Friday, December 20, 2013

Is There a Lack of Scholarship on the American Enlightenment?

Eric Herschtal, in his review of James MacGregor Burns's Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our World, laments the lack of "good recent scholarship" on the Enlightenment "that American historians can readily incorporate into their work."

I respectfully disagree.  Although there have not been many general overviews of the Enlightenment in America since the publication of Henry May's The Enlightenment in America, the last two decades have seen some excellent reassessments of the Enlightenment in America.  Here are some:

Ned Landsman, From Colonials to Provincials: American Thought and Culture, 1680-1760.  This is in the most accessible treatment of the Enlightenment in America I have ever read and I am not just saying this because Ned was my doctoral adviser.

Robert Ferguson, The American Enlightenment, 1750-1820.  Another very accessible survey.

Richard D. Brown, Knowledge is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America

Nina Reid Maroney, Philadelphia's Enlightenment, 1740-1800: Kingdom of Christ, Empire of Reason.

Mark A. Noll, Princeton and the Republic, 1767-1822: The Search for a Christian Enlightenment in the Era of Samuel Stanhope Smith

Alan Houston, Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement

The essays in Richard Sher and Jeffrey Smitten, ed., Scotland and America in the Age of the Enlightenment

James Delbourgo, A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early Amercia.  (Herschtal does mention this book).

Richard Bushman, The Refinement of America.  Most would not say this is a book about the Enlightenment.  Though Bushman never uses the "E" word, I think this book is all about the social world of the Enlightenment.

Michael Winship, Seers of God: Puritan Providentialism in the Restoration and Early Enlightenment

Douglas Anderson, The Radical Enlightenments of Benjamin Franklin

Jose Torre, Enlightenment in America, 1720-1825

David Jaffee, "The Village Enlightenment in New England," 1760-1820," William and Mary Quarterly (July 1990), 327-346

Steven Bullock, Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 1730-1840

John Corrigan, The Prism of Piety: The Catholick Congregational Clergy at the Beginning of the Enlightenment

Mark Spencer, David Hume and Eighteenth-Century America

And dare I add, John Fea, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.

1 comment:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Unfortunately, except in the hands of the most discerning, the term "Enlightenment" suggests reason's triumph over [religious] "superstition."

In the culture wars, "Enlightenment" is more a cudgel than a lantern.

For as Gertrude Himmelfarb argues, whose Enlightenment?

Most historians have accepted for several years now that the Enlightenment, once popularly characterized as the Age of Reason, came in two versions, the radical and the skeptical. The former is now generally identified with France, the latter with Scotland. It has also been acknowledged that the anti-clericalism that obsessed the French philosophes was not reciprocated in Britain or America. Indeed, in both these countries many Enlightenment concepts—human rights, liberty, equality, tolerance, science, progress—complemented rather than opposed church thinking.

Himmelfarb has joined this revisionist process and accelerated its pace dramatically. She argues that, central though many mid-eighteenth-century Scots were to the movement, there were also so many original English contributors that a more accurate term than Scottish would be British Enlightenment.

Moreover, unlike the French who elevated reason to the primary role in human affairs, British thinkers gave reason a secondary, instrumental role. In Britain it was virtue that trumped all other qualities. This was not personal virtue but the “social virtues”—compassion, benevolence, sympathy—which the British philosophers believed naturally, instinctively, and habitually bound people to one another. In the abstract, this difference might seem merely one of degree but, as it worked itself out in the subsequent history of the Continent and the British Isles, it was profound.

In making her case, Himmelfarb defines the British Enlightenment in terms that some might find surprising. She includes people who in the past have usually been labeled part of the Counter-Enlightenment, especially John Wesley and Edmund Burke. She assigns prominent roles to the social movements of Methodism and Evangelical philanthropy. Despite the fact that the American colonies rebelled from Britain to found a republic, Himmelfarb demonstrates how very close they were to the British Enlightenment and how distant from French republicans.

These differences have remained to this day, and over much the same issues. On the one hand, in France, the ideology of reason challenged not only religion and the church but all the institutions dependent upon them. Reason was inherently subversive. On the other hand, British moral philosophy was reformist rather than radical, respectful of both the past and present, even while looking forward to a more enlightened future. It was optimistic and had no quarrel with religion, which was why, in both Britain and the United States, the church itself could become a principal source for the spread of enlightened ideas.