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. Continue reading