The Growth of American Thought

By Merle Curti | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VIII The Conservative Reaction

We have had too many French philosophers already, and I really begin to think, or rather to suspect, that learned academies, not under the immediate inspection and control of government, have disorganized the world, and are incompatible with social order.

-- JOHN ADAMS, 1798

The exuberance with which many plain people and their leaders hailed the French Revolution, accepted deism, celebrated the idea of progress, and proclaimed the dawn of a new day was met by the counterdefense of those who saw little but evil in the claims of democracy at home and in the Revolution abroad. The conflict was not formal or sharply defined. Many substantial merchants and planters repudiated the political, social, and economic philosophy of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution without rejecting deistic and rationalistic ideas. Some clergymen and a great number of plain people accepted democratic ideas but rejected skepticism and rationalism in the religious realm. Yet a conservative defense did emerge and, among different groups, became well formulated by the seventeen-nineties. The American Enlightenment, strong in the first flush of the revolutionary enthusiasm which created the new nation, was now under sharp attack. The conservative attack was both negative and positive, and the two aspects overlapped at many points. Negatively the defense of the established pattern of economic, social, and political arrangements centered in an attack on the French Revolution and alleged Jacobinism at home; positively a case was made for institutionalism, aristocracy, the continued restriction of suffrage to substantial property owners, and revealed religion.

Just as the critics of certain ideas of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution were not always critics of other ideas in this gen-

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