Here at American Creation we explore the roots of the American experiment in ordered liberty. Most of the time, our explorations focus on the religious roots of our nation. But when the United States was created as an independent republic, religion was not the sole intellectual force shaping the views of many of the most active Patriots who sought freedom from the British crown. In addition to the various forms of Christianity (including theistic rationalism) that percolated through American life during the Revolutionary and early Republic periods, Enlightenment philosophy also played a large part in shaping public discourse and debate surrounding both American independence and the shape of our republican (with a small-r) institutions once independence was won.
Just as there were multiple Christianities in play at the time of the American founding, so too within the Western world there were multiple Enlightenments, each different in scope and purpose. Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb has detailed the diversity within the Enlightenment project in her book The Roads to Modernity; The British, French, and American Enlightenments (Knopf: 2005, $25.00 hardback). In this book she presents a study of the similarities and the critical differences between the various national manifestations of Enlightenment philosophy. Far from being a unified movement with a set of consistent ideological points, the Enlightenment was a varied and in many instances contradictory movement that took starkly different forms in the Anglo-American and European continental worlds. Himmelfarb's book is a very clear and cogently written account of just how and why these two schools of Enlightenment thought went off on radically different tangents.
Himmelfarb structures her book around the basic thesis that each of the Enlightenments manifested a drive towards a different aspect of rationalist thinking about the nature of society and the role of government in ensuring the common good. The British Enlightenment, in her view, was based on the very pressing need for social reform within the British Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. The French Enlightenment emphasized the role of reason as an abstract and ideological concept, leveling institutions within France and in the broader European world in a revolt against tradition, custom and prescription. The American Enlightenment took place within the context of a culture that sought to foster and expand traditional liberties through a politics that was at once both moralist and realist in its understanding of human flourishing. It is the diversity behind each Enlightenment that explains the diversity in paths that each society took into the modern world.
Himmelfarb gives pride of place and treatment to the British Enlightenment, a not surprising approach given that her primary field as a historian is British intellectual history. As she notes in her prologue, she sees the British Enlightenment as setting the stage for the French and American Enlightenments, both of which built on the accomplishments of British thinkers. The key distinctive component of the British Enlightenment, as she explains, is the idea of virtue. Rather than abstract reason, the British Enlightenment focused on instilling virtue, and not just personal virtue but first and foremost social virtue. Reason for the British had an instrumental role, as Himmelfarb explains, serving the propagation of virtue within the population. Once this point is understood, the full panoply of the British Enlightenment can be seen -- and movements and persons often seen as outside of the Enlightenment tradition (such as religious reformer John Wesley & the early Methodists, or Whig statesman and grandfather of modern conservatism Edmund Burke) come into focus as pivotal players in the British Enlightenment project.
Himmelfarb explores the role of reformist religion in the British Enlightenment in great detail, noting how both traditional religion in Britain and new movements like the Methodists both worked to try to reinforce the virtues of compassion and fellow-feeling, of charity and sentiment. This emphasis on the key role of social virtue in the British Enlightenment was not limited to churchmen -- David Hume and Adam Smith both believed in a sentimental moral sense that united all human beings, a moral sense that was not necessarily irrational but which was independent of reason as well. Himmelfarb goes into great detail explaining how the emphasis on moral sense and virtue played out in the works of Burke and other reformers within the British system. For anyone interested in understanding the vital role that religion played in 18th century British society, her chapter on Methodism is alone worth the price of the book.
The portions of the book that discuss the French and American Enlightenments are considerably shorter and lack the punch and vitality of the larger section of the book dealing with the British Enlightenment. This is unfortunate, because Himmelfarb's analysis of the French Enlightenment tends to follow a more conventional narrative than her truly enlightening (pun intended) discussion of the British Enlightenment. Unlike the British, who viewed moral sentiment and social virtue as forces independent of reason, the French fell into the trap of assigning to abstract reason the blade-edge of an ideology of revolution and violence. Chop, chop fell traditional institutions, moral intuitions and ultimately human heads.
Himmelfarb's discussion of the American Enlightenment focuses on its distinctive quality: a focus on political liberty that built off of, rather than opposed, the religious values and institutions of colonial and early republican America. As she observes, "[t]he abiding strength and influence of religion was such that even those who were not themselves believers respected not only the religious beliefs of others but the idea of religion itself." While the Americans worked to prevent a national established church after independence, the government was supportive of voluntary religious expression and action. Church and state might be separate, but such separation "did not signify the separation of church and society." In fact, as Himmelfarb observes, religion was strengthened within society because it did not have to rely on direct and overt government support. Throughout American colonial and early republican history, religion was linked to freedom, and as such thrived in the environment of the American Enlightenment, with its emphasis on ordered liberty. Far from being an enemy of Enlightenment values like science and reason, religion in America was webbed through with the Enlightenment, from Cotton Mather through the advent of American learned societies under John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.
The picture of the Enlightenment in America is far from perfect, as Himmelfarb takes pains to point out. While religion and the Enlightenment were closely connected, there was little embrace within America as a whole for people on the margins of society, notably the poor, Indians and African-Americans. The poor were often seen as purposefully indolent, lazy louts in a nation were land was for the taking on the frontier just beyond the boundaries of the settlements furthest west. Indians, as Himmelfarb details, were thought little better than savages, fit only to be educated for assimilation. Founders like John Jay raised their voices against the treatment of native Americans by settlers, warning that the whites were on their way to a far deeper savagery than that found in the native American communities. Such warnings largely went unheeded.
As with the Indians, America also wrestled with the problem of its enslaved African-American population. As with the Indians, both economic and social interests mixed with racism to complicate the relationship between the dominant population and the marginalized slaves. White supremacy polluted efforts to move towards emancipation, and concerns about the economic ramifications of emancipation kept many abolitionists quiet. When the Quakers brought forth a petition calling on Congress to move towards the abolition of slavery, the only major Founder to publicly support the effort was an aging and ailing Benjamin Franklin. Even as ardent an abolitionist as Alexander Hamilton did not move forward because of concerns about how such a proposal would impact the finances of the young American Republic. James Madison refused to support it because he was, as Himmelfarb delicately puts it, "ambivalent about slavery itself."
Most surprising of all when it comes to slavery is Jefferson -- the man who next to Franklin often is seen as the paragon of the American Enlightenment. Jefferson, the man who wrote so eloquently about the natural rights of man to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, was steadfastly opposed to any plan for immediate emancipation, favoring instead a plan for the ethnic cleansing of American-Americans from the United States. Jefferson called for colonies of freed slaves to be established far from the United States, because the two races, white and black, could never in Jefferson's view be able to co-exist with each other in social peace. Madison was such an enthusiast for this plan that he called not only for this plan to be applied to slaves of African ancestry, but all blacks in the United States. Even freemen were to be expelled from the land of their birth. Himmelfarb provides a brief discussion regarding how this contradiction in the American Enlightenment, of freedom for some but not all, would only be resolved through Lincoln's work during the Civil War.
Himmelfarb's book is an insightful and detailed look at the three Enlightenments that took place within western civilization in the 18th and early 19th centuries. As she notes in her epilogue to the book, the British, French and American Enlightenments are still with us -- that much of our political, legal and social cultures are still shaped by the fundamental values and priorities and weaknesses of each of the different Enlightenments. While other ideas are present in our public lives, modernity itself was brought about by the three Enlightenments and their effects. As she writes at the very end of her book, "We are, in fact, still floundering in the verities and fallacies, the assumptions and convictions, about human nature, society, and the polity that exercised the British moral philosophers, the French philosophes, and the American Founders." Indeed we are. Indeed we are.