The American Intellectual Tradition Tradition

For the upcoming USIH conference in New York, I’m finishing off a paper that comments briefly on how U.S. intellectual historians have treated the early American republic. To provide a pithy illustration, I mention that the current edition of The American Intellectual Tradition, the widely used sourcebook by Charles Capper and David Hollinger, contains essentially nothing from the four decades between 1790 and 1828. (Other than some late letters of Adams and Jefferson, the only essay included from that period is William Ellery Channing’s “Unitarian Christianity,” which was preached in 1819 but is probably useful in the modern classroom mainly for understanding what the 1830s were like in Concord.)

To me, this seems like a useful little observation, but for safety’s sake, if nothing else, I’d also like to be able to compare the contents of the sixth edition with previous editions, which go all the way back to 1989. Unfortunately, the only other edition I have on hand at the moment is the second.

I see that Amazon does show the tables of contents for the third and fourth editions. It seems pretty clear that Channing first appeared in the fourth edition, in 2001 — meaning that AIT has grown more inclusive, not less, over the years. But I’d really like to see the full run.

It’s not worth my time right now. But at some point, I think, I should make a collation of the contents of all six editions. It could useful as one way to judge how the field has evolved — or not — since the late twentieth century.

In the meantime, there’s Hollinger’s own essay on the making and remaking of the book: “What Is Our ‘Canon’? How American Intellectual Historians Debate the Core of Their Field.”

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Things That Are Paved with Good Intentions

Yet again, I’m combing through the American Colonization Society Records as part of my ongoing adventure writing the Dissertation Chapter That Will Not Die. Something about the ACS incoming correspondence has been bothering me for a while now, and I think I’ve figured out what it is.

These incoming letters are so ridiculously earnest and well-intended.

Let me back up a little. For many purposes, I stand in the camp of people who view the ACS as a villain. It was, after all, founded on the principle that black people should go away. I empathize with the pro-emigration black Americans profiled in my chapter, but it’s really hard to sympathize with the white ACS leaders who were trying to ship them off. (On the other hand, it’s also pretty clear that certain conspiracy theories about the ACS were exaggerated; it wasn’t simply a slaveowners’ plot to protect slavery from the influence of emancipated black Americans. In many cases, colonization really was an effort to rescue slaves from slavery. And there were certainly free African Americans who had their own reasons for emigrating. Even so, the ACS just isn’t that easy to like.)

Anyway, as I work my way through the correspondence, I keep seeing all these letters from white ACS supporters. Some letters come from slaveowners who are thinking about emancipating their slaves on the condition that they leave immediately for Africa, and who want the ACS to send them there. That’s kind of awkward to spend much time thinking about. But a lot just come from ordinary northern (and southern) pastors, charity ladies, doctors, etc. engaging in basic middle-class philanthropic work. A lot of these letters accompany small donations — the ladies of the Congregationalist church in our town have raised seven dollars and forty-two cents for you, that sort of thing. And some come from absolutely insignificant people, living in the middle of nowhere, who want to subscribe to the ACS newspaper. And some come from white antislavery gentlemen who met this well-spoken young black man in Albany who wants to go to Liberia, and can you help him out? — and so on.

It’s all so … straightforward. These are nice people trying to do a nice thing. A nice thing like sending thousands of people who were born in the United States “back” to Africa, where they can be free and happy around other black people once they’ve taught them how to be nice people, too.

How many of our 2012 philanthropic ventures, activist groups, social causes, and our-kind-of-people liberal-humanitarian enterprises are going to look the same way?