The Course of American Democratic Thought

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

Chapter 15
THE RELIGION OF HUMANITY

THE GOSPEL OF WEALTH was the result of an effort to implement the old democratic doctrine of the free individual in order to make it useful in a developing industrial capitalism. The new version of the philosophy of individualism, supported by Protestant theology or by Darwinian naturalism, became the ruling intellectual pattern of the period of economic transition which lay between 1865 and 1917. The gospel of wealth, however, did not go unchallenged. Criticism appeared immediately after Appomattox. The objectors challenged not only the doctrine of individual competition, but also both the religious and secular arguments which supported it.

The appearance of an aggressive humanism, a new religion of humanity, immediately after the end of the Civil War is one of the more significant events in the history of American democratic thought. The objective of the religion of humanity was to secure and to protect a larger human freedom and to make men understand that liberty implies responsibility. Like Morgan, the post-Appomattox humanists turned to science. When the anxieties of war relaxed, there was a sudden impact of Darwinism upon Christian orthodoxy. August Comte, who died in 1857, gave the world a positivist philosophy which affirmed that the theological stage in the progress of humankind had ended, as had also the succeeding stage of rationalistic philosophies. Mankind, thought Comte, had entered, in the nineteenth century, the age of science; in this new intellectual world man was destined to become the master of his own destiny. Comtean positivism affected American thought at the moment when Darwinism was challenging the old religious doctrines of the nature of man.

At the same time a revolution which grew out of the Civil War began to take form. The attitude of the common American citizen toward the central government began to change. Before 1861 the functions of the government were few. Laissez faire was a reality.

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