Long after Barrett Wendell’s death, an elderly George Santayana remembered his former Harvard colleague fondly. “We were on the same side of the barricade.” Both he and Wendell loved the College with all its quirky traditions and sought to protect it from the academic innovations of President Charles Eliot. “We both desired to screen those follies and to propagate that virtu against the steam-roller of industrial democracy. We were not asking much; for these were precisely the follies and the virtu that democracy, if liberated from the steam-roller, would cultivate of its own accord. What we deprecated was only that this spontaneous life of the people should be frustrated by the machinery of the popular government and of incorporated private interests.”[1] In this fight, the prolific and opinionated Wendell excoriated what he regarded as frivolous philosophies, literary trends, and writers too easily beguiled by the latest intellectual fashions, and left a coherent, conservative interpretation on American character and letters from colonial settlement to the Progressive Era. Against the “steam-roller of industrial democracy,” the contrarian Wendell pulled no punches.

Barrett Wendell remains in the shadow of his better known Harvard colleagues from the early 20th century, Irving Babbitt and Santayana, as well as some of his students, like Robert Frost, John Dos Passos, and T.S. Eliot. Born into a wealthy, pedigreed Boston family in 1855, he experienced a childhood of privilege and graduated from Harvard College in 1877, a slightly nervous, socially-maladjusted, introspective young man. He tried his hand at law under his cousin Oliver Wendell Holmes, but found it uninteresting and failed miserably. Next he attempted writing novels to become another New England literary prodigy, but his books flopped. With those doors closed, he happened to bump into a Harvard professor while walking around Boston who invited him to visit and teach at his alma mater. At this he met great success and remained at Cambridge teaching composition and literature for thirty-seven years (1880-1917). A true American man of letters who never earned an advanced degree, he is best compared to England’s George Saintsbury—a literary critic and social commentator who drifted almost accidentally into academia yet left behind a generation of grateful students. In addition, he wrote widely on American politics, history, and education, infuriating many with his reactionary opinions, much like Saintsbury in his three Notebooks. Yet Wendell’s commentary on America—particularly in his Stelligeri (1893), Literary History of America (1900), Temper of the Seventeenth Century in English Literature (1904), Liberty, Union and Democracy (1906), and Mystery of Education (1909)—presents a consistent thesis on American national history, character, literature, and ideas similar in outline to the more prominent “New Humanism” enunciated by his colleague Irving Babbitt.[2]

Barrett Wendell interpreted America through his understanding of New England and the ethos of seventeenth century Puritan settlers who built communities around Boston. This “temper of the seventeenth century” he labeled “New England Orderly Idealism,” which combined Puritan righteousness with the deliberation of English common law and tradition. Balancing these competing prerogatives “to season enthusiasm with prudence,” was arduous, and too often veered into religious perfectionism and zealotry.[3] Wendell described these warring tendencies as a battle between Right and rights:

Right is an obligation sanctioned by duty and by ideal justice, springing from the heavens above; rights are privileges and duties assured mankind by the human laws under which they live. Right is divinely abstract; rights are humanly concrete. And in earthly affairs, the two can seldom quite coincide. Again and again, throughout history, there have accordingly come efforts to reform human affairs in accordance with abstract ideals – to impose on the distortions of the errors of rights, as defined by the passing and various systems of human law, the higher authority of ideal right. Sometimes these efforts are merely reforms; sometimes they are revolutions. Almost always they subtly and unexpectedly alter the course of society and thus affect the development of national temper. They hardly accomplish precisely what they so eagerly and fervently believe that they shall; for though right be divine in its ideal origin, the phrasing of its dictates in human terms is sure to dim its purity; and although rights, in epochs of aberration and oppression, be never so distorted, they surely have their origin in centuries of experience which has proved them favorable to human safety and prosperity.[4]

Those societies most at peace manage to balance Right and rights, and in the early seventeenth century English Puritans saw God-given Right and English legal rights increasingly at odds.

Unlike those who stayed behind and eventually warred with King Charles I, American Puritans typically avoided the “ecstatic fires of imaginative aspiration” and “divine madness” that sank England into Civil War.[5] The fight against nature “in the solitudes of an American desert,” against France, and against the native tribes gave to New England Puritanism a practical edge—“their common tasks and dangers tended to strengthen their common faith by all the fellowship of common interests and common duties.”[6] The “elder Puritanism” of enthusiastic seeking never entirely died, but soon was given the “ineffable sanction of reverenced tradition.”[7] These two different Puritan experiences marked the beginning of the Anglo-American divergence. The mother country tired of righteous rhetoric against the growth of industry, commerce, cities, and the power of Parliament, and the young colony retained its initial idealistic enthusiasm balanced against the practicalities of living in the wilderness. In England, the tide turned in favor of rights over Right, and Englishmen “dreaded, beyond all things else in public matters, the control of established order by abstract principles;” in America, the battle continued.[8]

Wendell believed the maintenance of Puritan traditions after 1700 meant that Puritan anthropology lay at the heart of what it meant to be an American. Fierce introspection and prayer as to one’s salvation gave succor to people in desperate worldly situations. “[Puritanism] always had a singular power of comforting people who had failed to prosper on earth and were disposed to envy those who had succeeded,” he wrote in Temper of the Seventeenth Century. “[F]or if amid the most humiliating misfortune, or the deepest personal obscurity, a man could honestly feel himself assured of salvation, he could look with grim humor at the passing pageant and triumph of those whose infernal sufferings should presently and permanently enhance his saintly joy.”[9] The New England faith neutralized the desperation and upheaval of material want by assuring those who perceived their salvation that great rewards were yet to come.

With the inegalitarian reality of the saved and damned, social and political equality had no roots in the American tradition. The theology of predestination, that only certain among us will be saved by God, gave to society a natural inequality. Recognition of this fact required men to recognize and follow this aristocracy.

In both the human order and the divine, most of us are bound to have our betters. And among the deepest phases of Puritan conviction was the certain assurance that when by any process of seeking we can discover here on earth one who is truly and justly among these betters, it is our constant duty not to belittle him with all the spite of envy, hatred, and malice, but rather reverently to thank God that here is something nobler than such as we. . . . Throughout the Puritan generations our ancestors never swerved from the conviction that most of us must always have our betters, and that our betters are better than we, not from any blind or unjust chance, but because it has pleased God to grant them the boon of eternal life. Our betters are hard to find, no doubt, and hard to recognize; and the Lord may have sown them anywhere. But He has surely sown them somewhere among us; and it is our unavoidable duty to seek them and find them; and when they are sought and found, to follow them.[10]

This was not a call for a hereditary peerage on Wendell’s part. Sin and piety could be found among any station. Wendell believed that a virtuous farmer was virtuous not because he was a farmer, but because God blessed that farmer as a man above others. Thus, as a foundational element of American national consciousness, New England Orderly Idealism delicately balanced righteousness with law and asserted that all men were not created equal by their Creator.

Wendell applied his understanding of orderly idealism to American history and character. By the time of the Revolution, America had fatally diverged from England. The former remained largely Elizabethan in temper whose ideals were based in Biblical right and English common law, but the latter fundamentally changed since 1600. “More and more, one begins to think, the secret of the American Revolution may be found in the fact that while under the influence of European conditions the English temperament had steadily altered from that of spontaneous, enthusiastic, versatile Elizabethans to that of stubborn, robust John Bull, the American temper, born under Elizabeth herself, had never deeply changed.”[11] America retained its traditions of local self-government, making them into “immemorial” institutions as deeply respected as any in England, while England progressively weakened its monarchy and made Parliament supreme. Finally, by the 1770s, Americans ceased to recognize anything glorious in Parliament at all; rather, Parliament had become a revolutionary force attacking American political traditions.

Alone in history, [the American Revolution’s] truly vital purpose was not to overthrow an immemorial system of government and society, replacing it by some philanthropic and untested new one. The vital purpose of the American Revolution was, with all the power of a newly conscious national existence, to maintain against reactionary innovation that historical continuity, those immemorial traditions of our own, which the unbroken experience of five generations had proved favorable among ourselves to prosperity and to righteousness. Alone of revolutions ours was essentially conservative, conservative in such sense as one might fancy an uprising in England to be to-day which should resist to the death a royal veto – legal, if you will, but disused since before the accession of King George the Third.[12]

Such perceived innovations had to be resisted, and thus the Revolution became a conservative necessity.[13]

In addition, Wendell took great pains to insist that the American Revolution bore no resemblance to the French: “Ours and ours only, strove not to innovate, but to preserve; not to manufacture a ready-made system of laws and government, but to guard and protect in its normal growth a system of government which had been proved sound and wholesome by centuries of ancestral experience.”[14] The American “war of secession” between “Imperial Unionists” and “Imperial Secessionists” (as he called Loyalists and Patriots) was firmly based in established but divergent understandings of law, politics, and history.[15] The French Revolution, on the other hand, originated in cloudy abstraction:

Whatever reasons the revolutionary Americans gave for their conduct, their underlying impulse was one which they had inherited unchanged from their immigrant ancestors; namely, that the rights for which men should die are not abstract but legal. The abstract phrases of the American Revolution, deeply as they have affected the surface of American thought, remain superficial. . . . each really and truly believed itself to be asserting the rights which immemorial custom had sanctioned. Revolutionary France, on the other hand, tried to introduce into human history a system of abstract rights different from anything which had ever flourished under the sun. Naturally it came to grief.[16]

The Anglo-American divorce was terribly regrettable for Wendell, to the point where some critics wondered whether he really approved of the Revolution. His biographer Mark A. DeWolfe Howe suggested that, “If he had lived in Boston before the Revolution, it would have been entirely in keeping with the role of his maturer years to ally himself with the Tories, as a defender of the established order.”[17] The literary critic Van Wyck Brooks indicted his former Harvard professor on the same charge: “Deploring the French Revolution, he deplored the American Revolution, which had divided the English-speaking world; and, missing the significance of all the Revolution stood for, he had missed the meaning of his country; and yet the paradoxical Barrett Wendell saw in himself a defender of ‘American traditions’! By American traditions, he meant a number of things, no doubt, but mainly that good old families had good old glass, Hepplewhite chairs and good Madeira; and he meant that they had been English and should have remained so.”[18]

It is true that Wendell was a determined lifelong Anglophile, but viewing the Revolution as a conservative event, he also believed it defensible. The English-speaking world divided and, despite using the same language, ceased to understand each other. “[A]s one considers to-day the arguments of the loyalists, it is hard to feel them legally weaker than those which finally prevailed. Rather one begins to feel that the two sides misunderstood one another more profoundly than has yet been realised. They used the same terms, but they assumed them to mean widely different things.”[19] The misunderstanding progressed so far that Wendell even called the Revolution, echoing similar descriptions of the Civil War, an “irrepressible conflict.”[20]

While the Revolution may be defensible, Wendell held grave misgivings about the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson’s assertions therein. Americans too often deified the Declaration—“nobody has been allowed to inspect it critically without exposing himself to suspicion of heresy. It has been cherished like the Tables of the Law which came straight from the hands of God.”[21] While it was a lovely piece of eighteenth-century rhetoric, “the Declaration of Independence is such a thing as nowadays we colloquially call a party platform.”[22] It was crafted after a typical legal document, listing every charge it could hurl against the accused. “It is, doubtless, among the most fervent in history; it is contagiously intense, it seems tremendously genuine; it rises, we may gladly admit, to the region of prophetic inspiration,” Wendell admitted in his 1906 Liberty, Union and Democracy. “But the very fact that it rises to this quivering height should help to remind us that we can hardly accept it, any more than we could accept an utterance in completely lyric form, as a literal statement of cold fact.”[23] Drawing on the phraseology of fellow New Englander Rufus Choate, he admired the genuineness and sincerity of the Declaration, but “its glittering generalities are no more to be accepted as statements of literal fact than are the separate counts which prolong less memorable party platforms and legal indictments.”[24]

Jefferson’s listing of natural rights gave Wendell fits. While he fervently approved the idea that “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men” and that the inclusion of this meant “society and civilization cannot exist without public order,” the purported rights of liberty and pursuit of happiness were so riddled with vagueness and exceptions as to be devoid of meaning.[25] If there was a right to life, then what of states’ right to declare war? Do America’s enemies have this same right? A natural right to liberty could just as easily be license in the hands of fallen humanity. “The extreme logic of liberty would evidently assert the right of everybody to behave at all times exactly as he happens to desire,” even committing crimes.[26] But America locked up its criminals. “The very existence of a prison obscures some radiance of the glittering generalities so dear to us; yet we have never tried to get along without prisons.”[27] Americans are not anarchists, Wendell insisted. Is there a natural right to pursue happiness? What happens if the object of happiness is desired by two people? Is there a “free fight” between claimants? Do we only have a right to the pursuit, but not the object? “The moment you try to reduce to concrete terms the rights asserted for America by the Declaration of Independence, you find yourself in vague regions. You may reach conclusions eminently satisfactory to yourself. You will hardly reach conclusions which shall equally satisfy the next man.”[28] The Declaration was not an expression of orderly idealism, but of hazy abstraction without basis in experience, observation, or human reality.

For Wendell, the most evocative symbol of the Revolution was not the Declaration of Independence, but the abandoned Pepperell mansion in Kittery, Maine, family home of the New England hero who captured the French fortress of Louisbourg in 1745. In the 1770s, the Pepperells remained loyalists to the Crown and lost everything. Their old rundown family home represented a noble and lost American tradition:

[T]he ruinous mansion symbolizes, more clearly than we like to admit, the state in which the American Revolution left us. In that great struggle, I believe, the Americans were in the right, and in the right because what they fought for was no abstract principle, but rather the maintenance of their vested rights. In doing so, however, they were forced to be for the moment rebels. As rebels, it was their inevitable misfortune to find opposed to them that great part of the best and worthiest people in the land who in any crisis feel bound to throw themselves on the side of established authority.[29]

Wendell, living in his own ancestral Portsmouth, New Hampshire home later in life, often saw himself as a Progressive Era Pepperell, on the side of established authority against the rebellions of his time.

If Wendell’s picture of the eighteenth century was tragic, his portrayal of the long nineteenth century was grim. Over that century, the rich traditions of New England Calvinism devolved into the sweet, flaccid sentimentality of Unitarianism. As he wrote William James in 1901, speaking of the spirit of his new book Literary History of America: “It is that of old New England, which believed it needed salvation, and strove therefore as best it could. And then came the saintly drummers . . . asserting the need of salvation to be a night-mare. So New England rubbed its eyes and strove for salvation no more. And as the years pass we can begin to see that whatever brought it near the eternities was the old spiritual aspirations thus finally, fatally weakened.”[30] For many Americans in 1800, Calvinism was running out of time. Its strict dogma emerged out of crowded, discontented England in the seventeenth century, where men were cramped together and committed numerous sins. After two centuries in the wide-open spaces of America, formerly sinful men looked deceptively redeemable and good. “In a society like this, Calvinistic dogma seems constantly further from truth, as taught by actual life. If everything which men do is essentially damnable, if they can be saved from eternal punishment only by the divine redemption which comes to the elect through Christ, the incarnate son of God, men ought continually to behave abominably.”[31] But to many, men were not devils, and slowly orthodox preaching began to recede to be replaced by liberal Unitarianism, or what he called in Stelligeri, “a sublime confidence in the divine possibilities that lie hidden in even the vilest human being.”[32]

If man is not all that bad, Wendell continued, then the intercession of Christ is not all that necessary: “The second person of the Trinity having thus lost his mystic office, the third spread wing and vanished into the radiance of a new heaven. In this glorious region the New England Unitarians discerned singly and alone the one God, who had made man in his image. One almost perfect image they recognised in Jesus Christ; a great many inferior but still indubitable ones they found actually to populate the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”[33] With Christ as ethical model, Unitarians liberated Christianity from dogma and, to a large degree, individualized faith. “Search [Scripture] yourself; use the light of the Scriptures; remember the example of Christ; and all will be well.” Armed with a new, rich “spiritual freedom,” ministers could now preach the Gospel in a host of new ways that struck their individual conscience.[34] Chief among these ministers, and a deeply problematic figure in Wendell’s view, was the Unitarian reformer William Ellery Channing. Channing regarded Christ as a model; theological details, like whether Christ was actually the son of God, were immaterial to good ethical living. “In earthly life [Christ] could avoid damnation, and all we need do – if indeed there be real danger of damnation at all – is to behave as nearly like him as we can. . . . if all of us try to do our best, is there any reasonable cause for fearing that everything shall not ultimately go right?”[35] Calvinism’s dark warnings of the evil lurking in the hearts of mankind vanished before the cheery Unitarian hope that everything will work out well in the end. What better sign of this transition than the takeover of Wendell’s beloved Harvard College by the Unitarians in 1805? What better sign of Unitarianism’s vacuity than the late nineteenth century Episcopal Bishop of Boston, Philip Brooks, who, in Wendell’s mind, was a latter-day shadow of Channing? “[Brooks’] instinctive nature was so good that he never quite realised the badness and uncleanness which beset the lives of common men with temptation. In him, just as in the fathers of Unitarianism, the national inexperience of America permitted almost unrestrained the development of a moral purity which to those who possess it makes the grim philosophy of damnation seem an ill-conceived nursery tale.”[36] This was idealism with no order, a fundamental detour from American traditions.

Sunny Unitarianism led to free-thinking Transcendentalism. If men could use their reason to discern God fully, then they should also question established thinking in all things and use their conscience or “inner light” to find the true and the good. “Very good; when a question is presented, all you need do is to inquire of yourself whether it is true,” Wendell explained sarcastically. “Answer yourself earnestly, and the question is settled. . . . Human nature is good; you are made right – mind, body, soul, spirit, and all. Obey yourself, and you need have no fear.” Where Unitarianism was cool and rational, Transcendentalism was emotional and enthusiastic, a “hopefully impalpable philosophy.”[37] Still, Wendell found much to admire in Transcendentalism, albeit grudgingly, and was divided as to its legacy. The famous New England transcendental journal The Dial was not only part of “that little company of evanescent periodicals, which now and then endeavour to afford everybody a full opportunity to say anything,” but also a publication “not only of auroral hopefulness, but of moral sanity.”[38] The commune at Brook Farm, which attracted the leading New England intellectuals of the day, was a silly experiment with unhappy results. “Dreams are very noble things; but to dream we must sleep; and to get along in this actual world of ours we must be wide awake.”[39] Yet ultimately the whole enterprise was harmless: “It was typical of all Transcendentalism. It had a bright beginning, a rather bewildering adolescence, and a confused, misty end; but it left no one the worse for its influence.”[40]

Even Ralph Waldo Emerson, for all his warts, stood above other American thinkers of the day, Wendell believed. True, his questioning the divinity of Christ was “serene insolence,” his attention span to topics that interested him fleeting, and his manner no different than any “good old inbred Yankee preacher.”[41]

Christ as a philosopher he respected and reverenced; but Christ the Redeemer, who takes upon Himself the sins of the world, interested him no more than the Lord’s Supper. So far as Christ was a prophet, a speaker of beautiful and noble truth, a living example of stainless life, Emerson could reverently bow before him; but when it came to considering Christ as more divine than other good men, this same Emerson found the act as far from reasonable as asserting one day’s sunshine superior to that of another.[42]

Emerson could be maddeningly contradictory, confusing, and ethereal in his observations, and his inveterate name dropping of theologians and thinkers more reflected the “juvenile pedantry of renascent New England at a moment when Yankees had begun to know the whole range of literature by name” than genuine knowledge.[43] The balance between idealism and order too often bent to the former. Beneath all this, however, was a simple man who loved to talk about life and its mysteries, and to preach a healthy individualism. Wendell gently defended the Concord giant:

We may not care for the things he said, we may not find sympathetic the temper in which he uttered them, but we cannot deny that when, for two hundred years, intellectual tyranny had kept the native American mind cramped within the limits of tradition, Emerson fearlessly stood forth as the chief representative of that movement which asserted the right of every individual to think, to feel, to speak, to act for himself, confident that so far as each acts in sincerity, good shall ensue.[44]

There is a tone of regret throughout his panegyric to Emerson, that America lost something when he gave his energies to liberation rather than allying with those who “find prospect of salvation only in obedience to authority.”[45] Wendell counted himself among the ambivalent and privately confessed to William James that he “should be happier in a world that hadn’t been graced by Channing or Emerson.”[46]

What began in Unitarian optimism and ran through transcendental individualism, concluded in radical movements for social and political reform, in particular the antebellum abolitionist movement. For Wendell, they were of the same cloth. Man was good, an individual armed with conscience and an obligation to use that conscience to improve the world. When men begin to look at life in earnest, as Unitarians and Transcendentalists did, and take measure of its nature, good and bad, two reactions occur: they either accept that bad things happen and will always happen, and that any major overhaul of society to eliminate badness will likely cause a whole host of unintended evils worse than the initial malady (for example, the collapse of the Union and Constitution), or they become obsessed with the stain of evil and work tirelessly, fearlessly, recklessly for its eradication everywhere. Conservative New England (of which Wendell counted himself) believed the former. “Whatever threatened Union or property, they conceived, clearly threatened civilisation, and on civilisation rests all that is best in human life or human society; for civilisation is the mother of ideals.”[47] Abolition and its allied reform movements adhered to the latter. Beginning in the 1840s, reformism went from the insignificant efforts of a cranky few to the determined push of many important, dedicated New Englanders. “[W]hen reform takes up arms, we have revolutions.”[48]

What struck Wendell was militant abolition’s defiance of a cornerstone of American tradition: common law recognition of private property, no matter how distasteful the category of property. Chief among these militants was the abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison: “Fanatical, of course, he was absolutely sincere in his fanaticism, absolutely devoted and absolutely brave . . . The greatest strength of an honest, uneducated reformer lies in his unquestioning singleness of view. He really believes those who oppose him to be as wicked as he believes himself to be good. What moral strength is inherent in congenitally blind conviction is surely and honorably his.” Much like the French Revolution justified its excesses with appeals to airy abstractions, rather than history and tradition, Wendell believed abolitionist reform built its understanding of slavery on secondhand information and rumor, and sought to correct communities distant and different from itself. For Garrison and his followers, charity did not begin at home, it began south of the Mason-Dixon Line. In this, they were acting English and Puritan, as fit their heritage, but without the constraining hand of law. “[E]nthusiasm lacks foresight. It is hiding the truth that for all their noble enthusiasm, the Abolitionists, after the good old British fashion, directed their reforming energies not against the evils prevalent in the actual society of which they formed a part; but against those that prevailed in a rival society of which they knew chiefly by hearsay.”[49] Or as he wittily noted in Literary History of America, “no peculiarity has been more characteristic of the native English than a passion for reform of other people than themselves, trusting meantime that God will help those who forcibly help somebody else.”[50] Once again, this was idealism without order.

Ultimately, moral intransigence combined with differing conceptions of liberty led North and South to war. The South gripped slavery tighter as it became more profitable and wedded itself to an earlier “local liberty” that stressed identity with states and local communities. In this, the Old South stood closer to the revolutionary generation than did the North, Wendell asserted, since these Americans saw themselves as citizens of their state not a theoretical nation. The North, developing an industrial and urban society, moved away from the older notion of “local liberty”: “as the conception of local liberty tended to shift from one based on habitual loyalty to the State to one based on habitual loyalty to the Union, there came to associate itself with the name of Liberty, still ardently and traditionally cherished, an increasing degree of insistence on the liberty of the individual.”[51] Slavery, the ultimate rejection of personal liberty, grew first distasteful and finally abhorrent in many Northern eyes. In the South, abolitionist activity became intolerable: “any interference with the free conduct of its internal affairs, even though the meddlers might be fellow-citizens of the United States of America, seemed a monstrous violation of its prime and inalienable right of local liberty. Such violation, of course, was as criminal in Southern eyes as slavery had come to be in the eyes of the North.”[52] Finally the rift led to war.

Wendell’s description of the Civil War was rather typical of turn-of-the-century Americans who saw the event as a regrettable misunderstanding. The image of the era that comes to mind is that of veteran’s meetings, with aged Union and Confederate soldiers shaking hands on a once bloody battlefield, signaling a tacit reunion of the sections. His Civil War followed closely that of the Revolution, another misunderstanding. The war was “a true conflict of honestly cherished ideals. Each side fervently believed the other disloyal to the pristine ideal of liberty, which our nation was ancestrally bound to defend.”[53] In one, liberty was individual, in the other local, yet each reflecting one aspect of national traditions. Regrettable though it may have been, war was necessary. Considering America’s emerging role in the world after 1865—that of an imperial world power, a role Wendell welcomed eagerly—Union and a strong central government became absolute necessities. In the Revolution, war was necessary to preserve immemorial American political institutions; in the Civil War, war was necessary to retool American government in the Hamiltonian mold and begin progress to what Wendell called “imperial democracy.”[54]

Although he began his political life as a reformist Democrat in the 1880s, the collapse of the American economy in 1893, growing labor violence, and the growth of Populism within the Democratic Party converted Wendell into a firm anti-progressive and McKinley Republican by 1896. He expressed enthusiastic approval of an American Empire after the War with Spain, seeing increasing American involvement in world affairs as a move toward closer cooperation with England, that nation closest to American national traditions of language and law. “Herein the British Empire and our own United States seem to me indistinguishable,” Wendell wrote in 1899. “Whatever their family differences, their common language, their common law, and their common ideals of righteousness distinguish them from all the rest of the world. The success of either means the advancement of what is noblest in the other, too; the misfortune of either is a danger to a common cause.”[55] Like many of the day, he often spoke the language of racialism—the gradation of races and nations along a spectrum of political, economic, and cultural progress—in supporting “imperial democracy.” He believed the Anglo-Saxon nations of America and Britain must unite to defend their civilizations, thereby healing the rift of the American Revolution.

When it came to the enormity of demographic changes after the Civil War, Wendell wavered. He sometimes bemoaned the increasing numbers of Irish immigrants dominating his native Boston, but also spoke warmly of how when immigrant sons entered his Harvard classroom they began to assimilate and adopt American traditions. He thought poorly of American blacks and their state after Reconstruction, but he was also lauded as a great professor and mentor by his former student W.E.B. DuBois in his autobiography.[56] Wendell explained in Liberty, Union, Democracy:

And as these youths cease to be strangers, their teacher begins wonderingly to understand that at heart they are in no wise foreigners. Their names sound uncouth to his Yankee ears, the lines of their features still make him rub his Yankee eyes; but more impressive than all this unfamiliarity is his growing certitude that despite the variety of their origin these boys themselves are not diverse, after all, nor yet strangers to the world where they have come to dwell. . . . Unwittingly, almost unobserved, they have become Americans; they no longer cherish the traditions ancestral to the countries from whence their parents have emerged; they embody rather the animating force which has been vitally ancestral to this America of our own. The power of assimilation inherent from the beginning in the national character of America proves still unbroken.[57]

Those who only read Wendell’s books could be driven to contempt when faced with his political opinions, which countered the prevailing progressivism. To those who met him, another Wendell emerged. One biographer wrote, “through a period when conversations between holders of divergent opinions were hard to conduct without strain, there was never a time when Wendell and a reasonable companion could not talk freely and profitably on topics however burning.”[58] To admirers, his ambivalence showed complexity, a man earnestly concerned with the current events, seeing in them a corrosion of American traditions, but who also tried to remain optimistic that the future held as much promise as peril.

Barrett Wendell understood America through the lens of New England Orderly Idealism, that the United States, in retaining its seventeenth century colonial ethos of enthusiasm tempered by traditions, institutions, law, and the sobering hand of Puritan anthropology, constantly fought to keep its two opposing impulses in balance. Too often, passionate enthusiasm took control, spawning destructive philosophies like Transcendentalism and violence like the Civil War. In highlighting these imbalances, Wendell was condemned as a Tory and un-American. He found this role as reactionary gadfly both enjoyable and, at times, dismaying. Yet, he never let politics interfere with friendship, particularly ex-students who continued to correspond with him despite radically divergent politics. As he wrote just months before his death in 1921, “the difference between a reactionary and a radical, at heart, is only that one longs to retain whatever is good and the other to destroy whatever is evil. Neither can ever be quite right or all wrong.”[59]

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[1] George Santayana. The Middle Span, Volume II: Persons and Places (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1945) 172.

[2] For a fuller account of Wendell’s background and ideas, see Michael J. Connolly, “Barrett Wendell: New England Orderly Idealist,” Modern Age, 48, no. 4 (Fall 2006): 320-329.

[3] Barrett Wendell. The Temper of the Seventeenth Century in English Literature (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1904) 253.

[4] Ibid., 232-233.

[5] Ibid., 246-247.

[6] Ibid., 235, 258-259.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 257-258.

[9] Ibid., 221.

[10] Barrett Wendell, Liberty, Union and Democracy (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906) 63-65.

[11] Barrett Wendell, Literary History of America (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1901) 112.

[12] Wendell, Liberty, Union, and Democracy, 85-86.

[13] Wendell’s perspective on the American Revolution and the deprivations of Parliament resembles that detailed by the legal historian Eric Nelson. See Eric Nelson. The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.)

[14] Barrett Wendell. Stelligeri (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1893), 34.

[15] Wendell, Literary History of America, 108.

[16] Ibid., 115-116.

[17] Mark A. DeWolfe Howe, Barrett Wendell and His Letters (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1924) 5.

[18] Van Wyck Brooks, New England Indian Summer (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1940), 426-427.

[19] Wendell, Literary History, 107.

[20] Wendell, Liberty, 82-83.

[21] Wendell, Liberty, Union, Democracy, 116.

[22] Ibid., 117-118.

[23] Ibid., 119-120.

[24] Ibid., 120-122.

[25] Ibid., 129-130.

[26] Ibid., 124-125.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 127.

[29] Wendell, Stelligeri, 37-38.

[30] Mark A. DeWolfe Howe, “A Packet of Wendell-James Letters,” Scribner’s Magazine, 84 (December 1928), 678-681.

[31] Wendell, Literary History of America, 280.

[32] Wendell, Stelligeri, 127.

[33] Wendell, Literary History of America, 278.

[34] Ibid., 283.

[35] Ibid., 285-286.

[36] Ibid., 287.

[37] Ibid., 294-295.

[38] Ibid., 301-303.

[39] Wendell, Stelligeri, 129-130.

[40] Wendell, Literary History of America, 309.

[41] Ibid., 313, 318.

[42] Ibid., 318.

[43] Ibid., 326.

[44] Ibid., 327.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Howe, “Packet of Letters,” 677-678.

[47] Wendell, Literary History of America, 345.

[48] Ibid., 305.

[49] Wendell, Stelligeri, 131-133.

[50] Wendell, Literary History of America, 357.

[51] Wendell, Liberty, Union and Democracy 141-142.

[52] Ibid., 157.

[53] Ibid., 158-159.

[54] Howe, Letters, 162.

[55] Ibid., 136-137.

[56] Robert T. Self, Barrett Wendell (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975), 143.

[57] Wendell, Liberty, Union, and Democracy, 9-11.

[58] Howe, Letters, 186.

[59] Ibid., 329-330.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is a photo of Barrett Wendell, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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