Summary: A study of the ideas conveyed through pamphlets that led to the revolution of the colonies against England.
The original edition of this work, published in 1967, won both Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes for Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn. What Bailyn does is to study the literature that preceded the revolution, much of it in pamphlets ranging from the more religiously based ones of Jonathan Mayhew to the more radical Thomas Paine. He identifies key themes that led to conflict and the Declaration of Independence.
Much of this was rooted in British pamphleteers including John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, who protested what they saw as corruption in which royal ministers usurped the power of parliament. It was framed as a conflict of power versus liberty. The colonists began to seem themselves caught up in this conspiracy of power versus liberty, exemplified when the British quartered troops in Boston. Indeed, this conspiracy thinking, mirrored by the British acquired a kind of inevitability that led ineluctably to conflict. In one of his most sobering passages for our present moment, Bailyn writes:
“But the eighteenth century was an age of ideology; the beliefs and fears expressed on one side of the Revolutionary controversy were as sincere as those expressed on the other. The result, anticipated by Burke as early as 1769, was an ‘escalation’ of distrust toward a disastrous deadlock: ‘The Americans,’ Burke said, ‘have made a discovery, or think they have made one, that we mean to oppress them: we have made a discovery, or think we have made one, that they intend to rise in rebellion against us. . . we know not how to advance; they know not how to retreat. . . Some party must give way.’ “
The colonists took this basic opposition of liberty to power and transformed it to fit their context. Their cry of “taxation without representation” was a protestagainst the purported virtual representation they received in Parliament, in which measures could be decided in which they had no voice. Likewise, they challenged the abstract constitution of sovereign and Parliament, contending for a written constitution that clearly set the boundaries of government. Finally, in a colonial situation far removed from Parliament, they challenged its absolute authority, especially in matters of “internal” versus “external” taxes.
Bailyn then concludes with showing how this “contagion of liberty” spread to concerns about slavery, religious liberty, and the shape of their government, the idea of a democratic republic–one with no sovereign. Bailyn discusses the early deliberations including the fears that democracy could easily degenerate into anarchy, the developments of the ideas of bicameral legislatures, an executive, and of independent courts–designed to protect against both autocrats and anarchy.
Bailyn helps us understand not only the ideas that led to revolution but that led to how we constituted the United States, and the concern to uphold liberty against both absolute power and absolute disorder. It seems to me that what the early thinkers failed to anticipate was the partisan abyss that has developed that exacerbates the inefficiencies of a democratic republic resulting in a descent into disorder matched by the appeal of an authoritarian government that works. Ben Franklin, at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention was asked, “What kind of government have you given us?” Franklin replied, “A democracy, if you can keep it.” The question of our day seems to be “will we keep it?” Bailyn’s book can’t answer that for us, but it does trace the ideological heritage that led to the inception of our democratic republic.
The Free World, Louis Menand. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.
Summary: An intellectual and cultural history of the forces and figures whose creations contributed to the emergence of the United States as an intellectual and artistic leader in the years between 1945 and 1965.
The years between 1945 and 1965 were a time of transformation in the United States. The return of servicemen from the war fueled a boom in university education. An influx of intellectual and artistic refugees from Europe sparked a dynamic mix of ideas and artistic development. The boom in education and culture was accompanied by an economic and technological boom, fueling a widespread interest in music, art, books, museums and and the rapid growth of publishing and music and film industries. Something had happened in the country, where ideas mattered, and culture engaged, with an urgent and widespread interest.
The Free World is an account of the institutions, the people, and the cultural movements and moments of this period. The title is significant in two respects. One is an emphasis on the United States, fueled by Western Europe thinkers and artists, becoming a center of intellectual and artistic culture in a way it had never before. The second is the idea of freedom, that in a variety of ways was a theme running through the “slices” as Menand calls them of this history.
Menand’s approach to this sprawling intellectual and cultural history is to take slices, focusing on a particular aspect of that history and a particular network of key figures and their relationships. He begins with the advent of the Cold War, and the intellectual architect of America’s doctrine of Cold War, George Kennan, and the “Wise Men’ surrounding him, transitioning into a discussion of thinkers about power, anti-totalitarian George Orwell, and anti-communist James Burnham whose The Managerial Revolution foresaw the rise of the bureaucratic totalitarianism of mass culture.
Meanwhile, in occupied and post-war France, the existentialists (Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus) looked into the void, seeing nothing but absurdity, developing the philosophy of authenticity and radical personal choice and responsibility. Political and social theorists continued to wrestle with the connection between mass culture and totalitarianism. Hannah Arendt, influenced by Heidegger and the horrors of the Nazi camps wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism and sociologist David Riesman The LonelyCrowd on group conformity and how this would undermine personal autonomy, little realizing it also made room for alternative visions. Meanwhile, Claude Levi-Strauss, a pioneer in anthropology joined Roman Jakobson in developing Structuralism, a system for analyzing languages and cultural systems, eclipsing the concepts of freedom on which existentialism rested.
In the arts, a constellation of individuals led by Jackson Pollock and Clement Greenberg, along with other artists like Willem de Kooning, were trying to break out of the strictures of painting and art criticism (in the case of Greenberg). Menand chronicles the introduction of Pollock’s drip paintings and other similar works and the galleries and shows and the patronage of figures like Peggy Guggenheim that made this revolution possible. Meanwhile, the thinkers and writers were at work, a circle that included professor Lionel Trilling of The Liberal Imagination, poet Allen Ginsberg, and beat writer Jack Kerouac. Menand returns in a later “slice” to these figures and the further development of their work into the early post-modern deconstructive thought of Barthes and Derrida and the literature that followed.
Another arts movement, centered at Black Mountain College sought to implement a hands-on experimental approach, breaking with the strictures of theory in art, music, and dance under the influence of Josef Albers. Visual artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, composer John Cage, and dancer Merce Cunningham all were part of this circle. Menand does a masterful job describing the innovations of each of these figures. Meanwhile, rock ‘n’ roll was breaking onto the scene. Menand chronicles the unpremeditated recording of “That’s All Right, Mama” that launched the career of Elvis Presley and the intersecting growth of the record industry and disc jockeys who got them air time, often for pay, and the growth of television. He explains how all these factors created the environment for the surprising U.S. success of the Beatles. A later chapter on consumer sovereignty shows mass culture applied to advertising by McLuhan and the marketing of everything from pop art to cars with fins.
One of the most interesting chapters is the one on “Concepts of Liberty,” moving from the high philosophy of Isaiah Berlin in “Two Concepts of Liberty” exploring both negative and positive freedom (“freedom from” and “freedom to”) to the paperback revolution, and their covers and content and what constraints can be placed on this form of expression. This is followed by a discussion of the embrace of “freedom” as a key rallying cry in the Civil Rights movement.
In later chapters, Menand traces further developments in feminism and pop art and the central figures of Betty Friedan, Andy Warhol and Susan Sontag, the freedom literature of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, and the shift of cinematic artistry from Europe to America, advocated by critic Pauline Kael, who wanted films both smart and entertaining and how Bonnie and Clyde was a watershed film in this regard.
The last chapter comes full circle with George Kennan testifying in the Senate against American expansion of the Vietnam War in 1965, which he and the other Wise Men thought contrary to not only American interests but unnecessary for “containment” of communism in a country trying to free itself from colonialism. But the real story of “This is the End” was that the diversion of intellectual and cultural energy from the intellectual and cultural awakening of the previous twenty years.
Menand does us an incredible service in chronicling this intellectual and cultural history in “just” 727 pages. It could have actually taken far more, and with commendable concision he summarizes complex ideas and multi-faceted movements and the contributions of a variety of key people. The one thing I miss is the religious element of the country’s intellectual culture. Reinhold Niebuhr is mentioned in one line on a single page but was a formidable influence on Kennan and many others. Howard Thurman played a key role in shaping Martin Luther King, Jr. Paul Tillich and Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel did major intellectual work during this era, addressing the themes of freedom in this work.
Menand concludes his preface musing, “As I got older, I started to wonder just what freedom is, or what it can realistically mean. I wrote this book to help myself, and maybe you, figure that out.” He does not draw conclusions as he ends the work. He challenged me to think. Arendt, Riesman, and Berlin all have concerns about how mass culture, under the guise of expressive individualism can lead to tyranny. Yet by and large, the freedom of thinkers and culture-makers in this work, is the freedom of throwing off of constraints. And when we are indeed shackled physically or by unjust practices like colonialism, racism, or sexual discrimination, removing constraints is necessary to human flourishing. But the religious outlook would also recognize some constraints enable us to flourish both individuals and societies to flourish–constraints upon evil or unchecked and undisciplined affections, that in extreme form can lead to tyranny. But Menand is spot on in identifying freedom as an important theme for our cultural life, and one worthy of consideration. His intellectual and cultural history certainly points toward the sources of our contemporary ideas of freedom. It seems to me an urgent matter to discern whether these ideas are the best for both individual and societal flourishing.
Summary: Using two essays by Emerson, “Nature” and “Experience,” traces the shift in American moral and cultural authority during the last two centuries.
Roger Lundin was an English professor at Wheaton College until his death in 2015. In this work, he left us with a masterful literary and intellectual history of 19th and 20th century America. He structures this treatment around two essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” and “Experience,” tracing the shift in authority from Nature, that is the external world ranging from physical reality to Christian revelation to Experience, the perceptions of the individual know-er.
Lundin traces this intellectual movement through the American pragmatism of Dewey to the post-modernism of Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish. Along the way he engages philosophers like Nietzsche and intellectuals like Henry Adams. He also traces this intellectual shift through the lives of literary figures like Emily Dickinson, of whom he wrote in a separate work, a short story of Stephen Crane, and William Faulkner. And he brings all these in dialogue with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth.
The movement he traces is one from a nature that is enchanted, connected to a transcendent God, to disenchantment, and from a reality and truth rooted outside oneself to subjective glimpses of reality and truth reduced to what works. I’ve probably stated this summary far more polemically, and with less nuance than does Lundin, who shows a deep acquaintance with and respect for the intellectual and artistic power of each of these figures, with whom most of us, including this reviewer have a passing acquaintance. For that reason, his invoking of Christian sources, and the transcendent vision of authority they represent, comes off as careful scholarship and rigorous argument rather than polemics or proselytizing.
What Lundin does instead is model Christian scholarship at its best, of engaging the minds of one’s discipline with a thoughtful Christian mind. He also offers more. In a culture suspicious both of science and anyone else’s claims of truth, and an academy witnessing the self-inflicted eclipse of the humanities, Lundin’s discussion offers hope for the retrieval of the sources of authority lost to academy and society alike. Sadly, this work, still in print, does not enjoy the circulation it deserves. My own search to find the book in our state’s libraries only turned up a single copy. Perhaps calling renewed attention to Lundin’s work may both serve as fitting tribute to his scholarship, and invite a new generation to take up his work.
"...whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." - Philippians 4:8