Yes, Virginia, there was an American Enlightenment

State of the Field PanelThanks to John Fea’s live-tweeting and subsequent reflections on OAH panels this past weekend, I would like to address some of the points and comments made during the panel entitled, “State of the Field: The Trans-Atlantic Enlightenment in America.” Since Twitter is problematic in getting across complex ideas due to its 140-character limitation, I have chosen a few of the tweets in which the comments seemed to me to be common arguments or perceptions that I have previously encountered.

The panel began with this question. Chronologically speaking, the Enlightenment is not a topic that lends itself to the field’s current preoccupation with the early republic. So while work on colonial (and even revolutionary) politics waned so did work on the Enlightenment, both suffering from the perception of being elitist topics. Later on, as Fea recalled, Chaplin asked audience members “to raise their hands if any of them taught [the Enlightenment] or even had a section on it in their syllabus. A lot of hands went up.” The suggestion that the Enlightenment is not something worth devoting one session of a course on colonial or revolutionary history seems to me to be a bit over-the-top, especially since the Enlightenment has received renewed attention in the last decade or so that has begun to show the local and/or cultural ramifications of the Enlightenment in America.

The primary question for Americanists interested in the Enlightenment is: Was there an “American Enlightenment” or can we only speak in terms of “the Enlightenment in America?” Until recently, the dominant perception of Americans’ participation in the Enlightenment was defined by receptivity (or, in other words, intellectual passivity) and utility. Henry Steele Commager summed up the position by saying, “The Old World imagined the Enlightenment and the New World realized it.” That is, America didn’t have original thinkers but they put those European ideas into practice and came up with the American Revolution. In the 1970s, Henry May demonstrated Americans’ depth of intellectual involvement with Enlightenment ideas, texts, and natural philosophy. Nevertheless, we emerged from that last great burst of scholarship on the Enlightenment in America during the Bicentennial with a one-way transmission between the European Enlightenment(s) and the Americans, with its only non-intellectual influence on the political sphere.

I think that for early Americanists interested in pursuing the “American Enlightenment” beyond the wholesale transmission narratives of May and Commager, there are three directions worth pursuing, particularly in the period from roughly 1720 to 1765. First, no one can deny that the colonies or the new republic did not produce an original Enlightenment thinker along the lines of Locke, Voltaire, or Montesquieu. But that does not mean the process that occurred has to be limited to one of passive receptiveness and wholesale utilitarianism. Like Meranze and Waldstreicher, I think transmission remains crucial, though it requires a broader perspective. I would suggest that the American Enlightenment is to be found (in addition to the scientific/natural philosophy milieux of historians like Delbourgo and Gronim) in how colonial thinkers and writers adapted strands of Enlightenment thought to their distinct colonial contexts. In doing so, those ideas were not only utilized but modified. Uncovering and unpacking those modifications and the contexts in which they were deployed in the colonial public sphere is one place where historians can find the “American Enlightenment.”

Second, I think that another fruitful path for early Americanists would be to pursue a path similar to that in European Enlightenment studies which no longer sees the Enlightenment as the archenemy of religion. Rather than seeing the two as diametrically opposed, historians of the European Enlightenment(s) have been recovering the dialectical relationship between the two. And I think that early Americanists could very fruitfully apply that perspective. Certainly, skepticism, anti-enthusiasm, and toleration meant different things in the colonies, which had its own distinct religious culture of “competitive Protestantism,” than it did in the religious cultures of the confessional European states.

And, finally, I think another place early Americanists might look in search of an “American Enlightenment” is a combination of colonial club and print cultures. I think it is wrong to discount the cultural importance of sociability in the colonies (especially in an effort to draw distinctions between other national/regional Enlightenments, which too often leads to generalities of exceptionalism and over-compartmentalization). We can see it in eighteenth-century America in the development of elite (and even, to a degree, middling) sociability (e.g., the work of David Shields, Steven Bullock, Robert Micklus, and, most recently, Jessica Roney). We can also see it in the transmission of ideas to the colonial public via print, particularly through the writings of native colonists, who as I alluded to above, were translating European Enlightenment ideas into their colonial context and thereby modifying them to fit the unique conflicts and concerns of colonists in British America in the middle third of the eighteenth century. I think, once again, there are cues to be had from European historians. For example, there is still much work to be done on colonial club culture (a la Peter Borsay’s work on provincial England) and even on how elite club culture manifested itself in the broader colonial culture (a la Margaret Jacob’s work on freemasonry).

For decades, the study of the Enlightenment suffered from the stigma of elitism. It is only in the last decade-and-a-half that early Americanists are beginning to perceive the Enlightenment in America as something more than the mere transmission of rarified ideas from European elites to their colonial counterparts via expensive books, i.e., as something not simply the province of intellectual historians. Rather, we are beginning to develop a broader view in which it is becoming possible to use the term “the American Enlightenment” without qualifiers or guilt. There is no doubt that our perspective has changed since the 1970s, and, perhaps, the perception of a lack of newness in the state of the field is actually reflective of the increasing degree of acceptance of this new perspective on Americans’ relationship to the Enlightenment. I think it is also indicative of the fact that what the field really needs is not a change in direction but to pick up the pace while holding its direction steady.


Addendum (26 Apr 2014): Readers interested in this topic should seek out the following article published in the WMQ less than two weeks after this post was published: John M. Dixon, “Henry F. May and the Revival of the American Enlightenment: Problems and Possibilities for Intellectual and Social History,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 71, no. 2 (2014): 255–80.

5 comments on “Yes, Virginia, there was an American Enlightenment

  1. Rosemarie Zagarri says:

    Michael, Great comments! It’s almost as if you were there–thus demonstrating (as if this audience needs to be told) the value of both twitter and blogging. (And thanks go to John Fea for posting the tweets.) I think your observations about the importance of religion in the American Enlightenment, the involvement of non-elites, and the ways in which Enlightenment ideas were disseminated are right on point. As the Chair of the panel, I learned a lot from the paneilists. and the audience. I was especially taken with the suggestion that we should consider the Enlightenment not as a static concept but as “ways of knowing” and “sites of knowing.” However, I was disappointed in how few people teach a course on the Enlightenment. I still believe the concept has value as heuristic device and organizing principle–as a way to both describe and in some ways explain a variety of historical phenomena that might not at first glance appear to be related. So I suppose those of us who are committed to the idea will have to continue the crusade to bring back both the “American Enlightenment” and “The Enlightenment in America.”

    • Thank you for the kind words, Rosemarie. It is quite amazing how we can now engage with the discussions occurring at conferences hundreds or even thousands of miles away in almost real-time. That is especially useful to someone like me whose family responsibilities make it hard to travel to conferences, especially at which I’m not presenting.

      I got the impression from John Fea’s reflections that a good number of hands went up when asked about teaching the Enlightenment. To be honest, I can’t see how you could teach a course on the eighteenth century and not have to address it in more than a passing manner, whether you’re talking about colonial culture, the politics of the American Revolution, or women’s history. In fact, as you mentioned, the Enlightenment is one of the few paradigms in which you can strongly link all three to one another.

  2. Craig says:

    A small point, but didn’t May argue that the moderate Enlightenment in America (which for him was the dominant strand) was not hostile to religion?

    • Craig, you are absolutely right. May’s “moderate Enlightenment” (which was, essentially, the early English or Augustan Enlightenment) was not hostile to religion. In fact, he says in his Preface that it wasn’t until the turn of the nineteenth century that people were forced to choose sides between Enlightenment reason and Protestant revelation. That, I suspect, was his addressing assertions of that distinction during the First Great Awakening by Alan Heimert, as well as the contemporary perspective on the irreconcilability of the two. However, what I was suggesting was not to establish that premise, which seems to me to be a largely an unspoken given, but to begin to really explore the ways in which the two were interrelated, i.e., how one reinforced the other. It’s one thing to generalize and say something like, “People in the eighteenth century did not see a contradiction between rationalism and revelation, instead seeing them as complementary.” But it’s another to show how that actually played out both intellectually and theologically. What was the specific relationship between reason and revelation and in what ways (and contexts) did they reinforce each other? I think Robert Ferguson has done more than anyone else to try to get at those questions, but it seems to me there’s much more to be done on that front.

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