Carl Becker, in his review of Howard Mumford Jones’s America and French Culture 1750–1848, wrote that he could not “avoid the feeling that detailing the contacts of Americans with things French is one thing; that estimating the influence of French culture on American culture is another; and that between the two is a gulf extremely hazardous to cross. ‘Influence’ in this connection is so uncertain a quantity to calculate, so illusive a quality to estimate!” I agree. In matters involving Western civilization, I lean toward the view expressed by Charles and Mary Beard: “In reality the heritage, economics, politics, culture, and international filiations of any civilization are so closely woven by fate into one fabric that no human eye can discern the beginnings of its warp or woof.”1
American culture, until well into the nineteenth century, derived mostly of course from Great Britain. But France, it goes without saying, had always played a powerful role in the development of western European civilization. From the end of the seventeenth century she had engaged in a two-way commerce in intellectual relations with Britain. In the eighteenth century a cosmopolitan-minded France became the center of one of this civilization’s most influential philosophical movements. The possibilities, then, of French contribution to eighteenth-century American culture, direct or indirect, can by no means be disregarded.
Scholars on both sides of the Atlantic have long been interested in, or concerned with, the question of the impact of French Enlightenment thought on the United States. But disagreement persists, despite unwearying inquiry into the origins of American institutions and perennial concern with intellectual currents here in the formative period. A half-century of controversy concerning Rousseau is a case in point.2
Pitfalls await the unsuspecting and the incautious in attributions of influence. Here are five: over-intellectualization of the past, scholarly myopia, inadequate knowledge of the cultural background, generalizations from insufficient data, and national pride. These pitfalls must be avoided if we are ever to know the approximate truth.
It is easy for the scholar to over-intellectualize the past. He is a man of the book and here lies a great danger. James Truslow Adams described it in commenting on the importance of literary sources to the American Revolution: “As time passes, books remain, whereas the gossip of the village tavern and the unspoken emotions in the heart of the mass are lost forever. But although it follows that the tendency is always to overemphasize the intellectual aspect of any great movement of the past, it is a mistake to consider that man’s political actions necessarily or even mainly spring from reasoned premises.”3
Myopia is also a formidable handicap when one enters the complex ideological maze of the eighteenth century. The same idea or similar ideas were expressed by many writers. Let me illustrate. Rhetorical happenstance hardly explains the inclusion in the Declaration of Independence of the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” as one of the inalienable rights of mankind. Jefferson admitted as much when he wrote that all the authority of the document rests on “the harmonizing sentiments of the day.” The Declaration’s phrase is an exact translation of “la recherche du bonheur,” which expression, as Robert Mauzi points out in a massive study,4 had a “valeur quasi obsessionnelle” in eighteenth-century France. His bibliography is replete with titles of essays, treatises, and other writings in French devoted to the idea of happiness. With regard to the ideological background of “the pursuit of happiness,” especially in England, Scotland, France, and Italy, one should consult a generously documented book by Garry Wills.5 Wills calls it “the phrase considered most vulnerable or indefinable” in the Declaration. Happiness was one of the great idées en l’air in the eighteenth century, a time when authors, in their attacks upon every stronghold of the established order, did not hesitate to use the ammunition or brandish the intellectual weapons of others. American pamphleteers and writers of controversial newspaper articles had almost a mania for quoting. Writers and editors would frequently cite more than one writer on the same point, and often without acknowledgement. Like lawyers they would avidly make use of authorities whose reasoning buttressed their arguments. Such practices have serious implications for scholarship because the hazards inherent in deductions from ideological or verbal parallelism are only too obvious.
Inadequate knowledge of the cultural background is still another factor in the perpetuation of error. Too little is known by too few about the dissemination and availability of French literature in eighteenth-century America. I shall cite only one instance. A historian of an older generation, in a book which has been reprinted, presumed to write, “By French literature the colonists were unaffected, because with few exceptions, they knew nothing about it. The number who could read French was small, the number who did read French to any extent was smaller…. the political theories of Montesquieu and of Rousseau, the wit of Voltaire, the infidelity of the encyclopaedists, had no influence upon men, the most of whom did not know these writers even by name.”6
Generalizations from insufficient data, or the universal sport of jumping to conclusions, another pitfall, needs no documentation. One swallow does not make a summer and a post hoc ergo propter hoc judgment is a trap into which the best may stumble.
National pride is still another snare. It does occasionally becloud a scholar’s vision. One can be too dogmatic in asserting belief concerning influences. Undue stress on one’s own history and literature promotes insularity, misunderstanding, and ultimately intolerance. On the other hand, a more international outlook, and a wider knowledge, solidly grounded on fact, make for better understanding and mutual forbearance. Greater understanding tends to obviate sweeping generalizations, products of provinciality, limited experience, and prejudice.
The importance of the objectively written and carefully documented monograph can not be overstated. Scholars working in eighteenth-century French-American intellectual relations need make no apology, however, for their occasional inability to arrive at firm conclusions about questions of influence, or for raising questions to which they have not found the answers. Thanks to the efforts of a great many researchers, almost every phase of French-American relations of that century is in clearer focus than ever before.7 My study deals with this relationship in the last four decades of the century.
About 1760 British colonials in North America began to ponder earnestly the meaning of liberty under the English constitution. By 1763, when the Treaty of Paris brought an end to the French and Indian War, “the colonies,” according to Louis B. Wright, “had come of age, and their citizens had indeed become Americans.”8 The terminal year, 1800, rounds off the period. Jefferson’s accession to the presidency in March of the following year brought to a close the first great era of controversy regarding the Constitution of the United States.
It is hardly necessary to stress the crucial nature of these decades both in America and in France. It was a time of social and political upheaval. Parties and party strife emerged. Conflicts, hostilities, and revolutionary wars marked these years, which witnessed the beginning of a new order of things. In the New World, to speak only of it, this was a period of intense discussion—of such subjects as natural and constitutional rights, political and religious liberty, the relationship between church and state, theories and machinery of government, orthodoxy, deism, economics, education, humanitarianism, the human habitat, penological reform, progress, the perfectibility of man, and science.
The four decades comprise the times of the Founding Fathers. This was the age of enlightenment in the United States.9 Influential men of a far earlier day have, of course, every right to be considered founders. One need only recall the Pilgrim Fathers and the Mayflower Compact. But my concern is with the molders of opinion in the last forty years of the century. The leaders and influential participants in such momentous undertakings and events as the two Continental Congresses, the Declaration of Independence, the War of Independence, and the Constitutional Convention were the Founding Fathers of the Republic. In all, according to Saul K. Padover, “a list of one hundred names, without claiming inclusiveness, would give an approximate idea of the number of Founding Fathers who were most active and prominent in the fields of political organization, military affairs, oratory, writing, diplomacy, administration, and jurisprudence.”10 Padover prints at the beginning of his book the names of thirty-one of the more eminent members of this group. With the exception of Franklin, the Fathers were, generally speaking, “young” men.11 In 1787, the year of the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton, Madison, and Gouverneur Morris were in their thirties. In that year Jefferson, forty-four, was minister to France. When Jefferson learned the names of these and the other fifty-two delegates from the thirteen colonies who met in Philadelphia in 1787 to draw up a constitution for the United States, he remarked that the Constitutional Convention was “an assembly of demi-gods.” The convention could boast of a good company of Founding Fathers. The reader will come upon the names of many of them in these pages on the French Enlightenment in America.