The Enlightenment, like the Renaissance and the Reformation, was no localized phenomenon.1 Called the Age of Reason or the Age of Enlightenment in England, the Siècle des lumières in France, the Aufklärung in Germany, the liberating force that the word enlightenment suggests stopped at few frontiers. Italy had its Illuminismo, the Spanish world its Ilustración, and America its era of the Founding Fathers.
A vast movement of ideas, the Enlightenment had its real beginning in seventeenth-century Europe. It did not, of course, pass from one place to another simultaneously. The United States, for example, lagged behind France by several decades. Herbert Dieckmann, in his essay “Themes and Structure of the Enlightenment,” summarizes the views of Herman Hettner, Ernst Cassirer, and Paul Hazard on the Enlightenment and its origins. One can find here a blanket explanation of this lack of synchrony. Paraphrasing Hettner, Dieckmann writes that “the seeds of that great movement can be found in all three countries [England, France, and Germany] alike, but they germinate at different times and in different ways, owing to combined philosophical, scientific, political, and cultural factors.”2 But the Enlightenment “can be understood only as a whole of which the parts are interrelated.” This last statement is Dieckmann’s rendering of another of Hettner’s views. In context, its immediate reference is to the countries just mentioned. The thought expressed, however, is universally valid. Neither nations nor individuals exist, nor have they ever existed, in an ideological vacuum.
Peter Gay speaks of the Enlightenment as “a family of philosophies.” Among the more illustrious members of the family were Sir Isaac Newton, John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Helvetius, Holbach, Condillac, Condorcet, Kant, Lessing, Beccaria, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. The Enlightenment family was composed of rationalists. Its members differed in many respects. They did not all think alike. Voltaire’s views on society and luxury were quite different from those of Rousseau. And certainly Rousseau’s notion of property was not Jefferson’s.
Eighteenth-century France, until 1789, was the principal theater of the Enlightenment. 3 The climate of ideas in France had undergone a radical transformation in a hundred-year period which began around 1650. Whether right or wrong concerning the swiftness of this change, Paul Hazard described it vividly. “A majority of the French people thought like Bossuet,” he wrote, referring to the eminent and ultraorthodox seventeenth-century prelate, but “suddenly they began to think like Voltaire: it was a revolution.” This is hyperbole, but the statement contains much truth. Rationalism coursed through eighteenth-century France like a mighty tide, followed, however, by a heavy ground swell of that emotion known as sensibility—a reaction to the overemphasis upon reason.
It is hazardous to generalize about the Enlightenment and its leaders in France, and presumptuous to expect to bring forward anything particularly new on subjects about which so much has been written. But one can link these leaders, the philosophes, in terms of somewhat common interests and goals. At the risk of oversimplification, one can say that they were humanitarians and reformers, intellectuals committed to improving man’s lot. They opposed every form of tyranny and cruelty, did their best to depose blind faith, combat credulity, and stamp out superstition. They worked to enthrone reason, promote humaneness, and better the government of mankind.
Voltaire, archapostle of reason and “genius of mockery,” was an awakener of consciences. Rousseau, a rationalist and an apostle of sensibility, sought to form consciences. These two writers, and many more, lashed out against intolerance, corruption, and hypocrisy under the Old Regime. Each, in his own inimitable way, castigated abuses of power wherever found—in church, state, or society. Voltaire and Rousseau stirred men’s minds and helped to put an end to authority based solely on tradition or divine right. They anticipated revolution. Rousseau, in 1762, declared, “We are approaching a state of crisis and the century of revolutions.” And Voltaire, in a letter of 1764, said, “Everything I see sows the seeds of a revolution which will not fail to come, but which I shall not have the pleasure of witnessing.” Condorcet, far more optimistic than either of the two, wrote later, “Everything tells us that we are now close upon one of the great revolutions of the human race.”
The American Revolution, which in turn greatly influenced the revolutionary movement in France, was itself the consequence of a fundamental shift in traditional modes of thought. Vividly symbolic of the changed outlook, though hardly typical, is a remark of Jefferson’s. Reflecting on the momentous event at home, he wrote from Paris in 1787, “What country before ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? … The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” In America, as in France, the rationalistic and critical currents had become ever more powerful as the eighteenth century progressed. By 1760 the old dikes of religious and political orthodoxy had been breached. Intellectually, the climate in the second half of this century—the period of the Enlightenment in the United States—differed markedly from that of the first half.
Any study of the impact of French thought on eighteenth-century America must take into account the American cultural heritage. It is often very difficult to say what is French thought and what is not. In an essay entitled “Jefferson Among the Philosophers,” Gilbert Chinard wrote, “I have often proposed that our ignorance and neglect of [the] classical background vitiates most of our studies on eighteenth-century thought. To the age of enlightenment we attribute an originality and a boldness which the philosophers of the eighteenth century themselves did not presume to possess. This would certainly be true of Boling-broke … it is no less true of Voltaire, Diderot, Helvetius, and D’Holbach. From this point of view, it would be more correct to call the eighteenth century the Second Renaissance rather than the age of enlightenment. At any rate, if the philosophes were the torchbearers of their age, they had received the sacred spark from the ancient philosophers.”4 America was “a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine.” At least 130 alumni of Oxford and Cambridge had come to New England before 1646. Up to 1793, some 2,300 students had been graduated from Yale alone. Many well-educated men came from Europe in the twenty-five years preceding the American Revolution. Four of these became college presidents. They had received a classical education. They too were part of the “Atlantic community,” to use an expression of Michael Kraus, whose book The Atlantic Civilization: Eighteenth-Century Origins (1949) is the authority for these figures. As members of the “Atlantic community,” Americans were subject to the same general climate of ideas that brought about the Enlightenment in Europe. The basic reading of educated Americans, Englishmen, and Frenchmen was substantially the same. Americans read classical literature.5 They too were obliged to react to the awesome impact of the Newtonian discoveries and the scientific revolution, dangerous to traditional patterns of thought.
When information is sought on the origin or origins of the Enlightenment in America, a tangled skein of opinion meets the eye. One has only to look at the antithetical conclusions of Daniel J. Boorstin and Henry Steele Commager. In a chapter entitled “The Myth of an American Enlightenment,”6 Boorstin refers to the Enlightenment itself as “that miasma.” He strongly objects to “the academically stereotyped ‘system’ of eighteenth-century thought,” disapproves of “homogenizing the mind of the past,” and stresses “the myriad particularity of the thinking of different men in different places in the eighteenth century.” Commager, at a symposium held at the Library of Congress, said, “My theme can be put simply and succinctly, though I am aware that simplicity is deceptive and succinctness suspect. It is this: that the Old World imagined the Enlightenment and the New World realized it. The Old World invented it, formulated it, and agitated it; America absorbed it, reflected it, and institutionalized it.”7 But the American Enlightenment, in his judgment, was “an Enlightenment that differed strikingly from the French and English versions in that (unlike these) it found support in experience as well as in philosophy, vindicated itself by reference to environment and circumstances, as well as to imagination and logic.”8 Here is a sampling of other views. Gerald Stourzh would direct our attention to an introductory phase, preceding the major period of American Enlightenment. In an essay, “Sober Philosophe: Benjamin Franklin,”9 he insists that the “roots” of Franklin’s thought are to be found in “earlier developments” in America, in the first half of the eighteenth century. Russel B. Nye believes that the Enlightenment here “was late, eclectic, and American. It is misleading to assume that eighteenth-century America was merely a reflection of eighteenth-century Britain, or Europe.”10 And finally, this opinion of Bernard Bailyn, “The political and social ideas of the European Enlightenment have had a peculiar importance in American history. More universally accepted in eighteenth-century America than in Europe, they were more completely and more permanently embodied in the formal arrangements of state and society … they have lived on more vigorously into later periods, more continuous and more intact. The peculiar force of these ideas in America resulted from many causes. But originally, and basically, it resulted from the circumstances of the prerevolutionary period and from the bearing of these ideas on the political experience of the American colonists.”11
From this brief presentation it is obvious that scholars differ rather widely in their views concerning the origins of the Enlightenment in the United States.12 I hope that the essays which follow will give a better idea of the role of French thought in the American Enlightenment.