U.S. Intellectual History Blog

New Directions in the Study of the American Enlightenment

(Editor’s Note: This is the latest in Christopher Cameron’s series of Saturday guest posts. — Ben Alpers)

In their article recently published in the Journal of American History, Nathalie Caron and Naomi Wulf explore some of the historiographical trends in the scholarship on the American Enlightenment. Caron and Wulf, both of the University of Paris, begin by noting that few French scholars of early America study intellectual history, while few American intellectual historians study the Enlightenment. The reasons for this neglect are twofold, in their view. First, the adherence to Protestantism of most Americans has made it “inconvenient for scholars to examine the criticism of Christianity inherent in the epistemological project of the rationalist Enlightenment.”[1] While they do not mention it, this is seemingly true of early African American intellectual history as well, as most studies of black thought before the Civil War focus on some form of religious history. The second reason they give for the neglect of the American Enlightenment is that examining the European origins of the movement challenges ideas about American exceptionalism.

There have been a number of important new trends in the historiography. Where most scholars of this movement used to focus on political and religious figures, historians such as James Delbourgo are incorporating the history of science into their analyses. The radical nature of the Enlightenment has been amply demonstrated by scholars such as Margaret Jacob and Jonathan Israel, and the reemergence of Atlantic history in the mid-1990s has likewise reinvigorated the field. Despite these recent trends, however, what we see today is American scholars focusing on the European Enlightenment and a continued indifference to the American Enlightenment.

This is not to say there are not works being published that deal with the American Enlightenment, but they do so in a way that reinforced ideas of American exceptionalism and downplay the radical (and rationalist) Enlightenment in favor of a moderate one that emphasized political and religious liberty, but not social change. Gertrude Himmelfarb’s work is a case in point. Her 2004 book The Roads to Modernity distinguishes between the French, British, and American Enlightenments, primarily to differentiate the American Enlightenment’s emphasis on political liberty with the French Enlightenment’s focus on reason. According to Caron and Wulf, this neo-conservative interpretation is similar in nature to the work on consensus historians such as Daniel Boorstin, whose 1960 book American and the Image of Europe rejected the idea that there even was an American Enlightenment.

Other recent works that deal with the American Enlightenment downplay its philosophical and secular nature to focus on its religious aspects. Historians such as Leigh Eric Schmidt (Hearing Things), J. Rixey Ruffin (A Paradise of Reason), and Garry Wills (Head and Heart) have argued for the intimate tie between the Enlightenment and the rise of both liberal and evangelical traditions. More historians, including myself, are beginning to explore the relationship between the Enlightenment and freethought in the United States. As the authors note, however, many of these scholars do not “exhibit a willingness to conceptualize the Enlightenment or to participate directly in the vigorous historiographic debates about a radical Enlightenment.”[2]

So what does this conceptualization look like? For one, early American intellectual historians, instead of taking the Enlightenment as a given, can better question and theorize about the nature of the Enlightenment. When did it occur? How and by what means did the Enlightenment spread? What were the seminal texts in the American Enlightenment? How were those texts received? How did it impact groups such as African Americans and Native Americans, and in what ways did they contribute to its spread and growth? Outside of politics and religion, how did the Enlightenment shape American culture? And in what ways did radical European thinkers such as materialists and pantheists influence American thinkers? Addressing these and other questions, as well as divorcing the study of the Enlightenment from contemporary political and religious motives (as the “new atheists” fail to do) are some of the ways that we can forward the scholarship on this vital intellectual tradition.

Christopher Cameron is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His book on black abolitionists in Massachusetts is forthcoming from Kent State University Press, and he is currently working on two book projects—one exploring liberal theology in America before the Civil War, and another on black freethinkers from the mid-19th century to the present. He blogs regularly at professorcameron.com.

[1] Nathalie Caron and Naomi Wulf, “American Enlightenments: Continuity and Renewal” The Journal of American History 99 (2013): 1073.

[2] Ibid, 1087. Historians today who explore the tie between religion and the American Enlightenment are following the lead of Henry May, who did this same thing in his 1976 work The Enlightenment in America. May discusses his move from intellectual to religious history in an excellent collection of essays on both topics. See his Ideas, Faiths, Feelings: Essays on American Intellectual and Religious History, 1952-1982 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983).

18 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “few American intellectual historians study the Enlightenment”

    I presume this means the American Enlightenment, because plenty of American historians study the Enlightenment. This qualification is implied later on, but it’s not clear here.

    A few more points. First, I’ve never read Boorstin’s book but I have read Himmelfarb’s, so I’m skeptical the two are anything alike. Himmelfarb’s is a travesty. The idea that there was no American Enlightement (or Enlightenment in America) is risible, but I doubt Boorstin argues for it in the same polemical, cackhanded way Himmelfarb does.

    Second, Henry May’s book devoted considerable attention to the religious aspects of the Enlightenment in America, so as you note that’s hardly a new trend. Also, there’s a lot of recent work on the Enlightenment in Europe that is reading the religion back into it, so nor is that trend confined to American historiography.

    Third, one recent book that does emphasize the secular and philosophical side of things is Darren Staloff’s book Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson. But that book I think is rare in its approach (intellectual history) and subject matter (the Enlightenment in America). I remember when I was writing the America chapter for my dissertation being struck by the paucity of work on the American Enlightenment. So I certainly agree that it is a subject fertile for a lot more cultivation.

    Oh, one last thing. Far from diminishing American exceptionalism, focusing on the Enlightenment would I think reinforce the idea, since it’s always been my impression that the Enlightenment is one of the chief sources for that much-controverted notion. As for the “radical Enlightenment,” we’ll save that can of worms for another day.

    • Whoa, fellas.

      Himmelfarb is correct in my view, and at least arguable before being summarily dismissed. For those who came in late:


      The “American” Enlightenment was largely the Scottish Common Sense Enlightenment of Thomas Reid and Francis Hutcheson, disseminated by Rev. John Witherspoon at the College of New Jersey/Princeton and James Wilson, both signers of the Declaration and the latter a major framer of the Constitution as well.

      [Wilson was an actual Scottish emigre, and perhaps the best-read mind of the Founding era.]

      The SCSE was friendly to religion, and they believed in an innate moral sense, which made it friendly to traditional natural law theory as well. Even though Locke and others are of arguable congeniality to the SCSE, they were received by the Founding era that way. When Locke hides behind the skirts of “the judicious” Anglican Rev. Richard Hooker, a Thomist, he was taken to be agreeing, not subtly differing.

      As we see from Alexander Hamilton’s The Farmer Refuted, the new thought of the “Enlightenment” was all part of the natural law and natural rights tradition that had been developing for centuries.

      Apply yourself, without delay, to the study of the law of nature. I would recommend to your perusal, Grotius, Puffendorf, Locke, Montesquieu, and Burlemaqui. I might mention other excellent writers on this subject; but if you attend, diligently, to these, you will not require any others.

      There is so strong a similitude between your political principles and those maintained by Mr. Hobb[e]s, that, in judging from them, a person might very easily mistake you for a disciple of his. His opinion was, exactly, coincident with yours, relative to man in a state of nature. He held, as you do, that he was, then, perfectly free from all restraint of law and government. Moral obligation, according to him, is derived from the introduction of civil society; and there is no virtue, but what is purely artificial, the mere contrivance of politicians, for the maintenance of social intercourse. But the reason he run into this absurd and impious doctrine, was, that he disbelieved the existence of an intelligent superintending principle, who is the governor, and will be the final judge of the universe…

      [Hugo Grotius, of course, safely “Protestantized” the natural law work of the Jesuit Scholastic Francisco Suarez; and as we see, the next worst thing to Papism was to be called a Hobbesian.]

      I would think the argument that America didn’t have an Enlightenment is to argue it was a halfway house to modernity, and America just hopped right it come the 19th century. Re free-thinking, Christopher, even Jefferson wasn’t one, and Franklin said once “”Atheism is unknown there; Infidelity rare and secret; so that persons may live to a great age in that country without having their piety shocked by meeting with either an Atheist or an Infidel.”

      This isn’t to say that free-thinking didn’t promptly jumpstart in the 1800s, it did. But by then, the Enlightenment of Hume and Voltaire, having never enjoyed much purchase on American shores, was already becoming obsolete.

  2. Tom, have you read Himmelfarb’s book? It’s dismissed because it’s a tendentious screed masquerading as an attempt to “rescue” the British and American Enlightenments from association with those horrible French. Whatever it is, an attempt to grapple with the Enlightenment and analyze it as an intellectual movement and historical phenomenon it is not. Mostly it serves as proof that conservatives can write propaganda in the guise of history just as well – or is that just as poorly? – as all those raving lefties they love to rail against. Serious scholarship it ain’t, nor should it ever be confused for such.

  3. Too many pejoratives, Brother Varad. Travesty. Risible. Cackhanded. Passive voice—“It is dismissed.” “Propaganda.”

    Argue your point. Himmelfarb argued hers and it jibes with my own reading of the Founding era for reasons given.

  4. “Argue your point. Himmelfarb argued hers and it jibes with my own reading of the Founding era for reasons given.”

    Don’t say you didn’t ask for it!

    1) The polemical aspect is clearest in her claim that the moralistic, humanitarian facets of the British Enlightenment are most obviously manifested today by the “compassionate conservatism” embraced by certain politicians who she does not name. There’s rather a long line to draw from David Hume to George Bush, and the only way you can do it is by claiming that after two centuries what was once radical (and there’s no way to argue that David Hume and Adam Smith weren’t radical) has become so widely absorbed as to become domesticated, an anodyne consensus to which everyone must make mandatory ritual gestures.

    2) Himmelfarb tries to read Burke into the British Enlightenment, which is a dubious proposition at best. Moreover, she complains about the Gallic bias in popular and even scholarly images of the Enlightenment without once acknowledging that Burke himself is largely responsible for this image because of his denunciations of French Enlightenment thinkers in the Reflections. Himmelfarb rehearses Burke’s move without delving into his motives for making it. One of those was to repudiate those of his countrymen who welcomed the French Revolution.

    3) Himmelfarb has a tough time dealing with radicals like Price and Priestley. Practically they were a beleagured, isolated minority. Hence it’s easy to say they represented a cul-de-sac in British Enlightenment thought. Yet at the same time isolating them like this allows one to say that political and religious radicalism were dead ends without dealing at all with any affinities that may have existed between them and their more moderate brethren. Smith and Hume weren’t political radicals in the usual sense, but you can’t really talk about them without contemplating the latent radicalism of their thought. Hume’s philosophy got him into plenty of trouble for its subersive potential, and Smith was well aware that his “very violent attack” upon it sounded the death knell for “the whole commercial system of Great Britain.” Smith overthrew a couple of centuries of economic – and, really, political – thinking. That may not be as viscerally radical as some Dissenting free thinker, but it’s still radical.

    4) By putting the likes of Price and Priestley out of the mainstream of the British Enlightenment she eliminates one of the areas of commonality between the British and French. Priestley was one of the most articulate English champions of the idea of progress, an idea first crystallized by Turgot and given its canonical form by his student Condorcet. Belief in progress has long been considered one of the defining traits of the Enlightenment, so in this sense you could say Priestley was closer to the mainstream of the Enlightenment than his fellows.

    5) Himmelfarb, in stressing the moderate nature of the British Enlightenment, either ignores or overlooks a larger political debate which was going on in Britain in the eighteenth century. This was a debate about the relationship of society and individual, ably analyzed by Peter Miller in Defining the Common Good, in which the exigencies of empire and the growing demands for religious toleration eroded the post-Reformation settlement and overthrew the millennia old consensus that there could be a common good which should take priority over the aspirations and desires of the individual. You don’t have to agree with Miller’s conclusion that Kant is the logical culmination of this movement to concur that the axes of British society were reoriented by the end of eighteenth century in order to accommodate the growing demands for religious and personal autonomy. But acknowledging that would mean acknowleding that Britain wasn’t immune to the political and religious turbulence of France and America.

    6) Himmelfarb completely ignores most of the scholarship on the Enlightenment to emerge after, say, 1985. She mentions Robert Darnton, but as far as I can discern, he’s the most recent historian she names. There’s been a lot of work done on the Enlightenment, some of which if she’d utilized would have illuminated connections and commonalities between the various Enlightenments. For example, if she’d looked at any of the work on the public sphere and sociability she’d have seen that Britain and France (and the US, and Germany, too) participated in a common process of increasing literacy and the emergence and maturation of new social and cultural forms (coffee houses, lending libraries, academies, newspapers, museums, concerts, etc.) which created a new cultural space – the so-called public sphere – which mediated between political power and private individuals and transformed their relationship to each other. Those regimes which were able to navigate this transformation flourished; those which didn’t (read: France) had problems. I’ve always felt the public sphere/public opinion stuff to be a bit overstated, but there’s no denying it represented a genuine alteration in our understanding of the Enlightenment. Himmelfarb pays it no heed whatever. A great book which does is Tim Blanning’s The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture.

    7) Himmelfarb rightly presents Peter Gay’s now four-decade-old synthesis as embodying the traditional, gallocentric view of the Enlightenment. Yet it’s no less true that it is not a Frenchman that Gay anoints as the “complete modern pagan,” but the Scotsman David Hume. So even if Gay believed that the French defined the type, he picked Hume as its living avatar. Gay believed in the unity of the Enlightenment, which Himmelfarb clearly does not (and cannot). But you don’t have to to see that Gay’s interpretation isn’t quite as partial as she makes it seem.

    8) Himmelfarb notes that the French credited Bacon, Newton, and Locke as their inspirations, but does not incorporate this insight into her cursory discussion of the French Enlightenment. She starts by talking about the Encyclopédie but does not acknowledge that that project begain as a translation of an English work. Nor does she mention that both Voltaire and Montesquieu spent several years in England in the 1720s (they never overlapped), visits which had considerable, if not decisive, impacts on their thinking. (The evidence is more obvious for Voltaire, since we can read it in his Lettres philosophiques).

    9) Himmelfarb’s treatment of the French is next to useless. In the space of forty pages she goes from the Encyclopédie to the French Revolution while paying brief pit stops to cast aspersions on their devotion to “reason,” their views on religion, and their supposed disdain for the masses. You know you’re in for a rough – and partisan – ride when the first thing you encounter is Tocqueville’s old canard that the philosophes wrote in abstractions because they had no practical experience of politics. That misnomer was exploded five decades ago by Peter Gay in his book on Voltaire’s Politics yet Himmelfarb still treats it as gospel. Turgot was prime minister of France. Prime minister! If that’s not practical political experience, I don’t know what is. She holds it as a source of dishonor that so many of the philosophes championed enlightened despotism (a controversial concept that more than a few scholars will tell you never existed) without really examining why they did so. Sure they sometimes come across as sycophants kowtowing to power, but generally they embraced enlightened despotism on the grounds that it was the surest and quickest path to implementing the reforms that eighteenth-century Europe needed. And anyone who thinks they were simple apologists for power needs to read Diderot’s denunciations of empire in Raynal’s Histoire des deux Indes.

    10) Himmelfarb’s treatment of the American Revolution is equally brief, but she is on somewhat firmer ground here. I’ll certainly credit her for admitting the Constitution and Federalist are modern documents. But I think she goes astray when she posits virtue as either a goal or an inspiration for either. I’m firmly on the side of those scholars who argue that the Revolution vindicated a conception of politics in which virtue was sidelined because there was no longer a way to enforce a conception of the common good against the community. Not through political institutions, anyway. Overall, like her treatment of France, her treatment of America is simply too brief and narrow to convey and real sense of what was going on.

    11) This is clearest in her treatment of religion. Clearly she thinks it is a sign of their superiority that the British and Americans embraced religion (we’ll just ignore Hume, Priestley, et al.) while the French attacked it so vehemently. But there was a reason for this, and it has as much to do with politics as with religion. In Britain the Reformation stuck, so even though there was an established church toleration and religious pluralism had been gradually spreading, especially after the Restoration. There was much more space for dissent and nonconformity (though far from perfect liberty) in Britain and America. France, on the other hand, had an established church which was a pillar of the throne (or was it the other way around?). The philosophes attacked Catholicism not only on religious grounds (which hardly distinguished them from Protetant antipopery) but also because of its overweening political role in France. They had good reasons to do so, given there was no official religious toleration in France and given the overwhelming social and cultural influence, along with its political influence, of the Church. You get no sense of this whatsoever from Himmelfarb, though she does pay some lip service to different circumstances in Britain and France. Nor do you get a sense that there was anything else going on in France: Voltaire’s popularization of Newtown, Diderot’s championing of cultural difference and pluralism, physiocracy, Condillac’s senstionalism, and so forth.

    12) I’m still waiting for her to explain just what she means by modernity, and whether the different roads of her title lead to the same destination or not.

    I’ll stop there. Now I’ll ask again: Have you read her book? Himmelfarb is not making an argument about the Founding era alone, but about the Scottish Enlightenment, the French Enlightenment, the American Enlightenment, and really the Enlightenment proper. It either all hangs together or it doesn’t. I say it doesn’t. There are lots of excellent books that cover these subjects. Himmelfarb’s simply isn’t one of them. There are plenty of reasons scholars of the Enlightenment ignore her book, most of them of her own making, the rest because they can get the same thing in better form elsewhere. It’s fine if you think her reading jibes with yours. My only response to that is to wonder if you’d still think so after you read everything she leaves out.

    • I was speaking of the Enlightenment in America, which is remarkably Hume- and Voltaireless. As for Priestley and Price, Jefferson liked the latter, Adams thought he shorted Christianity and refused to set foot in his church; Price was a friend to the Revolution, but Benjamin Rush advised him to ix-nay the Trinity-ay talk, as it was too radical for American audiences. They were more interested in his thoughts on the revolution and on education.

      I will agree that the French revolution sank into savagery and madness because it lacked the meliorating middle step of the Reformation in rejecting Papism.

      Himmelfarb is not making an argument about the Founding era alone, but about the Scottish Enlightenment, the French Enlightenment, the American Enlightenment, and really the Enlightenment proper. It either all hangs together or it doesn’t.

      But there are different Enlightenments, esp viewed through American eyes. For the sake of comity, I’ll stipulate your objections about this or that, but I disagree with your “all or nothing” position, because the American Enlightenment, such as it was, owed as much or more to traditions and currents already in put in play during the English civil wars. John Locke didn’t just drop in from Mars one day in the 17th century to save us from sin and error pining. As John Adams wrote of the work of Calvinist clergyman “John Ponet [d. 1556], the “essential principles of liberty, which were afterward dilated on by Sidney and Locke“ were in the air for a century.

      As for the neo-con part of Himmelfarb’s argument, it’s already obsolete. Still, I should have anticipated its radioactivity.

      I do thank you for your detailed rebuttal. Cheers.

  5. I have to say I agree with Varad on most of his criticisms of Himmelfarb. To be honest, as someone whose work is concerned with the American Enlightenment (yes, I am not afraid to use that term, even without quotes), I’ve read Himmelfarb but I don’t generally consider her part of the historiographical discussion, for a number of the reasons Varad mentioned. Her neo-conservative screed is beyond presentist and that combined with her lack of engagement with (then-)recent literature (rightly or wrongly) makes it hard for me to take seriously as a work of scholarship.

    On the American Enlightenment, I agree with Ben and Varad. When I started working on it (as an undergraduate studying with Darren Staloff actually), I too was struck (and continue to be struck) by the paucity of work on the topic. Forty years later and there has been nothing to replace Henry May’s synthetic treatment. I have been encouraged by the recent work by Delbourgo and Gronim as well as John Dixon, but these works are just starting to broaden the scope.

    For far too long, the American Enlightenment or (more cautiously) the Enlightenment in America had been thought of in terms of political practice. This perspective was encapsulated by Henry Steele Commager in the early 1970s, i.e., the Europeans thought the Enlightenment while the Americans actually put it into practice. But thinking of the Enlightenment in solely intellectual or political terms misses the cultural contexts in which it occurred. My own work has explored conflict between competing conceptions of enlightenment in late colonial America and it seems to me that what is missing is a better understanding of the broader cultural ramifications of Enlightenment thought in pre-revolutionary America and of the ways in which colonists did not just adopt Enlightenment thought wholesale but sculpted or changed it to fit their own unique social, cultural, intellectual, and political contexts. If we were able to get a better grip on those two aspects, it might go a long way toward better understanding what was “American” about the American Enlightenment.

  6. Michael, good call about Commager. I’d forgotten about him. I have not read his book, but I reckon one of these days I ought. It gets overlooked, but Peter Gay is himself in the “Europeans thought the Enlightenment while the Americans actually put it into practice” camp. The last part of his second volume is called “Finale: The Program in Practice” and is about, you guessed it, the American Revolution. Personally, I find much to recommend in this view, but that is hardly the only way to read the relationship of America to the Enlightenment, not least because American history didn’t start in 1776 (or ’75 if you prefer).

    One additional point about Himmelfarb is that a lot of her interpretation is based on the unspoken desire to rescue the American Revolution from the clutches of the French Revolution by claiming that if the Enlightenment produced both Revolutions, then you can account for their varying fortunes by positing two different Enlightenments. This is the old business about the American Revolution not being really revolutionary because it didn’t have the guillotine. But most historians of the French Revolution don’t buy the simplistic view that the Revolution simply sprang fully formed from Rousseau or Voltaire’s head (the famous Hugo line about the Revolution: c’est la faute a Voltaire, c’est la faute a Rousseau). For Himmelfarb, there’s the Enlightenment, then the Revolution, as though there was nothing between or around them.

    And it’s not like she overlooks only “(then-)recent” scholarship. Peter Gay explored at considerable length the profound practical endeavors of the philosophes forty years ago. The idea that they were slaves to some abstract conception of reason is completely untenable. They certainly believed in reason, but as the motivating force for the esprit systematique they believed had to be applied to the whole of society. You can make a compelling case that the British and American Enlightenments were inspired by this same spirit. But if you did that, you’d have a much harder time convincing anyone of their supposed antithetical natures.

  7. Tom,

    None of that’s in her book, though. Not as far as I could tell. That’s why I wondered if you’ve read it. As for the American Enlightenment being Hume-less (or is that Heimlos?), Hume was always seen as one of the chief influences on Madison. This started with Doug Adair and continues to the present day.

    That said, the Scottish influence on the American Enlightenment/Revolution has always been controversial, with people like Ronald Hamowy disputing the interpretation offered by Garry Wills and others about the nature and extent of Scottish influence.

    At any rate, I think we should separate the nature and origins of the American Enlightenment from Himmelfarb’s interpretation thereof. The two aren’t the same. I don’t think Himmelfarb really is interested in in the former. She does spend fewer than forty pages on it, after all. Whatever was going on, we’re not going to find much evidence for it either way in Himmelfarb.

    She doesn’t talk about Pufendorf, Grotius, natural law, or anything like that. You offer a lineage for American Enlightenment thought that’s not even on her radar. That’s the problem with her book. She offers little in the way of corroboration and substantiation of her views. Hence, I think we need to separate her from her subject. She’s not really defending your view of the American Enlightenment because she talks little about what you’ve mentioned in your posts. She’s making a rhetorical move to vindicate one conception of the Enlightenment against others. But there are better ways to do this (e.g., Roy Porter, John Pocock). Himmelfarb’s book isn’t lousy scholarship because of her views of the Enlightenment, it’s lousy scholarship because of how she arrives at those views (which isn’t always clear) and how she justifies them (which justifications aren’t always clearly integrated into her interpretation). It’s just not a very good book, and you can I think hold to something like her view of the American (and the British) Enlightenment and still find it so.

  8. Thank you, Varad. I still don’t find your objections fatal, although I’m willing to stipulate them as far as they go. The French and American Revolutions indeed differed in kind and not just degree. Himmelfarb, despite your very good objections, hangs in there where more orthodox authorities fail: I cannot agree that the slaughter of 100,000+ in the Vendee could have happened in revolutionary America. [Especially the part about binding men, women and children together naked and throwing them in the river.] There was a different smell in the air.

    As for Madison reading Hume, how the nuts and bolts of the structure of government get equal play with the Founding principle of divinely endowed natural rights is beyond me. Madison copied the idea for a senate from Charles Carroll and Maryland. That’s nice, but doesn’t make the idea Catholic.

    And, on the other hand, we have Jefferson’s distaste for Hume’s History of Britain, to the point of banning it from its University of Virginia. Such are the perils of focusing on the Big 5 or the Big 6 of the Founding.

    Again, thank you for your detailed objections, especially to sections that I haven’t seen covered in reviews. She is correct only where she agrees with me. 😉


    I figured if Bill Kristol’s mother could escape the guillotine of the Guardian, there’s something viable in there, and I believe there is. But henceforth, I shall indeed separate the author from her subject.

  9. “Thank you, Varad. I still don’t find your objections fatal, although I’m willing to stipulate them as far as they go. The French and American Revolutions indeed differed in kind and not just degree. Himmelfarb, despite your very good objections, hangs in there where more orthodox authorities fail: I cannot agree that the slaughter of 100,000+ in the Vendee could have happened in revolutionary America. [Especially the part about binding men, women and children together naked and throwing them in the river.] There was a different smell in the air.”

    I’m not sure where I argued that something like the Vendee was possible in revolutionary America. I’m not sure anyone thinks that. That said, I think your general point about the difference between the Revolutions is valid. But you’d never really understand from Himmelfarb why that is. She doesn’t even rehearse the standard revisionist account from the 1980s that the Terror was inherent in the Revolution from the outset because the ideological trajectory was placed the the tracks of a unitary conception of sovereignty in which the absolutism of monarchy was translated into the absolutism of the people, a move which vitiated the prospects for a bicameral legislature and a strong veto for the king. A standard statement of that sort is made by Keith Baker in Inventing the French Revolution. One may disagree or agree, but either way one must explain why.

    I agree that the American and French Revolutions were different. But not all those differences were genetic. 1789 didn’t lead straight to 1793. It took a historical process to get there, one involving foreign invasion and a civil war, to name two trials the Americans were fortunate never to face. It’s possible to say that the Terror was where it was going to wind up, with Sieyes’ rhetoric about the Third Estate being the nation and everything outside the Third Estate being outside the nation writ large. Plenty of “orthodox” historians have made the same case – no one’s more “orthodox” than Furet. So on that score I’ll have to disagree that Himmelfarb hangs in there where “more orthodox authorities fail.” Far from it, she’s the one who fails because she recapitulates the claims of those authorities without either assessing those claims or why those authorities made them in the first place.

    Yes, there was a lot more bloodshed in the French than the American Revolution. But that’s not what made them different. That again is the problem with Himmelfarb. She’s not really trying to understand the French Enlightenment or the Revolution except to the extent that they can be compared to the British or American and differentiated from them. But they must be taken on their own terms. And she’s not really interested in the Revolution except for a few cursory pages where she can say, see, this is what unlimited reason sort of maybe leads to, with anticlericalism and regeneration and the like. It’s all innuendo, implication, and insinuation. The reader presuably knows the horror story aspects of the French Revolution. She just needs to drop a few invidious hints and the reader can draw their own conclusions.

    There’s no normative form of revolution, you can’t go around making judgments that this revolution was better and this was worse. They were different, and some of that difference produced evil. But the historian starts not with the evil, but with the difference. Otherwise you are left arguing that a fish is worse than a marmoset because it has gills. It surely is on land, but what about in the water?

    Criticizing the American Revolution for not being the French is wrong, but it’s no less wrong to congratulate it for the same reason. And vice versa. After all, if the best we can say about the American Revolution is that it didn’t result in the massacre of untold thousands, that’s damning it with something less than faint praise.

    • Oh, I think it’s fine praise by the standards of the era. We should not wave away the guillotine or the Vendee.

      I find not a lot to disagree about with you here, absent reading and defending Himmelfarb’s book, which rather seems a waste of energy for multiple reasons. Not a hill I want to climb, let alone die on. On your recommendation, I started reading Roy Porter’s “English Enlightenment” book, where he sniffs at Pocock and punks “neo-con” JCD Clark, who for that reason alone already sounds more juicy than Ms. Himmelfarb.


      [Although the contours of their theses jibe if I follow correctly, that Clark has England rather skipping the Enlightenment as well, jumping headlong into modernity ~1828. Plus, they’re both “neo-cons,” which upsets some people to no end.

      This book is offered as a breach of the historiographical peace, not as an obituary of its subject: as an attempt to stimulate a new debate, not as an attempt to bring an old debate to an end by a precise and definitive statement.

      What’s not to like? Thx again for a nourishing discussion.

      Devilishly yrs,

  10. Clark’s not a neo-con, he’s an apologist for Thatcherism. Now that’s fine for a contemporary political perspective, but it can lead to all sorts of perversities of historical interpretation if you’re not careful (as can and have other political agendas). Anyway, Clark modified a lot of the more strident claims in the second edition of his book, a large portion of which I’ve leafed through. Most historians disagree with Clark’s interpretation, but they take it seriously because it’s clear he did his homework. That’s the difference between him and Himmelfarb. That’s a shame about Himmelfarb, because she’s quite good when she does hers, as, for example, in her fine intellectual history of Victorian attitudes towards the poor, The Idea of Poverty. That’s a solid work of scholarship and a well written one, too. I’ll speak nought ill of it.

    As for Clark, his overall goal is to re-envision post-Restoration England as an old regime dominated by an integrated church and political structure united by a social elite still organized aong patriarchal lines. You can certainly do this, and he does give a rather interesting gloss to English history in this period. But Clark’s broader claim that this was all there is a lot harder to swallow. You have to ignore Dissent, non-conformity, radicalism, the spread of literacy and political opposition, the financial revolution, industrialization, the growth of the empire, and a whole host of other phenomena to be able to persist in the conception of England as an old regime that lasted until 1832.

    Peter Laslett’s suggestion in the last edition of The World We Have Lost that the theoretical underpinnings of a society can persist long after its structural supports have begun eroding seems to me one of the more useful criticisms of Clark’s approach. Sure, there may have been pockets of English society which adhered to high Anglicanism and divine right. But the rest of society was going right on along paying them not even the honor of ignoring them. And his portrait of the collapse of the English old regime really can’t bear scrutiny, but that’s not my area of expertise at all.

    Porter is certainly right in criticizing Clark for ignoring the Enlightenment (and if you admit it happened in England Clark’s thesis gets a large hole in it). But that hardly makes him a neo-conservative. That merely testifies to the uselessness of that term. I think that’s been hashed out on this blog. At any rate, you’re certainly better off reading Pocock, Porter, and Clark than Himmelfarb, at least on the Enlightenment.

    • FTR, it was Roy Porter who called JCD Clark a neo-con.



      Varad, I appreciate the time you’ve taken on this, certainly your thoughts on Himmelfarb were an onion just waiting to be peeled back. Still I think there’s something missing in what is now the orthodox history of the Enlightenment a deus ex machina against superstition, tyranny and needless to say the combination of them both, Papism–as though we went directly from the Dark Ages to our current sunny modernity.

      And I won’t die on Clark’s hill either–I just found it delightful he annoys the purveyors of the prevailing narrative so much. My interest in Britain ends right where his picks up, in 1688, the Glorious Revolution, which I see as the theologico-political dry run for the American revolution. What is often credited to “Enlightenment” I see as an inevitable consequence of the Reformation–in fact to close the circle on Christopher Cameron’s own interest, 16th century Michael Sevetus’ inevitable questioning of the Trinity eventually becomes “free-thinking” in the 19th. [The Puritans become the Congregationalists, whose churches are finally taken over by the 1850s by Theodore Parker, Ralph Waldo Emerson, etc. in the name of “unitarianism.” Between then and now, even theism becomes optional. In the early 1800s, William Wilberforce called unitarianism a halfway house to “infidelity.” He was quite right, as it turns out.]

      So we could call it enlightenment, or we can simply call it Protestantism. And we’ve only touched on “Calvinist resistance theory,” which started the first English civil war, and was vastly overrepresented in the American revolution. [” Cousin America has run away with a Presbyterian parson!”–Walpole]

      As for what Britain thought of her own Enlightenment, I cannot say. Roy Porter sees one, but allows that it wasn’t a “movement”–it was too disparate. However, through American eyes, I think there’s a huge gulf between who was in and who was out. For instance, Locke is in, but understood as a Christian thinker*. As for the English, I admit I don’t know what they thought. He published the Two Treatises anonymously [just in case the Glorious revolution didn’t take], and died shortly thereafter.

      “I am equally far from believing that Mr. Locke was a friend to infidelity. But yet it is unquestionable, that the writings of Mr. Locke have facilitated the progress, and have given strength to the effects of scepticism.

      The high reputation, which he deservedly acquired for his enlightened attachment to the mild and tolerating doctrines of christianity, secured to him the esteem and confidence of those, who were its friends. The same high and deserved reputation inspired others of very different views and characters, with a design to avail themselves of its splendour, and, by that means, to diffuse a fascinating kind of lustre over their own tenets of a dark and sable hue. The consequence has been, that the writings of Mr. Locke, one of the most able, most sincere, and most amiable assertors of christianity and true philosophy, have been perverted to purposes, which he would have deprecated and prevented, had he discovered or foreseen them.”–James Wilson

      Mine are admittedly American eyes. This could account for what appear to be our disagreements, merely that the Enlightenment looks quite different an ocean away.

  11. Tom,

    Locke didn’t die until 1704, so he lived a fair bit after he published the Two Treatises. By the time he died, it was well known that he was the author and he was celebrated for it.

    As for Clark, I didn’t mean to imply it was you calling him a neo-con, if that’s how it came across. Maybe “neo-con” means something different in the UK than it does in the US, because I don’t see how Clark can be described as a neo-con. Of course, I don’t know his politics beyond his book, and that’s much more old-con than neo.

    The genealogy of the Enlightenment has always been a thorny question, and you’ll never get the same answer out of any two historians of the Enlightenment. You’re right that it owes a lot to Protestantism, or more generally the Reformation. But I don’t think you can get right from the Reformation to the Enlightement without a lot of the stuff that happened in the seventeenth century: the Scientific Revolution, the continued and accelerated exposure to foreign cultures, the new philosophies, and the like. A really good book (though quite old) on this is Paul Hazard’s La Crise de la conscience européenne. A new edition of it is about to be published. It’ll take you a little while to get used to the style, but it’s a marvelous read once you are. http://www.amazon.com/The-Crisis-European-Mind-1680-1715/dp/1590176197/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1365428827&sr=8-1&keywords=paul+hazard

    As for the American Enlightenment, I agree it is different, not least because it’s an ocean away. I think though that the commonalities of the movement are more important than the differences. But that’s just me. The trend now for scholars of the Enlightenment in Europe is to look at the place of religion and argue that the traditional view of mutual hostility is overstated. So perhaps here too America will once again serve as an example to Europe.

    • Absolutely, Varad–it’s a live issue, which is cool. My home blog is devoted to it: at the moment we’re on Bolingbroke, whose theology is as close to Jefferson’s as you might find.

      The live question is whether their age belonged to such men, or as JCD Clark must surely argue, to those like Dr Johnson:

      “Hume, and other sceptical innovators, are vain men, and will gratify themselves at any expence. Truth will not afford sufficient food to their vanity; so they have betaken themselves to errour. Truth, Sir, is a cow which will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull.”

      Now, we know that in the long term Hume has won; Dr Johnson rates barely a mention these days while the bull-milkers are lionized. The only question now is one of forensic journalism–which set of ideas best captured the spirit of their age?

      “Who now reads Bolingbroke? Who ever read him through?”—Edmund Burke, 1790

  12. An awful lot of the debate about the American Enlightenment comes down to what one means by “the Enlightenment.” For Peter Gay, Daniel Boorstin (The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson being the key text), Gertrude Himmelfarb, and probably Caron and Wulf, the Enlightenment was a largely Parisian episode beginning with Voltaire and ending (some of them would say) in the Reign of Terror (or possibly the October Revolution).

    While all of these people are very good on certain topics, their opinions on the American Enlightenment are … dubious.

    These are not the historians to start with in considering the American Enlightenment; and Wills and Commager also take narrow views. Begin with Henry May, a highly intelligent, very careful historian who actually focused on this specific topic.

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