The eleven essays originally published in 1984 under the title The French Enlightenment in America: Essays on the Time of the Founding Fathers, here reprinted, are both compelling and enjoyable. Paul Merrill Spurlin’s general hypothesis is crystal clear: French philosophes had a large influence in America—especially from 1760 to 1800. The writings of Voltaire, Diderot, Raynal, d’Alembert, Helvétius, d’Holbach, Condorcet, Bayle, Fontenelle, and Rousseau were received enthusiastically by leaders in the colonies and the new nation.
But the “Founding Fathers” absorbed more than daring political principles and moral maxims, Spurlin argues. They were also enthralled by entirely new visions of the natural world. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, as chapter 5 shows, made Buffon’s Histoire naturelle (1749) very popular—including, of course, Buffon’s wacky notion that every living being in America is either smaller or weaker than its European counterpart.
French intellectuals exerted an influence on the colonists first, and the founders later. But this could only happen, as Spurlin also argues, because French and Americans already belonged in “the same general climate of ideas.” These long-gone people were members of an “Atlantic community,” he says, a rather exclusive club of elite men who understood each other, though they rarely spoke the same language. An example: Montesquieu’s tripartite separation of powers—“the sacred maxim of free government,” as James Madison called it—was “an important article” of American political thought “long before 1776” (98).
In other words, Spurlin’s America—its society, culture, and institutions—could not simply be understood as a response to the circumstances of the so-called New World alone. For him, there was no frontier, no wilderness to conquer. Countering Frederick Jackson Turner, one of the most renowned historians of the Progressive Era, Spurlin maintains that the American nation is not self-explanatory.
The opposite is true: Spurlin makes statements that would cause any Turnerite’s jaw to drop. “American culture, until well into the nineteenth century,” he writes, “was derivative” (50). As this declaration makes clear, Spurlin could be both provocative and a little cheeky on occasion. In reality, he knew all too well that the American Enlightenment, the ideas in the minds of George Washington, John Adams, or Thomas Jefferson, the experiment that was the Revolution, and the ensuing nation stemmed also from the unique world those Americans inhabited.
The approach of The French Enlightenment in America has largely fallen out of favor among students, scholars, and the public at large. There are reasons for that. Different times beget different priorities and different methodologies. A student of Gilbert Chinard at John Hopkins University and an admirer of Daniel Boorstin, Henry Steele Commager, Ernst Cassirer, Adrienne Koch, Peter Gay, Merle Curti, and Howard Mumford Jones, Spurlin himself practiced what these teachers and models had taught him—what is now called “history from above.”
History from above means that the master narrative is wrapped around the lives and ideas of the successful white elite—the Washingtons, the Adamses, the Jeffersons. Other symptoms of this methodology include an overabundance of male voices, a flattening of differences among local communities, the disappearance of distinct regions, a lack of discussion about borders and their attendant issues, the erasure of common people and their contributions, and the neglect of resistance by women, the enslaved, and other marginalized groups.
Chinard, Curti, or Koch would have promptly labeled Spurlin’s The French Enlightenment in America, as well as his other works, as unproblematic. But many historians today reject the very hypothesis that the elites mattered the most and that “ideas,” “principles,” and “values” were the main ingredients of the new American nation. Spurlin’s “Atlantic community” was a world where ideas and values were a currency that enjoyed free circulation. While Spurlin deals with the elites’ ideas, he does not say much about what stands at the opposite end of the spectrum, the actual physical bodies of all those different people who were part of an ongoing and undecided struggle—a fight that only some of them won. Ideas and values conveyed by the elites, in this context, seem to conceal the actual struggles going on in the new nation.
Undeniably, The French Enlightenment in America conjures a world of pure ideas simmering in the minds of white successful men who gave birth to a “nation” ready to welcome all Americans—and, perhaps, all the peoples of the world. By and large, we know that this is a self-consolatory myth sparked by these same “fathers” to stifle many other contradictory voices—and I mean “voices” in a very literal, sonorous sense. The “history of American civilization” (Spurlin always uses the singular) has been a patchy and brutal one. Too many individuals and entire groups today still suffer from the consequences of such a nation. They suffer from bad decisions the “fathers” made, and they continue to be dispossessed by so-called American civilization.
Different times beget different linguistic sensibilities also. There is no way for modern readers to put up with Spurlin’s quite outdated terminology. The very phrase “Founding Fathers,” repeated in The French Enlightenment in America over and over again, will make many of them cringe, and rightly so. Scholars have moved past the “Founding Fathers”—and they should. The expression conjures a world where patronizing and dismissive attitudes were accepted and considered normal. There’s nothing unpatriotic in calling to account our “fathers.” The Atlantic community composed of these enlightened elite white men had certainly many merits. At the same time, however, these “fathers” carried out a mixture of shortsightedness and actual violence.
Even with all its shortcomings, it’s high time for The French Enlightenment in America to make a return. As a scholar, Spurlin always remained very curious. Indeed, this book conveys more than it might at first appear. Comparative literature, literary history, the history of ideas, and history from above were the fields that comprised Spurlin’s comfort zone—as he declared. These essays were not written by a social historian, but nearly all of them make countless forays into “history from below.” Chapters 4, 5, and 7 will surprise readers as quite modern essays on a more contemporary discipline, the history of books—which includes the actual experiences made by working-class booksellers in their physical bookstores. Likewise, readers will learn about Voltaire in the American South (chapter 8), something taking place, again, within an actual community made of actual people.
In theory, the boundaries between history “from above” and history “from below” and between social history and the history of ideas go very deep. When you start reading Spurlin’s books, however—not only this one—you realize that, in practice, disciplinary boundaries are often fuzzy and that good historians are those who make leaps into territories they don’t know too well.
In spite of his limitations, Spurlin is such a historian. And he shows us that Boorstin, Cassirer, Koch, Gay, Curti, Chinard, and many other historians who preferred “history from above” had a similar multilayered approach to history as a discipline. These historians are overlooked today. The way they practiced intellectual history was not always consistent, however, and we find a lot of material history and social history scattered in their works. Like Spurlin himself, they were researchers who repeatedly trespassed into foreign territories, including history “from below.” Any reader should be grateful to get fresh spoonfuls of these “outdated” historians. They can still surprise us.
Readers are about to (re)discover that the stuff from which the past is made is always intricate, notwithstanding the historian’s best intentions and most refined methodologies. In this specific case, the influence of French philosophy, natural history, medicine, and the contribution given by Europeans to the colonists’—and, later on, to the patriots’—cause does not rule out the fact that the United States of America has never been simply a reflection of eighteenth-century France, Britain, Germany, or Italy.
Spurlin deals with ideas and principles in the minds of the elites. But he was aware that eighteenth-century Americans represented a colorful set of discrete human groups who never agreed over a common vision of sort. In the same way “Americans were ambivalent about France” (144), as Spurlin writes, he remains ambivalent about the right methodology he should follow. Is The French Enlightenment in America written by a pure intellectual historian, one who does the so-called history of ideas? Does Spurlin really claim that only the elites mattered? Does he actually believe the American nation is a successful experiment? Does he trust the march of American civilization?