Caroline Winterer is Professor of History at Stanford University. This interview is based on her new book, American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write American Enlightenments?
CW: It’s been 40 years—40 years!— since a major book on the American Enlightenment was published. That was Henry May’s The Enlightenment in America (1976), which arrived with the United States bicentennial. While May’s book has many virtues, it was becoming clear to me—and to my students—that we need a wholly new reassessment of the American Enlightenment, one that assesses it from our vantage point of 2016.
My book shows that the concept of a unitary, patriotic “American Enlightenment” was invented during the Cold War era as an ideological shield against the totalitarian threat. The myth-makers came from a broad swath of American society: they were journalists, historians, artists, and politicians. Among the most influential was the historian Adrienne Koch, who published the first book ever to be titled The American Enlightenment (1965). Koch singled out what she called the “Big Five” founders—John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison—for embodying what she called the “vision” and “spirit” that still undergirded the “free society” and “democratic civilization” of twentieth-century America. For Koch, the political drama of the American Revolution formed the center of this new, mythical era she was calling the American Enlightenment. She argued publicly that Enlightenment ideals remained of the utmost relevance in the mid-twentieth century. We should appreciate our American Enlightenment, she seemed to say, the way we appreciate vaccines and other modern wonders that protect us from very bad things like viruses and communists.
By the era of the American bicentennial, theory had congealed into fact. In 1976 and 1977, no fewer than three books appeared that confidently assured readers that there had been an American Enlightenment, and, moreover, that it was most clearly embodied—in fact it was realized—during the political struggles of the American Revolution.
These bicentennial books also popularized a second feature of the myth of the “American Enlightenment”: diffusionism. The diffusionist theory of the American Enlightenment held that its major ideas were hatched in Europe, especially in France, in the minds of airy philosophers like Voltaire. These abstract ideas had then traveled like immigrants to America, where they were forged into real, hard facts by pragmatic American revolutionaries. As the historian Henry Steele Commager put it in his book The Empire of Reason (1977), the Old World “imagined, invented, and formulated” the Enlightenment; the New World “realized it and fulfilled it.”
As a result of the books, magazines, and images created by these mid-twentieth-century opinion makers, we all assume today that there was a discrete golden era in the American national past called the “American Enlightenment,” and that its most brilliant flower was the American Revolution. The American Revolution-centered American Enlightenment gives a satisfying, triumphal narrative trajectory to the history of ideas in the United States. It soothes our fears that compared to Europe we’re a little weak in the Big Idea department. Europeans may have Newton, Voltaire, Kant, and Spinoza, but Americans have an American Enlightenment that realized the inspiring but ultimately abstract promises of the European Enlightenment.
We should care about this modern myth because this triumphal, nationalistic, and politicized narrative of an American Enlightenment obscures the reality of the eighteenth century by holding people in the eighteenth century to our own modern standards of what counts as enlightenment. If we listen to the voices of eighteenth-century Americans themselves, we discover that never talked about something so grand and triumphal as the “American Enlightenment,” a shining bauble of national greatness whose truths shine forth undimmed today. Instead, they talked about their elusive, never-completed quest to become “enlightened” (small e).
What did it mean to be “enlightened” in eighteenth-century America? Two things mainly. First, people who hoped to become enlightened believed that human reason rather than superstition and biblical revelation would help them to understand the world around them. Second, they believed that instead of getting worse, as the Bible narrative of the fall from Eden announced, human societies were in fact constantly getting better. These eighteenth-century people were the first people in the history of the world to believe that human reason would lead to what they called progress.
But here’s they takeaway. None of these Americans thought that enlightenment had ever been achieved: it was a constant process, ongoing, upward, never ending. Where we see an era, an admirable thing that is already done, the people who lived in the eighteenth century saw a process, never completed because human reason was always fallible. They were never sure exactly whether enlightenment had been achieved; there was always room for improvement. They were the most hopeful and optimistic people in the history of the world, but also highly uncertain and questioning about their own abilities to achieve perfection.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Enlightenments?
CW: Overturning out cherished assumptions about the “American Enlightenment”—in particular its links to modern American nationalism and its alleged diffusion from European salons—this book shows that enlightenment was instead an international conversation that emerged in part because of the new questions, context, and problems generated by the New World. Stripping away our modern mystifications of the national past, American Enlightenments explores the many and fascinating pathways—through science, politics, art, religion, and economics—by which eighteenth-century Americans strove for an elusive state they called “enlightenment.”
JF: Why do we need to read American Enlightenments?
CW: To better understand our national legacy. The legacy of enlightenment for Americans is not so much of providing definitive answers and being sure about the rightness of our political ideals, as the narrative of a grand “American Enlightenment” proposes. Instead the legacy of enlightenment in America is of asking important questions about our world–about nature, society, and government—and of being modest about our abilities to agree on what is true and good for Americans and for others. It seems to me that this is a more useful version of enlightenment for Americans today than a dusty mausoleum of self-evident truths. I’ve written a recent article in Aeon magazine about how the founders were actually much more uncertain (in a good way) than we give them credit for.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CW: I first had to give up my dream of being a paleontologist, which is what I’d wanted to be since I was about 5. I took a bunch of terrific medieval history courses at Pomona College (thanks Professor Kenneth Wolf!) and my eyes were opened to the wonders of distant times (even if not quite so distant as the Jurassic). I think of myself as a late medieval or early modern European historian who happens to work in the New World context. I’m very interested in how people in the period roughly 1400-1800 made sense of their world. How did they think about rocks, trees, plants, society, politics, literature, art—basically everything? I like re-creating the mental worlds of people who lived a long time ago. It’s like traveling to another planet.
JF: What is your next project?
CW: While the little grey cells recharge, I’m focusing on directing the Stanford Humanities Center.
JF: Thanks, Caroline!