The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XV. Publicists and Orators, 1800–1850

§ 1. Theory and Practice

IN America, political theory and political philosophy have always been closely associated with practical politics and with the problems of very immediate interest. The cogent and effective theory of the American Revolution was distinctly part of a determined effort to reach results in civil organization. And so too in the first half of the nineteenth century, a period by no means without its contribution to the philosophy of the state, most of the political theory appeared in speeches and pamphlets directed to the accomplishment of a present and very concrete purpose. The Americans have been charged with incapacity for sustained theorizing, or for prolonged logical discussion; and yet one may safely say that no other people of modern times have so widely used political theory or so generally discussed practical affairs on a theoretical basis. The whole nature of our institutions has prompted men to indulge in argument which was legalistic and was often tinctured with philosophy. Even the unlearned could not speak and think of democracy and its hopes without indulging in visions; they could not discuss the presence of slavery without touching the border of the deepest problems of social order; they could not speak of union or states’ rights without entering at least the outer portal of philosophic argument. But we need not look for detached theoretical treatises; the statesman, the politician, and the jurist were busily using such learning as they had and such aptitude for theory as they possessed in the concrete and difficult problems which were begotten by democracy in a country which, to use Calhoun’s words, was “rapidly—I was about to say fearfully—growing.” Calhoun himself, a philosopher of real distinction, probably never claimed a higher rôle than that of statesman; and though he published two treatises which belong in the field of political theory, they were produced because of an immediate tangible condition and they were partly vitiated for permanent service because of their defence of a decaying institution which dimmed his own outlook on the world.