I really enjoyed engaging with Rivka Maizlish‘s recent post at U.S. Intellectual History, “Rethinking the Head-Heart Dichotomy in American History.” I especially appreciated the way she used Thomas Jefferson as a window into the way so-called “men of reason” in early America spent a lot of time wrestling with their passions. Drawing on the work of Nicole Eustace in Passion is the Gale, Maizlish urges historians to “unsettle their categories of reason, emotion, and Enlightenment.” Here is a taste:
Jefferson’s heart claims dominion over all matters of emotion, justice, love, friendship, and morals. “To you [nature] allotted the field of science; to me, that of morals,” Jefferson’s heart tells his head. This association of love, justice, and morals with the heart suggests that Jefferson would also place religion in that category, and indeed, throughout the dialogue only Jefferson’s heart invokes God. Historians of religion in America, however, often present Jefferson as the embodiment of “head religion” as opposed to “heart religion.” In Head and Heart: A History of Christianity in America, historian Gary Wills’ operative definitions of head religion and heart religion make head religion synonymous with reason and the Enlightenment and heart religion synonymous with emotion and evangelicalism. “The emphasis of Enlightened religion is on the head. The emphasis of Evangelicals is on the heart,” Wills states. As a Deist and an intellectual product of the Enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson fits historians’ conventional “head religion” category. The dialogue between his head and his heart, however, complicates the issue by suggesting that Jefferson conceived of religion as a matter of the heart.
As longtime readers of this blog know, these are issues that I used to think about a lot (and continue to think about, although not as much) when I was writing The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America. In that book I tried to explore the way Presbyterian evangelicals embraced the Enlightenment and how one particular Presbyterian (Fithian) tried to balance Presbyterian sobriety, evangelical passion, romantic love, homesickness, cosmopolitan ambitions, the pursuit of gentility and an “enlightened life.”