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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Imported French Philosophy

By Joseph Dennie (1768–1812)

[From “The Lay Preacher.”—The Port Folio. Vol. I. 1801.]

A PHILOSOPHER, in the modern sense of the word, I would define a presumptuous mortal, proudly spurning at old systems, and promptly inventing new. Be the materials ever so naught, be their connection ever so slight, be the whole ever so disjointed and crazy, if it be new, these confident architects will swear that their building will accommodate you better than any that you have previously used. To catch the eye, and abuse the credulity of wondering fools, the puppet-show philosopher exhibits his scheme, gorgeously painted and gloriously illuminated, and bellows all the time in praise of his varnished ware. The whole is artfully calculated to captivate and charm all, except those few who are not suddenly delighted with such representations, who know of what stuff they are made, for what purposes they are intended, and in what they are sure invariably to end. Such men gaze only to deride. But laugh as you please, the philosophers find in human nature such a fund of credulity that, be their draughts large as they may, no protest is anticipated. It is a bank, not merely of discount, but deposit, and bolstered up by all the credit of the great body corporate of all the weakness in the world. The moment that a man arrives in this fairy and chivalric land of French philosophy, he beholds at every creek and corner something to dazzle and surprise, but nothing steadfast or secure. The surface is slippery, and giants, and dwarfs, and wounded knights and distressed damsels abound. Nor are enchanters wanting; and they are the philosophers themselves. They will, in a twinkling, conjure away kingdoms, chain a prince’s daughter in a dungeon, and give to court pages, lackeys, and all those “airy nothings,” “a local habitation and a name.” If the adventurer in this fantastic region be capriciously weary of his old mansion, the philosophic enchanters will quickly furnish a choice of castles, “roughly rushing to the skies.” They are unstable, it is true, and comfortless, and cold, and cemented with blood, but show speciously at a distance, with portcullis most invitingly open for the free and equal admission of all mankind.

Those who have been professors of the new philosophy of France, and their servile devotees in America, taint everything they touch. Like the dead insect in the ointment, they cause the whole to send forth an odious and putrid savor. Instead of viewing man as he is, they are continually forming plans for man as he should be. Nothing established, nothing common, is admitted into their systems. They invert all the rules of adaptation. They wish to fashion nature and society in their whimsical mould, instead of regulating that mould according to the proportions of society and nature. They glow with intense love for the whole species, but are cold and chill as death towards every individual….

To men of the complexion of Condorcet and his associates, most of the miseries of France may be ascribed. Full of paradox, recent from wire-drawing in the schools, and with mind all begrimed from the Cyclops cave of metaphysics, behold a Sieyes, in the form of a politician, draughting, currente calamo, three hundred constitutions in a day, and not one of them fit for use, but delusive as a mountebank’s bill, and bloody as the habiliments of a Banquo.

Of this dangerous, deistical, and Utopian school, a great personage from Virginia is a favored pupil. His Gallic masters stroke his head, and pronounce him forward and promising. Those who sit in the same form cheerfully and reverently allow him to be the head of his class. In allusion to the well marshalled words of a great orator, him they worship; him they emulate; his “notes” they con over all the time they can spare from the “Aurora” of the morning, or French politics at night. The man has talents, but they are of a dangerous and delusive kind. He has read much, and can write plausibly. He is a man of letters, and should be a retired one. His closet, and not the cabinet, is his place. In the first, he might harmlessly examine the teeth of a nondescript monster, the secretions of an African, or the Almanac of Banneker. At home he might catch a standard of weight from the droppings of his eaves, and, seated in his epicurean chair, laugh at Moses and the prophets, and wink against the beams of the Sun of Righteousness. At the seat of government, his abstract, inapplicable, metaphysico-politics are either nugatory or noxious. Besides, his principles relish so strongly of Paris, and are seasoned with such a profusion of French garlic, that he offends the whole nation. Better for Americans, that on their extended plains “thistles should grow, instead of wheat, and cockle, instead of barley,” than that a “philosopher” should influence the councils of the country, and that his admiration of the works of Voltaire and Helvetius should induce him to wish a closer connection with Frenchmen. When a metaphysical and Gallic government obtains in America, may the pen drop from the hand, and “the arm fall from the shoulder-blade” of