Beyond the Revolution

A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism


By William H. Goetzmann

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From 1776, when Citizen Tom Paine declared, “The birthday of a new world is at hand,” America was unique in world history. A nation suffused with the spirit of explorers, constantly replenished by immigrants, and informed by a continual influx of foreign ideas, it was the world’s first truly cosmopolitan civilization.

In Beyond the Revolution, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian William H. Goetzmann tells the story of America’s greatest thinkers and creators, from Paine and Jefferson to Melville and William James, showing how they built upon and battled one another’s ideas in the critical years between 1776 and 1900. An unprecedented work of intellectual history by a master historian, this book will be essential reading for anyone interested in the origins of our national culture.


This book is dedicated to my grandchildren:

This book is the story of the search by American intellectuals for cultural self-definition. In some sense it is intended to be a kind of existential epic with those very special people—the intellectuals—as protagonists engaged in the Sisyphean task of forever confronting the new and making it meaningful to society. Intellectuals pursue their tasks—often esoteric and wildly impractical to the common man—because they feel "cultural anxiety," or a compulsion constantly to redefine the context of reality in which they find themselves. They assume the burden of first sensing, then grappling with, and finally organizing the new, which is of value to civilization itself. More than mere custodians of knowledge, they stand for most of their lives face to face with the terrors and ambiguities of ultimate reality. And as such, in Henry James's terms, they are the "hard core creators of culture."
In the United States the role of the intellectual currently is not much appreciated. On both the political right and the political left, intellectuals are deemed to be "elitists." They are members of an elite only in the sense that relatively few people have the talent, sensibility, intelligence, and especially the inclination to worry about the culture as a whole. Most Americans prefer to remain caught up in the everyday concerns of living a "normal life," pursuing limited if special interests, and advocating causes whose origin and meaning they scarcely question. Recently the social history of such people has come to fascinate historians. This is particularly ironic because of all nations, the United States is and has been from the beginning the product of intellectuals. As F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, in contrast to France, which was a land, and England, which was a people, America always had about it "the quality of an idea." At a certain point in time, 1776, it emerged as a concept from the minds of a particular group of Founding Fathers who were nothing if not intellectuals. As intellectuals and Founding Fathers, these men in varying ways all shared a special vision of the future based in part on their studies of the past. This vision and its adventures or misadventures—even its universality—forms my theme, but by no means my only concern, in this narrative of American thought and consciousness.
My theme, of course, is the American quest for the climactic model of world civilization that not only would incorporate the best ideas, the best lifestyles, and the most profound spiritual values, but also would forever remain free and open to the new. It would be the world's first truly cosmopolitan civilization—a "nation of nations," as Walt Whitman put it, with the "course of universal being" flowing through it. Since the American Revolution the quest has proven to be an exciting one, though the results—certainly as of 1900, the formative period during which America passed through its first major crises—have perhaps remained inconclusive; hence, the existential nature of this narrative.
My study of American intellectual history has itself raised large questions that cannot be ignored. The first of these concerns is the role of information and its relationship to what we call cultures and civilizations, for it was, after all, information with which the "hard core creators of culture" were grappling. So important, therefore, is this question that it forms a major theme of my narrative. It suggests an underlying interpretation of intellectual and cultural history in the form of several related questions, which run as follows: what is civilization as opposed to a culture, what functions do intellectuals perform in both contexts, how do we know when we have a truly significant civilization, and why is the study of America especially significant in any case?
Most studies of civilizations and cultures use the terms interchangeably as ways of referring to those clearly delineated structures of interrelated institutions, language, ideas, values, myths, and symbols that give form and meaning to societal behavior. Often civilization is seen as simply a more advanced or complex culture made so by the emergence of one or more distinctive traits such as religion, art, or law that seem to characterize the Judeo-Christian, Byzantine, Roman, Greek, Oriental, and Islamic civilizations, respectively. This has led to some confusion and, in my opinion, great and possibly dangerous superficialities.
Cultures are structures of interrelated institutions, languages, ideas, values, myths, and symbols. They tend to be exclusive, even tribal. Civilizations, on the other hand, are open to new customs and ideas. They are syncretistic, chaotic, and often confusing societal information mechanisms. They continue to grow in the richness, variety, and complexity of societal experience as it is brought before the people by intellectuals, politicians, artists, writers, technologists, and scientists from all parts of the then-known world. Civilization advances beyond the set prescriptions of culture into a broader eclecticism, and to identify both the individual and the social is harder to discern. It is possibly too subtle, too kaleidoscopic, too demanding, though also swirling and adventuresome for all of its elusiveness.
Civilization, as such, however, is also deceptive, because beneath the surface of apparent chaos and contradiction lies great efficiency in absorbing, organizing, and distributing the world's information. Human beings, individually and collectively, by the nature of their biological makeup, cannot help but be sensors of the world's data. They must forever puzzle over and account for—organize in some fashion—this experience that gradually becomes knowledge for better or for worse. Cultures and systems of ideas are then, figuratively speaking, temporary bulwarks, stopping places, organizational makeshifts in the path of on-rushing civilizations that are the inevitable products of history in the same sense that learning is the inevitable product of individual experience. The question then becomes almost quantitative, as early advocates of mass education, such as Thomas Jefferson, dimly realized. Is that civilization best or highest that incorporates or makes relevant to its people the maximum of the world's data? Does it crest at a point of maximum learning activity? And does it recede into folk culture status when new information is shut out by conscious political and cultural proscriptions—when real intellectuals no longer have a vital role to play and the totalitarians, politicians, traffic directors, bureaucrats, drill-masters, and fascists take over?
America, it appears, had almost no choice from the outset. It began as a palimpsest of world experience—its lineage ringingly articulated in the writings of the Founding Fathers. And as waves of immigration swept over the new land and the citizens of the United States had ever-increasing access to the world's ideas, inventions, and varieties of consciousness, it became ever more eclectic—cosmopolitan, not in spite of, but because of itself, in that it had its beginnings in the conscious ideal of eighteenth-century cosmopolitan reason. The United States is unique, therefore, only in having a clearly discernible beginning; unlike that of so many other nations, its revolution led to a unique independence. In this book I am concerned with the multifaceted role of the intellectuals as they have given shape to our civilization in its crucial formative period. My objectives should consequently be clear. In the course of my narrative I propose:
1. To describe the evolution and growth of a utopian and cosmopolitan American civilization, with all the evidences of progress, regress, doubt, and failures to live up to the ideal.
2. To see this evolutionary growth as a kind of gigantic, ongoing information mechanism.
3. To describe and analyze various major intellectual, scientific, and artistic structures or configurations for dealing with data coming not only from the experiences of the New World but also from Europe and all parts of the globe.
4. To examine and characterize American intellectuals, artists, and scientists as sensors of realities and purveyors of information and opinions as well as dreams to a civilization they were defining by means of their consciousness and interpretations.
5. To delineate as much as possible the social and cultural matrix in which America's intellectuals functioned.
It should be clear that my overall interpretation runs counter to Frederick Jackson Turner's attempt to isolate American uniqueness and to characterize American culture as one owing to the existence of a vast frontier to the west. In my view American civilization was not only a product of the frontier, the pioneer, and even nature. Democracy and a whole host of other American values did not emerge "stark and strong: from out of the forest" in a kind of virgin birth. Rather, civilization in the United States was the product of the world's ideas put to the service of the North American people on one level by those "hard core creators of culture"—the intellectuals—who transmitted, transformed, and ultimately made attractive to our citizens whatever the world had to offer. American civilization was thus always a derivative and syncretistic civilization. In my opinion, there is honor in acknowledging this fact, and folly in the reductionist search for the one quintessentially unique American factor in our global civilization. This is an interdependent world, and there is no better time than now to acknowledge this fact and to build upon it. If this book does nothing more than serve as a parable illustrating and defending this proposition, it will have served its purpose.


Tom Paine's Vision
"The Birthday of a new world is at hand," proclaimed citizen Tom Paine on July 10, 1776. "We have it in our power to begin the world over again!" Paine, a ragged but independent refugee from the slums of London, seemed to personify the promise of America as a "new world." The best years of his youth he had spent as a half-starved corset maker—a trade he detested so much that only the solace of Gin Lane made it bearable. He had seen one wife die amid London's squalor, and another deserted him because he was a failure at everything he tried. Stout, ugly, habitually unshaven, dirty, and described by everyone who saw him as a man with "twisted eyes," Paine was a piece of the world's flotsam when he arrived in America in 1774 bearing a crumpled letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin. The letter secured him a position as editor of Robert Aitken's Pennsylvania Magazine, where he taught himself the craft with rugged determination, and within a year achieved some distinction as a writer. However, the British attack at Lexington and Concord in April 1775 and the subsequent assembling of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia fired his revolutionary imagination, and he abandoned his editorial duties in summer and fall 1775 to scratch out Common Sense, his immortal two-shilling pamphlet that swept revolutionary America by storm.
In Common Sense he forcefully articulated the moral possibilities of colonial America and formulated them into a persuasive ideology of world revolution that captured the imagination of thousands. "The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind," Paine insisted. "'Tis not the affair of a city, a county, a province, or a kingdom, but of a continent—of at least one eighth part of the habitable globe. Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected, even to the end of time, by the proceedings now. Now is the seed-time of continental union, faith and honor." Paine's message went out to people on both sides of the Atlantic by the hundreds of thousands. Carried along by more than ringing rhetoric, his homely argument made him into a prophet—the prophet of reason who saw clearly into the millennial future for which North America had been preparing itself for nearly two centuries.
Even while Paine's pamphlet was hitting the streets of Philadelphia, a Second Continental Congress, made up of representatives of all thirteen colonies, was meeting in that city to consider the question of independence, war, and the possibilities for European cooperation that might eventually lead to the formation of a new nation in America. Paine's pamphlet removed the frames of time and space from this discussion. Focusing on the basic nature of man everywhere, Paine unveiled a transcendent and global drama in which America and the American stood at center stage, the symbol of mankind's hopes for a future of harmony and liberty. Drawing upon all peoples from all places, America stood at the meridian—the first potentially cosmopolitan civilization where man and man's reason and man's rights might prevail. Paine declared, "Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her—Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. Oh receive the fugitive and prepare in time an asylum for mankind."
Paine enunciated three essential functions in the formation of American thought and culture. He served as a profound myth-maker. He made clear some of the basic relationships of man, society, and government upon which the future republic was to rest. And he made the revolutionary heritage of America so overt as to be unmistakable for all future generations.
As myth-maker, Paine, in Common Sense, wove together powerful emotive strands to create enduring myths about American size, uniqueness, open-mindedness, and goodness—America's fundamental difference from the rest of the world. Drawing upon American pride in the size and sublime immensity of the continent, not to mention the endless abundance of nature that supplied resources for world trade, Paine appealed to a kind of Newtonian geography. "There is something very absurd," he wrote, "in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island. In no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet. . . . " Then there were the American people. According to Paine, they were not, as was commonly supposed, all freeborn Englishmen and therefore held by cultural ties to the Mother Country. For "Mother" he substituted the "melting pot" parent. Europe, not just England, was the parent country of America. "This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe." But if the people in America were "lovers of civilization and religious liberty," they stood in stark contrast to the oppressed of England and Europe who remained behind, victims of a "monster" civilization. This—the contrast theme—was central to his argument. America was a free, abundant asylum of nature and plenty. Europe was encrusted with wicked, corrupt, and degrading institutions, such as monarchies, condemned even in the Bible, which enfeebled her population and stifled freedom. The contrast theme Paine presented became basic to defining America.
In one grand synthesis, Paine captured the implicit millennialism of a vast spectrum of American believers, including not only hopeful tradesmen, farmers, newly arrived immigrants, and scientifically minded devotees of progress, but also Calvinists of all persuasions, who for over a century had impatiently looked toward the coming of Christ's kingdom in the New World. According to Paine, America was God's country of the future. The spirit of revival, constant regeneration, and future-oriented habits of pragmatic thinking had already become basic to American thought. Paine, as myth-maker, used it to build an intercolonial self-identity intended to bind the colonies together in a common cause and a new utopian nation.
Paine's social and political thought had even wider scope. Considering himself a citizen of the world, he was not concerned solely with America, but first with mankind, and then America as it offered an experiment or model to the rest of the world. Like most eighteenth-century thinkers, he was Newtonian and believed in models as they reflected the basic principles of nature, yet stood off from it as an observer, possessed of special powers of reason and the senses that English philosopher John Locke had clearly described. Man's task was to use his reason to bring himself into ever-closer harmony with nature, for to be in harmony with nature meant that one was possessed of its secrets and most fully assumed his natural dignity in the universe. But for Paine, contrary to Locke, man did not start out with a mental tabula rasa. Rather, following the Scottish Common Sense philosophers, Paine preferred to believe, like Thomas Jefferson, that man possessed an innate sense of morality and sociability that made naturally for brotherhood. "Let us suppose a small number of persons settled in some sequestered part of the earth, unconnected with the rest," he wrote. "In this state of natural liberty, society will be their first thought." Man in a state of nature thus seeks harmony, brotherhood, cooperation, and sociability rather than ruthless competition. The sole object of government is to enable him to achieve these objectives by preserving his freedom. Thus Paine drew a clear distinction between society and government. "Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. . . . Government like dress is the badge of lost innocence."
The problem arose, however, when simplicity, like innocence, vanished before complexity created by ever-increasing numbers of people with conflicting aims. For all his belief in innate reason and morality, Paine also saw irrationality and wickedness generated out of complex and overly populous societies. Hence the sad necessity for government. America, for him, clearly represented the last best instance of underpopulation and hence of Adamic innocence that made true liberty and brotherly individualism possible. Thus the tone of strident urgency in Common Sense. There was, in Paine's view, very little time left for man to slough off the corruptions of Europe and get back on the natural path of unfettered harmony and freedom. The significance of the revolutionary crisis was for him whether America could resist the encroachments of a corrupt monarchy and thus reverse the depressing tide of tyranny in the nick of time.
In advocating revolution and independence Paine was also assailing the past and the centuries of corruption that had come to fetter European freedom. Unlike Locke, also a believer in the contract theory of government, he took no solace in the venerable British Constitution or historic English traditions said to guarantee "the rights of freeborn Englishmen." He had seen too much corruption in the Britain of his day. Instead he wished America to begin anew—to embark on a venture in true utopianism. The aim of the revolution, as Paine saw it, was to wipe away the stain of the past and to found, through the rational common sense of men, a completely new society dedicated to an ideology of brotherly individualism in which the rights to life, liberty, property, equality, and the pursuit of happiness were the axioms and postulates of man's existence. Moreover, he sought to guarantee the security of these rights by means of a representative republican government with a written constitution in which the maximum democratic participation was encouraged to ensure minimum governmental interference with man's basic rights. Society was more important than government. The individual, in whom Paine ultimately placed his faith, was more important than the state and certainly any ruler. Paine thus proposed to found a revolutionary government upon rationally derived ideas, not traditions, upon an ideological model rather than existing institutions. His was a blueprint drawn from the world of reason and experience that he hoped would take shape in a written constitution that would come to serve all men, including the Americans. Remarkably enough, in the winter of 1776, he found himself in the main among like-minded cosmopolitan men at Valley Forge, who were also conscious of their role on a global and timeless stage. In July of that year, the Continental Congress produced in the Declaration of Independence, addressed specifically to a "candid world," what Paine must have regarded as a gloss upon his text.
Paine's vision of a new society that would embrace and absorb all the people of the earth was, of course, merely a secularized eighteenth-century version of a prophetic and millennial dream that had fascinated peoples for over a thousand years. The meeting of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1776 that launched the colonies on their revolutionary course and the subsequent creation of a unique constitutional government in 1787 meant to form the basis of a great cosmopolitan experiment were the products of a certain group of people at a certain time and place in human history. Other utopian dreams had failed—at times tragically—in the New World. But somehow the New World invariably beckoned and offered future promise down through time to people of millennial vision and imagination. As two hundred years of America's history opened on such a note of promise, the question remained: would the dream be fulfilled?

The Complex Road to an Independent Civilization
Though often it did not seem so, the main theme of colonial experience in North America had been a quest for liberty, as floods of settlers interpreted it. But the achievements of that end were not so easy. In fact, the road to independence was a complex journey. First the Pilgrims, then the Puritans, came seeking religious liberty in their own peculiar fashion. To the south, on the Chesapeake River, the one thing the proprietors of the Virginia Company learned was the folly of attempting to attract plantation workers without giving them some chance to own land in the vastness of America. As the Middle Colonies developed, Pennsylvania prospered on its climate of tolerance—religious, economic, and even ethnic—which attracted thousands of settlers and not only made Philadelphia the most prosperous city in the colonies and the most tolerant, but also opened up the backcountry to rich, free settlement. The proprietary Jerseys were so in name only, as the newly arrived did pretty much as they pleased since the lordly owners were in absentia, taking the waters somewhere in Britain. And in New York, not only had the Hudson River patroon system failed and Manhattan become a polyglot city of all sorts of people, religions, and occupations, but it was so recognized by British authorities who, when they captured it from the Dutch, allowed most indigenous institutions to stand. Indeed, a main theme of British North American imperialism seems to have been the population of the colonies with whatever people seemed available and willing. Governed largely by mercantilistic theories, British sovereigns, merchant adventurers, and Parliament seemed most concerned with exploiting the resources of the new continent as fast as possible, getting rid of overpopulation or malcontents at home, and creating a large new market for British goods. For well over one hundred years, the British government's attention to the colonies was largely confined to militarily combating Dutch, French, and Spanish designs on its New World possessions and regulating commerce in the interests of the Mother Country through a series of navigation acts or trade regulations.
Religion at times became an issue because British rulers lived in an age when the spirit of the Reformation reinforced a natural imperial competition with Catholic France and Spain. Consequently, they endorsed, even at times enthusiastically, the holy aspects of the English mission to North America. But when intense religious conflicts arose in the mid-seventeenth century, the reaction of Britain's rulers was always toward broadened toleration, from neglect of Roger Williams's accusations against New England and Charles II's ordering of religious toleration in Massachusetts, his granting charters of toleration to Williams in Rhode Island and Penn in Pennsylvania, to the broad application of William and Mary's Toleration Act of 1689 over all their North American colonies. In the meantime throughout the colonies, little by little, locally dominated political institutions began to develop, from the famous Virginia House of Burgesses to the New England town meetings built upon the bases of religious congregationalism.
This whole broad imperial outlook on the part of Britain has been termed a policy of "salutary neglect," but, on the contrary, it would be more accurate to say that it was a policy of headlong, opportunistic imperial development in which large numbers of grateful, loyal, functioning citizens were seen to be England's best resource in the competition with Spain, France, and Holland. To achieve this strength in the shortest possible time, within the broad outlines of a traditional mercantilist design, a middle-class laissez-faire policy that even countenanced indentured servitude and slavery prevailed. Americans came to equate this policy, even as it ignored slavery, with liberty, which they believed to be traditional not only in their own long colonial experience, but also traditional in the rights of Englishmen under the British Constitution. Eventually American philosophers, following John Locke, traced the natural right to liberty—or laissez-faire—back through the best times in ancient history to the mythical origins of man in a state of nature. Through a process of historicism they made such rights fundamental to the nature of man himself and the never-ending quest for these rights as something holy.
The striking fact about all this is that, for such a very long time, with minor exceptions, the interests of Britain and its North American colonies seemed to coincide. The bitterest struggles seemed to take place within the colonies themselves—partially due to growing pains that continually jostled, threatened, or at times replaced the status of colonial elites or leadership groups. The struggle of the Puritan orthodoxy to retain absolute control over its "visible saints" in the face of worldly alternatives was one such example. The bitter war waged by the Awakeners against the so-called Arminians was another. These struggles were fought out in the pulpits of intellectualism, in contrast to Major General James Wolfe's more mundane French and Indian War conflict with Louis-Joseph, the Marquis de Montcalm de Saint-Véran, on the Plains of Abraham.


  • New York Observer
    “In Beyond the Revolution, intellectual historian William Goetzmann reminds us that the most brazen utopian ambition of them all had nothing to do with sex or rapture, but was rather founded in the radical provisions of ‘we the people' and those ‘certain inalienable rights.'”

    New York Times Book Review
    “[Goetzmann's] strange and valuable book…is richly populated with radicals and utopians who, with one eye on the innermost soul and the other on world history, created a tradition of open-ended experiment.”

    Howard R. Lamar, Sterling Professor Emeritus of History, Yale University
    Beyond the Revolution is one of the most complete, wide-ranging, readable, and insightful accounts of American intellectuals we have ever had. It deserves to be recognized as a major classic history of American intellectuals to be read by every thinking American.”

    Virginia Quarterly
    “An excellent summary of American thought before the Civil War. It is sure to engage readers interested not only in the history of ideas but also in the history of the early nation.”

    Texas Observer
    “We now have Goetzmann's life of learning distilled into what may be the capstone of his career to help us understand who we were.”

On Sale
Feb 24, 2009
Page Count
480 pages
Basic Books

William H. Goetzmann

About the Author

William H. Goetzmann is Jack S. Blanton, Sr. Professor in History and American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He taught American Intellectual History for fifty years at Yale and the University of Texas. His Explorations and Empire won both the Pulitzer Prize and Francis Parkman Award. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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