The Course of American Democratic Thought

By Ralph Henry Gabriel; Robert H. Walker | Go to book overview

Chapter 14
THE SCIENCE OF MAN

NOAH PORTER FOUND IN RELIGION a sanction for the gospel of wealth. Andrew Carnegie, when he turned theorist, got on very well without an appeal to the supernatural. The shift marked a momentous change in American social thinking. To understand what was happening a word concerning the background is necessary.

American political thought of the Revolutionary period grew primarily out of eighteenth-century rationalism. It was founded on the theory of natural rights stemming from the natural law philosophy. Jefferson emphasized the supreme importance of reason. He pointed out the peculiar necessity of reason for the well-being of a self- governing republic. In short Jefferson's thought derived ultimately from Newton by way of Locke.

But the prestige of deism in America declined after the French Revolution. Evangelical Protestantism dominated the social thought of Trans-Appalachia and ultimately captured the Atlantic states of the cotton kingdom. Unitarianism developed in New England and was followed by the bold speculations of the transcendentalists. American social thought of the Middle Period was founded largely on religious postulates. Religion was the most powerful drive behind the humanitarian movements of the age. Even Fourierism, which in the French original emphasized nature, compromised with orthodoxy when it appeared in the United States. The old orthodoxy reached its apogee in the 1850's and in the Civil War.

Then came Darwinism. The great naturalist published the Origin of Species in 1859. Geology at the moment was rewriting the Genesis narrative of the origin and early history of the earth. The theologians were ruffled by the quiet humor of Louis Agassiz who had come from Switzerland to Harvard in the 1840's and who was wont to say to his classes: "Gentlemen, the world is older than we have been taught to think. Its age is as if one were gently to rub a

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