French Deism, Empiricism, Ideology, and Physiocracy
In 1815 the United States purchased Jefferson’s second library. It became the substratum of the Library of Congress. In the discussions in Congress over this library, Cyrus King, a Massachusetts Federalist, opposed its acquisition in these words, recorded in the Annals of Congress:
It might be inferred from the character of the man who collected it, and France, where the collection was made, that the library contained irreligious and immoral books, works of the French philosophers, who caused and influenced the volcano of the French Revolution, which had desolated Europe and extended to this country. He [King] was opposed to a general dissemination of that infidel philosophy, and of the principles of a man [Jefferson] who had inflicted greater injury on our country than any other, except Mr. Madison.1
This caustic criticism of the philosophes is only one of many censures on the same theme. In 1801 Joseph Dennie, the essayist, had published in The Portfolio a piece entitled “The Imported French Philosophy” in which he said, “Those who have been professors of the new philosophy of France, and their servile devotees in America, taint everything they touch.” The acrimony of conservatives goes back at least to the time of the American Revolution. It was then, wrote Timothy Dwight, that Americans had intercourse with “Frenchmen, disciples of Voltaire, Rousseau, d’Alembert, and Diderot; men holding that loose and undefined atheism which neither believes nor disbelieves the existence of a God, and is perfectly indifferent whether he exists or not.”2
The fear of French “infidel philosophy” greatly increased during the French Revolution. This apprehension was widely expressed. “The fact is,” said the writer of a piece printed in the Connecticut Courant, January 19, 1795, “that a spirit of Infidelity is spreading far and wide; and, what is new, at least in this country, it pervades a large portion of the lower classes of the people. This evil, I consider as naturally connected with the wild, and libertine principles, which the French Revolution has engendered in the world.” Charles Nisbet was president of Dickinson College. “From the first, he regarded it [the French Revolution] not only with suspicion, but with fixed aversion, and even abhorrence. He considered it, from the outset, as originating with the infidel philosophers of France, for the overthrow of religion and of all government.”3 And Noah Webster wrote:
By French principles are now meant, principles of Atheism, irreligion, ambition, and Jacobinism. The citizens of this part of America are firmly persuaded that French conquests, or attempts to reform Europe by the sword, are inconsistent…. They believe the opinion, that man can be governed by his reason improved, without the usual aids of religion and law, to be not merely a chimera, but a dangerous doctrine, calculated to undermine the foundation of morals and all social confidence and security.4
The reader will find many things of interest with regard to American attitudes toward the French Revolution in Charles Downer Hazen’s old but well-documented study, Contemporary American Opinion of the French Revolution.5
Cyrus King’s diatribe calls for one further comment. His implied charge of Jefferson’s guilt by association with France and things French was, of course, far from new. Such partisan accusations aside, it has been long and frequently asserted that Jefferson was heavily influenced by French philosophy. But Gilbert Chinard, himself a Frenchman, wrote, “The idea that Jefferson had been influenced more than any other American of his generation … by French thought has so long been accepted both by his friends and his enemies that we have not come to a different conclusion without some misgivings … such an influence, if it really existed, was limited and should be studied historically.”6 Another Jefferson scholar, Adrienne Koch, believed, however, that Jefferson was influenced by French philosophers.7
In this section I want to comment briefly on the American reaction to French deism and at some length on the reaction to Volney. I wish also to speak of the reception of the philosophical doctrines of empiricism, ideology, and physiocracy.
Much has been written on deism in the times of the Founding Fathers and earlier. I refer the reader especially to two important sources of information.8 The deism of the philosophes was abhorred by many orthodox Americans. There is, moreover, no dearth of evidence as to the inroads it made in colleges and elsewhere. The deism of Voltaire was the object of repeated attacks.9 Timothy Dwight, a Congregational minister and grandson of Jonathan Edwards, dedicated his poem The Triumph of Infidelity (1788) to Voltaire. I have observed that while Rousseau was excoriated for his deistic beliefs by Dwight, Cobbett, and others, he was also called upon to provide ammunition against the deists. Some American writers used his famous comparison of Jesus Christ and Socrates in the Emile as such. From the evidence accumulated, I find it rather difficult to believe that the philosophes, with the possible exception of Voltaire and Volney, could have exerted any appreciable influence on the deistic movement in this country.
Deism, or natural religion, has a long history in the United States. With regard to the eighteenth century, which Samuel Miller denominated “The Age of Infidel Philosophy,” one can trace its growth from the early imports of books by English rationalists to the founding in New York City in November 1800 of a weekly deistic newspaper, The Temple of Reason. It is noteworthy that Herbert Morais began his study of the rise of deism in colonial America with the year 1713. It is also to be noted that Timothy Dwight’s The Nature and Danger of Infidel Philosophy (1798) contains far more references to English than to French deists. In this little book, composed of two baccalaureate addresses to graduating classes at Yale, Dwight does take a few shots at Voltaire and D’Alembert, but does not mention any of Voltaire’s important “coadjutors,” as he would later call and name them in his Travels in New England and New York (1822). Who would care to argue that Voltaire, more or less singlehandedly, could have changed a whole climate of opinion? Or that French thought was largely responsible for the great damage done to orthodoxy by deism following the outbreak of the French Revolution? It would seem almost axiomatic that a writer would exert little or no influence in a foreign country if his ideas were basically the same as those already to be found in the writings of that country.
I conclude this brief discussion of rationalism and “infidel philosophy” with some remarks on the fortune here of one of Volney’s books, Les Ruines, ou méditations sur les révolutions des empires (1791). A biographer of Volney, who was a deist or an atheist, calls it a “strange book, with four distinct parts … very unequal in value: a prose poem, an abridgment of the philosophy of Helvétius and Holbach, a sentimental history of the Constituent Assembly, and a picture, drawn in broad outlines, of the religious development of humanity.”10 This book was published in English translation in New York in 1796 and in Philadelphia in 1799. A copyright had also been granted for an edition in the latter city in 1795. A new English translation of Les Ruines appeared in Paris in 1802. Joel Barlow usually receives the credit for this translation. But it was Thomas Jefferson, according to Gilbert Chinard, who translated the eloquent invocation and the first twenty chapters of the book, which were later touched up by Barlow, who translated the remaining half.11
The Ruins; or, Meditations on the Revolutions of Empires, on the authority of Frank Luther Mott, was the only French “over-all best seller” in eighteenth-century America.12 It is difficult today to understand the great success here of this anticlerical work, which has also been called a study in comparative religion. The book’s romanticism, iconoclasm, and the novelty of its approach to religion may explain its appeal to so many people. But this is only a surmise. “Of all the books that ever were published,” Elihu Palmer wrote, “Volney’s Ruins is pre-eminently entitled to the appelation of Holy Writ, and ought to be appointed to be read in Churches … by the universal consent and approbation of all those who love nature, truth, and human happiness.” Palmer and Ethan Allen were two of the country’s most rabid deists. Reason the Only Oracle of Man (1784), published under Allen’s name, contains no overt indication of French deistic influence. This is obviously not the case with Palmer’s Principles of Nature, whence comes the preceding quotation.13 Peter Gay calls Palmer’s book the “Bible” of American deism. Volney, along with Paine, Barlow, Condorcet, and Godwin, said Palmer in an Independence Day oration, “will be ranked among the greatest benefactors of the human race.”14
Another book by Volney was published in English translation in Philadelphia in 1796. This was The Law of Nature; or, Principles of Morality, Deduced from the Physical Constitution of Mankind and the Universe. It also appeared in abbreviated pamphlet form in the same city the following year.
At the University of North Carolina near the end of the century, according to a minister of the time, whom I have previously cited, “The writings of Voltaire, Volney, and Paine were in the hands of almost all, and the public mind was poisoned.”15 The writer of an article appearing in Boston’s Columbian Centinel, July 9, 1800, who called himself an “old fashioned” American and who blasted Jefferson’s liberal views, refused to consider “Voltaire, Godwin and Volney the greatest philosophers of the age.”
Volney, disillusioned with France and Europe, had come to the United States in 1795 with the intention of establishing residency. In addition to Jefferson, whom he knew as a friend, he was acquainted with a number of Americans, among them Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and James Monroe. He met Washington. The American Philosophical Society elected him a corresponding member in 1797.
During the administration of John Adams, Volney was forced to return to France, having become suspect in this country. He had traveled widely during his three-year stay. His book Tableau du climat et du sol des Etats-Unis d’Amérique was published in Paris in 1803. Charles Brockden Brown, the novelist, translated this important work into English. In its preface, Volney presented his version of the circumstances that led to his departure, and expressed his disillusionment with the United States: “I have observed, with much regret, none of that friendly and brotherly good-will, in this people, towards us…. There is nothing in the social forms and habits of the two nations that can make them coalesce.”16
John Locke’s epoch-making Essay Concerning Human Understanding was first published in French in 1770. This essay exerted more influence in eighteenth-century France than any other foreign philosophical work. Locke rejected the notion of innate ideas, posited sensation as the source of knowledge. His denial of abstract ideas had many repercussions, and his empiricism appealed to those whose fixed purpose was to challenge any assertion without proof. The philosophes, especially, found this most useful in their attacks on church and state. Under Locke’s sway, Condillac published his Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines in 1746.17 And in his Traité des sensations (1754), Condillac went even further than Locke in postulating a theory of empiricism.18
Locke’s influence, as is well known, was long felt in America.19 But the French thinker fared differently. Condillac’s “Origin of Human Knowledge, 8vo.” was, in truth, among the more frequently used books in the Harvard Library.20 The Library Company of Philadelphia had this book in its collection.21 And it was also available in Caritat’s circulating library in New York.22
John Adams owned five of Condillac’s books in French, including an edition in two volumes of the Traité des sensations. Jefferson’s 1815 library contained, of works by Condillac, only his Le Commerce et le gouvernement and copies of his Logique in both English and Spanish. William Duane, editor of the Aurora General Advertiser, had three different English editions of “Condillac’s Works” and also his “La Langue des Calculs.”23
Few contemporary comments on Condillac have come to my attention. Samuel Miller paid tribute to him, among others, as one who, “with great learning and ingenuity,” treated the philosophy of language.24 In a discussion of education, John Adams wrote to Jefferson in 1814, that he had “turned over [read] Locke, Milton, Condillac, Rousseau and even Miss. Edgeworth as a bird flies through the Air.” He also said that “Condelacs course of Study has excellent Parts.”25 Dr. Benjamin Rush, in an 1805 lecture, declared that for the most part the opinions and observations of Locke, Condillac, and others on “a science of the mind” were to be found in Aristotle and Plato.26 All in all, Condillac seems to have had little or no impact on American thought. Elihu Palmer, in his Principles of Nature, wrote of Locke’s empiricism, and of sensation as the source and cause of all ideas.27 But nowhere in his long book does Palmer even mention Condillac. He does refer, however, in other matters, to Holbach, Rousseau, Voltaire, and often to Volney.
Ideology, founded on Condillac’s empiricism, was the philosophy of revolutionary and postrevolutionary France. Van Duzer writes, “Proceeding on the premises, first, that sensations are the primary data of cognition, and secondly, that all ideas are resolvable compounds of sensations, Condillac sought to remake philosophy into an analytical methodology for testing the validity of ideas.”28 Destutt de Tracy coined the term Idéologie in 1796, and the word as first used meant the “science of ideas.” It later came to mean “science of man.” But, as B. G. Garnham points out, “Idéologie goes beyond the study of man himself to become a science of methods applicable in many fields—legislation, political economy, education, medicine, mathematics and so on.”29 Tracy30 and Cabanis were prime leaders in this new movement, whose adherents were known as idéologues or idéologistes.31 The idéologues succeeded the philosophes, and they served as a “bridge” between the philosophes and such nineteenth-century social thinkers as Saint-Simon and Comte.32
Franklin was friendly with some of the ideologists, especially with Cabanis, when he was in Paris.33 In his twilight years, John Adams made teasing remarks about “Idiologians” and “Idiology” in letters to Jefferson.34 Aldridge has studied Paine’s relations with the idéologues.35 But Jefferson is the important link between Ideology and the United States.36 He considered Tracy “the ablest writer living on intellectual subjects, or the operations of the understanding.”37 Even John Adams had good things to say about one of Tracy’s books.38
Chinard found that Tracy’s influence here was deep and extensive, more so than François Picavet had suspected when he published Les Idéologues (Paris: F. Alcan, 1891).39 “To see Idéologie at its best and in its purest form,” Chinard writes, “it would be necessary to study it in America; in France its career was much more toubled and stormy.”40
Tracy was elected an associate member, and Cabanis a corresponding member, by the American Philosophical Society.
A glowing picture of Du Pont de Nemours as man, philosopher, admirer of Jefferson, and devotee of America emerges from Gilbert Chinard’s study of the Physiocrat.41 Chinard gainsays, however, any influence of the French economist on Jefferson. It was Parrington who, more than anyone else to my knowledge, disseminated the notion of Physiocratic influence in the United States: “Landing first in Virginia in the early seventeen-seventies, it [French revolutionary theory] met with a hospitable reception from the generous planter society and spread widely there the fashion of Physiocratic agrarianism.”42 And Parrington believed that “the strongest creative influence on the mature Jefferson came from the Physiocratic group, from Quesnay, Condorcet, Mirabeau, Du Pont de Nemours, the brilliant founders of an economy that was primarily social rather than narrowly industrial or financial.”43 But G. K. Smart, who made an extensive study of Virginia libraries, said, “Of the French Physiocrats mentioned by Parrington as influential in Virginia after the 1770’s, such a complete dearth exists as to make his conclusions questionable.”44
François Quesnay, a physician, was the founder of Physiocracy (“government according to natural order”). Gournay and Turgot, in addition to those named above, were also important representatives of this school of economic thought. The Physiocrats believed that the land was the only source of wealth. They opposed tariff barriers on agricultural production, something they considered unnatural. Laissez faire, laissez passer. Physiocracy was the principal economic doctrine of eighteenth-century France.
Franklin had met the leading Physiocrats on an early visit to France. Scholars have found that while there are similarities between Franklin’s thinking on certain principles and that of members of this economic school, there are also differences.”45
Dr. George Logan, whom his biographer calls an “Agrarian Democrat” and “a good Physiocrat,” had been “urged” by Franklin “to read the French économistes—Mercier de la Rivière, Le Trosne, Turgot, all the disciples of Quesnay.”46 Turgot’s name occurs occasionally in booksellers’ advertisements in city gazettes. I would like to say a word or two about him, not as a political economist, but as a political theorist. And in this connection a few remarks about the Abbé de Mably may also be appropriate.
Zoltán Haraszti, in his chapter on “Turgot’s Attack on the American Constitutions,” writes, “Of all the French thinkers of the eighteenth century, Adams regarded Turgot as the most dangerous adversary of good government.”47 To parry this attack, Adams composed A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (London: C. Dilly and John Stockdale, 1787–88). The New Englander vigorously defended bicameral legislatures and the principle of balance of powers against “Mr. Turgot’s idea of a perfect commonwealth, a single assembly … possessed of all authority, legislative, executive, and judicial.”48 Adams was never reluctant to express an opinion: “In general, the theory of government is as well understood in America as it is in Europe; and by great numbers of individuals is everything, relating to a free constitution, infinitely better comprehended than by the Abbé De Mably or Mr. Turgot, amiable, learned, and ingenius, as they were.”49
Mably, a brother of Condillac, held ideas that paralleled those of the Physiocrats, but he also differed with them.50 My concern, however, is with Mably as political theorist. In 1784 he published his Observations sur le gouvernement et les lois des Etats-Unis d’Amérique.51 The book consisted of four letters addressed to John Adams. An English translation of it appeared in the same year. Haraszti has a chapter on Adams’s reaction to Mably.52 Others also challenged the Observations. William Vans Murray, a Marylander, wrote a book entitled Political Sketches, which he inscribed to John Adams. Mably was the subject of the first sketch, in which Murray defended the government of the United States against the French thinker’s “erroneous conclusions, and fanciful conjectures.”53 Philip Mazzei, a friend and neighbor of Jefferson’s, undertook a very lengthy refutation of Mably’s errors in the Observations. Mazzei’s book, written in Italian, was translated into French and published in Paris in 1788 under the title Recherches historiques et politiques sur les Etats-Unis de l’Amêrique septentrionale.54 In this book “par un Citoyen de Virginia,” Mazzei also felt obligated to document Raynal’s ignorance of and mistakes in writing about the United States in the latter’s Philosophical History of the Two Indies. James Kent, Columbia law professor and jurist, owned a French edition of Mably’s complete works. On the flyleaf of one volume, he wrote, “The Abbé in this work [De la legislation ou principes des loix?] in the study of history, appears to be a wild and contemptible philosopher. He dares not indulge his wishes for full equality, but is at all events for the sumptuary and agrarian laws.”55 James Madison, nevertheless, had made use of Mably in his memorandum “Of Ancient and Modern Confederacies,” which he prepared prior to the Constitutional Convention of 1787.56 And Madison’s memorandum was the source of Washington’s own notes on this subject.
There is little doubt that the rationalism of Voltaire and Volney was a factor that contributed to the spread of natural religion in the United States. But it does not appear that Condillac’s empiricism, or Ideology, or Physiocracy were of much consequence here, at least in the eighteenth century. In concluding this brief but valid account of the reception of these philosophies, I think it appropriate to point out that the Founding Fathers set great store by practical experience. The evidence bears this out.
Aldridge cites Franklin’s remark that “true philosophy could be founded only on patient and accurate observation, which must always take precedence over conjectures and suppositions.”57 Chinard reminds us that Jefferson had little use for metaphysical speculation.58 Adrienne Koch concludes that however much Jefferson loved ideas, “His intellectual life … is primarily practical, drawing upon the basic source of human experience…. Jefferson’s understanding of ideology [for instance] was not a speculative discipline for its own sake at all. He tried to put ideology into practice…. For Jefferson those ideas were significant which related to the needs, the sweat, and the labor of human life.”59 One has only to leaf through The Federalist, that political classic of a new and proud nation, to be made aware of the numerous references and appeals to experience.60 Noah Webster imparted emphasis to the point: “On political subjects, I have no hesitation in saying, that I believe the learning of our eminent statesmen to be the superior of most European writers; and their opinions far more correct. They have all the authors on these subjects, united with much experience which no European country can have had.”61 To sum up, theories can come to the aid of experience, but they must be compatible with it.