The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America

by Louis Menand

published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

546 pages, 2001

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The Civil War made America a modern nation, unleashing forces of industrialism and expansion that had been kept in check for decades by the quarrel over slavery. But the war also discredited the ideas and beliefs of the era that preceded it. The Civil War swept away the slave civilization of the South, but almost the whole intellectual culture of the North went with it. It took nearly half a century for Americans to develop a set of ideas, a way of thinking, that would help them cope with the conditions of modern life. That struggle is the subject of The Metaphysical Club.

The story told runs through the lives of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a Civil War hero who became the dominant legal thinker of his time; his best friend as a young man, William James, son of an eccentric moral philosopher, brother of a great novelist and the father of modern psychology in America; and the brilliant and troubled logician, scientist, and founder of semiotics, Charles Sanders Peirce. Together they belonged to an informal discussion group that met in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1872 and called itself the Metaphysical Club. The club was probably in existence for only nine months, and no records were kept. The one thing we know that came out of it was an idea -- an idea about role beliefs play in people's lives. This informs the writings of these three thinkers and the work of the fourth figure in the book, John Dewey -- student of Peirce, friend and ally of James, admirer of Holmes.

The Metaphysical Club begins with the Civil War and ends in 1919 with the Supreme Court decision in U.S. v. Abrams, the basis for the modern law of free speech. It tells the story of the creation of ideas and values that changed the way Americans think and the way they live.










Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was an officer in the Union Army. He stood six feet three inches tall and had a soldierly bearing. In later life, he loved to use military metaphors in his speeches and his conversation; he didn't mind being referred to good-naturedly as Captain Holmes; and he wore his enormous military mustaches until his death, in 1935, at the age of ninety-three. The war was the central experience of his life, and he kept its memory alive. Every year he drank a glass of wine in observance of the anniversary of the battle of Antietam, where he had been shot in the neck and left, briefly behind enemy lines, for dead.

But Holmes hated the war. He was twenty years old and weighed just 136 pounds at the time of his first battle, at Ball's Bluff, where he was shot through the chest. He fought bravely and he was resilient, but he was not strong in a brute sense, and as the war went on the physical ordeal was punishing. He was wounded three times in all, the third time in an engagement leading up to the battle of Chancellorsville, when he was shot in the foot. He hoped the foot would have to be amputated so he could be discharged, but it was spared, and he served out his commission. Many of his friends were killed in battle, some of them in front of his eyes. Those glasses of wine were toasts to pain.

Holmes recovered from the wounds. The effects of the mental ordeal were permanent. He had gone off to fight because of his moral beliefs, which he held with singular fervor. The war did more than make him lose those beliefs. It made him lose his belief in beliefs. It impressed on his mind, in the most graphic and indelible way, a certain idea about the limits of ideas. This idea he stuck to, with a grimness and, at times, a cynicism that have occasionally repelled people who have studied his life and thought. But it is the idea that under lies many of the opinions he wrote, long after the war ended, as an associate justice on the United States Supreme Court. To understand the road Holmes had to travel in order to write those opinions, we have to go back to one of the worlds the Civil War made obsolete, the world of prewar Boston.


We think of the Civil War as a war to save the union and to abolish slavery, but before the fighting began most people regarded these as incompatible ideals. Northerners who wanted to preserve the union did not wish to see slavery extended into the territories; some of them hoped it would wither away in the states where it persisted. But many Northern businessmen believed that losing the South would mean economic catastrophe, and many of their employees believed that freeing the slaves would mean lower wages. They feared secession far more than they disliked slavery, and they were unwilling to risk the former by trying to pressure the South into giving up the latter.

The abolitionists were careless of the future of the union. "If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off " was the text they preached. They despised the unionists as people who put self-interest ahead of righteousness, and they considered any measure short of abolition or partition to be a bargain with evil. They baited the unionists with charges of hypocrisy and greed; the unionists responded by accusing the abolitionists of goading the South into secession, and by trying to run them out of town and sometimes to kill them. Before there was a war against the South, there was a war within the North.

Holmes's father, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., was a unionist. The Holmeses were related to families that had prospered in New England since the time of the Puritans -- the Olivers, the Wendells, the Quincys, the Bradstreets, the Cabots, the Jacksons, and the Lees -- but they were not exceptionally wealthy. Dr. Holmes was a professor; his father, Abiel, had been a minister. He regarded himself as a New England Brahmin (a term he coined), by which he meant not merely a person of good family, but a scholar, or what we would call an intellectual. His own mind was a mixture of enlightenment and conformity: he combined largeness of intellect with narrowness of culture.

Dr. Holmes had become famous in 1830, the year after he graduated from Harvard, when he wrote a popular poem protesting the breakup of the U.S.S. Constitution, "Old Ironsides." After college he tried the law but quickly switched to medicine. He studied in Paris, and in 1843, when he was thirty-four, published a paper on the causes of puerperal (or childbed) fever that turned out to be a landmark work in the germ theory of disease. (He showed that the disease was carried from childbirth to childbirth by the attending physician; it was a controversial paper among the medical establishment.) He joined the faculty of the Harvard Medical School, where he eventually served as dean. But his celebrity came from his activities as a belletrist. He was one of the first members of the Saturday Club, a literary dining and conversation society whose participants included Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., James Russell Lowell, and Charles Eliot Norton. He was a founder of the Atlantic Monthly, whose name he invented and in whose pages he published his popular column of aperÁus, "The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table" (followed by "The Professor at the Breakfast-Table" and "The Poet at the Breakfast-Table"). He wrote hundreds of verses and three novels. Many people, and not only Bostonians, believed him to be the greatest talker they had ever heard.

Yet he was unabashedly provincial. His chief ambition was to represent the Boston point of view in all things. (He also suffered from asthma, which made travel uncomfortable.) On the other hand, he regarded the Boston point of view as pretty much the only point of view worth representing. He considered Boston "the thinking centre of the continent, and therefore of the planet. " Or as he also put it, in a phrase that became the city's nickname for itself: "Boston State-House is the hub of the solar system." He was an enemy of Calvinism (which had been his father's religion) and a rationalist, but his faith in good breeding was nearly atavistic, and he saw no reason to challenge the premises of a social dispensation that had, over the course of two centuries, contrived to produce a man as genial and accomplished as himself.

Dr. Holmes's views on political issues therefore tended to be reflexive: he took his cues from his own instincts and the prevailing tendencies, and where these conflicted, he went with the tendencies. In 1850, for example, while he was serving as dean of the Medical School, he was approached by a black man named Martin Delany who requested admission. Delany was an exceptional character. He had, with Frederick Douglass, helped to found the leading black newspaper in the United States, the North Star; he later wrote a novel in answer to Uncle Tom's Cabin, called Blake; Or, the Huts of America, and served as a major in the Union Army, the highest rank achieved by an African-American during the Civil War. He was already thirty-eight years old in 1850, and his credentials for admission to medical school were unimpeachable, although he had been turned down by four schools, including the University of Pennsylvania, before he tried Harvard.

As it happened, two other black candidates, Daniel Laing, Jr., and Isaac H. Snowden, both from Massachusetts, had applied for admission in the same year. Laing and Snowden were sponsored by the American Colonization Society, a group that advocated resettling African-Americans in Liberia as a solution to the problem of slavery. They promised to emigrate as soon as they received their degrees; Delany made it clear that he intended to practice in the United States. Holmes could see no reason not to admit all three. He also arranged to admit (on the understanding that she would not sit in the regular anatomy class) the first woman to attend Harvard Medical School, Harriet Hunt, another Bostonian -- though it was his view that for the most part the education of women was a wasteful practice. (There were a few women who had the capacity to profit from education, he once conceded -- Madame de StaÎl, for example -- but "[a] natural law is not disproved by a pickled monster.")

The medical students revolted. They notified the faculty of their objection to the presence of a woman at the lectures, and Delany, Laing, and Snowden were ostracized. In December sixty students, a majority of the student body, met and approved a petition resolving that "we cannot consent to be identified as fellow students with blacks, whose company we would not keep in the streets, and whose Society as associates we would not tolerate in our houses," and that "we feel our grievances to be but the beginning of an evil, which, if not checked will increase, and that the number of respectable white students will, in future, be in an inverse ratio to that of blacks." A slightly smaller group, of forty-eight students, submitted a dissenting petition, noting that as unpleasant as the situation was, "they would feel it a far greater evil, if, in the present state of public feeling, a medical college in Boston could refuse to this unfortunate class any privileges of education, which it is in the power of the profession to bestow."

The faculty met for two evenings at Holmes's house. At first it held firm, but after it received notice from some of the white students of their intention to transfer, it capitulated, and directed Holmes to inform the American Colonization Society that "the result of this experiment has satisfied [the Medical School faculty] that the intermixing of races is distasteful to a large portion of the class, & injurious to the interests of the school," and that no applications from black candidates would be accepted in the future. Delany, Laing, and Snowden were not permitted to register for the following term. Harriet Hunt had already withdrawn her application on the advice of the faculty. Holmes had seen nothing wrong with admitting these new students, but when the consensus of his colleagues moved in the other direction, he seems to have seen nothing wrong with changing course. | June 2001

*Endnotes were omitted


Copyright © 2001 Louis Menand


Louis Menand is Professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He has also taught at Princeton, Columbia and the University of Virginia School of Law. He has been contributing editor of The New York Review of Books since 1994 and is a staff writer at The New Yorker. He lives in Manhattan.