The Puritan Intellectual Tradition in America, Part 1: Nineteenth-Century Optimism and Utopian Idealism

This is about a pernicious strand of European thinking that is an important component of the crisis we face today—the Puritan strand of American thought which dominated America until the 1960s counter-cultural revolution. The synopsis is that in the nineteenth century, Puritan-descended intellectuals engaged in utopian, idealistic fantasies, often with moralistic overtones. Then after the Civil War, this type of thinking went into disfavor, replaced by Darwinian thinking which reached its apex in the battle over immigration, ending with the passage of the 1924 law. However, this intellectual shift was eradicated by the Jewish-dominated intellectual movements I discuss in The Culture of Critique.

The culture of the West is complicated—a blend really between very different cultural influences. A basic idea is that Western societies are individualistic—far more individualistic than any other culture area of the world. But within that general framework of individualism, there are important differences.

One important strand derives from Indo-European culture: From the Pontic Steppes of the Ukraine around 4500 years ago. This culture was completely militarized; it was aristocratic and strongly hierarchical. It was originally based entirely on military ability, as leaders would attract followers by providing them with spoils of war. The leader was first among equals, not a despotic monarch. It was based on a warrior elite, with upward mobility possible for individuals with military talent.

The Indo-Europeans were an incredibly successful people, expanding throughout Europe, the Middle East (Iran), and as far east as Western China. In Europe (but not in the caste system of India), barriers between peoples, such as the barriers between the Germanic tribes and the Romans, gradually disappeared, as assimilation rather than strong barriers between peoples occurred—an important marker of an individualist society. In general, rather than exterminating the people they conquered, conquered peoples had labor obligations to the lord.

This fundamentally Indo-European culture continued among the Germanic peoples who dominated Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Indeed, the Indo-European model dominated European politics from pre-history to the seventeenth century in England. The watershed event in England was the English Civil War of the 1640s pitting Cromwell and the Puritans against the Crown.

The radicalism of the Puritan Revolution was that it ultimately led to the destruction of the Indo-European social order. This revolution was far more radical than the revolution whereby Christianity destroyed the pagan gods of Old Europe. The new order was far more egalitarian than the older order. Congregations elected their ministers, and they served at the pleasure of the people they served.

The Puritans who came to America settled originally in New England, but they had very high fertility and gradually spread across the continent from New England to Oregon. Abraham Lincoln, for example, came from New England stock. They tended to be middle-class tradesmen, with intact families, few servants, no slaves, relatively educated and they greatly valued education, establishing Harvard shortly after their arrival. It was an acquisitive, expansionist, capitalist, materialistic ethos as well.

The culture of the South, on the other hand, was a variant of the Indo-European aristocratic model derived mainly from distressed cavaliers who had been on the losing side in the English Civil War and a culture based on what they saw as a natural hierarchy rather than egalitarian sentiments, and of course it involved the slavery of Africans. These two fundamentally different social systems were at odds really from the beginning of American history. The fundamental break of course was the Civil War, the consequence of which was the victory of the Puritan conception of society. As Prof Andrew Fraser noted in The WASP Question, “as a consequence of the Civil War, the absolute hegemony of the leveling, acquisitive and utilitarian society pioneered by the Puritan Revolution was firmly entrenched.”[1]

This Puritan tradition gave rise in the nineteenth century to a liberal intellectual tradition derived from the Ivy League universities of New England, particularly Harvard. With their base in the Ivy League universities, Puritan-descended intellectuals dominated intellectual discourse in the United States until the rise of a Jewish elite beginning in the 1920s. The power of this Jewish elite accelerated greatly after World War II, and reached dominance after 1965. The leading intellectuals in this Puritan tradition opposed slavery and advocated on behalf of the lower classes and immigrants; they created what we would recognize today as a culture of the left—utopian, idealistic, and moralistic. Many of them were Unitarian or Congregationalist clergymen (the two denominations most closely associated with the Puritans) and can be grouped as advocating what came to be called Transcendentalism in philosophy. The most famous transcendentalist was Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Without going into details, Transcendentalism was egalitarian in the important sense that they saw everyone as possessing a spark of divinity—a Christian idea that goes back to the ancient world and was a defining belief of the Quakers who were critical for ending slavery in Britain but less important in the U.S.; Quakers were and are even more egalitarian than those of Puritan descent.

Transcendentalism was decidedly egalitarian and universalist. “Universal divine inspiration—grace as the birthright of all—was the bedrock of the Transcendentalist movement.”[2] They believed that ideas of God, morality, and immortality are part of human nature and do not have to be learned. This is the spiritual equivalent of the democratic ideal that all men (and women) are created equal. The truth of these egalitarian beliefs was seen as obvious and compelling—no need for scientific investigation. One might say that Transcendentalism was really a religious movement.

Not surprisingly, this philosophy led many Transcendentalists to become deeply involved in social activism on behalf of the lower echelons of society—the poor, prisoners, the insane, the developmentally disabled, and — most critically — slaves in the South. In the United States, the main energy of the anti-slavery movement came from these Puritan-descended intellectuals.

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I’ll give a brief sketch of some of these intellectuals.

Orestes Brownson (1803–1876) admired the Unitarian Universalists’ belief in the inherent dignity of all people and the promise of eventual universal salvation for all believers. He argued “for the unity of races and the inherent dignity of each person, and he lambasted Southerners for trying to enlarge their political base.”[3] Like many New Englanders, he was outraged by the Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case that required authorities in the North to return fugitive slaves to their owners in the South. For Brownson the Civil War was a moral crusade waged not only to preserve the union, but to emancipate the slaves. Writing in 1840, Brownson claimed that we should “realize in our social arrangements and in the actual conditions of all men that equality of man and man” that God had established but which had been destroyed by capitalism[4]—ironic because in general the Puritans were very good at capitalism and, as noted, produced an acquisitive, materialistic society. According to Brownson, Christians had

to bring down the high and bring up the low; to break the fetters of the bound and set the captive free; to destroy all oppression, establish the reign of justice, which is the reign of equality, between man and man; to introduce new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness, wherein all shall be as brothers, loving one another, and no one possessing what another lacketh.[5]

George Ripley (1802–1880), founder of the utopian community of Brook Farm and an important literary critic, also exemplifies the idealistic, Utopian, moralistic and egalitarian perspective of the Transcendentalists.  He “preached in earnest Unitarianism’s central message, a belief in universal, internal religious principle that validated faith and united all men and women.”[6]

Ripley founded Brook Farm on the principle of substituting “brotherly cooperation” for “selfish competition.”[7] He questioned the economic and moral basis of capitalism, and held that if people did the work they desired, and for which they had a talent, the result would be a non-competitive, classless society where each person would achieve personal fulfillment. Needless to say, his utopian experiment ended after 5 years or so, in debt and in poverty. But it is a defining characteristic of this type of thinking to reject the idea of human nature in favor of idealistic, utopian causes framed in moral terms. This sort of thinking is, of course, rampant among those who promote the end of White-majority American in favor of multiculturalism and demographic transformation as a result of immigration. Whites wanting to retain power are evil racists—evil, not intellectually misguided.

Theodore Parker (1810–1860) was a Unitarian minister, writer, public intellectual, and model for religiously motivated liberal activism. He wrote that “God is alive and in every person.”[8] “God is not what we are, but what we need to make our lives whole, and one way to realize this is through selfless devotion to God’s creation.”[9]

Parker was concerned about crime and poverty, and he was deeply opposed to the Mexican war and to slavery. He blamed social conditions for crime and poverty, and condemned merchants: “We are all brothers, rich and poor, American and foreign, put here by the same God, for the same end, and journeying towards the same heaven, and owing mutual help.”[10] In Parker’s view, slavery is “the blight of this nation” and was the real reason for the Mexican war, because it was aimed at expanding the slave states. Parker was far more socially active than Emerson, becoming one of the most prominent abolitionists and a secret financial supporter of John Brown, the leader of an ill-fated slave revolt in 1859. Brown was from New England stock..

When Parker looked back on the history of the Puritans, he saw them as standing for moral principles. He approved of a Puritan preacher named John Eliot in particular because he preached to the Indians and attempted to convert them to Christianity.

Nevertheless, Parker is a bit of an enigma because, despite being a prominent abolitionist and favoring racial integration of schools and churches, he asserted that the Anglo-Saxon race was “more progressive” than all others.[11] He was also prone to making condescending and disparaging comments about the potential of Africans for progress.

This brings up an interesting point that it was common among these intellectuals and the public at large to believe that Anglo-Saxons were a superior group and the most progressive of all human “races.” They had the idea that immigrant Catholics and Blacks would become “just like them” over time—a view that fit with Lamarck’s theory of evolution by acquired characteristics which was quite influential among scientists until Darwinism won the day.

William Henry Channing (1810–1884) was a Transcendentalist writer and Christian socialist. He wrote that “Christian love, and labor in its spirit, would initiate a more egalitarian society,”[12] including immigrants, the poor, slaves, prisoners, and the mentally ill. He worked tirelessly on behalf of the cause of emancipation and in the Freedman’s Bureau designed to provide social services for former slaves.

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Emerson and other Transcendentalists were outraged by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 which mandated return of slaves who had escaped to the North. For Ralph Waldo Emerson, “the very landscape seemed robbed of its beauty, and he even had trouble breathing because of the ‘infamy’ in the air.”[13] After the John Brown debacle, Emerson was “glad to see that the terror at disunion and anarchy is disappearing,” for the price of slaves’ freedom might demand it.[14] Both Emerson and Thoreau commented on Brown’s New England Puritan heritage. Emerson lobbied Lincoln on slavery, and when Lincoln emancipated the slaves, he said “Our hurts are healed; the health of the nation is repaired.”[15] He thought the war worth fighting because of it.

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It’s instructive to review these nineteenth-century intellectuals because we see that sort of idealism today among many White people. It’s a problem that we have to be aware of. But the good news is that after the Civil War, the idealism of the Transcendentalists lost its preeminence, and American intellectuals increasingly embraced Darwin. Many of these Darwinists were also of Puritan New England extraction and became leaders in the anti-immigration movement that resulted in the 1924 immigration law. In other words, change is possible. By the early twentieth century, Transcendentalism was a distant memory and the new materialists had won the day. Change is possible and in the case of the United States as it entered the twentieth century, there were increased concerns about the massive immigration, especially the immigration of Eastern European Jews who tended to be political radicals and/or Orthodox—none of whom were interested in assimilation.. The optimism so characteristic of the nineteenth century faded as many realized that assimilation wasn’t working and that the immigrants really wouldn’t end up being “just like them.” Indeed, these immigrants and their descendants became the backbone of the left in the twentieth century, coming to dominance after 1965 and utterly transforming the country. In the long run, we might say that the movement to restrict immigration was too little, too late.

Go to Part 2

[1] Andrew Fraser, The Wasp Question (Arktos, 2011), 122.

[2] Philip F. Gura, American Transcendentalism: A History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), 18.

[3] Ibid., 266.

[4] Quoted in Ibid., 138–139.

[5] Quoted in Ibid., 139.

[6] Ibid., 80.

[7] Ibid., 156.

[8] Ibid., 143.

[9] Ibid., 218.

[10] Quoted in Ibid., 219.

[11] “Theodore Parker,” Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography.

[12] Philip F. Gura, American Transcendentalism: A History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), 228.

[13] Ibid., 246.

[14] In Ibid., 260.

[15] In Ibid., 265.

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