Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Call of the Present

William Henry Channing, editor of The Present (1843-44) and The Spirit of the Age (1849-50),was well placed to gather together the radical threads of the early 1840s. The nephew of the prominent Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, and a friend or acquaintance of figures like Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, William Batchelder Greene, Orestes Brownson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Lane, Bronson Alcott, etc., he was in touch with much of what was bubbling up in the years prior to the 1848 revolutions. The works of Fourier, Swedenborg, Saint Simon and Proudhon all appeared in his publications, and he translated a number of excerpts from the works of Pierre Leroux. The Present featured a three-part manifesto of sorts, "The Call of the Present," by Channing. Couched in rather sedate, religious language, the casual reader might easily miss or misunderstand Channing's interventions into important debates (individualism vs. socialism, free trade vs. protection, etc.) and the rather nuanced nature of his responses. Take Channing's piece as an indication of the extent to which the "antinomian" positions that Proudhon would soon embrace were already floating around, if in somewhat vague forms, in the internal debates among American radical intellectuals in the early days of the American Renaissance.

There are some amusing bits of seemingly contemporary commentary, making you wonder occasionally which "present" you're in. I particularly like this: "In the wasted millions and massacres of Florida, the horrible carnage of Afghanistan, the brilliant skirmishes of the Arabs. . ., a world sees and announces the retribution, only too mild to seem just, for atrocious crime." Apparently, however, we have regressed since 1843, since it is clearly not the case that "Monarch and minister, captain and noble, statesman and politician, who dare to-day, from private or public pique, from ambition or miscalled national pride, to break the holy league of peace, must make up their minds to stand in pillory, and to be cropped as rogues before the bar of Humanity." Would that it were the case in our present.

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