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