The Intellectual Climate

It remained for the East Coast intellectuals to mediate between Washington authorities and other Americans on questions of the national identity. Although the national symbols were partly borrowed from Greece and Rome, philosophers and authors could not avoid contemporary European intellectual impulses in building up the foundations of their intellectualism.

Even though the Americans had fought against the Englishmen in the 1770s and again in 1812-1814, the British Isles was the closest link to European culture. Americans recognized their inferiority in intellectual culture; they knew that they had to be educated to western culture the European way. Their democratic system was good and useful for the modern kind of life but it was not enough; colleges and universities were founded to train churchmen and civil servants, but also to raise the cultural consciousness of the population.

The ideals of Enlightenment and Romanticism dominated the American intellectual life in the late 18th and early 19th century. Ideas of the Age of Reason came late to America. Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and others were inspired by texts which were 50-100 yeard old; they cited Locke, Newton and Voltaire, while their contemporaries in Europe read Coleridge, Schiller and Goethe. The founders of the American republic leant on thinkers who seemed to answer to their immediate needs and purposes. They were very practical and nationalistic in their rationalism while European philosophy, literature and science were more international and conceptual. The ideas of Enlightenment were submitted to the ideals of American democracy and progress, and the development of religion.

The same is true with the Romantic movement as well, but its ideals fitted chronologically well with the first decades of the American experiment. Therefore, it was more influential in forging the intellectual and artistic climate than Enlightenment. In Europe, the centers of Romanticism could be found in German-speaking areas and in England, and this helped its influence in America. Factors like breaking off old traditions (especially Classicism), the revolutionary nature of culture, Christian religion, individualism and political radicalism could be easily transferred to serve the American society. Ralph Waldo Emerson emphasized individual freedom many times in many ways. "I have taught one doctrine, namely the infinitude of the private man", he summarized in his book Self-Reliance.

This work was published in 1836, and according to Robert M. Crunden, it was only then when Romanticism made its aesthetic breakthrough in the United States. It was a fairly late phenomenon in America but relatively speaking not as late as Enlightenment. It is worth pointing out, too, that many of the social ideals of Romanticism were well known in America, among the youth in particular, already in the 1820s: Crunden writes how the young generation criticized the bourgeois character, Englishness and Classicism of their parents.

On the other hand, these Romantic ideals lived longer in America than in Europe. American Romanticism was more conservative; it did not question the basic structures of the American government, institutions or way of life. American Romanticism produced Longfellow, not Byron, and it produced Thoreau, not Marx. Not even the American youth accepted Schiller's revolutionary spirit, or Byron's opposition towards institutions, or Goethe's conception of morals.

The very title of Emerson's other book The Nature (1836) reveals much: American intellectuals of the early 19th century paid a lot of attention to the relation between man and nature. This was natural: America was large, America possessed many landscapes and virgin lands. This was the essential feature in American Romanticism; in a way, Romanticism was in the mentality of the Americans even before its ideals came from Europe. Therefore, it was a driving force there for a long time, especially in the arts.