Publication Date


Advisor(s) - Committee Chair

Carlton Jackson, Ronald Nash, Robert Johnston

Degree Program

Department of History

Degree Type

Master of Arts


The intent of this thesis is to examine a portion of the thought and historical events which contributed to the development of the United States as a pragmatic nation, and the resulting influence upon its intellectual attitudes. The pragmatic evolution of America is a logical consequence, given the backgrounds and circumstances of those people who first settled this land. The founders of this country were, for the most part, members of the poor, working class who had grown up under governments adhering to strict caste societies and religious domination by their rulers. They held a common belief in a work ethic and a hope of material and religious improvement in the new land.

The vast natural resources and individual freedoms in America were conducive to personal expression and material opportunism, and the formal theology and rigid covenants marked by the Puritan era soon gave way to the westward expansion of a group of people with a sensual religious expression and an overwhelming zeal for material wealth. Their goals were a popular voice in government and the freedom to apply their strengths toward the improvement of their station in life. The formal religious services of a learned clergy were replaced by the camp meetings in the wilderness, conducted by unlearned, ordinary lay ministers.

Government by the educated, aristocratic few was likewise replaced by popular elections and the inspiration of men such as Andrew Jackson, who encouraged the ordinary, working man to seize the reigns of power in government and to maximize the opportunities for material success.

For most Americans, hard physical work was not only a necessity for survival, it was also the key to a multitude of material desires. Every aspect of American living centered around the practical, pragmatic desire for material success. Religion, science, education, and the arts were useful only in their application to the goal of material advancement.

The American bent toward utility was ominous for the intellectual. Viewed with distrust and suspicion, the intellectual was out of step with the mainstream of daily living. His lack of hunger for the material, his inherited wealth, and his appreciation and admiration of European arts seemed unnatural for those who struggled to own more material possessions, and for those who felt no need of European "decadence."

The American attitude towards intellectuals is not one of overt hostility, but rather an unfortunate by-product of our national character. Americans have had no time for leisurely pursuits, and the lack of appreciation of intellectuals stems from a nation given more to pragmatic endeavors than to pure intellectual occupations.


American Studies | Arts and Humanities | History | Intellectual History | Philosophy | Public History | Religion | Social History | United States History