The Diplomatic Relations of the United States with the Barbary Powers, 1776-1816

By Arthur Alphonse Ekirch Jr. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IX
THE SYSTEMATIC EXPLORATION OF THE IDEA

THE preceding chapters show how the concept of progress pervaded American thought in the decades before the Civil War. Interpreted in the light of the ideas and interests of its sponsors, the dogma of progress was the intellectual force and rational in much of the American life of the period. Widely invoked to give authority to all kinds of arguments, and introduced as a justification for all sorts of schemes and panaceas, it was an idea functional to the American economy and way of life in that era between the War of 1812 and the Civil War. Although no contemporary American philosopher of those decades formulated the idea into an extended treatise in the manner of certain European thinkers, the general literature of the period--the books, periodical articles, private correspondence, academic addresses, Congressional speeches, and patriotic orations--is, as we have seen, full of the supporting data which testify to the role of the concept in an important period of our early history. Much of this material has already been analyzed in the fore-going chapters. However, it is important to devote some attention to those American treatises in which a modest attempt was made to give a formal historical and philosophical interpretation of the idea of progress.

During the decade of the 1830's several works were published in which the authors developed the thesis that progress was the natural state of man, in accord with the principles of the universe and of God. This argument in a way joined the natural rights philosophy of the American Revolution to the perfectibility of man theories of the French Revolution. It also denied both Rousseau's concept of a deterioration from an ideal state of nature and the Malthusian pessimism over the ability of civilization to maintain itself.

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