Reflections on "The State of the Field: The Trans-Atlantic Enlightenment"

As a student of the Enlightenment in America who has written a bit on the subject, and as a student of Ned Landsman (who, sadly, was not mentioned in this session–he should have been), I was excited to attend the OAH session: “State of the Field: The Trans-Atlantic Enlightenment in America.”  I appreciate Rosemarie Zagarri’s efforts to bring a wide-ranging group of scholars–Sarah Knott, Jason Opal, Joyce Chaplin, Jose Torre, and Michael Meranze–together to discuss and define this important movement in American intellectual and cultural life.  (I also appreciate Zagarri’s passionate defense of “The Enlightenment” as a useful category for historians).

One thing I liked about this session was its free-wheeling style.  The panelists did not make formal presentations.  Zagarri proposed questions and the panelists answered them and argued with each other about their answers.  The audience was actively involved.  It was a model roundtable.  I wish more academic panels were like this.

Several themes emerged from the discussion.

Very early in the session Sarah Knott asked if it was time for a full-blown synthesis of the Enlightenment in America.  The panel had mixed feelings about this.  Someone invoked Henry May’s magisterial The Enlightenment in America.  Chaplin dismissed May.  She said that his classic study was too focused on intellectual and “top-down” history.  (At one point Chaplin said that no one who writes intellectual history should expect to win any of the “big prizes” in the field.  Interesting.  What about George Marsden (Bancroft) and Louis Menand (Pulitzer)?  When I tweeted this my feed erupted with the names of other prize-winning intellectual historians [and not just Merle Curti Prize winners].  I am sure the good folks at US Intellectual History would be happy to know this). Meranze defended May’s book, claiming that it made an effort to take Enlightenment studies beyond the high European Enlightenment of Peter Gay and others.  I would agree.  The Enlightenment in America is still worth reading and digesting.

Toward the end of the session there was a question from a historian of the Scottish Enlightenment who asked if there were big themes in the American Enlightenment equivalent to the ideas of “virtue” and “sociabilty” that have long dominated discussions of the movement in Scotland.  Chaplin said that slavery should be a major theme in any such synthesis.  Later a very interesting discussion emerged on the Enlightenment and the environment.  Other panelists balked at the question.  Jose Torre gave the best answer, suggesting that the concept of the “natural” may be a useful way to organize such a study.

Midway through the session, in response to an audience question, the panel entered into the tangled web of trying to define “The Enlightenment.”  Several panelists made an attemot, but I really liked Jason Opal’s definition: “The Enlightenment is all about making life less miserable.”  As some of my readers know, I also took a shot at defining the movement in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America:

1.  The Enlightenment was about self-improvement
2.  Enlightened people were able to employ reason as a necessary check to the individual passions
3.  The Enlightenment taught that passions needed to be directed away from local concerns and toward a universal love of the human race.
4.  The Enlightenment always existed in compromise with the deeply held faith of the American people.

I think this definition is flexible enough to be applied to a host of social, cultural, and intellectual history.  I was a bit disappointed that there was no discussion on this last point–the relationship between religion and the Enlightenment.  Few of the panelists seemed ready or prepared to address this issue and many of them did not seem to know how to handle a question from the floor about the relationship between church and state in the early republic.

I was also disappointed that more was not said about the various ways in which the Enlightenment intersected with the cultural and social world of the eighteenth-century.  Landsman’s groundbreaking work was not mentioned.  Neither was the work of David Jaffee.  And what about the rural Enlightenment? Some panelists implied that American historians had not done a good job of connecting the Enlightenment to local communities and places in early America.  I left a bit baffled on this front.

Finally, there was a brief discussion about teaching the Enlightenment.  One audience member wanted to know how to bring the best Enlightenment scholarship to her students.  (I tried to make some suggestions on this front a few years ago in a “Teaching the JAH” feature).  Chaplin didn’t seem to think that anyone taught the American Enlightenment anymore.  She asked the audience members to raise their hands if any of them taught it or even had a section on it in their syllabus.  A lot of hands went up.  I think many were puzzled by the question.

I do not think the “State of the Field” was fully represented during this session, but it was stimulating nonetheless.