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The fear and suspicion of ideas and intellect rest on historical foundations buried deep in the American consciousness. Many Americans, in fact, have long disparaged the life of the mind, and populist democracy has increasingly required an appeal to vulgarity and ignorance…

ideas american politicsThe mistrust of ideas and intellect that has long prevailed among a substantial number of Americans likely originated in reaction to the Progressive movement and to the modern variant of liberalism that it engendered, although the lineaments of this attitude reach back to the early history of the Republic. Certainly George Washington Plunkitt, a stalwart of Tammany Hall during the late nineteenth century, regarded the emphasis on ideas and intellect that he associated with Progressive reform as the principal enemy of the American way of life. What good were learning and thinking to the practical business of politics?, Plunkitt asked. A young man who extolled his academic prowess had no future in that rough-and-tumble world. If, eager to launch a political career, he should ever approach a representative of the Tammany organization only to boast that he had taken “first prize at college in Aristotle” and that he could “recite all Shakespeare forwards and backwards,” and, finally, that he was well versed in science and oratory, the response he received would be: “I guess you are not to blame for your misfortunes, but we have no use for you here.” A college education had its place, Plunkitt conceded, “as long as there’s book-worms” but added that erudition “don’t count in politics.” By the same token, preventing a man from being rewarded for his political loyalty unless he could answer “a lot of fool questions about the number of cubic inches of water in the Atlantic and the quality of sand in the Sahara desert” was madness, guaranteed to breed malcontents, socialists, and anarchists.

Whatever else it may have been, Progressivism was a revolt against politics or, more specifically, as Plunkitt recognized, a revolt against politics as usual. Seeking to impose order on chaos, Progressive thinkers believed that only scientifically-trained experts—that is, the very intellectuals for whom Plunkitt voiced such contempt—could engineer the more stable, more efficient, more productive, and more disciplined society that they envisioned. In an increasingly complex world, the Progressives reasoned that ordinary men and women could no longer manage their own affairs, let alone direct society and government. To make responsible decisions and informed choices, ordinary Americans required experts to tell them what to think, what to believe, and what to do. Without such guidance, they would come to grief, discovering that even daily life had become nearly impossible to navigate. Surviving piecemeal on their wits, tormented by uncertainty, confusion, and fear, Americans, the Progressives were convinced, would react irrationally to problems that were beyond their capacity to solve, and perhaps would at last resort to violence against what they had neither the power to control nor the capacity to understand. 

Progressives such as Thorstein Veblen, Herbert Croly, and Walter Lippmann, to name but a few, advocated a new class of social engineers and technicians to wrest the government, society, and economy from the dominance of politicians and businessmen more focused on advancing their private interests than on promoting the general welfare. Technocratic reformers identified “social engineering” as the means to attain both the prosperity and the stability that they cherished. They determined to fashion a new civilization in the United States—an “organizational society”—that rendered obsolete the older values of individualism and competition, which they considered irrational and inefficient. In those exalted days of technocratic promise, many Progressives acclaimed Henry Ford as the quintessential American hero. Considered a viable candidate for president, Ford had won such accolades by imposing both productive efficiency and labor discipline on his factories. Ford’s accomplishments inspired the Progressives, who wished to extend the same efficiency and discipline to society at large. Their aim was to create men and women able and willing to adjust, and then to readjust, to the rigors of the new industrial order.

How did Progressives reconcile this vision with the American traditions of freedom, democracy, and individualism? The short answer is that they did not. Their hope to fashion a rational society and an omni-competent state had more in common with totalitarianism than they might have cared to admit. Progressive thinkers called not only for better government. They also called for more government, with men of learning and intellect firmly holding the reins of power.

Intellect and power were not always at odds. Most of the Founding Fathers, after all, were men of incomparable learning and culture who moved with ease and grace among the worlds of scholarship, science, business, law, and politics. Not expert in any single occupation or pursuit, they were rather imaginative and resourceful, applying their broad knowledge to answering the questions and solving problems of the day. Yet, such an example was not enough to persuade their countrymen, past or present, that men of intellect could excel at politics. Many Americans, in fact, have long been suspicious of ideas and disparaged the life of the mind, which they have thought interfere with the exercise of common sense.

The rise of democracy did not by itself explain the decline of respect for intellect. The partisan conflicts of the 1790s did as much damage. Alleging conspiracies to aid revolutionary France, designs to undermine Christianity, and plots to restore monarchical government, members of the founding generation employed any rhetorical strategy, however indecent or dishonest, to discredit their rivals. Although few were immune, Thomas Jefferson was the first serious victim of the comprehensive assault on intellect. When, in 1796, it appeared that Jefferson had positioned himself to succeed George Washington, William Loughton Smith, a Federalist congressman from South Carolina, published a pamphlet denouncing Jefferson’s qualifications for office. Smith lamented that Jefferson was a philosopher with a skeptical and speculative mind, which had rendered him an atheist who possessed neither faith nor morals. As an even more damning criticism, Smith asserted that Jefferson was a poser, not a genuine philosopher at all. His learning was sophistical, inferior, and debased. As a consequence, his mind displayed “a want of steadiness, a constitutional indecision and versatility, visionary, wild, and speculative systems, and various other defective features.” As president, Jefferson was almost certain to be abstract and theoretical, timid and arbitrary, impractical and frivolous, indecisive yet doctrinaire, hardly the qualities of mind or character to inspire confidence in a head of state. “I am ready to admit,” conceded another Federalist critic, “that he is distinguished for shewy talents, for theoretic learning, and for elegance of his written style.” Jefferson’s abilities better suited him for a professorship than for the presidency.

The campaign against Jefferson, in conjunction with the Alien and Sedition Acts that targeted dissidents and foreigners, revealed that the patrician Federalists had abandoned their commitment to tolerance and freedom. That occurrence alone justified, or at least helped to explain, the popular rejection of the Federalist Party after 1800. At the same time, the advocates of democracy compiled an equally uninspiring record. By the 1820s, the democratic movement was lapsing into a rabid populism that was antagonistic to the scholar, the man of letters, and the gentleman. Lauding the virtues of the common man, democratic populists were apprehensive about the intentions of the propertied and cultivated to dominate government. In time, what had originated as prudent anxiety devolved into a suspicion of learning itself. As early as 1788, Amos Singletary, a delegate to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention, had objected that:

Men of learning, and money men, that talk so finely, and gloss over matters so smoothly, to make us poor illiterate people swallow down the pill expect to get into Congress themselves; they expect to be the managers of this Constitution, and get all the power and all the money into their own hands, and then they will swallow up all us little folks, like the great Leviathan…. This is what I am afraid of.  

Not only the power of wealthy, but also the power of educated, men had to be confined within strict limits if the independence of ordinary citizens were to be preserved. For learning, like property, was an expression of class status. It was, in other words, an instrument of privilege, reserved for those who enjoyed the luxury to live without working.

To diminish, and preferably to eliminate, the advantages of wealth and education, populist movements, such as the coalition that formed around Andrew Jackson, declared war on intellectual sophistication and high culture. Only by curtailing the power of the elite could democracy prevail, and the people at last govern themselves. The innate wisdom of the common man would enable Americans to dispense with informed leadership, which had become as unnecessary as it was disagreeable. The finest statesmen—at least the most reliably democratic statesmen—arose from among the untutored masses. The determination to supplant entrenched privilege, and the belief that the procedures of government were simple enough that virtually anyone could execute them, thus characterized the Jackson movement from the outset.

John Quincy Adams represented the antithesis of the unrefined intelligence and unerring judgment that his Jacksonian opponents thought inhered in every true American heart. The elections of 1824 and 1828 were not only studies in contrasting political styles and ideals between two increasingly bitter adversaries. They were also, at the same time, efforts to articulate different visions of the American future and to define the very meaning of America itself.

To his critics, the patrician Adams demonstrated the imprudence of entrusting learned men with political office. Fluent in seven languages, accomplished in rhetoric, which he had once taught at Harvard, and practiced in mathematics and science, Adams hoped to use the resources of government to advance a national program of learning, exploration, and scholarship. In his first annual message to Congress, delivered on December 6, 1825, Adams recommended the founding of a national university at Washington, D.C., the establishment of a naval academy, the creation of a national observatory, the dispatch of an expedition to survey the Pacific Northwest, and the appropriation of public monies to fund scientific research. In addition to endorsing a vigorous agenda of economic development, Adams also sought to inaugurate an era of intellectual progress in the United States. 

Adams’ elaborate proposals met with derision and antipathy both in Congress and among the American people. His cosmopolitan world view, expressed, for instance, in his praise of European accomplishments in literature, art, and science, offended Americans’ conviction of superiority to the Old World. Adams further outraged public opinion by suggesting in his annual message that elected officials not “slumber in ignorance or fold up our arms and proclaim to the world that we are palsied by the will of our constituents,” thereby seeming to thwart the democratic will. Unlike Adams, the majority of Americans during the 1820s rejected even the trace of a European inheritance. Europe was decadent, corrupt, and barbarous. Andrew Jackson, Adams’ foremost opponent in the elections of 1824 and 1828, embodied the alternative to European depravity. In his military exploits against the Indians and the British, Jackson brought to life the native vigor and the natural wisdom that distinguished the American character. Educated in the school of nature, Jackson had escaped the taint of formal instruction, affording him a pristine, robust, and original mind uncontaminated by the trifling nonsense that routinely beguiled academicians.

This “unlettered man of the West,” as the historian, diplomat, and cabinet secretary George Bancroft described him, “little versed in books [and] unconnected by science with the tradition of the past” would fashion a unique wisdom “from the oracles of his own mind.” Jackson was a rustic sage, Adams merely a glorified schoolmaster. During the campaign of 1828, Jacksonian partisans decried Adams’ intellectual sophistication as much as they condemned his rumored aristocratic self-indulgence and belittled his vast political experience. The outcome of the election was a foregone conclusion. Jackson won fifty-six percent of the popular vote (687,502) to Adams’ forty-four percent (508,064), and dominated the Electoral College, 178 to 83. Adams was a man of the past, Jackson a man of the future. In 1828, Americans embraced the homespun wisdom of the common man and his capacity to act over what they regarded as the sterile intellect of the aristocrat and his fondness for meaningless deliberation. 

Although ideas and those who traffic in them have from time to time come again to the forefront of American politics, the election of 1828 cast suspicion on, if it did not permanently taint, the value of intellect in the public life of the nation. Critics of education voiced a reasonable grievance when they objected that its benefits were not fairly distributed, and accrued predominantly to the rich and well-born. Not content to seek redress for a palpable injustice, they went too far in their disdain for learning itself and in their unreserved faith in the common sense of the common man. From that day to this, populist democracy has increasingly required an appeal to vulgarity and ignorance, and more recently to truculence and resentment. 

“Do you remark how lamentably destitute the country is of men in public station of whom we may speak with any pride?,” the Maryland statesman, novelist, and former Secretary of the Navy John Pendleton Kennedy asked in a letter to his uncle, Philip Pendleton. “How completely has the conception and estimate of a gentleman been obliterated from the popular mind!” Politicians knew best not how to govern, but instead practiced every deception to excite the passions, animate the prejudices, and confuse the judgment of their constituents. Witnessing the failure of the political system during the late 1850s, Kennedy lamented in another letter to his uncle that those who occupied political office were “a miserable array of charlatans and make believe statesmen, little clap-trap demagogues and mock statesmen, manufactured out of blackguards.” As early as 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville remarked on “the vulgar demeanor” of the United States House of Representatives, the members of which body “do not always know how to write correctly.” Tocqueville attributed this circumstance to the zeal and bias of an electorate that could vote directly for congressmen, whereas senators, appointed by state legislatures, reflect “only the lofty thought” and “generous instincts” of the nation, “not the petty passions which often trouble or the vices that disgrace it.” 

Tocqueville erred perhaps only in his too-generous assessment of the Senate. Fifteen years later, writing in the midst of the unruly debate on the Compromise of 1850, Francis Bowen, editor of the North American Review and McLean Professor of History at Harvard, protested that “both houses of Congress have been virtually transformed into noisy and quarrelsome debating clubs, to the almost entire neglect of their proper business of legislation.” Bills that were debated were not enacted; bills that were enacted were not debated. Giving only scant attention to the interests of the people and welfare of the country, Congress, Bowen declared, had attained “the unenviable fame of being the most helpless, disorderly, and inefficient legislative body which can be found in the civilized world.” The United States “would not suffer, and its reputation would certainly be increased, if Congress should adjourn to the next century.” With equal credibility, Bowen might just as well have been describing the conduct of political life that at present thrives on Capitol Hill. 

Since the early nineteenth century, generations of Americans have conceived of access to political office as a means to elevate the common man and to bestow upon him a share of power. Such opportunities seemed the essence of the American democratic promise. As a result, although perhaps without intention, character, intelligence, and, in the end, even minimal competence came to matter less, or not at all. More recently, exaggerated partisanship has once more given rise to additional complications. Francis Bowen’s observation in 1850 that “the greatest danger to which our republican institutions are now exposed proceeds from this inclination on the part of the discontented few to obstruct all action whatever, and rather to have no government at all, than a government that in some respects is distasteful to them” remains applicable. More deliberative, less agitated minds would likely not entertain such an option.

It is stupid to kill people for their ideas. But it is equally stupid to think that ideas are inoffensive and harmless. Those Americans who now consider the life of the mind to be a subversive influence at least implicitly understand that ideas have consequences and that it is often difficult, if not impossible, to predict what those consequences will be. Perhaps without realizing it, they share John Dewey’s admission that every idea, every thinker imperils a stable world. Questioning orthodoxy and illusion, exposing fraud and deceit, condemning injustice and oppression, thinkers and ideas may seem to be only and ever disruptive. They bring not enlightenment, assurance, and hope; rather, they intensify confusion, anxiety, and despair. 

The fear and suspicion of ideas and intellect rest on historical foundations buried deep in the American consciousness. Americans have long associated the life of the mind at once with diabolical cunning and naïve impracticality. Moreover, intellectual distinction, perhaps even more vividly than differences in wealth, violates the American commitment to equality. It is inherently undemocratic and inegalitarian. Nor has the restlessness attendant upon American life favored a more reflective or philosophical habit of mind. Having fled Europe, Americans continued westward, trying always to outdistance the encroachments of civilization. This quest for the open spaces, for the distant frontier, for the trackless wilderness brought with it an embrace of the simple, the natural, and the primitive. Nowhere more than in America has “the longing to shuffle off the complex arrangements of an advanced culture” recurred with such frequency. “The hope,” wrote Jacques Barzun, “is that getting rid of what is will by itself generate new life.”

Early in the history of the United States, then, learning came to be associated with useless pursuits—at best a mere adornment to the serious business of life, at worst an unaffordable luxury or a thoroughgoing impediment. Intellectual excellence often isolated its beneficiaries, depriving them of the common touch and placing them at a conspicuous disadvantage. But if learning has bred arrogance and condescension, it has also encouraged a humility of mind and a discipline of the soul. Such an awareness may yet prompt skeptics to reconsider the life of the mind, viewing it not as a menace but as a complement to character, practicality, and common sense. If they refuse to do so, then ignorance and vulgarity may come to be as important in marking American distinctiveness as the commitment to independence, freedom, equality, and opportunity. So much so that the purpose of America itself may be transformed to show the rest of the world how much—or how little—a people can accomplish without a decent respect for intellect, learning, and culture.   

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