The Relevance of the Enlightenment (#AHA19)


John Locke

We are thrilled to have Megan Jones, a history teacher at The Pingry School in Martinsville, New Jersey, writing for us this weekend from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago.  Here is her first dispatch.  –JF

I’ve been to a number of academic or educational conferences at this point, although not too many AHA conferences. The AHA was always something to be dreaded as a grad student, because attendance meant you were probably on the job market and had to contend with the “cattle call” of the job fair. I’m fortunate to be past that phase now, with a job as a history teacher at an independent secondary school. So now I feel more comfortable attending the AHA and truly taking advantage of the fact that one can hear about the state of a plethora of fields at this national conference. Also, as a high school teacher who currently only teaches surveys, I’m hoping that I can actually learn something about fields with which I have no/little knowledge. It’s with that spirit that I came to Chicago and chose the panels I did and will attend.

This afternoon, I attended a roundtable entitled “Continuing Relevance of the Enlightenment,” with Jennifer Pitts (Chicago), Holly Brewer (Maryland), Pamela Edwards (Yale), Jonathan Israel (Princeton), and James T. Kloppenberg (Harvard). Glad I did, because not only do I teach about the Enlightenment in some fashion in all of my American, European, or World history survey courses but I also have absolutely no knowledge about the historiography of the Enlightenment. The conversation that emerged from this roundtable was a good primer for me, who has not had the time to absorb the literature about the Enlightenment. One of the important through-lines that cropped up was the focus on religious beliefs and religious conflict as important context for the Enlightenment and for today.

Holly Brewer opened her remarks by stating that she is sympathetic to a number of criticisms that many currently have about the Enlightenment and its thinkers (namely about race and slavery), but that we should not “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” to use the same cliché she did. [Note: Jamelle Bouie wrote a very good piece about the “dark side” of the Enlightenment for Slate in June, which I recommended to my colleagues in the summer and which Jonathan Israel also mentioned today as a good example of such criticism.] Brewer encouraged “subtlety and not simplicity” when it comes to discussions about the Enlightenment, and that we need to recognize that the past is complex and imperfect (as is the present, obviously). She discussed her research on John Locke and his analysis of St. Paul’s letters, which garnered significant attention upon its publication. In Brewer’s talk, she pointed out that Locke’s analysis of St. Paul’s commentary on governmental authority in Romans 13 and slavery in Ephesians 6 illustrated many of the major debates of the Enlightenment period. She connected this focus on religious criticism in the Enlightenment to the modern day by mentioning that the White House hosts Bible study sessions, and that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13 at one of these gatherings. Apparently, President Donald J. Trump sees himself in Isaiah 45, with its focus on God’s pledge to “subdue nations before him.” [this is my chosen quote, I don’t actually know what segment of Isaiah 45 Trump supposedly referenced]. Brewer’s comments implied that historians today need to focus more on the religious aspects of the Enlightenment critique of society, given the effect of religious conflict and religious belief on society today (both in the United States and at the global level). In her view, the role of religion in shaping the Enlightenment epoch has been forgotten, but that facet is in fact very relevant to this particular contemporary context.

I wish Prof. Brewer had a chance to talk more so I could hear her expand upon her comments regarding religious context, in part because I’d like to hear her discuss the place of other religious beliefs in today’s world versus that of the Enlightenment (in which writers critiqued Christianity, not other religions – that I know of). How does the struggle within Islam today affect our world differently than did the struggle within Christianity in the 16th and 17th centuries? Where does Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Confucianism in general fit into this picture? Is the Enlightenment relevant to adherents of these faiths, if it is a product of a majority Christian culture? I think yes, obviously, because the Enlightenment focus on reason and empiricism can be applied to anything – although we must remember that the movement itself was a product of its time and place. A product of a largely Christian Europe torn apart. So, perhaps, a movement that was a product of a particular time and place cannot have direct relevance to another time and place with an vastly different constituency….maybe it is not the context that is really relevant, but in fact the habits of mind that the Enlightenment encouraged.

I’ll end with a comment that Prof. Israel made in response to an audience member’s question about periodization of the Enlightenment. He pointed out that it was first an era, and then a process. We are still engaged with the process of implementing the ideals of the Enlightenment, namely equality. I’m all for that. And now, I have a better understanding of the Enlightenment and what many of the heavyweights have to say about it.

Thanks, Megan!

The Author’s Corner with Jonathan Clark

ClarkJonathan Clark is Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas. This interview is based on his new book, Thomas Paine: Britain, America, and France in the Age of Enlightenment and Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Thomas Paine?

JC: Chance, the most important agent in human affairs. I was invited to write a brief essay to accompany the recent Yale UP edition of Paine’s selected works. I thought this would be easy, since I had read, and taught, Paine for many years. But as a preparation, I decided to read through Paine’s entire printed output. As I read, I reluctantly concluded that I had not understood Paine at all … and that nobody else had. I finished the essay, but I wrote a book as well.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Thomas Paine?

JC: Paine is one of those famous figures who have been heavily mythologized, turned into ‘usable’ versions of themselves to answer the needs of later movements. The book argues that the ‘historic’ Paine was, to use a metaphor, more the inheritor of an old house than the architect of a new one; a man of his age, not the inspired prophet of a future modernity; and that this argument, if justified, calls in question the construction of ‘modernity’ itself.

JF: Why do we need to read Thomas Paine?

JC: Reinterpreting Paine allows us better to understand a wide variety of causes and issues of which recent historiography treats him as a privileged interpreter, including the American and French Revolutions, the nature of the societies they launched, reforming and revolutionary movements, and the current hegemony of natural rights discourse.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? (Of if you are not an American history, how did you get interested in the study of the past?)

JC: I am not an American historian; I am an historian of Anglo-America, a shared transatlantic culture in the eighteenth century. I contend that there was little, and perhaps nothing, that was specifically American about the causes of the American Revolution.

JF: What is your next project?

JC: A history of the Enlightenment. It will show how this famous movement was devised as a series of genealogies, projected back onto the past to provide justification for a series of twentieth-century crusades.

JF: Thanks, Jonathan.

The Author’s Corner with Jonathan Israel

k11080Jonathan Israel is Professor Emeritus of Modern European History in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.   This interview is based on his new book, The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World (1775-1850) (Princeton, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Expanding Blaze?

JI: I was chiefly motivated by the conviction that the historiography of the American Revolution had grown somewhat too parochial. The great body of literature on the topic that we have now is deeply concerned with America but not with the humanity and the world, for both of which the American Revolution seems to me to have been decisive. The place of the American Revolution in the wider revolutionary age (1775-1848) needed better defining, it seemed , and so did its relationship to the ‘The Radical Enlightenment’, a topic American historians – at any rate since Henry May, one of the first coiners of the term- still appear peculiarly reluctant to discuss.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Expanding Blaze?

JI: The book’s argument is that the American Revolution was the spark that created the expanding blaze that transformed the Western world by setting the basic model – democratic republicanism versus aristocratic republicanism- which shaped the early stages of the French Revolution (before Robespierre’s tyranny) and all the revolutionary movements of the Western world between 1782 (Geneva) and 1848. The key argument is that democratic versus aristocratic republicanism defines the inner logic of the American Revolution, and Radical Enlightenment versus ‘moderate Enlightenment’provides the ideological format, the ideas, that justify the two warring sides within the American Revolution.

JF: Why do we need to read The Expanding Blaze?

JI: The book is needed to help better situate the American Revolution than has been done in its world historical context and especially in its general Enlightenment context.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JI: I am not an ‘American Historian’ but a historian of the Enlightenment. I see the American Revolution as a fundamental chapter in the history of world enlightenment.

JF: What is your next project?

JI: My next project is write a short book on the transatlantic origins of the modern Jewish revolutionary consciousness.

JF: Thanks, Jonathan!

The Author’s Corner with Gideon Mailer

John Witherspoon.jpgGideon Mailer is Associate Professor of History at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. This interview is based on his new book, John Witherspooon’s American Revolution:  Enlightenment and Religion from the Creation of Britain to the Founding of the United States  (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write John Witherspoon’s American Revolution

GM: Since my undergraduate days, I have always been interested in the links between Anglo-Scottish unionism and the formation of American religious, intellectual, and constitutional identity. I first came across Witherspoon in undergraduate work on religion in colonial America. I had just been working on New England religious foundations for a previous module. I had read much about the “Puritan Origins of the American Self” (I was a big Bercovitch fan!). Yet I found out that the only clergyman to sign the American Declaration of Independence was a Scottish Presbyterian; not a New England Congregationalist or a Virginia Anglican.

Fast-forward a decade, to a four-year postdoctoral research fellowship at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and an Assistant Professorship at University of Minnesota, Duluth: Witherspoon continued to provide a rich case study to explore the wider intellectual, religious, and constitutional framework of the American Revolution. After all, he fought on behalf of Britain against Jacobite rebels in 1745, yet only a few decades later supported the American revolutionary cause against that same British state.

As I soon realized, a lot of what we have come to call “The American Enlightenment” – the consolidation of rational thought and a growing trust in individual moral perception – has been linked to Witherspoon’s influence after his arrival in America. Having left Scotland, he is said to have brought aspects of the Scottish Enlightenment to America. Yet I was intrigued by the associated paradox: how could an evangelical theologian, focused on sin and damnation, have inspired Enlightenment ideals in America? And how could a religious proponent of Anglo-Scottish unionism help to inspire American revolutionary ideology?

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of John Witherspoon’s American Revolution?

GM: The book questions whether the United States could have been founded according to Enlightenment principles – notions of innate sympathy, rationality, and ethical discernment – even while those principles accompanied the onset of rebellion and the chaotic disintegration of an empire. Tracing the wider meaning of Witherspoon’s move from Scotland to America, the book uncovers the broader constitutional and civic contexts that framed Witherspoon’s use of moral sense reasoning, but which also afforded him an opportunity to critique its role in religious and political discourse.

JF: Why do we need to read John Witherspoon’s American Revolution?

The book is useful, I hope, in its attempt to integrate the political and religious influences of the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England on subsequent American history. It traces the tension between the Scottish Enlightenment and Protestant evangelicalism and the place of that tension in the developing philosophies of American independence and American constitutionalism. That America’s founding incorporated potentially contradictory philosophical ideas is important to note – and perhaps explains a lot about subsequent history! More broadly, the book contributes to an expanding field on the role of Presbyterianism in the political theology of the American Revolution and the subsequent founding.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

GM: I was one of the last cohort to study for the old style “A-Levels” at school in the UK. By sheer luck, one of our teachers was able to offer a module in colonial American history. Most A-Level history students in the UK, at that time, studied the Tudors and Stuarts, Victorian Britain, and 20th century World History. I was lucky to study American history. I was attracted to the field, thinking it would provide an escape from kings, queens, and capricious European dynastic alliances. I was a little naïve, therefore; but wanted to become an Americanist since then.

JF: What is your next project?

GM: The project is tentatively titled The Character of Freedom: Slavery and the Scottish Enlightenment. It builds on research I have begun to synthesize. It assesses the relationship between American moral philosophy (particularly as inspired by Scottish Enlightenment and Scottish Presbyterian thought) and slavery from the colonial era, through the American Revolution, and into the antebellum period.

JF: Thanks, Gideon! 

The Author’s Corner with Caroline Winterer

americanenlightenmentsCaroline 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!

The Author’s Corner with Nicholas Guyatt

BindusApart.jpgNicholas Guyatt is University Lecturer in American History at the University of Cambridge. This interview is based on his new book, Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation (Basic Books, 2016).  

JF: What led you to write Bind Us Apart?

NG: As someone who grew up in England, I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider when it comes to the big narratives of American history. This is probably a disadvantage in lots of ways, but it also means that you sometimes notice different things. Two of those observations inspired me to write Bind Us Apart. The first is that American historians very rarely write about African Americans and Native Americans within the same frame, despite the fact that white reformers and politicians in the early republic were engaging with both populations simultaneously. Although the experiences of blacks and Indians were by no means identical, this tendency to keep them apart in the scholarly literature is one that I’ve always been keen to challenge. 

The second observation is even more rudimentary: as someone who learned at high school about the fight against slavery in the antebellum period, and the triumphs of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, it seemed incredibly odd to me that an entire century elapsed before the passage of effective civil rights legislation in the 1960s. If we accept the dominant paradigm that America has been on a ‘journey’ towards racial enlightenment, or that the nation has ‘grown’ over two centuries to extend the promises of “all men are created equal” to everyone, that century seems hard to fathom. And that’s even before we get to the overwhelming evidence of racial inequality and segregation in our own historical moment, fifty years after the supposed capstones of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. So this led me to think that there might be some serious limitations to white American thinking about race — even the thinking of “enlightened” and liberal whites — that we’d somehow missed in our stories of racial “growth.” Bind Us Apart is an attempt to explain why even whites who styled themselves as enlightened proved to be unreliable supporters of black and Native equality in American history. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Bind Us Apart?

NG: The book argues that most educated Americans in the decades after the Revolution accepted that blacks and Indians had a claim to “all men are created equal,” but that this equal potential could only be secured through programs of racial uplift and ‘improvement’ that would accompany emancipation or westward expansion;  when these uplift projects failed, for a variety of reasons, liberal whites argued instead that the long-term solution to the racial ‘problem’ in America was to convince black people and Indians to move somewhere else — to vindicate their supposed equality through separation.  ‘Separate but equal’ was northern (or national) before it was southern, liberal before it was conservative, and a product of the Founding era rather than the late nineteenth century.

 (I freely admit that the semi-colon above is cheating.)

JF: Why do we need to read Bind Us Apart?

NG: I think we need a new paradigm for thinking about the origins of the racial crisis in America. We can’t downplay the enormous horrors of slavery or the cupidity, avarice and open racism of many slaveholders and expansionists. But I think we also need to ask why so many white Americans who described themselves as “liberal” — a word they defined to mean enlightened, benevolent and free from prejudice — failed to accept racial integration or vindicate racial equality in the first decades of the United States. Slavery came under serious intellectual assault at the end of the eighteenth century, long before the economic and technological changes that made slave-produced cotton the most lucrative crop in the world; similarly, Founders like Washington and Jefferson were lavish in their acknowledgment of Native American rights and potential, but still managed to dispossess and kill thousands of Indians who wouldn’t conform to their rhetoric. By the 1830s, it’s easy for us to imagine that the principal moral drama in the United States concerns the expansion of slavery: heroic antislavery campaigners battle with villainous slaveholders, and the battle for emancipation seems synonymous with the realization of racial justice. My book argues that, in the formative decades of the early republic, the moral debate was really about integration rather than slavery; that it encompassed Native and African American peoples; and that it was resolved, by the majority of liberal whites, in favor of separation. Although it’s hard to draw a straight line from the 1780s to the present, I think we need to confront these liberal roots of segregationist thinking. If we’re open-minded enough to peer into this moment of American history, we might find the debates and perspectives of liberal whites in the Founding period to be uncomfortably familiar.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

NG: That’s easy: I read a lot of Chomsky when I was a teenager, especially Deterring Democracy and Year 501. I was (and still am) in awe of his achievements and commitments, but I felt that his view of American history was unremittingly bleak: a lot of bad people doing very bad things. I absolutely buy the bleak thing, but I’ve always felt that what makes history fascinating is the way in which people convince themselves that the things they’re doing aren’t actually bad at all. That’s not an American invention, of course, but I think that American history has been shaped by a particularly enduring set of claims about the nation’s lofty purpose and value. In that sense, it’s a terrific place to do the history of moral evasion (or moral contortionism), which is what I’ve ended up doing.

JF: What is your next project?

NG: I’m not sure! Having written a book about manifest destiny and another about race, I had thought that the next one would be about empire — which would mean I’d covered all the Chomsky bases and could go on to write romantic fiction. I have an idea for a book about how Americans came to understand imperialism in the nineteenth century through their experience of other people’s empires. But it’s been a huge privilege to think seriously about Native and African American history, so I’m torn. When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.

JF: Thanks, Nicholas!

The Author’s Corner with John Dixon

cadwalladercoldenJohn Dixon is Assistant Professor of History at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York. This interview is based on his new book, The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden: Empire, Science, and Intellectual Culture in British New York (Cornell University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden?

JD: As a graduate student at UCLA, I became interested in the Enlightenment and, more specifically, in the circulation of scientific knowledge around the eighteenth-century Atlantic world.  I identified and started to analyze a cohort of Scottish-trained physicians in British North America and the Caribbean. Cadwallader Colden was one member of that group, and I quickly discovered that he was by far the most interesting of the bunch. His life, which conveniently spanned the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution, was a fascinating mix of ambition, success, controversy, and failure. It also interwove politics and science to an unusual and intriguing degree. As a learned Scottish immigrant who adeptly used his intellectual interests and activities to advance his social standing, gain influence, and win patrons, Colden shaped colonial and imperial politics. At the same time, he pioneered the use of Linnaean botany and Newtonian natural philosophy in British America, and was instrumental in establishing scientific and print networks that enabled intercolonial and transatlantic cultural exchange in the mid-eighteenth century. What was it like to be an intellectual in British New York? How did Colden’s political and intellectual lives overlap? Was Colden a reformist or a reactionary? These sorts of questions drove my research and ultimately led me to write The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden.  

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden?

JD: Standard narratives of early New York and early American history have grossly understated Colden’s significance and complexity as a historical figure. By putting him at the center of the story, we more readily see that elitism, conservatism, and imperialism were essential facets of eighteenth-century New York society and culture, and of the Enlightenment.

JF: Why do we need to read The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden?

JD: For a sense of enjoyment, I hope. I tried to write The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden so that it would appeal to a wide array of specialist and non-specialist readers. That said, my book raises significant historiographical issues. It suggests that scholars have construed colonial New York too narrowly as a proto-modern colony defined by its remarkable degree of social diversity and political factionalism. I don’t deny those features, but I do argue that historians need to pay more attention to British New York’s importance as an imperial hub and as a center of transatlantic scientific and philosophical activity. Likewise, my book complicates current notions of the American Enlightenment by highlighting paradoxical intersections of tradition and reform.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?​

JD: I became an American historian through a process of gradual evolution. While growing up on a small island in the English Channel, I somehow got hooked on American literature and jazz music. In this sense, F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Coltrane must shoulder some of the blame. BA and MA degrees in American Studies followed. I contracted the itch to be a historian along the way, though I cannot now recall exactly when. After a brief spell working in the publishing industry in London, I moved to the U.S. and entered the Ph.D. program in American History at UCLA. The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden is a heavily-reworked version of my doctoral dissertation.

JF: What is your next project?

JD: I currently hold a research scholarship at the Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History, New York University. I am using this award to write a sweeping history of Jews in the early modern Atlantic World. 

JF: Sounds great. Thanks, John!


Newspapers and British Identity in 18th-Century Quebec City and Halifax

If you have not discovered Borealia, you should go check it out.  The editors of this blog are pushing us to expand our understanding of early America to include Canada. (Of course scholars have been doing this for a long time, but I appreciate the effort of the folks at Borealia to bring the conversation to a larger reading public).

I just finished reading Keith Grant’s excellent review of Michael Eamon’s Imprinting Britain: Newspapers, Sociability, and the Shaping of British North America. Eamon uses newspapers to show how the so-called “public sphere” found its way to the British cities of Quebec City and Halifax.  I have been fascinated with these kinds of studies since graduate school.  Discussions of print culture, sociability, and the Enlightenment in early America influenced my 2008 book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.

Here is a taste of Keith Grant‘s review:

Eamon’s cultural definition of Britishness also includes the moderate Enlightenment’s emphasis on “useful” and “improving” knowledge. He gives us enticing glimpses of Haligonians who participated, however modestly, in the transatlantic Republic of Letters, as well as the surprising liberality of Governor Frederick Haldimand’s Quebec Library. Newspapers, almanacs, and magazines disseminated Enlightenment science in abridged form to a broad reading public.
Colonial newspapers were closely allied with other kinds of face-to-face sociability. The pages of colonial newspapers aired debates about the propriety of Freemasonry, theatres, and coffeehouses, with printers often advocating for their usefulness. As the detailed appendices demonstrate, those papers prove to be one of the few windows into colonial associative life, and readers are indebted to Eamon for cataloguing mentions of societies, coffeehouses, and plays performed in Halifax and Quebec City. Northern winters were no obstacle to flourishing social scenes, as one Quebec City correspondent reported in December 1790: “Tho’ surrounded with Ice and Snow, we enjoy health & are at least as social as in any other quarter of the Globe” (116).
Eamon charts a shift in colonial associative life as the eighteenth century progressed, from sociability for the sheer pleasure of it toward an increasing concern for the public good. “Let the social virtues shine / Doing good is sure divine,” declared a Masonic song printed in a Nova Scotia newspaper (135). (The Illuminati conspiracy theorists among our readership will be interested—perhaps apprehensive—to know that every eighteenth century governor and lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia was a Freemason! [133])
Mention “print” and “sociability” in the same sentence, and cultural theorist Jürgen Habermas’ concept of the “bourgeois public sphere” is sure to come to mind.  However, though it was incubated in similar coffee houses and likewise deliberated through a burgeoning print culture, the public sphere of British North America, Eamon argues, was less egalitarian than its bourgeois European or republican American counterparts. The colonial print community created “hybrid spaces of sociability and social control” (11), and its discourse “favoured consensus and balance over discord and radical change” (189). Imprinting Britain will find a place on reading lists on British North American sociability and the public sphere, alongside works by Jeffrey McNairn, Darren Ferry, and David Sutherland.

Ebenezer Kinnersley

When I was a graduate student I had a colleague named Kevin who was interested in the history of science in early America.  Kevin finished his Ph.D shortly after I did.  I think he had a few academic appointments and eventually left the historical profession for greener pastures.  I lost touch with him after we left Stony Brook and he moved back to his home state of Texas.

Kevin’s story would make for a great “So What CAN You Do With a History Major” post, but I am writing about him today because he loved to talk about Ebenezer Kinnersley

Who is Ebenezer Kinnersley?  

He was a Baptist minister who opposed the First Great Awakening and later became a promoter of Benjamin Franklin’s work on electricity.  If I remember correctly, Kinnersley was an important figure in Kevin’s dissertation.

I am not sure what happened to Kevin’s research on Kinnersley.   I know he was working on Kinnersley before the appearance of James Delbourgo’s A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America hit print and introduced us to the life of this Baptist pastor-turned itinerant science lecturer.

I thought about Kinnersley the other day after reading Thomas Kidd’s post at The Anxious Bench.  It appears that this Baptist clergymen will make an appearance in Kidd’s new religious biography of Franklin. 

Here is a taste of his post:

Kinnersley was born in Gloucester, England, the same hometown as Franklin’s friend George Whitefield, the greatest evangelist of the eighteenth-century revivals. As a three-year-old, Kinnersley came with his family to Pennsylvania the same year, 1714, that Whitefield was born. His family was Baptist, and Kinnersley became an assistant at Philadelphia’s First Baptist Church. Unlike the senior minister of the church, Kinnersley opposed the revivals because of the “enthusiastic ravings” of Whitefield and other itinerant preachers. He aired this opinion in Franklin’s newspaper, and it cost Kinnersley his job.

Franklin took the unemployed Kinnersley under his wing and would later help him become a professor of English and oratory at Franklin’s new College of Philadelphia (the University of Pennsylvania). In the meantime, Franklin encouraged Kinnersley to expand upon his interest in Franklin’s experiments in electricity by preparing public lectures and demonstrations that Kinnersley could take on the road. And take to the road he did, traveling to more far-flung places in the colonies than did Whitefield (Kinnersley even went to Caribbean locations such as Barbados).

The former pastor would charge well-to-do audiences five shillings to get in, and dazzled them with displays of electricity. In one favorite demonstration, he would have an audience member volunteer to sit on an insulating stool and channel electricity through the volunteer’s body and into a metal chain. A second volunteer would extend a hand toward the first, and a visible spark would jump between them.

Read the entire post here.

Oh How I Wish Contributors Received a Free Copy

The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment is here for the low, low price of $451.00.  From what I can tell, Mark Spencer has edited an amazing research tool for students of American history.  It is now time for all of us to get our academic libraries to purchase a copy.

I contributed an essay on Philip Vickers Fithian to this volume.  I may have written other entires, but I just can’t remember.  I will have to wait for the “See Inside” feature on Amazon to find out.

Here is the description:

The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment is the first reference work on this key subject in early American history. With over 500 original essays on key American Enlightenment figures, it provides a comprehensive account to complement the intense scholarly activity that has recently centered on the European Enlightenment. 

With substantial and original essays on the major American Enlightenment figures, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, David Rittenhouse, Benjamin Rush, Jonathan Edwards and many others, this wide-ranging collection includes topical essays and entries on dozens of often-overlooked secondary figures.

It has long been known that Americans made their own contributions to the Enlightenment, most notably by putting Enlightenment ideas to work in defining the American Revolution, the United States Constitution, and the nature of the early American Republic. These volumes show that the American Enlightenment was more far reaching than even that story assumes. Presenting a fresh definition of the Enlightenment in America, this remarkable work confirms that the American Enlightenment constitutes the central framework for understanding the development of American history between c.1720 and c. 1820.

The Author’s Corner with Tom Shachtman

Tom Shachtman is an author, filmmaker, and educator who has written over thirty books along with a series of documentary films and has lectured at various universities and historical societies. This interview is based on his forthcoming book Gentleman Scientists and Revolutionaries: The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment (Palgrave Macmillan Trade, October 2014).

JF: What led you to write Gentleman Scientists and Revolutionaries?

TS: Having written histories of science, and as well as many books about American history, I wanted to explore the relationship between our Founding Fathers and science, and to do so in a way that did not distinguish between the Founders’ science and their religious beliefs – because the Founders themselves saw no differentiation between the two. 
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Gentleman Scientists and Revolutionaries?
TS: Many people assume that our nation’s Founding Fathers were motivated strictly by religious oppression, political enlightenment, or socioeconomic considerations. Beyond those spurs, a reliance on the rigorous logic of science and the science-mandated need for experimentation were central to the Founders’ understandings of their surroundings and to their dreams and plans for the new country. 
JF: Why do we need to read Gentleman Scientists and Revolutionaries?
TS: I hope that after reading Gentleman Scientists and Revolutionaries, readers will regard our Founders in a new way, one that appreciates the roles of science in their lives and thoughts, especially in their revolutionary notions. 
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
TS: I have been writing about American history for thirty-five years, since my first book about the 1929 stock market crash, The Day America Crashed. Subsequent books have explored American history at various points in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. What has become clear to me from my work is that we Americans have an enormously rich history, and that we cannot properly understand the present and make educated choices about our future without having a detailed understanding of our past.
JF: What is your next project?

TS: I am currently working on a new, 21st century science history but am not yet ready to divulge the subject.

JF: Looking forward to hearing more about it in the future! Thanks Tom.

Thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of the Author’s Corner

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.

Tweets From OAH Session on the American Enlightenment

Here are my tweets.  This was an interesting panel. I will try to write a blog post on it soon. Stay tuned.

Read from the bottom in order to see the Tweets in chronological order.  For more about the panel click here.  For responses, retweets, live links, and favorites check out #oah2014 or @johnfea1
  1. <div class="tweet original-tweet js-stream-tweet js-actionable-tweet js-profile-popup-actionable js-original-tweet my-tweet " data-expanded-footer="

    ” data-feedback-key=”stream_status_454700926821859328″ data-item-id=”454700926821859328″ data-name=”John Fea” data-screen-name=”JohnFea1″ data-tweet-id=”454700926821859328″ data-user-id=”550702200″ data-you-block=”false” data-you-follow=”false” style=”border-bottom-color: rgb(225, 232, 237); border-bottom-style: solid; border-bottom-width: 1px; cursor: pointer; min-height: 51px; padding: 9px 12px; position: relative;”>

    Joyce Chaplin shocked that people teach the Enlightenment in their classes. Wow.
  • <div class="tweet original-tweet js-stream-tweet js-actionable-tweet js-profile-popup-actionable js-original-tweet my-tweet " data-expanded-footer="

    ” data-feedback-key=”stream_status_454700206089465856″ data-item-id=”454700206089465856″ data-name=”John Fea” data-screen-name=”JohnFea1″ data-tweet-id=”454700206089465856″ data-user-id=”550702200″ data-you-block=”false” data-you-follow=”false” style=”border-bottom-color: rgb(225, 232, 237); border-bottom-style: solid; border-bottom-width: 1px; cursor: pointer; min-height: 51px; padding: 9px 12px; position: relative;”>

    Discussion on teaching the Enlightenment in America. I once gave this a shot.