Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 2. The Traditions of American Philosophy; Large Indebtedness to Great Britain

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XVII. Later Philosophy

§ 2. The Traditions of American Philosophy; Large Indebtedness to Great Britain

The main traditions of American philosophy have been British, that is, English and Scotch; and the Declaration of Independence has had no more influence in the realm of metaphysical speculation than it has had in the realm of our common law. French and German influences have, indeed, not been absent. The community of Western civilization which found in Latin its common language has never been completely broken up. But French and German influences have not been any greater in the United States than in Great Britain. Up to very recently our philosophers have mostly been theologians, and the latter, like the lawyers, cultivate intense loyalty to ancient traditions. In our early national period French free-thought exercised considerable influence, especially in the South; but the free thought of Voltaire, Condillac, and Volney was, after all, an adaptation of Locke and English deism; and its American apostles like Thomas Paine, Priestley, and Thomas Cooper were, like Franklin and Jefferson, characteristically British—as were Hume and Gibbon in their day. This movement of intellectual liberalism was almost completely annihilated in the greater portion of the country by the evangelical or revivalist movement. The triumph of revivalism was rendered easier by the weakly organized intellectual life and the economic bankruptcy of the older Southern aristocracy, as reflected in the financial difficulties which embarrassed Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe in their old age. The second French wave, the eclectic philosophy of Cousin and Jouffroy, was at bottom simply the Scotch realism of Reid and Stewart over again, with only slight traces of Schelling.