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Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition

by Amy Kittelstrom

Pub Date: April 21st, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-59420-485-2
Publisher: Penguin Press

A young scholar’s first book finds in America’s 19th-century embrace of religious liberalism the seeds of modern political liberalism.

Using the device of seven representative and variously interconnected lives spanning more than a century, Kittelstrom (History/Sonoma State Univ.) examines the history of the idea that “human beings ought to treat one another as equals who deserve to be free.” She begins with John Adams, whose devotion to independence, the practice of virtue and the notion of the individual as a moral agent applied every bit as much to his religion as to his politics. The American Reformation’s turn away from Calvinism, slightly predating the birth of our democracy, contained the raw material, she argues, for a social justice vision culminating in Jane Addams, who urged a larger role for government to fill the gaps left by the industrialized state and who insisted that “action is the sole medium of expression for ethics.” Three other characters, likely unknown to most readers, help illustrate Kittelstrom’s thesis and happily remind us that the liberal project belongs not merely to those history remembers: the fiercely independent Mary Moody Emerson (maiden aunt to Waldo), whose devotion to constant inquiry and criticism in pursuit of truth served as a model for thinkers who followed; the peripatetic, nonconformist educator Thomas Davidson, whose commitment to pluralism capped his career; and the minister William Mackintire Salter, a “spokesman for practical idealism,” whose solidarity with workers converted him to activism. In an outstanding chapter, Kittelstrom discusses preacher William Ellery Channing, his belief in human dignity and “universal inner divinity,” and his emphasis on the possibilities of virtue. In another, she considers philosopher William James, author of the phrase “religion of democracy,” and explains his centrality to the notions of reform and renewal behind liberalism’s ever widening scope.

An intellectual history that, while scholarly and broadly allusive, extends beyond the academy walls.