American Enlightenment! Which American Enlightenment?

James MacGregor Burns, Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our WorldNew York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2013.

Earlier this year, the Journal of American History published an essay bemoaning the lack of attention Americanists give to the idea of an American Enlightenment. The authors suggested some provocative reasons, like a latent exceptionalism that has made American scholars reluctant to pick up a topic still seen as rooted in Europe. Equally problematic was America’s religious character, which has left Americanists wary of a movement still viewed as secular. Despite noteworthy scholarship on an American Enlightenment being produced “at the margins of university research” (though I hesitate to call scholars like James Delbourgo, one such scholar, “marginal”), I sympathize with the authors’ case.  There just isn’t that much good recent scholarship that American historians can readily incorporate into their work.

So, filling in the breach, we have popular history. The JAH focused on Gertrude Himmelfarb’s 2004 The Roads to Modernity, which cast the American Enlightenment as reasonable, moderate, and eminently successful. This stood in marked contrast to the bloody, topsy-turvy radicalism of the French Revolution. Written amid the second war in Iraq, Himmelfarb’s book, the authors’ argued, served as a self-justification of American power.

Earlier this fall, another popular history of the American Enlightenment came out that received far less attention. James MacGregor Burns, a political scientist by training and a former Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning biographer of FDR, released Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our World (New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2013). In a way, it plays the opposite political role Himmelfarb’s book did. Burns calls the Arab Spring the possible beginning of democracy in the Muslim World, their very own Enlightenment. It is less a justification of American power than it is a liberal, paternalistic view of democracy’s—and implicitly the West’s—essential goodness. His message seems to be that the West should sit back and watch as the Enlightenment bears its full flowers—democracy, secularism—in the sands of Syria. American historians should worry if this is what fills the gap as we shrug our shoulders at even the idea of an American Enlightenment.

Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our World, attempts to show how the Enlightenment emerged from a dark period in European history when religious superstition and ancient monarchs reigned. The Enlightenment’s alleged virtue—and ours—is implicitly validated in the way societies throughout the world today seem to be taking up its mission. In the Arab Spring, Burns tells us in the introduction, we are watching the Enlightenment’s battles being fought anew.

But what exactly was the Enlightenment? Historians continue to argue over the definition, but that’s no excuse for failing to provide one yourself—and Fire and Light never gives one. So we are left with a sprawling narrative covering three centuries, one that includes such disparate thinkers as Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, as well as Karl Marx. Absent a coherent definition to hold the narrative in place, whether you like Burns’ story largely depends on whether you like his heroes.

Burns focuses on key thinkers in Britain, France and America, beginning his account with Hobbes. In the mid-seventeenth century, a bloody civil war ravaged England, leading Hobbes to articulate the idea of a social contract. Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) became the basis for the idea that government should be premised not in divine sanction but in protecting its subjects. Hobbes was “no democrat,” Burns writes, approving of a king so long as he saved man from his “nasty, brutish” state in nature. Forty years later, Hobbes’ countrymen John Locke gave us a vision of governance that begins to look more recognizable. To be legitimate, a government had to recognize man’s fundamental right to life, liberty and property. Locke essentially told people that government must obey their demands, not only the other way around.

When Burns moves to France in the same period, he finds Rene Descartes. Descartes empowered individuals to rely on their own intellectual faculties. All men shared the ability to think for themselves, and through reason they could shield themselves from blindly accepting religious or civic authority. Though the Enlightenment is often characterized as a battle between religion and reason, many historians now recognize that that dichotomy is more myth than reality. Enlightened thinkers, especially Descartes, often tried to square deep religious convictions with a new faith in reason. Burns shows us Descartes attempting to rationalize his belief in God, but in the end, he simply writes this off as the nagging doubts of an earlier, less enlightened age. Burns cannot accept that God, if occasionally assaulted by radical thinkers like Spinoza, was more often rationalized into existence than refuted by rationality.

By the eighteenth century, Fire and Light crosses the Atlantic. In America, we meet those quintessential enlightened colonials, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Burns includes many wonderful vignettes, like the meeting of two aging lions, Franklin and Voltaire, at the Academy of Sciences in Paris. The American Enlightenment usually gets short shrift, but Burns, a Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, attempts to revive its place in the movement’s history. He rightly points out that, for most the century, educated Americans looked to Europe for guidance, and argues that colonial leaders made few contributions to Enlightenment thought. What they did do, he says, is try to put Enlightenment ideas into practice. During the American Revolution, colonials fought for Lockean notions of liberty, even if its Founders ultimately failed to implement them. After the war ended, millions of women, the poor and enslaved ended up exactly where they started: the Revolution’s “huge potential,” Burns writes, “went unrealized.”

Inspired by the Americans, the French tried their own revolution.  Burns asks why their revolution was so much bloodier, and so much longer, continuing deep into the nineteenth century. For Burns, a political scientist by training, the central answer he provides is leadership. The Reign of Terror began because radical Jacobin ideologues did not have the leadership qualities of enlightened statesmen like Jefferson and Madison. Unlike them, Robespierre was not a “transactional” leader, a concept Burns coined years ago, which basically means the ability to compromise. Yet compromise had a high price. Many enlightened thinkers rationalized slavery, and in the context of the American Constitution, slavery was bargained off for freedom. Burns points this out, but since his Enlightenment can do no wrong, he cannot acknowledge that these supposed tensions—between slavery and freedom, personal liberty and the common good—were mutually reinforcing strains of Enlightenment thought, not simply “contradictions” that rested uneasily within it.

Every historian struggles with when to end his narrative; Burns is no different. But by including much of the nineteenth century, he sets himself up with a challenge few would bother to take on. Capitalism and industrialization defined the century, and preceding century’s Enlightenment ideas—Adam Smith’s notion of free trade; the scientific method—undeniably set its foundations. But Burns fails to distinguish between what ideas have their roots in the Enlightenment, and what actually constitutes the Enlightenment itself. Lacking any coherent definition, even Karl Marx makes the cut: after all, Burns argues, wasn’t he also optimistic about social progress?, about the promise of education?, that economics could be a science? With abstractions like these, the Enlightenment can mean almost anything.

There is plenty to like in Burns’ tale. He offers illuminating sketches of people less well-known to the general public, like the proto-socialist radicals Robert Owen and Francois Marie Charles Fourier. Anticipating Marx, both men tried to counter the rising tide of individualism and rapacious self-interest that characterized the capitalist ethos. Seeing the masses of impoverished workers alienated from their homes and communities, these radical thinkers, educated on Locke, Hume and Rousseau, tried to re-direct attention back to the Enlightenment’s earlier concern for the collective good.

Despite Burns’ progressive spirit—no clearer than in his frequent attention to the poor—Fire and Light ultimately basks in a certain cultural smugness. Democracy, and all the principles upon which it’s based, are the West’s unique heritage. Anyone fighting against authoritarian regimes, be it capitalism or despotism, are now fighting for our cause. For Burns, the Arab Spring is a case in point. In truth the struggle against oppression is nothing unique to the West, and the battles in Aleppo and Cairo are certainly about much more than democracy. But by Burns’ logic, others can do all the fighting, but the West should get the credit. It is exactly this sense of superiority that the Enlightenment fortified in many of its thinkers that blinded them to their own destructive habits. Burns simply absorbs and perpetuates this attitude, blinded by all the fire and light.

9 responses

  1. “He rightly points out that, for most the century, educated Americans looked to Europe for guidance, and argues that colonial leaders made few contributions to Enlightenment thought. What they did do, he says, is try to put Enlightenment ideas into practice.”

    This is essentially the same argument that Henry Steele Commager first made in a 1972 essay entitled “America and the Enlightenment” and expanded upon in Empire of Reason in 1977. As someone who considers himself an intellectual and cultural historian of the colonial and revolutionary period, I am very much invested in the debate over the existence and character of an “American Enlightenment” as opposed to speaking of “the Enlightenment in America” and my work so far has addressed aspects of the American Enlightenment without taking it directly head on. Allow me to speculate a bit on how early Americanists might go about doing that…

    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. For me, 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 context. 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 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 in returning not only to the Great Awakening but to the broader conflicts and contests inherent in the colonies’ distinct brand of “competitive Protestantism.”

    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. Much like Margaret Jacob’s work in the European context, I believe the American Enlightenment was not just an intellectual phenomenon but a cultural one as well. And that aspect of it can be seen in the development of elite (and even, to a degree, middling) sociability as well as 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.

  2. Maybe it’s my academic pedigree (Commager), and my having worked on the notes for THE EMPIRE OF REASON, but I’m still fond of that book, and I still think that it is underrated and underappreciated. I was disappointed that the post on THE JUNTO did not take account of Robert A. Ferguson’s challenging THE AMERICAN ENLIGHTENMENT, 1750-1820, which was originally a chapter in the first volume of THE CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF AMERICAN LITERATURE and got published separately by Harvard in 1997. That said, I really liked Michael Hattem’s comment and his suggestions for new routes into the subject of the American Enlightenment.

  3. One other point to be made here is the absence of law in this story, despite the work of such legal and constitutional historians as William E. Nelson and John Phillip Reid. Reid in particular has sought to identify and explore a cultural value that he calls “law-mindedness,” and in his many books on the constitutional and legal history of the American Revolution he has made a strong and convincing case that, to understand the Revolution and its origins, we must pay attention to the constitutional and legal thinking of Americans and of their British opponents. One problem is that neither Reid nor Nelson addresses the interaction of law-mindedness with the Enlightenment, or with an American Enlightenment, though such historians as the late Daniel J. Boorstin and the still-living Wilfred Prest have done fine work on William Blackstone not just as a leading legal intellectual but as a thinker who brought the spirit of the Enlightenment to the study and expounding of law and constitutionalism.

    That said, perhaps we ought to be paying attention to the interaction between law and law-mindedness, on the one hand, and Enlightenment ideas (particularly the Enlightenment epistemology of synthesis and categorlization) as they appear in the constitutional and legal thought of such figures as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. In particular, Adams, as perhaps the most learned lawyer among the revolutionary cohort, wrestled with both law and constitutionalism and with Enlightenment habits of thinking. I’m working on some of these questions now, and if I come up with anything I’ll be sure to add it to the conversation.

  4. Eric, I thoroughly enjoyed your review of ”[Fire and Light]”. I must admit that I have not read the work, but am interested nonetheless in your conclusion that a sense of Enlightened superiority blinded Americans to their own shortcomings (read slavery). I was having a conversation the other day with a friend of mine who made a similar pronunciation about people who claim to be in favor of a “post-racial” society. Her argument was that people who see (or who wish to see) the United States as moving toward a culture where race plays no factor are really just disguising a disdain for cultural heterogeneity as “progressivism.”

    What are your thoughts on this? Thank you for the enlightening post. Pardon the pun.

    • a culture where race plays no factor are really just disguising a disdain for cultural heterogeneity as “progressivism”

      Please clarify.

      • a culture where race plays no factor are really just disguising a disdain for cultural heterogeneity as “progressivism”

        Please clarify, if you’re still around.

  5. I admit I’m not comfortable with the point of view implicit in “Democracy, and all the principles upon which it’s based, are the West’s unique heritage.”
    Democracy hasn’t worked out too well, strictly speaking, in many Western “democracies.” We need to be more reluctant to blandly praise ourselves for our democratic principles.

  6. I wonder if, as an intellectual exercise, the enlightenment an urban phenomena. It seem impossible to talk about European enlightenment without talking about the city it is occurring in. The ideas had to be discussed to grow and these discussion usually happen face to face in urban areas.

    With the exception of Philadelphia and Boston, the colonies were a little short on urban areas large enough to house a number of like minded individuals ready to talk about the concepts of the day. Not to take away form he southern planters but a group of them sitting around a dinner table seems to be likely to produce a more parochial discussion (maybe I’m showing my Northern bias), When you do examine Philadelphia, you get some of the groups (this blog’s namesake for example) and the American Philosophical Society that encouraged the discussion of current ideas. While these discussions may not have been primarily political, the enlightenment was as much about an expanding idea of science as about overtly political theory.

  7. Burns’s portrayal repeats a stale, tired view of the Enlightenment that fails to take into account the richness and complexity of recent scholarship on the Enlightenment–especially in Europe but also in America (e.g., James Delbourgo, Sarah Knott, Sarah Rivett, Ned Landsman, John Fea). There will be a special session on THE TRANSATLANTIC ENLIGHTENMENT IN AMERICA at the Organization of American Historians meeting in Atlantic in April 2014.


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