PART TWO THE RISE OF LIBERALISMTo write a history of Massachusetts, I confess, is not inviting an expansive thinker. . . . From 1790 to 1820 there was not a book, a speech, a conversation, or a thought in the State. About 1820, the Charming, Webster, and Everett era begun, and we have been bookish and poetical and cogitative since. (Emerson, Journals, Vol. VIII, p. 339.)
In such summary fashion in the year 1852, Emerson recorded his judgment on half a century of intellectual life in Massachusetts. It was the comment of an exacting critic. In its characterization of the extraordinary ferment of thought that marked the decades of the thirties and forties, it is quite inadequate; but in its contemptuous dismissal of the age of Fisher Ames and Robert Treat Paine it was scarcely unjust. The utter sterility of those old times Emerson understood only too well. It was the world of his own youth, whose pale negations he had come to hate. The creative impulse was stifled, the mind had grown stale from tedious iteration. But at last the old barriers gave way, and into this narrow illiberal world, that had long fed on the crusts of English rationalism and Edwardean dogmatism-dry as remainder biscuit after voyage broke the floods that had been gathering in Europe for years, the waters of all the streams of revolution that were running there bank-full. Before this inundation the old provincialisms were swept away, and for the first time in its history, and the last, the mind of New England gave itself over to a great adventure in liberalism.
Quite evidently the renaissance resulted from the impact of the romantic revolution upon the Puritan mind, and it issued in a form native to New England experience. Animated by the common spirit of Utopianism, its dreams were unlike those of Virginia or the West, founded on a different economics and seeking different ends. Massachusetts had discovered a particular road leading to Utopia by way of the industrial revolution, and the textile mills on the Merrimac began weaving a new pattern of life for New England. The old static agricultural order was broken in upon, and with the social disruption came naturally an intellectual disruption. The mind of that older New England had been held in the close keeping of the church, and the movement of intellectual emancipation became therefore at the outset a movement leveled at theological conservatism; it was concerned first to rid New England of the incubus of Calvinistic dogma. The Calvinists were of tough fiber and tenacious of opinion, and to turn their flank was no summer campaign. The result was a long battle of ideas, a fierce struggle between the old deterministic theology and the new romantic philosophy, with victory slowly inclining to the latter. This major struggle gave to the renaissance its profoundly ethical spirit that set it off sharply from the earlier renaissance of Virginia; and not the least important of the results of the movement was the liberation of the New England conscience from its long bondage to dogma, setting it free to engage in a larger work in the world. What that conscience accomplished in the brief period of its freedom; what causes it espoused and what reforms it carried through-how it quickened a humanitarian zeal in New England and imparted a militant spirit to its culture-these are phases of the total movement not to be neglected by the historian.
In the realm of ideas the renaissance was largely dominated by old-world thought. From the abundant stores of European revolutionary doctrine the New England liberals drew freely-more freely perhaps from German idealism than from French Utopianism. Germany meant much to the awakening mind of New England, by reason of its spiritual and intellectual kinship. Plato was their common father, a transcendental mysticism their common experience. Philosophical idealism with its indwelling Godhood that exalted man to the divine and transformed a mechanical universe into the dwelling place of divine love this was a dynamic faith, appealing to men long nurtured in faith, more seductive to the children of Puritanism than any political or economic romanticisms. It opened to them new heavens when the old were closed and encouraged them to go forth on great ventures.
\par But the renaissance was very much more than a transplanting of German idealism. France had a shaping hand in it, and England. Jean Jacques came before Hegel, and Unitarianism before transcendentalism. It was social and literary as well as philosophical. In so far as that which was essentially one may be divided, the movement involved three major strands: the social Utopianism that came from revolutionary France; the idealistic metaphysics that emerged from revolutionary Germany; and the new culture that spread with the development of literary romanticism. To distinguish these three strands is one thing; to endeavor to separate them is quite another. They interweave and blend in varying patterns; they are but different, new-world phases of a comprehensive European movement that runs far back into the preceding century a movement that in transferring economic and political mastery from the aristocracy to the middle class, in destroying the worm-eaten feudal order and clearing the way for the new capitalistic order, laid open a broad path into the nineteenth century. The extraordinary appeal of this vast movement to the liberal mind of America resulted from the fact that an identical revolution was under way here. In New England, perhaps more dramatically than elsewhere in America, the day of the middle class was dawning, aristocratic ideals were disintegrating, and the hopes of men were running high. To humanize this emerging society, to awaken it to a nobler faith in human destiny, to further the cause of social justice, to create a democracy of the spirit-this was the deeper romantic purpose, however vaguely comprehended, that was fermenting in the New England renaissance, and it was this that gave to it a spirit so warmly ethical.
Now quite evidently a movement so extraordinarily complex would appeal diversely to different minds, and in its development it drew to itself a singularly various following. To the sons of respectable Federalism it was the new romantic culture that appealed; to the militant conscience of Puritanism it was the inspiration of social Utopianism; to the emancipated intellectuals it was the metaphysical idealism. Its many-sidedness was both confusing and stimulating. How shall we explain a movement that embraced such different men as Everett and Channing and Parker and Garrison and Whittier and Emerson and Longfellow and Holmes; men often mutually repellent, sometimes sharply critical of each other? No single mind sums up the whole the theological, humanitarian, mystical, critical, and cultural aspirations of the awakening-as perhaps Goethe may be said to have done for Germany. Emerson, Thoreau and Parker possibly embodied it most adequately; they were transcendental individualists, intellectual revolutionaries, contemptuous of all meanly material standards. But quite evidently Everett would not travel far along the transcendental path they pointed out, nor Holmes, nor Longfellow. These latter expected no romantic Utopias, wanted no such Utopias. Cambridge and Boston satisfied their hopes; they found the world not such a bad place for those who knew how to meet it on its own terms. Yet they too were children of the awakening, and in following their individual paths they contributed in their own way to the disintegration of the old authoritarian order that had long held the mind of New England in subjection. Each in some measure and after his own fashion was a rebel, and their total rebellions made up the sum of New England's bequest to a more liberal America. Yet in this eager and somewhat vague liberalism to which the renaissance was dedicated in spirit, the note that runs through the several programs is a note of reaction from the aspirations of the middle class. It was an ethical protest against the harsh and unjust realities of the industrial revolution that was so ruthlessly transforming the old order of life in New England; and it took the form of a return to a simpler life. To struggle free from the chains of the eighteenth century, only to be bound in new chains, was an ignoble ending to the emancipation that free men could not envisage with satisfaction.