It is not difficult to demonstrate that the work and writings of James Marsh were important to his American contemporaries, especially transcendentalists and others who were developing an interest in romanticism and German idealism during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. At that time, it was widely believed that Marsh was the founder of the transcendentalist movement. When Hedge reviewed Marsh’s edition of Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection in 1833, he described Marsh’s “Preliminary Essay” as “the vindication of German metaphysics” and “the first word…which any American had uttered in respectful recognition of the claims of Transcendentalism.”1 Recalling the organizational meeting of the famed Transcendental Club, Frederick Henry Hedge wrote,
In September, 1836…Mr. Emerson, George Ripley, and myself, with one other, chanced to confer together on the state of public opinion in theology and philosophy, which we agreed in thinking very unsatisfactory….The writings of Coleridge, recently edited by Marsh, with some of Carlyle’s earlier essays…had created a ferment in the minds of some of the younger clergy of the day. There was a promise in the air of a new era of intellectual life.2
In point of fact, during the first quarter of the nineteenth century, Marsh may have been better schooled in the currents of European thought than any other American intellectual. Before 1821, he had studied the Cambridge Platonists, Coleridge, Kant, Schelling, Schiller, Schlegel, and Madame de Staël. At a time when formal instruction in modern foreign languages was difficult to find in the United States, Marsh taught himself Spanish, Italian, and German, in addition to Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.3 It is quite likely that he was the first American to study Kant, and there is evidence that he was intimately familiar with the Critiques of Pure and Practical Reason, as well as Kant’s Anthropology. Though he only lived forty-eight years, Marsh was also the first translator of Bellerman, Hedgewisch, and Herder, and Coleridge regarded him as the greatest disseminator of his thought in the United States.4
Finally, as president of the University of Vermont from 1826 to 1833, Marsh reorganized the school’s curriculum along the lines of Coleridge’s thought, transforming the University from a struggling provincial college into the first American sanctuary of transcendental idealism and setting an example that influenced many New England and mid-western schools. Acting on his faith in public education as the great equalizer for all classes of people, Marsh secured the admission of part-time students to the University to allow working men to attend. In order to insure that education at the University would promote free, but critical thought, he introduced an elective system, allowing students greater flexibility to pursue their interests.5 Marsh remained at the University as president or Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy until his death in 1842. At the University of Vermont, Marsh also founded what became known as the Burlington Philosophy, a school of thought that continued under Joseph Torrey until 1867, and under Torrey’s nephew, H.A.P. Torrey, until 1902.
Although it is clear that Marsh had an enormous influence on his contemporaries, his influence on twentieth-century American thought has been greatly underestimated. H.A.P. Torry was John Dewey’s first philosophical mentor from 1875 to 1882. Although it would be foolish to suggest that Marsh was, in some way, a founder of pragmatism, there are many reasons to believe that he prepared the soil in which Dewey’s pragmatism flourished many years after his death. In his “senior year course” at the University of Vermont, among other books, Torrey required Dewey to read Marsh’s edition of Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection and The Remains of the Rev. James Marsh. When Herbert Schneider and friends presented Dewey with a copy of Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection at a birthday party late in life, Dewey recalled that the book “was our spiritual emancipation in Vermont.” He added that “Coleridge’s idea of the spirit came to us as a real relief, because we could be both liberal and pious; and this Aids to Reflection book, especially Marsh’s edition, was my first Bible.” When asked when he got over Coleridge, Dewey replied, “I never did. Coleridge represents pretty much my religious views still, but I quit talking about them because nobody else is interested in them.”6 More precisely, I have argued elsewhere that Dewey’s lifelong opposition to British empiricism, his romantic appreciation of nature, his integration of fact and value, and his propensity to emphasize man’s cultural and historical context, can all be traced to the influence of the Burlington Philosophy.7
Although transcendentalism and Dewey’s pragmatism may have evolved, at least in part, out of Marsh’s publications, he was always a relatively conservative philosopher.8 Always critical of Boston transcendentalism, by the end of his life, Marsh seems to have developed a disdain for their writings, which he described as a “superficial affair.” The Boston transcendentalists “have many of the prettinesses of the German writers,” Marsh wrote to a friend in 1841, “but without their manly logic and strong systematizing tendency. They pretend to no system of unity, but each writes, it seems, the inspiration of the moment, assuming that it all comes from the universal heart, while ten to one it comes from the stomach.”9 Although Dewey devoted a great deal of ink to the development of a logic, it is not difficult to guess how Marsh would have responded to Dewey’s aversion to systematic philosophy and his pragmatic theory of truth.
Historians have preferred to focus their research on the ornate writings of the more radical transcendentalists, but because he was a conservative, transitional figure, Marsh illuminates the tension between the legacy of New England Puritanism and nineteenth-century romanticism. To understand why his mind developed in the way that it did, it is useful to examine the process of his intellectual maturation. Since The Remains of the Rev. James Marsh begins with a biographical essay by its original editor, Joseph Torrey, I shall only note a few of the formative events in Marsh’s life.
At the age of twenty-one, as a student at Dartmouth College, Marsh had a profound religious experience that shaped the entire course of his intellectual development. Although he rejected New England Calvinism’s doctrine of predestination, unlike most of the Boston transcendentalists, as is clear in an essay contained in this volume, “Three Discourses on the Nature, Ground, and Origin of Sin,” Marsh never abandoned the doctrine of original sin.10 He always believed that individuals stood in need of Christ’s redemption. Nevertheless, Marsh was critical of the revivalism that swept most of the United States during the Second Great Awakening. Interestingly, in another essay included in this volume, “Tract on Evangelism,” Marsh put the new methods of early- and mid-nineteenth-century evangelism to a pragmatic test and found it wanting. His stated purpose in that essay is to evaluate the effects of the new evangelism. Moreover, as Dewey often did, in that essay Marsh criticized a shortsighted pragmatic analysis of the new methods that looks only at the immediate effects. The latter point is particularly apparent in a statement quoted by Joseph Torrey in his “Memoir” of Marsh:
If immediate appearances of good are to be taken as an unanswerable argument in favor of a novel system of doctrines and measures, and the majorities in our churches are to judge and decide on those appearances, uncontrolled by that knowledge and insight into the deeper principles of religious truth, which can be expected only as a result of mature reflection in those who are set for the defence of the gospel, what limit can there be to new experiments, and how long will our churches sustain themselves under influences so radically subversive of whatever is fixed and permanent, whether in doctrines or the institutions of religion?11
Yet Marsh’s invocation of “the deeper principles of truth” and the “fixed and permanent” reveals the limits of his pragmatism. Unlike Dewey, throughout his life Marsh was thoroughly committed to the view that Christianity revealed eternal truths about God, the universe, and humanity.
Studying theology with Moses Stuart at Andover Seminary in the early 1820s, Marsh sought a Christian theology that would “keep alive the heart in the head.”12 Stuart encouraged Marsh to read Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria and to study German philosophy, especially Kant and Herder. Proficient in philosophical German, by 1822 Marsh was probably the most widely read American-born student of German thought in the country. In 1825 he published the first American edition of Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection with a fifty-five page exposition of the poet’s philosophy and its German origins. It is that introductory essay for which Marsh is most remembered. The following year Marsh was elected president of the University of Vermont located in Burlington and, in his inaugural presidential address, produced what has been described as “the first published utterance of the Transcendentalists in America.”13
Marsh readily embraced and promoted romantic poetry and Coleridge’s romantic philosophy, knowing full well that it would be viewed as a challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy.14 He did not do so because he was a radical thinker; rather, Marsh was convinced that romanticism represented a return to what was best in the Christian tradition. We can see that Marsh clearly understood his American intellectual milieu and the challenge that romanticism presented to it in a letter he wrote to Coleridge in 1829. In that letter, Marsh provided historians with a useful and accurate description of the state of early nineteenth-century American philosophy:
The miscalled Baconian philosophy has been no less talked of here than there [England], with the same perverse application. The works of Locke were formerly much read and used as text books in our colleges; but of late have very generally given place to the Scotch writers; and Stewart, Campbell and Brown are now almost universally read as the standard authors on the subjects of which they treat. In theology, the works of [Jonathan] Edwards have had, and still have, with a large portion of our thinking community, a very great influence…15
Marsh explained to Coleridge that he lamented the dominance of both British empiricism and Scottish common sense realism in the United States, as well as the theology of Edwards. He also lamented that “The German philosophers, Kant and his followers, are very little known in this country…” Although a few Americans had traveled to Germany to study in what were widely viewed as the most advanced universities in the world, they “paid little attention to that department of study [philosophy] while there.”16
In his “Preliminary Essay” to Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection, Marsh developed this theme at some length. American Christianity had been perverted, Marsh argued, by British empiricist and Scottish realist thought:
It is our peculiar misfortune in this country that, while the philosophy of Locke and the Scottish writers has been received in full faith, as the only rational system, and its leading principles especially passed off as unquestionable, the strong attachment to religion, and the fondness for speculation, by both of which we are strongly characterized, have led us to combine and associate these principles, such as they are, with our religious interests and opinions, so variously and so intimately, that by most persons they are considered as necessary parts of the same system; and from being so long contemplated together, the rejection of one seems impossible without doing violence to the other.17
In Coleridge Marsh believed he had found, in modern expression, the Christian truths that the Cambridge Platonists, such as Henry More and Ralph Cudworth, and sixteenth- and seventeenth-century reformers understood. “It requires…but little knowledge of the history of philosophy…to know, that the opinions of the Reformers, and of all the great divines of that period…were far different from those of Mr. Locke…”18 Thus it should come as no surprise that Marsh was also unsympathetic to the efforts of some people, particularly the more radical Boston transcendentalists, to take romantic thought in heterodox directions. To Marsh, those intellectuals were unaware that romanticism was a restatement, for the nineteenth century, of much earlier Christian theology.
Although some have depicted Marsh as a mere disciple of Coleridge, that reading is undermined when we recognize the breadth of his scholarship and the verve with which he attempted to develop a philosophical basis for American Christianity. Romanticism provided Marsh with an alternative to the British empiricism and Scottish realism that dominated American colleges, and with which he became dissatisfied early in his intellectual development because, he believed, it could not account for the full richness of human experience and the unity of reality. In short, both British empiricism and Scottish realism, according to Marsh and many other nineteenth-century thinkers, tended to undermine true religion.19 As Dewey correctly noted, “The interest that Marsh had in Coleridge sprang primarily from a common interest in religion and a common desire to arouse among believers in Christianity a vital realization of its spiritual truth.”20 For Marsh, romantic prose and poetry was the inevitable result of Christian orthodoxy, reaching beyond the bounds of the finite to the infinite, and promising a revival of spiritual religion. Philosophically, Marsh was, like Coleridge, persistently critical of Locke’s empiricism, claiming that it bred materialism, determinism, and atheism. Because he did not admit of the existence of transcendent realities, argued Marsh, Locke could not distinguish between the natural and the spiritual or provide grounds for moral obligation. As materialists, Lockeans sought to explain all events in terms of causal law and thus could not account for free will. According to Marsh, conscience reveals the moral law to us, but materialism “subvert[s] the authority of conscience.”21
Marsh’s work also represents a watershed in the history of American thought because it was the first important step toward the emancipation of American philosophy from its complete subordination to theology. The dominant trend in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American thought posited an impassible gulf between philosophy and theology, reason and faith, and denigrated philosophy as an endeavor that was inherently antithetical to and destructive of true belief. Like Coleridge, Marsh believed in the essential rationality of Christian faith. According to Marsh, through introspection, we could arrive at “rational knowledge of the central and absolute ground of all being.” Reason, he explained, “instinctively seeks” a unity and consistency in reality.22 In doing so, if properly followed, reason can only bring us to an apprehension of spiritual truth. Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection, Marsh averred, attempts to demonstrate the consistency of the “peculiar doctrines of Christianity” with the truths of reason because “CHRISTIAN FAITH IS THE PERFECTION OF HUMAN REASON.”23
Following Kant and Coleridge, Marsh distinguished between sense, understanding, and reason, but like Coleridge, his use of the term reason was not entirely consistent. As Nicolson correctly explains, at times Marsh used reason to mean “the logical faculty.” In other passages, reason “is equivalent to intuition,” and in still other passages, “his distinction between the reason and the understanding is a distinction between truths that are self-evident and those that are derivative…[reason] is used to imply that there is a world of existences and beings which is not the world of sense perception, but one which is reached by intuitive judgment.”24 Moreover, Marsh seems to have rejected, or ignored, Kant’s limitation of knowledge to the phenomenal world apprehended through sensation. Although Marsh’s debt to the Cambridge Platonists is undeniable, Dewey claims that his rejection of Kant’s phenomenalism reveals the influence of Aristotle upon his thought. Whatever the source of this philosophical strategy, it is a move that was made by other romantics, as well as post-Kantian idealists such as Hegel, who were dissatisfied with Kant’s subjectivism.25 Despite these ambiguities, for Marsh, reason is always a faculty that reaches beyond the understanding. The understanding is able to dissect and analyze the objects we experience into their constituent parts; only reason can provide ideas of wholeness, totality, and unity.26 Whereas for Kant, reason provides unrealizable regulative ideals, for Marsh and other romantics, it apprehends what is truly real and permanent. For Marsh, the real is rational and logical and, although “we may believe what passeth all understanding, we cannot believe what is absurd, or contradictory to reason.”27
Dewey perceptively points out two other crucial aspect of Marsh’s psychology. First, he “held that reason can realize itself and be truly aware or conscious of its own intrinsic nature only as it operates to make over the world, whether physical or social, into an embodiment of its own principles.”28 Marsh was highly critical of mere speculation that separated knowledge from action. In Marsh’s words, reason is both “will and intelligence,” and it strives to recognize and make manifest the rational principles in reality.29 Second, for Marsh, sense, understanding, and reason are not opposed to one another, nor can they be neatly separated from one another. Marsh explained, “though we may intellectually distinguish…and speak of the understanding in distinction from reason, yet, in its proper character as the human understanding, it can no more be separated from the reason…than it can from the faculty of sense….”30 Sense, according to Marsh’s scheme, provides raw material for knowledge, understanding identifies and analyzes sensory material, and reason combines the results of the understanding into wholes according to necessary principles that exist in nature and in the rational mind of man and, by extension, the mind of God. But rather than separate entities that can oppose one another in the mind, sense, understanding, and reason “are successive stages in a progressive realization of the nature of ultimate reality.”31 Although Marsh continued to describe sense, understanding, and reason as faculties, according to the commonly accepted terminology of his day, his was actually a rudimentary functional psychology in which the different capabilities of the mind were functions that served a unitary purpose within a larger whole. That purpose was the purpose of every individual member of the human race, as well as the race as a whole, communion with God.
To return to the theological implications of Marsh’s philosophy, the truths of Christianity, according to Marsh, are rational, and true philosophy will never contradict true religion. In fact it is the duty of Christians “to think, as well as to act, rationally,—so that our convictions of truth rest on the grounds of right reason…”32 Marsh went so far as to argue that all theology assumes a metaphysics, and therefore that it is the duty of the theologian to be honest and forthright about his metaphysics and to examine it in the full light of day. Theology must be philosophically sound and respectable “for what is not rational in theology…cannot be of the household of faith.” In this way Marsh sought to rescue philosophy from its pariah status. Although he never suggested that philosophy should be superior to theology, Marsh elevated it to equal standing with that discipline. Thus a philosophical work, such as Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection, could establish the truth of the doctrines of Christianity and lay the foundation for a truly spiritual faith by freeing them from logical contradictions because, as Marsh repeatedly asserted, the philosopher “can have, rationally but one system, in which his philosophy becomes religious, and his religion philosophical.”33
Once more, however, because of his conservative disposition, Marsh took only the first step toward the liberation of American philosophy. The transcendentalists and other nineteenth-century American intellectuals recognized the opening Marsh made for philosophy and went beyond his first step. Ultimately, naturalist philosophers like Dewey left theology completely behind.
Finally, Marsh promoted the resurgence of the sort of pietistic religion that had once flourished among the New England Puritans. Christianity, for Marsh, was far more than a system of rational beliefs. In a passage that brings to mind Dewey’s controversial book of 1934, A Common Faith, Marsh quoted Coleridge: “‘Christianity is not a theory or a speculation; but a life. Not a philosophy of life, but a life and a living process.’” Of course, by 1934, Dewey no longer shared Marsh’s concern about preserving the integrity of Christian doctrine, but like his predecessor from Vermont, Dewey placed greater emphasis on proper action than on true belief. This point reveals still another way in which Marsh’s philosophy laid the groundwork for much more radical incarnations of its basic premises. Marsh even allowed for a certain amount of fallibility as he argued, “a true and living faith is not incompatible with at least some degree of speculative error.”34 Again, Dewey took this sentiment much further than Marsh could have dreamed of doing, but for both philosophers, outward behavior was ultimately more important than true belief. Marsh advocated a piety founded on the supernatural; Dewey hoped, perhaps in vain, to promote a “natural piety.”35
For all of the above reasons, The Remains of the Rev. James Marsh is a crucial document to historians of American thought. Paradoxically perhaps, Marsh, the philosophical conservative, laid the groundwork for such diverse intellectual movements as transcendentalism, the development of secular American philosophy, pragmatism, and a return to pietistic religion. Historians of American thought neglect Marsh’s writings at their peril.
1 Quoted in Caroline Wells Dall, Transcendentalism in New England: A Lecture Delivered before the Society of Philosophical Enquiry (Boston, Mass.: Roberts Brothers, 1897), 5 (emphasis in the original). Cf. Rufus Wilmot Griswold, The Prose Writers of America, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1849), 440.
2 James Eliot Cabot, A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1888), 244.
3 As John Dewey noted, Marsh’s “writings show that he not only knew the languages but had an extensive and familiar acquaintance with their literatures.” Dewey, “James Marsh and American Philosophy,” The Later Works, 1925-1953, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale, IL: University of Southern Illinois Press, 1981–1991), 5: 179. Dewey’s essay was originally titled “Coleridge, Marsh and the Spiritual Philosophy: An Address on James Marsh in Relation to the Romantic Movement,” lecture delivered at the University of Vermont, 26 November 1929 as part of the celebration commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the first American edition of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection, (first published as “James Marsh and American Philosophy” in the Journal of the History of Ideas 2 [April 1941]: 131–50.)
4 John J. Duffy, “Introduction,” in Coleridge’s American Disciples: The Selected Correspondence of James Marsh, ed. John J. Duffy (Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1973), 1.
5 See Julian I. Lindsay, “Coleridge and the University of Vermont,” Vermont Alumni Weekly, 15 (1936), nos. 13–15; and Lindsay, Tradition Looks Forward; The University of Vermont: A History, 1791-1904 (Burlington: University of Vermont and State Agricultural College, 1954). Cf. Feuer, “James Marsh and the Conservative Transcendentalist Philosophy: A Political Interpretation,” The New England Quarterly 31, no. 1 (March 1958): 3–31.
6 Dewey as quoted by Herbert W. Schneider in Corliss Lamont, ed., Dialogue on John Dewey (New York: Horizon Press, 1959), 15. Cf. Schneider, “Reminiscences About John Dewey at Columbia, 1913–1950,” unpublished manuscript, Special Collections, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL; Herbert Schneider’s Oral History Interview of John Dewey, 29 June 1967, Special Collections, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL; and Schneider, “John Dewey: A Talk Delivered by Professor Herbert W. Schneider in the Ira Allen Chapel, the University of Vermont, on October 26, 1949, at the Celebration of John Dewey’s Ninetieth Birthday Anniversary,” unpublished manuscript, Archives, Bailey/Howe Library, University of Vermont, 5.
7 James A. Good, “A Search For Unity In Diversity: The ‘Permanent Hegelian Deposit’ in the Philosophy of John Dewey” (Ph.D. diss., Rice University, 2001). See also Dewey’s essay on Marsh. Dewey, “James Marsh and American Philosophy,” 5: 178–96.
8 See Marjorie H. Nicolson, “James Marsh and the Vermont Transcendentalists,” Philosophical Review 34 (Jan. 1925): 28–50; Ronald Wells, Three Christian Transcendentalists (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943), 14–49; Henry A. Pochmann, German Culture in America: Philosophical and Literary Influences, 1600–1900 (Madison, WI: University Press of Wisconsin, 1957), 131–43; and John J. Duffy in four articles, “From Hanover to Burlington: James Marsh’s Search for Unity,” Vermont History 38 (1972): 27–48; “Problems in Publishing Coleridge: James Marsh’s First American Edition of Aids to Reflection,” New England Quarterly 43 (1972): 193–208; “Transcendental Letters from Ripley to James Marsh,” Emerson Society Quarterly 50 (1970): 21–25; and “T.S. Eliot’s Objective Correlative: A New England Commonplace,” New England Quarterly 42 (1969): 108–115.
9 Quoted by Duffy in his “Introduction” to Coleridge’s American Disciples, 3.
10 Cf. Marsh’s statement on original sin in The Remains of the Rev. James Marsh, “Tract on Evangelism,” 630–31.
11 Quoted by Joseph Torrey in “Memoir,” in James Marsh, The Remains of the Rev. James Marsh, D. D.: Late President and Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy, in the University of Vermont; with a Memoir of His Life, ed. Joseph Torrey (Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1843), 127.
12 Marsh, Remains of James Marsh, 43.
13 Pochmann, German Culture in America, 132. Cf. Nicolson, “James Marsh and the Vermont Transcendentalists,” 34. Marsh’s publisher lived in Burlington and was his brother-in-law, Chauncey Goodrich. Goodrich also published, in Burlington, Coleridge’s The Friend and The Statesman’s Manual in 1831 and 1832 respectively. Marsh’s edition of the Aids to Reflection enjoyed continuous reprinting, and his “Preliminary Essay” also appeared in W. G. T. Shedd’s 1853 collected edition of Coleridge’s work, the standard American text of Coleridge for over a century. Feuer, “James Marsh and the Conservative Transcendentalist Philosophy,” 13; and Duffy, Coleridge’s American Disciples, 4.
14 See Marsh, “Preliminary Essay” in Coleridge, Aids to Reflection and the Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit (London: G. Bell and Sons, Ltd., 1913), xxvii.
15 Marsh, Remains of James Marsh, 136.
16 Ibid., 137.
17 Marsh, “Preliminary Essay,” lxv.
18 Ibid., lvii–lviii.
19 See the discussion of Marsh’s attack on Locke in Elizabeth Flower and Murray G. Murphey, A History of Philosophy in America (New York: Capricorn Books, 1977), 1: 408.
20 Dewey, “James Marsh and American Philosophy,” 180.
21 Marsh, Remains of James Marsh, 415.
22 Marsh, “Preliminary Essay,” xxv. For a fuller treatment of Marsh’s psychology, see his “Remarks on Psychology,”Remains of James Marsh, 239–367.
23 Marsh, “Preliminary Essay,” xxxi (emphasis in the original).
24 Nicolson, “James Marsh and the Vermont Transcendentalists,” 39 (emphasis in the original).
25 Dewey also notes Marsh’s similarity to Hegel on this point. Dewey, “James Marsh and American Philosophy,” 186.
26 See Marsh’s discussion of understanding and reason in “On the Will as the Spiritual Principle in Man,” and “Personal Existence and Immortality to the Understanding and Reason,” Remains of James Marsh, 368–90, 391–97.
27 Marsh, “Preliminary Essay,” xxxii (emphasis in the original).
28 Dewey, “James Marsh and American Philosophy,” 189.
29 Marsh, Remains of James Marsh, 382.
30 Ibid., 392.
31 Dewey, “James Marsh and American Philosophy,” 186.
32 Marsh, “Preliminary Essay,” xxxvi (emphasis in the original).
33 Ibid., xxxvii.
34 Ibid., xlii (emphasis in the original).
35 Dewey, A Common Faith, The Later Works, 9: 18.
James A. Good (ed.), 'Introduction', The Early American Reception of German Idealism (Bristol: Thoemmes Continuum, 2002), Volume 2 pp. v-xvii.
© James A. Good, 2002.