersected. He was the son of a fairly successful merchant; he married a daughter of Samuel Eliot, an extremely successful merchant. All three were close friends of Daniel Webster. But Ticknor was not a businessman or a lawyer himself.
He was a former Harvard professor who had been educated at Dartmouth and then in Europe. He was an academic reformer, a scholar of Spanish literature, and a philanthropist, one of the founders of the Boston Public Library. His views on slavery were dictated in part by family connections and by the social circles in which he moved, but they were also the views of a Harvard Unitarian.
Unitarianism, to which Harvard College essentially converted following the appointment of Henry Ware as Hollis Professor of Divinity in , was a creed founded on a belief in the innate moral goodness of the individual in reaction to Calvinism, which was a creed founded on a belief in the innate moral depravity of the individual.
It was in many ways a religion that led its followers naturally to oppose slavery. The leaders of the antislavery posses that stormed the federal courthouse to rescue captured fugitives—Theodore Parker and Thomas Wentworth Higginson—were graduates of the Unitarian Harvard Divinity School.
But many Harvard professors were Unitarians of a different stripe. They were social conservatives. They believed in law and order and the sanctity of property. The ministerial spokesman for Boston Unitarianism, William Ellery Channing, was connected by birth and marriage to the New England mercantile elite. His parents had owned slaves; his father-in-law, George Gibbs who was also his uncle , had made part of his fortune operating a distillery that sold rum to the slave traders.
John Quincy Adams, in his postpresidential career as a Congressman, had been a stalwart and often lonely opponent of the slave interests.
He spoke out so long and so fervently against the so-called petition gag rule, which, beginning in , tabled without debate all antislavery petitions sent to Congress, that an attempt was made to censure him by his House colleagues. It failed. Both he and his father, John Adams, had been defeated in their presidential campaigns for second terms by the Southern vote, and his son Charles Francis Adams had run for vice-president on the Free Soil ticket in Dana, Sumner, and Charles Francis Adams were antislavery, but they were not abolitionists.
They were Conscience Whigs. The abolitionists, by contrast, did not believe in using the political system to resist slavery, because they did not believe in systems. The abolitionists were not apolitical. The renunciation of politics was the secret of their politics. The foundations of the abolitionist movement were therefore spiritual and anti-institutional. Abolitionism was a party for people who did not believe in parties—a paradoxical law of attraction that turned out to be ideally suited to a Unitarian, Transcendentalist, and generally post-Calvinist culture like New England, a culture that was increasingly obsessed with the moral authority of the individual conscience.
But it had many fellow travelers. Holding that any system that countenanced slavery was evil, the most extreme abolitionists refused to help circulate the antislavery petitions that poured into Congress from the North in response to the petition gag rule.
He printed the motto The United States Constitution is a covenant with death and an agreement with hell on the front page of his newspaper, the Liberator, and he made a practice of burning copies of the Constitution at his public appearances.
His political text was the Declaration of Independence, since it asserts that people have a natural right to resist the state for reasons of conscience. The Declaration of Independence was also, of course, on a somewhat different reading, the political text of the Southern secessionists.
And he preached an otherworldly indifference to the consequences of his platform. If the State cannot survive the anti-slavery agitation, then let the State perish, he announced in an address called No Compromise with Slavery.
If the American Union cannot be maintained, except by immolating human freedom on the altar of tyranny, then let the American Union be consumed by a living thunderbolt, and no tear be shed over its ashes.
The abolitionists were not interested in reform. They were interested in conversion. Any political reformation, Garrison wrote in a stern reply to a fellow abolitionist and former slaveholder who had ventured to suggest that people hoping to end slavery might have an obligation to vote for antislavery candidates, is to be effected solely by a change in the moral vision of the people;—not by attempting to prove, that it is the duty of every abolitionist to be a voter, but that it is the duty of every voter to be an abolitionist.
This contempt for ordinary politics made the abolitionists the enemies even of their antislavery allies. They had no more patience with the Conscience Whigs and the American Colonization Society, groups that advocated tactical or gradualist approaches to the eradication of slavery, than they had with slaveholders and their apologists—since, said Garrison, as the experience of two centuries [has] shown,… gradualism in theory, is perpetuity in practice.
No abolitionist would have made such a concession to decorum.
Garrison was originally a poor boy from Newburyport whose father had abandoned the family. Phillips started out in the law as well, but he gave it up in , after an abolitionist printer named Elijah Lovejoy was shot and killed by a unionist mob in Illinois. Phillips rose from the audience and delivered an extemporaneous denunciation of Austin.
The speech was probably not as unpremeditated as it was made to appear, but it was enthusiastically received, and it launched Phillips on his career as the Golden Trumpet of Abolition.
His family thought he had gone insane, and considered putting him in an asylum. Wendell Phillips was not one of these. He preached a doctrine of pluralism, a vision of an America in which all races, all customs, all religions, all languages, all literature, and all ideas enjoyed the protection of noble, just, and equal laws. But although Phillips talked like a utopian, he had an astute understanding of the political uses of an absolutist refusal to play politics.
Republics exist, he believed, only on the tenure of being constantly agitated. Wendell Phillips was a cousin of Dr. As a unionist, Holmes was a staunch supporter of Webster. More than that, he had as he confessed many years later picked up a racial prejudice from his father, Abiel, who had lived briefly in Georgia and had known several enlightened slaveholders. Holmes was one of the signatories on a public letter of congratulations to Webster, orchestrated by Benjamin Curtis, after the Seventh of March speech in ; and five years later, in a lecture in New York City, he attacked the abolitionists—or as he called them, in one of the unhappier inspirations of his genius for phrase-making, the ultra melanophiles —and dilated on the natural superiority of the white race.
The Creator has hung out the colors that form the two rallying points, so that they shall be unmistakable, eternal, he explained. The white man must be the master in effect, whatever he is in name. They had had cordial relations; but they were cordial men, and they were often thrown together by common interests.
Holmes was in the audience along with Wendell Phillips when Emerson gave his celebrated Phi Beta Kappa address on The American Scholar at Harvard in ; Emerson worked with Holmes on the founding of the Atlantic Monthly and in organizing the business of the Saturday Club, where they dined together regularly. But the notion that Holmes was the person to write the life of Emerson struck most of the people who knew them as absurd.
He could not conceive, he said, of two men more diametrically opposed in their natural traits. Emerson believed in communing with the like-minded, but solitude, a kind of selfless self-absorption, was the essence of his thought and his personality.
Holmes radiated gregariousness. He was not afraid, in conversation, to flirt with taboos, but it was the flirtation he cared about, not the suggestion that there was anything wrong with propriety. He had all the equipment for debunking convention and, for the most part, no impulse to use it. Emerson worked out most of his ideas in the form of public lectures.
Unsympathetic listeners sometimes thought them dreamy and diffuse; sympathetic ones frequently found them galvanizing. What crowded and breathless aisles, what windows clustering with eager heads, what enthusiasm of approval. He professed to have a method; but I could not trace it. It was a generational difference, but it was not only a generational difference. What is the I that is being urged to rely on this self?