We Hold These Ideas to Be Self-Evident
A sophmore 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.