Intellectual Influence in American History

The first chapter of Gordon Wood’s The Purpose of the Past is a 1981 New York Review of Books review of Garry Wills’s Explaining America: The Federalist. Wills drew a lot criticism in scholarly circles for his previous book, Inventing America, in which he argued that the Declaration of Independence was informed more by Thomas Jefferson’s commitment to Scottish moral philosophy (particularly in the form of Glasgow moral philosophy professor Francis Hutcheson) than it was by Lockean or social contract ideas. In Explaining America, Wills continued his argument that the founders were “influenced” by Scottish sentimentalist ideals, only this time it was David Hume and his influence on the Federalist Papers.

In his review, Wood is less concerned with whether Wills is correct about Hume’s impact on the writers of the The Federalist than he is about exploring the question of whether or not an eighteenth-century political thinker like Jefferson or, in this case, Hamilton or Madison, could have been influenced directly by just one writer. Wood writes: Wills can hardly be blamed for casting his books according to intellectual “influences,” for much of our intellectual history has been written in these terms: ideas emanating from great thinkers are more or less poured into the empty vessels that apparently are the minds of more ordinary people. But in a complicated culture at least, this is not the way ideas operate at all. In other words, it is possible to have “ideas without having read any great thinkers,” as studies of working class consciousness, for example, have shown. Wood goes on to note that “Many ideas are so much a part of the general culture that specifying a particular textual influence is impossible.”

While I agree with Wood that we need to be very careful about making direct connections between great thinkers and their influence on ordinary people, I also think, from my work on Philip Vickers Fithian, that this kind of influence happens more than Wood is willing to admit

One hand, Fithian’s intellectual commitments support Wood’s thesis. As I argue in The Way of Improvement Leads Home, he was not influenced by simply one thinker, but by a mix or confluence of Christian, republican, and Scottish moral sense writers. In fact, these ideas converged in his thinking to such an extent that it would be irresponsible to try to parse his diary entries for the purpose of finding his so-called “influences.”

Yet, it is also clear that an ordinary farmer and Princeton student such as Fithian would have certainly been influenced by his college mentor, John Witherspoon. Fithian’s writings about morals , politics, and religion so reflect Witherspoon’s teachings that it would be foolish not to suggest that his thoughts were deeply informed–almost entirely– by this distinguished college president. This, of course, may be the difference between being influenced by a particular text and being influenced directly by a real person of letters with whom one has daily face to face contact. (Of course, Witherspoon himself had “influences” that are hard to pin down as well).

Whatever the case, after reading Wood’s essay I will certainly be more cautious when I write about the intellectual influences on the thought of a particular historical actor. This was a helpful chapter.