Knowlton, 1833

One of the things that interests me about the people I’m studying in the early 19th century, is their generally high level of literacy and understanding of what’s going on in the world, in spite of the remoteness of places like Ashfield.

When the religious bigots in his Berkshire hill-town of 1800 people tried to ruin his business, Dr. Charles Knowlton called the town to a meeting and made a long speech about belief, morality and politics. The year was 1833: Knowlton had published his
Fruits of Philosophy the year before, and was using it with his patients in Franklin county.

“He that will not reason is a bigot, he that cannot reason is a fool, and he that dares not reason is a slave!” Knowlton announced to his neighbors.

“I proceed—

“There are no changes, no events, in a word, no effects without causes, and one effect as necessarily follows its cause as another, whether it occur within a man’s head or without. Every feeling of man, every thought of his brain, as necessarily has its cause as the movement of a water-wheel; and we all as necessarily think as we do think, as rocks unsupported fall to the ground. To admit that a man may think as he has a mind to, is not to admit one whit against what I have now advanced. To have a mind to think so and so, is but to have thoughts and ideas that you will think so and so,—every one of which thoughts or ideas must and does have its cause; which cause, whatever it may be, is but the effect of a prior cause, and this, again, the effect of a still prior cause, and so on throughout the eternal chain of events.”
“All those changes within a man’s head, called intellectual operations, such as remembering, judging, belief, &c. consist entirely of sensorial actions, called thoughts or ideas, which follow one after another, and every one of which has its cause.” (
text of the speech as reported by Knowlton here)

The philosophy behind Knowlton’s ideas is remarkably like the 20
th-century psychology of behaviorism. Knowlton had published a nearly 450-page book about his theories, called Modern Materialism, in 1829.

The crux of Knowlton’s argument to his neighbors is that freedom of opinion is the basis of American society. Knowlton’s grandfather and father had fought in the Revolution; it was still a recent event. Knowlton asked the townspeople to judge him by his behavior, not his beliefs. He subtly but unmistakably suggests that those who want to judge people by their beliefs rather than their actions (the minister and his friends) choose this because they know their
actions will not stand close scrutiny. His charge against the church was dramatically proven when the congregation excommunicated a long-time member who stood up to the minister and supported his friend and doctor, Knowlton. The church was divided over the issue, and the minister was ultimately forced to resign.

The things that really strike me about Knowlton’s speech are the modernity of the argument, and the generally high level of its language and ideas. Knowlton was clearly an odd man, but he had some experience in public speaking. He was probably pitching his argument appropriately for his audience, which suggests they were an intelligent and well-read crowd. This is especially interesting, as most of them were back-country farmers and sheep-herders. An intellectual history of regular people might help me get a better idea of what these people were reading, thinking, talking about in the taverns. I wonder if there is one, or if I should try to do one?