The Enlightenment and America
Summary and Keywords
The Enlightenment, a complex cultural phenomenon that lasted approximately from the late seventeenth century until the early nineteenth century, contained a dynamic mix of contrary beliefs and epistemologies. Its intellectual coherence arguably came from its distinctive historical sensibility, which was rooted in the notion that advances in the natural sciences had gifted humankind with an exceptional opportunity in the eighteenth century for self-improvement and societal progress. That unifying historical outlook was flexible and adaptable. Consequently, many aspects of the Enlightenment were left open to negotiation at local and transnational levels. They were debated by the philosophes who met in Europe’s coffeehouses, salons, and scientific societies. Equally, they were contested outside of Europe through innumerable cross-cultural exchanges as well as via long-distance intellectual interactions.
America—whether it is understood expansively as the two full continents and neighboring islands within the Western Hemisphere or, in a more limited way, as the territory that now constitutes the United States—played an especially prominent role in the Enlightenment. The New World’s abundance of plants, animals, and indigenous peoples fascinated early modern natural historians and social theorists, stimulated scientific activity, and challenged traditional beliefs. By the eighteenth century, the Western Hemisphere was an important site for empirical science and also for the intersection of different cultures of knowledge. At the same time, European conceptions of the New World as an undeveloped region inhabited by primitive savages problematized Enlightenment theories of universal progress. Comparisons of Native Americans to Africans, Asians, and Europeans led to speculation about the existence of separate human species or races. Similarly, the prevalence and profitability of American slavery fueled new and increasingly scientific conceptions of race. Eighteenth-century analyses of human differences complicated contemporary assertions that all men possessed basic natural rights. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the American Revolution focused international attention on man’s innate entitlement to life, liberty, and happiness. Yet, in a manner that typified the contradictions and paradoxes of the Enlightenment, the founders of the United States opted to preserve slavery and social inequality after winning political freedom from Britain.
The question of the Enlightenment’s relation to America is as old as the Enlightenment itself. In 1784, a New England clergyman, historian, and biographer, Jeremy Belknap, reflected that Europe’s “discovery” of America had “much enlarged the field of science” and brought great philosophical benefit to humankind. Belknap wrote this statement in response to a French essay competition sponsored by the Abbé Guillaume-Thomas-François Raynal and the Academy of Lyon. That contest asked, “Has the discovery of America been useful or hurtful to mankind?” It was a timely question. America had long been a major topic for Enlightenment debate, and the War of Independence had raised its prominence even further.1
The most famous response to Raynal’s query came not from Belknap but from the Marquis de Condorcet, a leading philosophe who would soon participate in the French Revolution. Condorcet’s submission praised American revolutionaries for their assertion of the rights of man to life, property, justice, and representative government. It therefore provides an important intellectual link between the American and French Revolutions.2 By comparison, Belknap’s essay holds less historical significance. Its New England author did not even send it to France, though he did circulate it locally in manuscript form and eventually published it in the Boston Magazine. All the same, Belknap’s writing is a fascinating late-eighteenth-century statement that serves as a useful starting point for any discussion of the Enlightenment and America’s place in it.
Belknap was correct in his assessment that Europe’s exploration of the New World was a catalyst of great intellectual change. Recent scholarship has confirmed that America had a causative role in the growth of knowledge and spread of Enlightenment ideas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These ideas often existed in tension with each other. In this regard, it is instructive that Belknap chose to follow up his general assessment of the impact of America on human philosophy with an analysis that differentiated between Europeans, Euro-Americans, Africans, and Amerindians. The incongruous desire to disaggregate and categorize humankind while seeking to describe global patterns of universal progress was a characteristic feature of Enlightenment thought as a whole. Perhaps more than any other region in the eighteenth-century world, America—with its heterogeneous population of Europeans, Africans, and Amerindians, its reliance on slave labor, and its revolution-era declarations of natural rights and universal human equality—encapsulated the unresolvable tension between universalism and difference that was at the core of the Enlightenment.
Defining the Enlightenment
The Enlightenment is not easily defined. One immediate difficulty stems from the fact that the eighteenth-century literati did not themselves use the term, although they did refer to their historical period as an “enlightened age” or an “age of reason.” As a noun with a capitalized initial letter preceded by a definite article, the phrase “the Enlightenment” entered the English language only in the second half of the nineteenth century.3 It provided scholars with a useful label for a previously undesignated historical era that extended roughly from the end of the Scientific Revolution in the late seventeenth century to the onset of romanticism in the early nineteenth century. One early line of interpretation held that the Enlightenment applied the methods of natural science to the study of humankind, before widespread reaction to its sweeping generalizations and coldhearted rationalism brought about the romantic turn. In more recent decades, scholars have shown greater concern with the endurance of Enlightenment ideas than their nineteenth-century defeat. Since approximately the 1960s, the Enlightenment has become a byword for all that is good and bad about contemporary Western modernity. Liberty, democracy, toleration, cosmopolitanism, equality, human rights, economic liberalism, and public criticism of authority have been identified as some of the main values of the Enlightenment. Paradoxically, so have Eurocentrism, imperialism, colonialism, slavery, racism, and elitism.4
Because the Enlightenment combined a dynamic mix of competing viewpoints, doubts, ambiguities, and irreconcilable contradictions, it is impossible to distill its philosophical content down to a narrow political agenda or “ideology” without artificially privileging one set of ideas over another. Even so, some effort must be made to identify the specificity and commonality of enlightened thought if the Enlightenment is to retain meaning and use as a historical category. A solution to this problem can be found in the numerous narratives of human and intellectual progress that appeared in the eighteenth century. Early examples emerged during the so-called Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns that erupted in France in the 1680s.5 These narratives then became more common after 1750. Jean Le Rond d’Alembert’s “Preliminary Discourse” to Denis Diderot’s L’encyclopédie (1751) and Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (1794) are two of the best-known European versions. Cadwallader Colden’s “An Introduction to the Study of Phylosophy” (c. 1760), Elihu Palmer’s Principles of Nature; or, A Development of the Moral Causes of Happiness and Misery among the Human Species (1801), and Samuel Miller’s A Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century (1803) contain illustrative American renditions.6 In these and many other eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century works, Enlightenment controversialists promulgated a distinctive historical narrative that was flexible enough to imbue diverse elements of contemporary intellectual culture with a sense of shared purpose. In basic terms, this grand and unifying story claimed that humankind had an unprecedented opportunity in the eighteenth century to achieve self-improvement and societal progress. Centuries of ignorance, dogma, intolerance, and irrationality seemed to have come to a close. Rhetorically, humankind was emerging from darkness and heading toward a bright future.
The origins of this eighteenth-century metanarrative can be traced back further than the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns to the emergence of experiential knowledge and empirical science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Early proponents of New Science described themselves as cultural disrupters who rejected the authority of Aristotelian Scholasticism, the theological and philosophical system that early modern Europe had inherited from the medieval era. Significantly, they also identified Europe’s exploration of America as a driver of this intellectual change. Starting in the early sixteenth century, European scholars grew increasingly convinced that the rich abundance of plants, animals, and peoples found in America could not be explained through the hermeneutic readings of ancient texts that formed the basis of Scholasticism. Natural knowledge had to be made from scratch through experience, observation, and rational theorizing. It is certainly true that traditional intellectual paradigms and methods did not disappear quickly. Nevertheless, by the mid-eighteenth century, the discoveries made through modern empirical science had a great deal of cultural authority.7 Without entirely abandoning the classics, intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean proudly declared themselves to be the cultural heirs of René Descartes, Francis Bacon, and Isaac Newton. The Enlightenment attempted to develop the natural sciences in ways that would reap commercial, agricultural, medical, and other practical gains. Simultaneously, it launched new scientific investigations into human nature and society with the express purpose of improving both.
The Enlightenment, which coincided with an unprecedented global exchange of goods, people, and ideas, sought to use scientific methods to make sense of the entire world. This was a complicated and cross-cultural process. Peoples from Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe interacted in the eighteenth century as never before. From the 1760s, prominent European navigators explored the Pacific region and encountered Maoris, Tahitians, and Hawaiian Islanders. As plants, animals, peoples, and microbes circulated between continents, natural historians innovated new frameworks for long-distance science. These developments did not automatically impose metropolitan cultures of knowledge on colonized and colonizing peoples. In an age in which scientific institutions were weak and many people retained beliefs in the magical and irregular properties of nature, any global agreement on what constituted useful and factual knowledge had to be achieved through innumerable local negotiations in such places as Caribbean plantations, colonial port towns, the American backcountry, the Amazonian forests, and islands in the Pacific. For this reason, the violent death of British navigator Captain James Cook in Hawaii in 1779 can be considered an emblematic moment of the Enlightenment age.
It is one of the great ironies of the Enlightenment that increased global awareness resulted both in powerful assertions of the universalism of humankind and a division of humanity into rigid subcategories based on perceived cultural or biological differences. Americans were at once creators and recipients of these contradictory tendencies in Enlightenment thought. In the decades before Britain and France engaged in extensive exploration of the Pacific Ocean, the New World was regarded as a uniquely undeveloped region. Europeans and Creole Americans repeatedly stated in the eighteenth century that Amerindians were natural men and women who showed no inclination for societal, intellectual, or moral progress. Some eighteenth-century writers pondered if and how Amerindians could actually be enlightened. This question formed one part of a larger debate over human similarities, differences, and hierarchies.
The tension between universal progress and human differences that existed within the Enlightenment is evident in Belknap’s 1784 essay. After considering the impact of the “discovery of America” on humankind as a whole, the New England author focused in turn on four specific “classes”: European emigrants to the New World and their Creole descendants, Europeans who remained in Europe, Amerindians, and Africans enslaved in the New World. The resulting analysis echoed Raynal’s Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des européens dans les deux Indes (1770), a massive and widely read commentary on European colonialism published with the assistance of Diderot. Like Raynal, Belknap praised the benefits of global commerce and condemned the immorality of slavery. In addition, writing in the aftermath of the American Revolution, he described the new United States as a bastion of liberty, tolerance, commerce, and happiness stocked with men of “rational religion and good manners.” He urged Europeans to engage in free trade with his country. At the same time, Belknap conceded that “the sweets of refined luxury and extensive commerce” enjoyed by Europeans and Euro-Americans were the products of slave labor. He decried the immorality of slavery. In keeping with many of his contemporaries—including Raynal—however, Belknap considered that any immediate abolition of slavery would be ill advised. He recommended a more gradual approach that he hoped would persuade the American descendants of African slaves to achieve lasting happiness in the New World. Meanwhile, even as he looked positively on the possibility that African Americans would become more enlightened and more American, Belknap took a decidedly bleak view of the future of Amerindians. The New England clergyman declared that Native Americans were naturally opposed to civilization. They might respond to the “pure original principles of rational and real religion,” but, in Belknap’s opinion, there was unlikely to be any swift or sweeping enlightenment of America’s indigenous peoples.8
The collection and systematic ordering of global natural knowledge were core ambitions of the Enlightenment. Europeans idealized a center-periphery arrangement that fitted neatly with early modern imperial and commercial concerns. As early as the 1570s Juan de Ovando, president of the Council of the Indies, the administrative body that governed Spanish America from Seville, Spain, called for a coordinated state effort to advance the natural study of the New World. A half-century later, Francis Bacon, who was an English investor in the Virginia Company and other colonization ventures as well as an advocate of New Science, proposed an arrangement by which European travelers would supply accurate eyewitness data to Solomon’s House, a fictional temple of knowledge where assorted facts could be amassed, catalogued, and used to generate practical knowledge. The founding of the Royal Society of London (1662), the French Académie des sciences (1666), the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences (1724), and the Prussian Royal Academy of Sciences and Belles-Lettres (1744) helped to realize Bacon’s vision by creating metropolitan hubs for global science.
The center-periphery model supposed Americans would participate in the natural sciences as firsthand observers, measurers, and collectors but not as the architects of explanatory theories. Many eighteenth-century European maps and books about America accordingly sought to turn the testimony of Amerindians, enslaved Africans, and Creoles into statements of metropolitan intellectual authority. However, the ideological and material frameworks that allowed ideas and information to circulate across oceans and between continents and that enabled empirical science to achieve widespread legitimacy were not solely created in Europe. In America, as well as in other non-European parts of the world, a variety of people worked to produce practical knowledge and to establish the sort of common ground between different epistemologies and cultural beliefs that could sustain a global Enlightenment.
Commercial and imperial ties provided an initial structure for knowledge exchanges between America and other parts of the world. America’s eighteenth-century natural historians were often merchants or government officials with side interests in science. These amateur naturalists were not the sort of state-sponsored specialists who were dispatched from Europe to explore the Pacific Ocean later in the eighteenth century or, for that matter, the sort of expert explorers, such as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, sent by the U.S. government to reconnoiter the North American continent in the early nineteenth century. More often than not, they were Creole elites who were deemed reliable observers and information gatherers in large part because of their social status as colonial gentlemen. These men (and they were almost all men) supplied specimens, descriptions, and measurements to European naturalists, government bodies, aristocrats, and scientific societies. In an age of patronage, they often gained political benefits from this work. The arrival in America of intellectually minded imperial administrators such as Governor William Burnet, a fellow of the Royal Society of London and protégé of Sir Isaac Newton who resided in America from 1720 until his death in 1729, enhanced the scientific linkages between colonial elites and the metropole. Well-connected individuals in London assisted in the construction of transatlantic correspondence networks. Hans Sloane—an English naturalist who traveled to the Caribbean in 1687, published a major work titled A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica . . . in 1707 and 1725, and became president of the Royal Society of London in 1727—was a particularly important figure in that regard. Peter Collinson, a Quaker merchant and respected naturalist in London who mixed his business affairs with his botanical curiosity, was another essential intermediary between American and European scientific cultures. Collinson provided several colonials, including John Bartram, Cadwallader Colden, Benjamin Franklin, and John Mitchell, access to European patrons, politicians, printers, and prominent intellectuals such as the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus.
Because scientific empiricism required accurate firsthand data from America, Europeans valued colonials who could be trusted to supply a steady stream of authentic facts. Later in the eighteenth century, as the wealth of data about America and the rest of the world grew exponentially in size, Europeans began to dismiss colonial informants as unreliable. They instead privileged the authority of philosophical travelers sent abroad from Europe and armchair theorists who engaged in comparative readings of multiple works about America.9
The metropolitan suspicion of colonial scientific activity was not entirely new. After all, Europeans had largely confined Americans to the role of information suppliers who were incapable of generating theories. Colden encountered this bias in the 1740s and 1750s after he developed a philosophy of active matter and an explanation of the cause of gravitation. Although his work was published in New York, London, Hamburg, and Paris, it was eventually dismissed as an erroneous and unhelpful contribution to natural philosophy. Some critics recognized that Colden’s obscure reasoning provided few obvious scholarly or everyday benefits, but other metropolitan thinkers simply rejected out of hand the notion that a colonial figure could produce a momentous scientific theory.10 Franklin, who paid close attention to Colden’s experience, achieved a great deal more international success by portraying his electrical experiments as the careful empirical efforts of a humble American. In particular, his invention of the lightening rod demonstrated that a highly impressive and very practical breakthrough could be made in the New World as well as the Old.11
Electricity helped to undermine the social boundaries of the Enlightenment in other ways. A natural phenomenon that fascinated many colonial Americans, electricity revealed the interconnectedness of scientific utilitarianism and spiritual enchantment in eighteenth-century understandings of nature. It should be noted that strict mechanistic accounts of the universe gave way in elite circles around 1750 as learned men of science on both sides of the Atlantic determined that nature did not operate exactly like a machine. Many ordinary Americans, including Amerindians and those of African descent, had always maintained antimechanistic outlooks. They thought nature was filled with magical and miraculous properties. Public demonstrations and lectures on electricity therefore helped an emergent colonial middling class reconcile experimental science with their fascination at the wonder of nature.12
While Americans experimented with electricity, Europeans continued to assert that colonials lacked the cultural refinement and polish necessary for scientific activity beyond a basic level of observation and collection. Colonial elites countered this charge by drawing on an eighteenth-century fad for pastoral intellectual pursuits to suggest that rural America was in actuality better suited to scientific and philosophical activities than urban Europe. Critics of European society reiterated this point. The Anglo-Irish philosopher George Berkeley penned his poem “America, or the Muse’s Refuge: A Prophecy” (1726) in part to express his disillusionment with contemporary Europe. A few years later, he moved temporarily to Newport, Rhode Island, from where he sought unsuccessfully to organize a university in Bermuda.13
The Creole elites who fashioned themselves as learned gentlemen with the leisure and intellect to become effective philosophers in rustic America tended to treat the knowledge of ordinary colonials with a great deal of ambivalence. Amerindians and Africans, because of their perceived simplicity, were deemed capable of providing insightful natural knowledge, yet they were also considered irrational and untrustworthy.14 Colonial women were regarded in a similar fashion. The entrenched feminization of nature within Western culture meant that women could be valued as capable eyewitnesses with an innate talent for studying small details. It consequently became possible for a woman botanist such as Jane Colden, daughter of Cadwallader Colden, to gain international recognition for her work, but only on the understanding that she was reliant on the tutoring, guidance, and assistance of her father and other male associates. Just as the metropole sought to assert its intellectual superiority over the colonies, so Creole men claimed they were more rational and learned than American women and nonwhites.15
These claims to authority were contested. Knowledge production in early America resulted from complex interactions between the learned and the vulgar, men and women, Europeans, Africans, and Amerindians. The relative lack of scientific institutions and patrons in the colonies and, for that matter, in the early republic, created a more democratic culture of knowledge than in Europe. At a macro level, the Enlightenment’s master narrative of scientific progress provided a discourse of common sense and utilitarianism that enabled heterogeneous peoples to interact across oceans and between cultures. At a micro level, Enlightenment knowledge was constructed from any number of vexed negotiations.
The Science of Humankind
Enlightenment narratives of human progress made temporal and spatial distinctions between America and other parts of the world. Amerindians were represented in Enlightenment literature as a uniquely savage, atheistic, and primitive people—a living example of an early stage of human development that had disappeared in Europe (except perhaps in Celtic Scotland and a few other places). As such, Amerindians provided self-reflective Europeans with a baseline against which they could critically assess their own society.
The Enlightenment contained a strand of opposition to the commercialism, colonialism, inequalities, and corruption of contemporary Europe. Several prominent writers held up the simple and natural existence of indigenous Americans as an alternative to life in modern Europe. In 1704 Louis Armand de Lom d’Arce, baron de Lahontan, a minor French nobleman and military official who had resided in Canada before becoming an itinerant “spy” in Europe, published a fictional dialogue between himself and a Huron named Adario. Through the voice of Adario, this work, which had considerable popular success, claimed that the communal, egalitarian, and free lives of Native Americans were superior to those of Europeans.
For Enlightenment writers who looked positively on the rise of modern, commercial society, Amerindians posed a profound problem that became apparent in the second half of the eighteenth century. At that time, in Scotland especially, social theorists speculated that humankind developed through consecutive phases of savagery, herding, agriculture, and commerce. These stadialists insisted that social evolution brought economic and moral improvements. People shed their rudeness and learned to control their unruly passions. Politeness and reason emerged alongside commerce. But, if progress was meant to be universal, why had Amerindians remained in such a primitive state? William Robertson’s History of America (1777) responded to this question by suggesting that climate, remoteness, and the sheer vastness of the New World had trapped Amerindians in a languid and primitive existence. Robertson, a Scottish Presbyterian minister as well as a historian, espoused climatic determinism in this way in part because it was consistent with traditional Christian beliefs in monogenesis, or the idea that all human beings share a single origin. For Robertson, then, climatic determinism served to counter un-Christian claims that human beings did not actually come from a single stock. However, he obfuscated this argument in History of America by adding that culture and socioeconomic arrangements (or “modes of subsistence”) determined human behaviors. In Robertson’s book, as in Scottish social theory in general, the reason why Amerindians remained in their supposed state of savagery was left obscure.16
The French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu’s influential Esprit des lois (1748) was another work that pointed to the importance of climate as one (though not the only) source of social change. Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, a French natural historian, picked up this theory and developed a scientific thesis that the cold and humid environment of North America produced smaller and weaker animals. The Dutch philosopher Cornelius de Pauw extended these claims to human beings in his Recherches philosophiques sur les Américains (1768‒1769). Amerindians, he stated, were physically, morally, and intellectually inferior to Europeans as a result of environmental factors. Furthermore, in a line of thought designed to support the anti-emigration policies of his patron, Frederick the Great of Prussia, de Pauw warned that the Europeans who moved to America would regress and become more like Amerindians. These arguments unsurprisingly drew a response from Creoles. In Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), Thomas Jefferson explained that the development of Native American society had been restrained by “circumstances” not by the American environment, which notably produced larger and more vital plants and animals than the Old World.
Race became an increasingly important feature of Enlightenment thought as theorists began to question monogenesis and the impact of climate on human nature and society. The spread of botanical classification made it easier for Enlightenment thinkers to consider the division of humankind on the basis of physical properties. Indeed, the second edition of Linnaeus’s Systema naturae (1740) stated that the genus Homo possessed a single species, sapiens, of which there were four varieties: Europaeus albus (white Europeans), Americanus rubescens (red Americans), Asiaticus fuscus (yellow Asians), and Africanus niger (black Africans). This particular taxonomy did not equate to scientific racism as such, but it did mark the beginnings of a scientific and racial disaggregation of humankind that allowed for modern racism to develop during the nineteenth century. Polygenesis, the belief that human beings originated as several distinct groups, also gave impetus to new modes of racialized thinking, as did eighteenth-century physiological investigations into the inheritance of biological features. Still, the development of scientific racism was gradual. One important step came shortly before the turn of the nineteenth century when the European anatomist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach divided human beings into categories based on their internal skeletal and cranial arrangements and sizes as well as their skin color.17
The huge profits produced by plantation slavery helped to stimulate the growing interest in race. The Enlightenment, which coincided with a decline in white indentured servitude and an expansion of the slave trade to America, provided a powerful ideological justification for the enslavement and abuse of Africans and their descendants even as it asserted the universalism and fundamental equality of humankind. Concurrently, the Enlightenment produced strong condemnations of slavery, some of which also articulated notions of racial hierarchies and incompatibility. While Belknap did not, many late-eighteenth-century and early-nineteenth-century Americans (including those who founded the American Colonization Society in 1816) recommended the relocation of blacks from America to Africa.18
The American Revolution exposed the conflict between liberty and slavery that ran through the Enlightenment. Patriots based their demands for political self-government on the principle that all human beings possessed an innate right to life and liberty. The fact that Jefferson and other vocal supporters of independence owned slaves was an obvious contradiction. It is one of the great problems of the Enlightenment that a slave owner who would later write about the racial inferiority of blacks penned one of the most powerful statements of human equality and universalism: “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independant.” Scholars intent on explaining this paradox have generated a vast literature, but there is perhaps no satisfactory resolution. Slavery and freedom, much like universalism and difference, were inseparable elements of the Enlightenment as a whole and of Jefferson’s life and thought in particular.
Religion, Emotion, and Nationalism
The Enlightenment occurred after and partially in response to centuries of post-Reformation religious warfare. Following the Peace of Westphalia (1648), a series of treaties that signaled an unprecedented international commitment to religious pluralism and multiconfessional coexistence, many European thinkers attempted to articulate and justify more tolerant forms of Christianity. Such expressions of religious moderation meshed with other elements of Enlightenment thought, including new scientific descriptions of the cosmos. Christian tradition meanwhile provided forceful ideological support for eighteenth-century theories of human progress. Moreover, it placed an emphasis on human benevolence and empathy that fitted neatly with Enlightenment concepts of sociability, especially in the second half of the eighteenth century. Protestantism, in particular, helped to motivate the American Revolution and antislavery movement. In addition, it brought a degree of coherence and unity to the early republic.
Enlightenment religion in America is often associated with the moderate form of Protestantism that emerged in New England and other parts of British America before the turn of the eighteenth century. Unlike orthodox Calvinism, this form of Protestantism stressed the benevolence and reasonableness of God. Revelation, superstition, and enthusiasm were deemphasized in favor of politeness and reason. Moderate Protestantism gained ground in Calvinist New England before the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692 and continued to spread during the first half of the eighteenth century. The sermons of John Tillotson, a latitudinarian Archbishop of Canterbury, played an important role. Widely read and highly regarded in British America, Tillotson’s writings described a stable natural order run almost without interruption by a caring deity. Harvard University and Boston’s Brattle Street Church offered early institutional support for these ideas.19 By comparison, Saybrook College (which later became Yale University) remained tethered to orthodox Calvinism until the arrival in Connecticut in 1714 of a large and diverse collection of books, a gift from the colony’s London agent, Jeremiah Dummer. Those works directly impacted the thought of two great eighteenth-century American philosophers, Jonathan Edwards and the Reverend Samuel Johnson, both of whom studied at Yale. Edwards and Johnson separately tried to reconcile empirical science with their religious beliefs. While Edwards sought to combine Calvinism with natural philosophy, Johnson converted to Anglicanism and eventually became the leading colonial proponent of Berkeleyan immaterialist philosophy.
The ideas of Tillotson and other latitudinarian Anglicans were undoubtedly important in moving religious thought in a more tolerant and irenic direction in early-eighteenth-century British America. However, the reality of religious heterodoxy in many colonies outside New England was equally significant. Quakers, Jews, and Huguenots all came to the New World to escape persecution and find religious freedom. Lutherans and Dutch Reformists added to the mix. Pennsylvania was established in accordance with the Quaker beliefs of its founder William Penn. Religious practices were extremely diverse. European, African, and Amerindian beliefs intermingled. Moreover, while established religion existed in most of the British American colonies, religious institutions continued to be weak.
In an age that placed a great deal of significance on reason and refinement, religious beliefs and practices were an important site for contests over the individual and societal regulation of emotions and enthusiasms. During the first half of the eighteenth century, elite men favored polite forms of religion and condemned the revivals of the Great Awakening as mobbish and unruly events. They claimed moral superiority and a right to govern by asserting that women, Amerindians, African slaves, and uneducated white men were incapable of controlling and refining their passions. Reason, polish, and enlightenment were considered to be intertwined characteristics of learned gentlemen. Still, as the eighteenth century progressed, the dichotomy between reason and emotion became less important. Novelists and other writers celebrated the emotional bonds between human beings. The British philosophers Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury, and Francis Hutcheson identified a moral sense within all human beings. Evangelical religion emphasized the commonality of humanity. Overall, sympathy and feeling became just as important measures of enlightenment as politeness and reasonableness. Two works by the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776), indicate the extent to which sympathy and individualism gained currency together in the second half of the eighteenth century.20
Enlightenment causes were increasingly promoted in emotive language designed to sway the heart as well as the head. Antislavery writers, many of whom were evangelicals, were particularly effective at appealing to both the reason and the empathy of their readers. The American Revolution was similarly driven by emotion. Americans from divergent colonies forged powerful bonds in the 1760s and 1770s through their shared feelings of anger at the British government. Religion, reason, and emotion then combined to keep Americans together following a revolution that had challenged traditional authority and undone the colonies’ attachment to the British Crown. Unity was found through the creation of a Protestant national identity, even as the newly independent Americans wrote state and national constitutions that prohibited established religion.
Common sense was an important concept that also allowed Americans of different backgrounds to find broad agreement before and after the Revolution. The existence of common sense was given a great deal of intellectual weight in the eighteenth century by the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid, who insisted that all sane and socially functional human beings considered certain truths to be indisputable. John Witherspoon, a Scottish clergyman who became president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), helped to spread this brand of Scottish philosophy to America. After the Revolution, Americans such as Samuel Stanhope Smith combined evangelical religion with science and common sense philosophy to create an effective accommodation between several strands of eighteenth-century thought.
The language of common sense appealed to the learned and the noneducated alike. Thomas Paine’s influential 1776 pamphlet not only took Common Sense as its title but also declared that it would present its political argument as nothing other than “simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense.”21 Following the Revolution, and especially after a heated battle against deism in the 1790s, the majority of Americans found unity and solace in the notion that they shared an attachment to a form of Protestantism that did not engage in the extreme rationality of the deists or the pessimism and irrationality of orthodox Calvinism.22 White Americans came together believing that they had founded God’s country. They expanded west on that basis, at a tragic cost to the Native American population.
The relationship between the Enlightenment and America cannot be fully assessed unless some consideration is given to the American Revolution. The American War of Independence and the founding of the United States were major events of the Enlightenment that inspired subsequent revolutions and independence movements around the Atlantic World. Colonists initially justified their rebellion against Britain on the basis of customary English rights. When the British government insisted on the constitutional authority of Parliament, American Patriots began to use a language of inalienable and universal rights. The origins of that language can be found in the seventeenth-century writings of Hugo Grotius, Samuel Pufendorf, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke, writings that appeared in Europe as developments in the natural sciences and increased knowledge about the New World undermined scholastic intellectual tradition and created openings for new social theories and moral philosophies. By utilizing the language of natural rights in the 1760s and 1770s, Americans turned their specific conflict against Britain into a fight for human liberty and equality. No one did this more so than Thomas Jefferson. His powerful articulation of universal rights is one of the great legacies of the Enlightenment. Since 1776, the Declaration of Independence has served as a model for countless demands for freedom and equality.23 The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, drafted in 1789 by a veteran of the American War of Independence, the Marquis de Lafayette, is a notable example. Echoing Jefferson, it declared: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.”24
The revolutionary language of natural rights and liberty helped to fuel an international antislavery movement. Antislavery arguments appeared in numerous books, plays, poetry, pamphlets, and sermons in the second half of the eighteenth century. They drew on a broad array of sources, including the writings of Montesquieu and the Scottish thinkers Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith. Evangelical religion was also important, as was the burgeoning cultural interest in sentiment among Britain’s reading class. The growing antislavery movement in Britain pushed some American planters toward the Revolution. The hypocrisy of Americans fighting in the name of liberty to preserve slavery was not lost on critics of the American Revolution. Nor was it lost on the fugitive slaves who joined the British troops led by Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia. Dunmore promised these men their freedom, and some wore the words “Liberty to Slaves” on their uniforms.
Although the language of natural rights helped to secure gradual emancipation in the North, slavery continued in the southern states. The outcome elsewhere in the Atlantic World was similarly mixed. The French ended slavery in their colonies following their revolution, but it later returned to some parts of the French Caribbean. Haitians secured a permanent end to slavery for themselves through revolution. Slavery continued in the British Caribbean until 1834. Brazil did not abolish slavery until 1888.25
American women, like American slaves, were excluded from the language of natural rights after the Revolution. This outcome was not a foregone conclusion. American writer Judith Sargent Murray published a powerful essay, “On the Equality of the Sexes,” in 1790 that she had written during the Revolution. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman subsequently appeared and stirred significant debate on the political rights of women. Wollstonecraft’s book, which was published first in Britain in 1792 and then soon republished in multiple editions in America, insisted that natural rights applied as much to women as men. At a time when Jeffersonian Republicans were battling to expand white male suffrage, it focused attention on women’s exclusion from politics. The Revolution had disrupted tradition and therefore undermined claims that women should be denied the vote on the basis of custom. Women such as the Massachusetts author Mercy Otis Warren had written powerful arguments in favor of American independence. It was also the case that women had temporarily been allowed to vote in New Jersey under the terms of that state’s 1776 constitution. In yet another paradox, the Enlightenment provided a way for women to press for equality and rights while also providing a rationale for the political exclusion of women based on biological differences between sexes. Scientific evidence was used to naturalize contrasts between men and women and to explain why women were physically inferior and incapable of political participation.26
The Enlightenment came to an end in the nineteenth century. As a mix of contradictions and controversies held together by a general sense that the world had an opportunity to achieve progress, it had opened up numerous possibilities for freedom and equality but also created a counter legacy of prolonged slavery and social disparity. The Enlightenment was not a precise ideology invented in Holland, England, or France and then imported into and realized in America. Rather, it was a transnational, cross-cultural, decentralized, and dynamic phenomenon whose meaning emerged out of multiple local negotiations as well as from global interconnections.
Discussion of the Literature
Historians of the Enlightenment have tended to focus on the question of how European ideas were assimilated in America rather than the question of how the Enlightenment and America shaped each other. During the Cold War, when the United States battled communism, the notion that Americans adopted a distinctly European ideology became unpalatable to some academics. In a strong statement published in 1960, Daniel Boorstin dismissed the American Enlightenment as a “myth.”27 Boorstin’s rejection of the American Enlightenment, which came at a time when American intellectual history was a rising field, caused considerable controversy. Several historians responding by demonstrating how early Americans managed to select and appropriate European ideas for their own ends.28
A wave of scholarship on the American Enlightenment followed in the 1970s, peaking around the time of the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence.29 The single most significant work on the subject to appear in that period was Henry F. May’s The Enlightenment in America, a classic study of American intellectual history that still provides a useful overview of the American Enlightenment.30
After a hiatus in the 1980s and 1990s, academic interest in the American Enlightenment returned in the early twenty-first century to something approaching the heights of the 1970s. There is as yet no synthesis to replace May’s 1976 book, but The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment offers comprehensive coverage.31 Essays on specific facets of the Enlightenment in America can be found in many journals and collections.32 Monographs on individual aspects of the American Enlightenment are plentiful. Particular areas of interest include early American science, especially cartography and natural history;33 religion and the Enlightenment;34 print culture;35 and imperialism.36 The publication of several important studies on the Enlightenment in South America and the Caribbean has helped to generate a growing appreciation of a hemispheric Enlightenment in the Americas.37 The notion of a global Enlightenment has also received a great deal of recent attention.38 This geographical redefinition of the Enlightenment opens up exciting areas for future research.
Primary sources on the Enlightenment and America are abundant and readily available. Books, sermons, poems, and pamphlets that were published or read in early America can be mined for Enlightenment ideas. Many thousands of these documents are now accessible via online databases enhanced with powerful search tools.39 Printed collections of selected early American writings also contain relevant material.40 In addition, pertinent visual sources can be found online or in heavily illustrated publications.41 The correspondence and writings of early American intellectuals are rapidly being digitized and electronically published. Indeed, the National Archives has recently made the papers of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington electronically accessible and searchable at Founders Online.
Links to Digital Materials
Armitage, David. The Declaration of Independence: A Global History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.Find this resource:
Chaplin, Joyce E.The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius. New York: Basic Books, 2006.Find this resource:
Delbourgo, James. A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.Find this resource:
Dixon, John M.The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden: Empire, Science, and Intellectual Culture in British New York. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016.Find this resource:
Eustace, Nicole. Passion Is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.Find this resource:
Grasso, Christopher. A Speaking Aristocracy: Transforming Public Discourse in Eighteenth-Century Connecticut. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.Find this resource:
Gronim, Sara S.Everyday Nature: Knowledge of the Natural World in Colonial New York. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.Find this resource:
Hunt, Lynn. Inventing Human Rights: A History. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007.Find this resource:
Knott, Sarah, and Barbara Taylor, eds. Women, Gender and Enlightenment. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.Find this resource:
Landsman, Ned C.From Colonials to Provincials: American Thought and Culture 1680–1760. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.Find this resource:
May, Henry F.The Enlightenment in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.Find this resource:
Outram, Dorinda. Panorama of the Enlightenment. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2006.Find this resource:
Parrish, Susan Scott. American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.Find this resource:
Porter, Roy. The Creation of the Modern World: The Untold Story of the British Enlightenment. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.Find this resource:
Sebastiani, Silvia. The Scottish Enlightenment: Race, Gender, and the Limits of Progress. Translated by Jeremy Carden. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.Find this resource:
Shields, David S.Civic Tongues and Polite Letters in British America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.Find this resource:
Spencer, Mark G., ed. The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment. 2 vols. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.Find this resource:
(1.) For Belknap’s essay, see Gerald A. Danzer, “Has the Discovery of America Been Useful or Hurtful to Mankind? Yesterday’s Questions and Today’s Students,” History Teacher 7.2 (1974): 192–206, esp. 199–206.
(2.) Durand Echeverria, “Condorcet’s The Influence of the American Revolution on Europe,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 25.1 (1968): 85–108.
(3.) James Schmidt, “Inventing the Enlightenment: Anti-Jacobins, British Hegelians, and the Oxford English Dictionary,” Journal of the History of Ideas 64.3 (2003): 421–443.
(4.) On the historiography of the Enlightenment, see Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob, “Enlightenment Studies,” in Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, ed. Alan Charles Kors, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 418–430.
(5.) For a fuller “narratological” definition of the Enlightenment and for the importance of the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, see Dan Edelstein, The Enlightenment: A Genealogy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
(6.) Colden’s essay “An Introduction to the Study of Phylosophy wrote in America for the use of a young Gentleman” is published in The Philosophical Writings of Cadwallader Colden, ed. Scott L. Pratt and John Ryder (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2002), 37–56.
(7.) Anthony Grafton, New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992); and Karen Ordahl Kupperman, ed., America in European Consciousness, 1493–1750 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).
(8.) Danzer, “Has the Discovery of America Been Useful or Hurtful to Mankind?”
(9.) Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, How to Write the History of the New World: Histories, Epistemologies, and Identities in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001).
(10.) John M. Dixon, The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden: Empire, Science, and Intellectual Culture in British New York (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016).
(11.) For more on Franklin’s science, see Joyce E. Chaplin, The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius (New York: Basic Books, 2006).
(12.) James Delbourgo, A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).
(13.) Edwin S. Gaustad, George Berkeley in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979).
(14.) Susan Scott Parrish, American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).
(15.) Sara Stidstone Gronim, “What Jane Knew: A Woman Botanist in the Eighteenth Century,” Journal of Women’s History 19.3 (2007): 33–59.
(16.) David Armitage, “The New World and British Historical Thought: From Richard Hakluyt to William Robertson,” in Kupperman, ed., America in European Consciousness, 52–75; Karen O’Brien, Narratives of Enlightenment: Cosmopolitan History from Voltaire to Gibbon (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997); J. G. A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion: Volume 4, Barbarians, Savages and Empires (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005); and Silvia Sebastiani, The Scottish Enlightenment: Race, Gender, and the Limits of Progress¸ trans. Jeremy Carden (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
(17.) Joyce E. Chaplin, “Race,” in The British Atlantic World, 1500–1800, 2d ed., ed. David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 173–190.
(18.) John Saillant, “The American Enlightenment in Africa: Jefferson’s Colonizationism and Black Virginians’ Migration to Liberia, 1776‒1840,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 31.3 (1998): 261–282.
(19.) Norman Fiering, “The First American Enlightenment: Tillotson, Leverett, and Philosophical Anglicanism,” New England Quarterly 54.3 (1981): 307–344.
(20.) On the importance of emotion, see Nicole Eustace, Passion Is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).
(21.) See Sophia Rosenfeld, Common Sense: A Political History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 142.
(22.) Christopher Grasso, “Deist Monster: On Religious Common Sense in the Wake of the American Revolution,” Journal of American History 95.1 (2008): 43–68.
(23.) David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).
(24.) Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007), 21.
(25.) David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966); David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); and Christopher Leslie Brown, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).
(26.) Rosemarie Zagarri, “American Women’s Rights before Seneca Falls,” in Women, Gender, and Enlightenment, ed. Sarah Knott and Barbara Taylor (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 667–691.
(27.) Daniel J. Boorstin, “The Myth of an American Enlightenment,” in America and the Image of Europe: Reflections on American Thought, ed. Daniel J. Boorstin (New York: Meridian Books, 1960), 65–78.
(28.) Adrienne Koch, “Pragmatic Wisdom and the American Enlightenment,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 18.3 (1961): 313–329; Adrienne Koch, Power, Morals, and the Founding Fathers: Essays in the Interpretation of the American Enlightenment (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1961); Bernard Bailyn, “Political Experience and Enlightenment Ideas in Eighteenth-Century America,” American Historical Review 67.2 (1962): 339–351; Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967); and David Hackett Fischer, “John Beale Bordley, Daniel Boorstin, and the American Enlightenment,” Journal of Southern History 28.3 (1962): 327–342.
(29.) See Donald H. Meyer, The Democratic Enlightenment (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1976); Henry Steele Commager, The Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1977); and the essays published in American Quarterly 28.2, Special Issue: An American Enlightenment (1976).
(30.) Henry F. May, The Enlightenment in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976); and John M. Dixon, “Henry F. May and the Revival of the American Enlightenment: Problems and Possibilities for Intellectual and Social History,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 71.2 (2014): 255–280.
(31.) Mark G. Spencer, ed., The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment, 2 vols. (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).
(32.) Particularly useful collections are: Knott and Taylor, eds., Women, Gender, and Enlightenment; James Delbourgo and Nicholas Dew, eds., Science and Empire in the Atlantic World (New York: Routledge, 2008); Susan Manning and Francis D. Cogliano, eds., The Atlantic Enlightenment (Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2008); and Clifford Siskin and William Warner, eds., This Is Enlightenment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
(33.) Martin Brückner, The Geographic Revolution in Early America: Maps, Literacy, and National Identity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Chaplin, The First Scientific American; Delbourgo, A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders; Parrish, American Curiosity; Sara S. Gronim, Everyday Nature: Knowledge of the Natural World in Colonial New York (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007); Andrew J. Lewis, A Democracy of Facts: Natural History in the Early Republic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011); and Dixon, The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden.
(34.) Nina Reid-Maroney, Philadelphia’s Enlightenment, 1740–1800: Kingdom of Christ, Empire of Reason (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001); and Sarah Rivett, The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).
(35.) Richard B. Sher, The Enlightenment and the Book: Scottish Authors and Their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Ireland, and America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
(36.) Sankar Muthu, Enlightenment against Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003).
(37.) Cañizares-Esguerra, How to Write the History of the New World; Gabriel B. Paquette, Enlightenment, Governance, and Reform in Spain and Its Empire, 1759–1808 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008); Neil Safier, Measuring the New World: Enlightenment Science and South America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008); and Christopher P. Iannini, Fatal Revolutions: Natural History, West Indian Slavery, and the Routes of American Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).
(38.) See Dorinda Outram, Panorama of the Enlightenment (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2006); Armitage, The Declaration of Independence; Sebastian Conrad, “Enlightenment in Global History: A Historiographical Critique,” American Historical Review 117.4 (2012): 999–1027; and Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment, 3d ed. (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
(39.) Two of the most useful databases for this type of research are: Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639–1800 (Readex) and Eighteenth Century Collections Online (Gale, Cengage Learning).
(40.) For American texts, see Kerry Walters, ed., The American Deists: Voices of Reason and Dissent in the Early Republic (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1992); Jose R. Torre, ed., The Enlightenment in America, 1720–1825, 4 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008); and David A. Hollinger and Charles Capper, eds., The American Intellectual Tradition, vol. 1, 1630 to 1865, 7th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). Carla Mulford, ed., Early American Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) includes a large range of writings, as does the Norton Anthology of American Literature, 8th ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011). For the Enlightenment more generally, see Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, ed., Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1997); and Margaret C. Jacob, The Enlightenment: A Brief History with Documents (Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001).
(41.) See, for instance, Brandon Brame Fortune with Deborah J. Warner, Franklin and His Friends: Portraying the Man of Science in Eighteenth-Century America (Washington, DC: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, 1999); and Outram, Panorama of the Enlightenment. For online sources, see The American Enlightenment: Treasures from Stanford Library Online Exhibition; Voyage to the Islands: Hans Sloane, Slavery, and Scientific Travel in the Caribbean.