Book Review

What is Enlightenment?

Caroline Winterer, American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason (Yale University Press, 2016)

Book Review by Lilian Calles Barger.

Here is a podcast conversation with Caroline Winterer hosted by Lilian Calles Barger.

Caroline Winterer’s latest book, American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason looks among eighteenth-century Americans for multiple answers to Immanuel Kant’s famous question: What is enlightenment? For centuries, enlightenment had a religious meaning of the soul awakening to divine light; however, by the 1700s it came to mean using reason and empirical evidence as guides and exchanging tradition and divine revelation for a humanistic and historical view of the world. The aim was nothing short of the pursuit of happiness, an idea connected to communal wellbeing and largely lost to us today. Winterer’s insightful book gives us a glimpse into how Americans, as the “first prophets of tomorrow,” thought of enlightenment—both what it meant and how to achieve it (2).

Drawing from an abundance of epistolary and printed sources, Winterer demonstrates British Americans’ participation in the republic of letters and how it contributed to their own and the transatlantic understanding of enlightenment. In a historiographical intervention, she notes, “the late nineteenth century paved the way for the invention of ‘The Enlightenment’ as a concrete era in the eighteenth century. From an eighteenth-century question emerged a twentieth-century declaration… the American Enlightenment” (254). american-enlightenmentsWinterer challenges the mid-twentieth-century “Cold War” conceptualization and the “invention” of an “American Enlightenment” as being largely an appropriation of European ideas. Henry F. May’s The Enlightenment in America (1976), Donald Meyer’s The Democratic Enlightenment (1976), and Henry Steele Commager’s The Empire of Reason (1977), all proponents of the “diffusion paradigm,” continue to frame our historical thinking, which elided America’s distinct contribution.

The notion of an “American Enlightenment,” Winterer argues, darkens our view of how Americans in the eighteenth century actually viewed enlightenment. The language of enlightenment was ubiquitous among the educated and elite and applied to a broad range of endeavors. Winterer’s samplings of a fruitful field of inquiry left me wanting more; however, what she offers is nevertheless rich. She demonstrates how notions of enlightenment, with the accompanying new scientific and political ideas of the day, were shaped by the experience of encountering and responding to Indians, the expansion of slavery as a permanent institution, and Americans’ interest in applying political economy, the new “science of human flourishing,” in which enlightened farmers could harness the laws of nature for social happiness (198). A religious people pursuing enlightenment represented a move away from belief in human depravity to the possibility of inherent goodness, natural religion based in nature and reason, and the proliferation and toleration of diverse religious opinion.  Winterer illustrates how virtually every area of life, uncertain yet hopeful Americans sought to define and apply enlightened ideas.

Enlightenment in America was set on a global stage of scientific and intellectual exchange. Winterer argues that we need to see the New World as influencing Europeans as much as European currents in social theory, moral philosophy, and political economy influenced Americans. The Americas offered a vast array of unknown natural wonders, unexpected peoples, an abundance of commodities, and the possibility of starting the world anew. Seeking a place in “Ye Learned World,” British Americans contributed to knowledge by collecting and sending specimens to European scientists looking to construct a grand cosmological history and a universal theory of origins out of local particularities (26). They enthusiastically joined literary, philosophical, and scientific societies and engaged in a transatlantic exchange of scientific information through travel, private libraries, and a deluge of correspondence with both European and Spanish American thinkers.

The terrain of Appalachia, and the rock-embedded seashells found there, offered an American contribution to the new science of geology. Geological formations and specimens raised questions about the origins and age of the earth and began to erode the ideas of Genesis and the biblical flood. The land surveyor William Byrd II and Puritan minister Cotton Mather, among others, corresponded with European scientists and philosophers and sought to reconcile God’s omnipotence with the quest to find nature’s laws. Mather’s The Christian Philosopher (1721) is an apt example of these efforts. As Americans and Europeans began to turn away from the idea of divine initiative in nature, the new secular histories of the earth described a series of cataclysmic changes called geological “revolutions.” Here, Winterer suggests a link between the revolutions in geology and political revolutions. Participation in geological science allowed the New World’s integration into a global natural history, giving it significance among European thinkers. Another effect of geological speculation, Winterer notes, was epistemological; the question of causality introduced doubt into a previously understood divine moral purpose for creation.

Even as geology unsettled theistic teleology, encounters with indigenous people raised the possibility of enlightenment and civilization in the Americas. European thinkers argued that the Americas were degenerated continents in which the cold and damp environment was inhospitable to the development of civilization. British and Spanish Americans joined forces in defense of the possibility of enlightenment by turning to ancient indigenous civilizations as examples. Pre-Columbian Aztec artifacts and the Mexican historian Francisco Saverio Clavigero’s widely distributed Ancient History of Mexico (1780–1781) became important sources for argument against European insults. Evidence of a complex Aztec civilization showed the use of reason in mathematics, astronomy, and forms of writing. The ancient Mexicans captured the imagination of educated people in the new republic, and in comparison, the contemporary Indians of North America were seen as barbaric and lacking the capacity for civilization, thus forming the basic justification of Western expansion.

Curious of where Indians fit into the new republic Americans participated in the emerging statistical “science” of population, in which the Indians were seen as a group with particular characteristics. Thomas Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) argued that a brutish life of constant war and hunting would inevitably lead to extinction of the American Indian. The polymath Congregationalist minister Ezra Stiles, who coined the term Indian population; Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1787); and the Lewis and Clark expedition were deeply engaged in counting, charting, and forecasting the Indian population. Settled agriculture and increased density offered the prospects of managing the population and bringing the savage to commercial civilization, producing both enlightenment and “quantum happiness” (111). We need not go far, as Winterer points out, to anticipate the Indian removal policies that were to come.

In contrast to European theories and the slave trade, Americans asserted their empirical knowledge of the institution and slaves they studied. Large plantations found throughout the Americas, not Europe, were a source of data fueling the international slavery debate. For some, an enlightened future meant the abolition of slavery; for others, it meant gradual emancipation or colonization. Under the emerging race science, slavery was viewed as “enlightened philanthropy” (170). Winterer argues that the study of slavery resulted in a variety of “enlightened” positions and “the idea that only freedom and racial equality accorded with the ‘meaning of America’ as a promised land was the invention of scholars of the mid-twentieth century” (170).

In its singularity, the founders cast the United States as a human-centered secular project calling for a broad circulation of enlightened knowledge and allowing free people to discern the differences between tyranny and liberty. Rejecting the authority of “royal enlightenment” claimed by Englishmen, the new “kingless” republic contributed to the transnational debate over whether self-government could endure (226). Winterer argues that the idea of a people free of a monarch and aristocracy was both a partly tested proposition and a “fable” spread through a “massive propaganda campaign” (228). In the new enlightened republic, the impulse toward privilege and patronage remained.

Today, we can view Enlightenment thinkers either as those “concocting a rationalist regime of classification and control that led to the greatest collective tragedies of the twentieth century” or as the “architects of universal human rights and a cosmopolitan frame of mind that have led to some of the greatest achievements for human justice in the history of the world” (253). Winterer’s evidence offers fodder for both positions. Her subjects appear as eternal optimists against the continual experience of death by disease and childbirth and a merciless frontier leaving me to wonder how such hope was sustained.  Regardless what we conclude about these first believers in progress and the repercussions of their enlightenment she deftly brings our attention to what eighteenth-century Americans thought they were doing as they sought enlightenment in the pursuit of happiness. By offering their thought within a transnational conversation and a fresh hemispheric context, Winterer has expands the view and adds local particularity, allowing us to see the diversity of “American enlightenments.”

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this review.

    I think ‘the pursuit of happiness’ is usually seen, at least by non-historians, as an individualistic idea (and the context of its mention in the Decl. of Independence seems to suggest as much), so I was struck by the reference to it as having been “connected to communal well-being.” Is this something the book elaborates on or is it just mentioned in passing at the beginning?

    • p.s. At any rate, if the pursuit of happiness was communal, the boundaries of the community were obviously drawn to exclude slaves, Indians (interesting to hear what Malthus said about them, btw), and probably some others as well.

  2. Thank you Louis, Winterer touches on the pursuit of happiness as having three aspects communal, personal, and life beyond death. The communal aspect has been largerly left behind. She also talks about it in the podcast linked above.

  3. I am commenting on your article “Remembering the Black Panther Party”. In the work you mention that “the group was torn apart by conflicts between Newton and Cleaver”. I had been taught that the Party’s demise had more to do with state repression rather than what you refer to as ‘infighting’.
    Actually, what you call infighting can more logically be defined as a thorough and open discussion of potential policy directions for the Party.
    It upset me to see such weak analysis in an otherwise worthwhile work.

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