Voltaire in the South
The University of North Carolina was hit by a tidal wave of infidelity at the end of the eighteenth century. Speaking of the university’s history around 1796 and the years following, one minister said, “Strong bands of sympathy and gratitude united our people to the French nation, and as a consequence French opinions and French infidelity rolled like a devastating tide over the land. The writings of Voltaire, Volney, and Paine were in the hands of almost all, and the public mind was poisoned.”1 When a fire destroyed his house at Bizarre in 1813, John Randolph of Roanoke wrote, “I lost a valuable collection of books. In it was a whole body of infidelity, the Encyclopedia of Diderot and D’Alembert. Voltaire’s works, in seventy volumes, Rousseau … Hume.”2 The Virginian, Henry Adams noted, “was as deistical in his opinions as any of them.”3 But our concern here is not primarily with deism but with the writings of Voltaire.
Surprisingly enough, there is no single written account dealing with Voltaire’s impact on the South in the eighteenth century. Mary-Margaret H. Barr limited her study to New England and the Middle Atlantic area.4 John F. McDermott wrote on “Voltaire and the Freethinkers in Early Saint Louis.”5 But there is no monograph on Voltaire and the southeastern part of the United States. Scholars have unearthed many pieces of information on the subject. They have drawn certain conclusions based on their findings. Our knowledge, however, remains fragmented.
Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the prominent Maryland Roman Catholic, interestingly enough, was an admirer of the Sage of Ferney. Carroll wrote to his father from France in 1759, “I intend … to buy their best authors, as for example Boileau, Rousseau, Voltaire.”6 In 1771, after his return to Maryland, Carroll wrote to a European correspondent, “Has Voltaire published any late tracts, I mean since the year 1768? I have all his works to that time. If he has … oblige me by sending them to me.”7 In 1773 Carroll spoke of having “received Voltaire’s L’Evangile du jour in four volumes, and Les Questions sur L’Encyclopédie in seven volumes last year.”8
In 1765 another Carroll, Charles Carroll, barrister, who lived in Annapolis, had “sent for Voltaire’s Age of Louis XIV in English.”9 It was not always necessary to send to Europe, however, for the author’s writings. In Annapolis, William Rind, a bookdealer, advertised a long list of books for sale in the Maryland Gazette on July 3, 1760. Among these were “Voltaire’s Age of Lewis XIV, his General History of Europe, and Life of Charles XIIth.” In the issue of this paper for August 26, 1762, Rind offered the “Letters on the English Nation.”10 Baltimore bookdealers advertised writings of the author in the 1790s. “Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, 1 dol.” was available in 1794.11 This book, along with “Voltaire’s Works, 5 vols, handsomely bound and gilt,” was also offered to Baltimore readers by a different bookseller in 179512 The “Works” in fact were offered for sale in this city on several other occasions.13 “Voltaire’s Charles 12th, Lon. 1796” was also available.14 James David Hart mentions one resident of Baltimore, Mr. Parkin, who “had seventy volumes of Voltaire’s works in his home.”15
Voltaire’s histories seem to have enjoyed a decided vogue. J. T. Wheeler, in a study of Maryland colonial libraries, found that the Age of Louis XIV, the History of Charles XII, and the General History of Europe frequently appeared in the inventories, in English. One of his conclusions is of particular interest: Voltaire’s historical works were the most read of foreign books.16
The author was quoted and referred to in the public press. The Annapolis Maryland Gazette printed “A Prayer” from the Treatise on Tolerance in its issue for January 31, 1765. In Baltimore, a magazine reprinted the chapter in Zadig entitled “The Nose.”17 English adaptations of three of Voltaire’s plays, Zaїre, Mahomet, and L’Ecossaise, were performed in Maryland on a number of occasions between 1782 and 1796. Zara, adapted by Aaron Hill from Zaїre, was the play most often performed. All the performances except two, apparently, took place in Baltimore.18
The duc de la Rochefoucault-Liancourt’s remark on Virginia is familiar to many. “Fond as the inhabitants are of dissipation, a taste for reading is more prevalent among the gentlemen of the first class than in any other part of America.”19 Such statements are easy to make but hard to document. A latter-day scholar, Thomas J. Wertenbaker, was of a different mind, though he too stressed the important role of books: “The commonly accepted belief that the well-to-do Virginian was a ‘playboy,’ wasting his time and his inheritance in gambling, cockfighting, drinking, feasting, and dancing, is entirely erroneous. It is true that there was much extravagance … but there was also a keen interest in intellectual and cultural matters.”20 What part did Voltaire play in the intellectual life of the Old Dominion?
Williamsburg was one of the South’s “crucibles of culture,” to use a phrase of Wertenbaker. The College of William and Mary had been there since the end of the seventeenth century. There were booksellers in the town and the Virginia Gazette was published here. The Virginia Alamanack for the Tear of Our Lord God 1765, by Theophilus Wreg, was itself a humble instrument in the service of culture. In the back of it there is listed “A Collection of the Most Esteemed Modern Books” in various fields of knowledge which were for sale at the Williamsburg Printing Office. In the collection were “Voltaire’s Works, complete,” his “General Hist, and State of Europe,” “Charles the XIIth” and “Select Pieces.” It also included the Henriade, “Candidus, or All for the Best, in two Parts,” an edition of the author’s “Letters” and “Gerard on Taste, with three Dissertations on the same Subject by Voltaire, Alembert and Montesquieu.” Likewise from the 1760s is a broadside in the Rare Book Room of the Library of Congress of “A Catalogue of Books to be sold at the Post Office, Williamsburg.” Among the books offered were “Voltaire’s select Essays from the Encyclopedic” and his “Letters.” On November 25, 1775, Dixon and Hunter printed in the Virginia Gazette a long list of books which they had for sale. It included “Voltaire’s Miscellaneous Poems, 3 V.” Further investigation would without doubt turn up many other sales notices of the author’s writings. In September 1796 Parson Weems, book agent for the Philadelphia publisher Mathew Carey, wrote to Carey from Norfolk that “Voltair’s … Life different works” were among books that “will sell well” in Norfolk.21 Here are some facts concerning the dissemination of the author’s writings in Virginia.
One investigator made a study of about a hundred libraries of the colonial period. One of his conclusions is of interest and to some degree pertinent: “Voltaire … is occasionally found in the libraries, his historical works, Candide, and the essay on toleration making infrequent appearances.”22 The historical works included the History of Charles XII of Sweden and the Age of Louis XIV. Lord Botetourt, a colonial governor of Virginia, had “6 [vols.] Oeuvres de Voltaire” in his library.23 Here are the findings of an examination of two of these libraries which lie within the scope of the present study. “Councillor” Robert Carter, of Westmoreland County, owned “Voltaire’s Select Pieces.”24 Colonel William Fleming, doctor and soldier, had the Age of Louis XIV and “Candid.”25 Washington himself was interested in Voltaire’s histories. At the close of the Revolutionary War he sent for “Charles the XIIth of Sweden,” “Lewis the XVth” [sic] and “Voltaire’s Letters.”26 John Parke Custis, a stepson of Washington, owned “Voltaire’s works 36 vols.”27 Jefferson, in 1771, recommended “Voltaire’s works, Eng.” for Robert Skipwith’s library.28 William Short, Jefferson’s secretary while in France, owned an edition of Voltaire’s Oeuvres complètes in ninety-two volumes. Some of his works gave great pleasure to John Randolph. His testimony is eloquent and to the point. He mentioned several titles which “have made up more than half of my worldly enjoyment. To these ought to be added … Voltaire (Charles XII, Mahomed and Zaïre)…. One of the first books I ever read was Voltaire’s Charles XII”29 To a nephew Randolph also wrote this bit of criticism: “Voltaire is a most sprightly, agreeable writer, but not always to be depended upon for facts. His Charles XII and Peter are his most accurate works. The Siècle de Louis XIV is, upon the whole, not an unfaithful history; and, as a picture of the manners of that age, is unique”.30 And one of Thomas Jefferson’s libraries is a story in itself.
Congress bought from Jefferson his second library, his first having been destroyed by fire at Shadwell in 1770. This library consisted of over six thousand books. The purchase price was $23,950. One of the objections raised to buying it was that it contained the writings of Voltaire “and other literary apostles of the French Revolution.”31 Jefferson did indeed have many books by and on Voltaire. The large amount of Voltaire material in the catalog of Jefferson’s second library offers ample evidence of the Virginian’s interest.32 He wrote to James Monroe from Paris in 1785 an opinion concerning Voltaire.33 He quoted the French author in a letter to Charles Bellini, written in Paris this same year: “I find the general fate of humanity here [in Paris and Europe] most deplorable. The truth of Voltaire’s observation offers itself perpetually, that every man here must be either the hammer or the anvil.”34 But Gilbert Chinard, a biographer of Jefferson and editor of his Commonplace Book, affirms that
A study of Jefferson’s correspondence fails to reveal that Voltaire had made any lasting impression upon his mind, nor even that he had read him to any considerable extent. From L’Essai sur les Moeurs and Le Siècle de Louis XIV he collected a large number of precise facts, using Voltaire as a sort of dictionary of inventions, but never paying any attention to his ideas, nor even hinting that Voltaire had ever expressed any ideas at all. The only mention of Voltaire found in the published works is a discussion of the well-known and ridiculous theory of the French “philosophe” on fossils.35
So, in Chinard’s view, “As far as the evidence at hand permits us to draw a conclusion, it may be said that the most famous writer of the eighteenth century had little influence upon Jefferson.”36
Precise information concerning the contents of many private libraries is often lacking. There are, however, other ways of ascertaining acquaintance with a writer. James Madison is a case in point. I cannot say what books of Voltaire were on the shelves of his library. But according to George R. Havens, he was cited by Madison, though less often than some other French writers. Havens points out that in The Federalist, Madison spoke of the advantages of a variety of religious sects as a safeguard against persecution and writes that this was a favorite idea of his.37
Finally, it must not be forgotten that the popular newspaper itself was a minor source of information about Voltaire. The editors reprinted interesting details concerning him from foreign sources.38 A reader might find there “An Oriental Tale. By Voltaire.”39 Or a quotation or extract from Voltaire on some subject such as the one on liberty sent in to the Virginia Gazette by “Sidney,” who called the author “one of the most celebrated writers of the present age.”40 Williamsburg, where this newspaper was published, was one of the South’s important cultural centers. But Williamsburg, wrote Wertenbaker, “was never more than a village.” Charleston was the largest city in the South. In 1790 it was larger than Baltimore. It was a city where French influences were strong.
The first known American edition of a work by Voltaire, according to Barr, was published in Charleston in 1777 41 This was his Commentary on An Essay on Crimes and Punishments by Cesare Beccaria. I have never studied South Carolina newspapers. But Edward D. Seeber of Indiana University did work on Charleston newspapers in the last half of the eighteenth century. And I am indebted to him for the Voltaire references which he found in these papers and which are utilized here. He informed me that Voltaire’s writings were frequently on sale and that his escapades in Europe were often reported in the foreign news columns. Some of his findings from a study of the South Carolina Gazette are of particular interest: the Age of Louis XIV, the History of Charles XII, King of Sweden, The Temple of Taste, and Letters Concerning the English Nation were advertised in 1755 and The Temple of Taste again in 1757. The author was on occasion quoted in the gazettes. In 1767 the South Carolina Gazette printed the article “God” from the Philosophical Dictionary. According to Frederick P. Bowes, “Voltaire’s argument that the theatre was a beneficial influence on morals and society” was also quoted in the same newspaper in 1773.42 The Charleston Evening Gazette for September 25, 1786, printed a “Prayer by the Late Mons. Voltaire.” Toasts were drunk to the memory of the writer and other “illustres philosophes” at French celebrations.43 Dr. Joseph B. Ladd, of Charleston, using the pen name “Arouet,” published several of his poems in the City Gazette. By 1770 the Charleston Library Society had acquired a number of books by Voltaire, some of which were in French.44 In 1773 the society ordered an edition of his complete works in English.45 John Mackenzie left books for the College of Charleston “when erected.” They included the Philosophical Dictionary and the History of Charles XII.46
Surprisingly enough in view of the city’s interest in things French, Charlestonians had the opportunity to see performances of Voltaire’s dramatic works only on the rarest of occasions. Between April 1794 and 1800, Zara, the English adaptation of Zaїre, was performed only twice. In this same period, Mahomet was played once but it is not clear whether the performance was in French or English.47
The opinion expressed on the French thinker by one Charlestonian is of particular interest. In 1773, Henry Laurens wrote this in a letter from Geneva:
I know too little of Voltaire to presume to enter upon particulars relative to his history; but in general I may say that he seems to enjoy blessings which neither King nor church nor the combined force of ignorance and envy can rob us of, a sound conscience and peace of mind. His passage, therefore, be his errors in judgment what they may, must be smooth; and I have too much charity if it does not also prove safe. The mistakes of the most brilliant reptile fancy cannot defeat the schemes of unerring Wisdom.48
I regret not being able to point to other expressions of opinion by Carolinians. It is known, for example, that John C. Calhoun, as a boy, read the History of Charles XII, King of Sweden.49 Archibald Murphey read this same history in North Carolina in the 1790s.50 And Samuel Johnston, governor of North Carolina, had in his library Voltaire’s Works in thirty-six volumes, published in London in 1770.51
Let me quote disclosures of Jay B. Hubbell’s very extensive research on the South. I have drawn upon his work only for the two items of information just cited. Here are his conclusions concerning Voltaire:
By far the most widely advertised French writer was Voltaire…. His three most advertised books were his life of Charles XII of Sweden, his book on England, and The Age of Louis XIV; but many other titles are found, usually in translation. Candide, strangely enough, I have noted as a separate title only once—in the Georgia Gazette for May 26, 1763. The Colonial newspapers often advertised his works in English in thirty-five volumes or twenty-six in French.52
My own conclusions are necessarily brief because of the scattered nature of my findings. I am confident that a methodical study of Voltaire in the South both before and after the period 1760–1800 would reveal much interesting data concerning the reception of the author’s writings and attitudes toward him. With regard to his fortune in the forty-year period itself, several observations may be safely advanced. His writings were rather well advertised in the newspapers. The newspapers also reprinted from time to time information about Voltaire. And one could find in them quotations from his writings. The presence of large amounts of Voltaire materials in some of the libraries, and specifically in those of such statesmen as Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Samuel Johnston and Thomas Jefferson is impressive. Impressive too were the Voltaire holdings of the Charleston Library Society. The many different works of the author to be found in libraries here and there, from plays to poems, are also noteworthy. He was read by most in English translation. It is obvious that the historical works, especially the History of Charles XII and the Age of Louis XIV, had the widest appeal. Books such as the Letters Concerning the English Nation and the Philosophical Dictionary were, apparently, to be found less often on library shelves, and Candide only rarely. I think one can say that Voltaire was as well if not better known in the South than were Montesquieu and Rousseau.
Opinions of Voltaire which have been uncovered are all too few to make any sort of generalization. But I have been struck by the apparent lack of abuse of the French writer in the South. We shall never know, of course, how many shared Henry Laurens’s tolerant view. It is true that there was obvious fear of his “infidelity” at the University of North Carolina at the end of the century. And a closer examination would doubtless reveal other censorious passages. But from the evidence at hand I surmise that they would not be comparable in quantity to the vituperations of the author, because of the anti-Christian bias in his writings, that I have encountered in my research in other parts of the country. Barr has documented examples of such in a chapter entitled “Typical American Reactions.”53 The fundamental religious and political differences between North and South may well account for dissimilar attitudes towards Voltaire.