The Pragmatic Revolt in American History: Carl Becker and Charles Beard

By Cushing Strout | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
The Dilemma of a Modern Diderot

IN 1915 Carl Becker confidently concluded his Beginnings of the American People with the judgment that the sweeping generalities of the Declaration of Independence had formulated "those basic truths which no criticism can seriously impair, and to which the minds of men must always turn, so long as faith in democracy shall endure."1 Between 1915 and 1939 he experienced a trial of his own faith that shook his confidence in the "glittering generalities" of 18th-century liberalism. His intellectual odyssey has a special interest because of his persistent effort to ground his values on a philosophical basis and his willingness to follow the bent of the modern temper wherever it led him. What Hawthorne said of Melville applies also to Becker: "He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other."2 His spiritual dilemma had its origins in the contrast between his sympathy with the liberal values of the philosophers of the Enlightenment and his own skeptical outlook, which was hard pressed to give these values intellectual support. He had himself shown how the remnants of Christian faith and the metaphysical background of Newtonian physics had buttressed the Heavenly City of the 18th-centuryphilosophes. Like them, he cherished Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Humanity, Toleration, and

____________________
1
Beginnings of the American People, Riverside History of the United States, 1 ( Boston, 1915), p. 253.
2
The English Notebooks, ed. Randall Stewart ( New York, Modern Language Association, 1941), p. 433.

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