Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot were the principal French philosophes of the Enlightenment. The writings of Voltaire were more widely advertised and disseminated in this country than those of any of the others. A few, including the Philosophical Dictionary, were published in the United States before 1800. Diderot’s writings were the least known. With regard to Rousseau, I have not much hesitancy in affirming that he was as well known as Montesquieu, whom Robert Shackleton calls “a philosophe before the philosophes had formed a party.”1 But Rousseau was the author of several masterpieces whereas Montesquieu was really known in America only for one. Rousseau’s influential novel and his Social Contract were both published here near the end of the century. The Social Contract contains one of the world’s most eloquent enunciations of the doctrine of popular sovereignty. Yet it had no influence on the Declaration of Independence. Montesquieu, on the other hand, exerted an influence on the Constitution of the United States. The Spirit of Laws, however, did not have the honor of an eighteenth-century American imprint.
“Who Were the Philosophes?” This is the title of a judicious article2 by John Lough in which he seeks “to bring out into the open a question which lurks at the back of one’s mind whenever one speaks or writes about eighteenth-century French thought.” Lough identifies as philosophes of the first order Voltaire, Diderot, Raynal, D’Alembert, Helvétius, Holbach, and Condorcet. Noticeable omissions in this list are the names of Bayle, Fontenelle, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, about all of whom he has reservations, which others, past and present, have not had. Differences of opinion arise in part from lack of clear distinctions, in some cases, among philosophes, encyclopedists, and ideologues. Lough’s exclusions and tentative conclusions will not, of course, be acceptable to everyone.
What is meant by a philosophe? We would expect to find a satisfactory definition under the entry “Philosophe” in Diderot’s Encyclopédie, the authorship of which has been attributed variously to Diderot, Dumarsais, and others. But Lough finds little help here, and I agree. Lough includes in his article several eighteenth-century definitions of the term. Most useful of all, he finds, is a statement by Condorcet in the ninth stage of his Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrés de l’esprit humain. In this place, the philosophe speaks of a class of men in Europe who took reason, tolerance, and humanity for their battle cry.
These shibboleths, these beliefs, are central. But the French philosophic creed, it goes without saying, contained many other tenets. Among them was belief in natural law, the natural goodness of man, natural religion, a social contract, liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness, education by the state, science, progress, the indefinite perfectibility of mankind, empiricism, behaviorism, enlightened self-interest, the relativity of ethics, and utilitarianism.
All the philosophes, of course, did not assent to, much less discuss, every one of these tenets. Most of them accepted many of the doctrines; others only a few. There was no concerted philosophic program. But whether optimists, meliorists, or pessimists, they strove through their writings to bring about a new and better social order—in politics, economics, education, and morality. Some looked to the New World. They were imbued with the American experiment, enamored of the American Dream.3 But all looked to the future, not to the past.4
Bayle and Fontenelle were the most prominent French precursors of le mouvement philosophique, and Helvétius and Holbach were two thoroughgoing and outstanding philosophes. Recorded here is some evidence concerning the reception by Americans of these men’s writings, a matter about which little or nothing is known.
Pierre Bayle was a “master of doubt” and a great apostle of tolerance. Voltaire held him in the highest esteem, called his writings “the library of the nations.” Bayle published his Pensées diverses sur la comète in 1682, and his famous Dictionnaire historique et critique, the “Old Testament” and arsenal of the philosophic movement, in 1697. An English translation of the former was available as early as 1708, of the latter in 1710.
James Bowdoin, Massachusetts statesman, owned Bayle’s “Works.”5 Harvard had the “Oeuvres diverses” the Pernees diverses sur la comète, and three sets of the Pensées in English.6 A Philadelphia bookseller advertised the “Oeuvres.”7 Bayle’s masterpiece, the Dictionary, was by no means unknown. The first book order made by the Library Company of Philadelphia, a list completed in March 1732, included the “Critical Dictionary.”8 Harvard College, as pointed out elsewhere, had refused a gift of a French edition of the great work in 1724, allegedly because the students could not read the language. Jonathan Edwards knew of the Dictionary.9 It was in the Rhode Island College (Brown University) library, on the shelves of the Providence Library Society and of individual Rhode Islanders.10 It was among the books of a Maryland clergyman.11 In 1771 Jefferson proposed its purchase to Robert Skipwith for his library.12 John Randolph of Roanoke had a “noble” French edition of the Dictionary as well as an English translation in five volumes.13 Benjamin Rush seemingly quoted Bayle’s Miscellaneous Reflections Occasioned by the Comet of 1680.14 Samuel Miller thought the Dictionary a “work of great labour and learning.” And the writer of an antifederal editorial in the Baltimore American and Daily Advertiser, December 4, 1800, praised Bayle and others as “disciples” of political freedom.
Fontenelle, a prolific writer and the second great precursor of the Enlightenment in France, was known in the United States for two of his books, the Dialogues des morts (1683) and Entretiens sur lapluralite des mondes (1686). Both were early available in English translations, the first in 1685, the second in 1688. One could purchase his Dialogues of the Dead and New Dialogues of the Dead in Williamsburg in 1765.15 A catalog of books advertised for sale by other dealers in this city appeared in the Virginia Gazette, November 25, 1775. It contained Dialogues of the Dead, but did not mention the name of an author.16 The Redwood Library Company in Newport, Rhode Island, had listed Dialogues of the Dead, most likely Fontenelle’s, in its 1764 catalog.17 The Library Company of Philadelphia had his Dialogues and also his History of Oracles.18
Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralite des mondes appeared in 1686. “Coming as it did … just one year before the publication of Newton’s Principia was to assure the success of the Copernican system,” writes Leonard M. Marsak, “the Entretiens provides a cogent and smoothly flowing argument for that system, and particularly for the Cartesian interpretation of it.”19 Significant and most readable, this work of popularization consists of six evenings of talks between the author and a supposed marquise. The “Plurality of Worlds” was advertised in the South Carolina Gazette in 1753, in the Maryland Gazette, August 26, 1762. The first president of King’s College (Columbia), founded in 1754, read the book in 1739–40.20 Donald Robertson, the Scot whose school in Virginia James Madison once attended, owned a copy.21 The book was in the Redwood Library Company in 1764, and in a circulating library in Providence in 1789.22 An excerpt from the work appeared in the National Gazette, June 28, 1792.23 The “Plurality of Worlds” was praised in an article of foreign origin reprinted in 1798 in the American Universal Magazine.24 The year before, this same periodical had offered its readers a full-page engraving of Fontenelle.25 One could buy the author’s Oeuvres at Moreau de Saint-Méry’s bookstore in Philadelphia in 1795.26 John Adams had an edition of the Oeuvres in his library. And the “Works of M. d’Fontinelle” were on a list of books to be auctioned in Providence.27 Samuel Miller wrote that Fontenelle, along with Voltaire, Rousseau, and Buffon, deserves to stand in the “first rank” of the eighteenth-century writers who contributed to the enrichment and refinement of the French language.28
Helvétius and Holbach were arch materialists. The Parlement de Paris condemned Helvétius’s De l’Esprit to be burned publicly. Holbach was called the “personal enemy of God.” John Lough has made a study of the two philosophes to show how far they were in agreement and where they differed on certain fundamental questions.29 He found that they had much in common: they were rigid determinists and disciples of John Locke, they “base their utilitarian ethics on physical sensation,” and both believe that “the object of society is the happiness of the greatest number, founded on the union of public and private interest.”
Helvétius attracted the attention of more American readers than did Holbach. His major work, De l’Esprit (1758), appeared in English in 1759 as Essays on the Mind. His book De l’Homme was published posthumously in 1772. The translation, A Treatise on Man, was printed in London in 1777. I have noted few offers of Helvétius’s books in the gazettes. A Baltimore dealer advertised his “Works” in the Federal Intelligencer from October 22 to November 2, 1795. This advertisement is doubtless the same as the one that ran concurrently in the Maryland Journal. Moreau de Saint-Méry, the Philadelphia bookseller, listed the Treatise on Man and the author’s Poesies in an extensive catalog of books for sale published in 1795. “Helvétius on Man, 2 vols.” could be had at Boston’s Salem Book-Store and Circulating Library in 1796.30 And this work was available in French at Caritat’s circulating library in New York.31 H. M. Jones noted an advertisement of “Helvétius’s Treaty of Man’” in this city’s Royal Gazette as early as November 11, 1778.32 Joseph Nancrède’s anthology, L’Abeille françoise, Martel’s Elements, and Mathew Carey’s collection, The School of Wisdom, contained very brief extracts from the author’s writing. The American Universal Magazine, in its December 5, 1797, issue, favored its readers with a full-page engraving, an “Elegant Head,” of Helvétius, together with a ten-page biography of the philosophe.
The author’s writings were on the shelves of various types of libraries. De l’Esprit was among the books left to the College of Charleston by a benefactor.33 The Library Company of Philadelphia had De l’Esprit and A Treatise on Man before or by 1789.34 The library later acquired, according to its catalog published in 1807, two copies of De l’Esprit in English translation. “Helvétius on Man, 2 vols.” was in the New York Society Library in 1793.35 And the Records of the Union Library of Hatborough (Pennsylvania), show that this library bought the latter title in 1794. A literary society at the University of North Carolina purchased “Helvétius on the Human Mind” shortly after the opening of the university in 1795.36 “Helvétius on Man” was in the Warren Library Society (Rhode Island) in 1799.37
His books were in private libraries. John Adams owned the Treatise on Man. So did the southerner John K. Read.38 William Duane, the Philadelphia newspaper editor, had this work in French. Solomon Drowne, a Rhode Island College graduate and future professor, owned De l’Esprit.39 Jefferson’s second library contained the Oeuvres d’Helvétius, an edition in five volumes published in 1781.
The author was quoted or referred to in newspapers. Mary Ellen Loughrey points out quotations from De l’Homme in three issues of the Newport Herald in the 1780s. These involved morality and religion.40 In the Gazette of the United States, October 31, 1795, one finds this sarcastic apostrophe: “Dear Helvétius! How I love thy memory! Thou has unsouled us all—All the little Jackanapes about me also admire thee. Not because they understand thy principles, but because they love thy maxims. The very ladies of my acquaintance are beginning to praise thee!—I hope it is for the freedom thou art pleased to recommend in the commerce of the sexes” And on this subject, the writer of the article supplies his readers with exact page references. In an oration before the Tammany Society, a speaker praised Helvétius as one who “accelerated the epoch of the French Revolution [but] despaired of the restoration of liberty to his country.”41
According to the evidence, Americans were by no means indifferent to the philosophe. Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to the Abbé de la Roche in 1779, said, “I have often remarked, in reading the works of M. Helvétius, that, although we were born and educated in two countries so remote from each other, we have often been inspired with the same thoughts; and it is a reflection very flattering to me, that we have not only loved the same studies, but, as far as we have mutually known them, the same friends, and the same woman.”42 It does not seem likely that Franklin ever met Helvétius personally.43 But he was well acquainted with, and very fond of, his widow—“the same woman.” It has been generally considered that he proposed marriage to her. Her refusal of his offer inspired Franklin to write the Elysian Fields, one of his most famous bagatelles.44
Jefferson called Helvétius “one of the best men on earth.” He quoted De l’Esprit on egoism or self-interest as the source of moral action, and said that the author was “the most ingenious advocate of this principle.” But for Jefferson self-interest was not enough. In his opinion, the source of altruism is to be found in man’s “moral instinct.”45 Early on the French philosopher had evoked the Virginian’s interest. Gilbert Chinard, in the introduction to his edition of Jefferson’s Commonplace Book, wrote that Jefferson “was impressed by at least two theories of Helvétius.” He found that Jefferson copied into his book three rather lengthy passages from De l’Homme. They deal with the soul, accusations of atheism, and federative republics.46 Chinard was inclined to believe that Jefferson made these entries before going to France.
One mention of John Adams’s reaction to the philosophe will suffice. “I have never read Reasoning more absurd, Sophistry more gross,” he wrote Jefferson, “than the subtle labours of Helvétius and Rousseau to demonstrate the natural Equality of Mankind.”47 On this subject, James Madison was not so sweepingly condemnatory of Helvétius as Adams.48
Noah Webster, according to Allen O. Hansen, was influenced in some fashion by Helvétius in the period following the American Revolution.49 If so, he later changed his mind. “Helvétius and other profound philosophers may write as much as they please, to prove man to be wholly the creature of his own making, the work of education; but facts occur every hour to common observation, to prove the theory false.”50 At the very end of the century, Webster wrote, “The theories of Helvétius, Rousseau, Condorcet, Turgot, Godwin and others, are founded on artificial reasoning, not on the nature of man; not on fact and experience.”51
In Helvétius’s philosophy education and legislation were basic principles. Samuel Miller could not accept the notion of the “intellectual and moral omnipotence” of education, “first distinctly taught by M. Helvétius.”52 In a thumbnail sketch of the philosophe, Miller writes, “Helvetius may be regarded as one of the earliest and most conspicuous of the advocates for that system of materialism, and of atheistical reveries, usually called the new philosophy.”53 And to his sons he wrote, “Were I to hear that, under the guise of enlarged and liberal reading, you were, in your leisure moments, poring over the pages of Voltaire, Helvetius, and other similar writers, I should … be ready to weep over you, as probably lost to virtue and happiness, to say nothing of piety.”54 He calls these writers “vile men.”
The Paris Parlement condemned several books by Holbach to be lacerated and burned by the public hangman. It declared them “impious” and “blasphemous,” and the parlement threatened all French readers with punishment for “lèse-majesté human and divine.”55 Among the books were Le Christianisme dévoilé; ou, Examen des principes et des effets de la religion chrétienne (1761) and the Système de la nature (1770). William M. Johnson, an American medical student, translated the former book. This translation was printed in New York in 1795.56 A condensation of the latter work was also published in New York in the same year under the title of Common Sense; or, Natural Ideas Opposed to Supernatural. Johnson made the only English translation of Le Christianisme dévoilé in the eighteenth century. He felt remorse for having done so. “Persuasion and poverty induced me to translate this work of Boulanger [pseudonym of Holbach].” And in the same letter to a friend from which the preceding is taken, Johnson wrote, “I do not believe that Boulanger’s sentiments concerning the Christian religion are just. I believe the most prominent features of the monster in question are sophistry and rancour.”57
The Reverend Uzal Ogden excoriated Holbach in “Remarks on Boulanger’s Christianity Unveiled,” which he prefixed to his book Antidote to Deism.58 And a Baltimore newspaper printed an extract from “The Lay Preacher” (Joseph Dennie) in which he says, “Boulanger, an audacious Frenchman, in his ‘Christianity Unveiled,’ has presumptuously attempted to sap the Christian’s fortress.”59 Such denunciations of Holbach would long continue. Timothy Dwight, Congregational minister and former president of Yale, writing after the close of the eighteenth century on religion in New England in the period of the French Revolution, had this to say, “From the Systéme de la nature and the Philosophical Dictionary, down to the Political Justice of Godwin and the Age of Reason, the whole mass of pollution was emptied on this country…. On the people of New England their influence [that is, of Holbach, Voltaire, Godwin, and Paine], though sensibly felt, was not extensive; on other parts of the Union, it is declared, as I believe with truth, to have been great.”60
Benjamin Franklin visited Holbach in his home.61 Jefferson’s second library had “The System of Nature, Eng. 1st vol. 8vo.” William Dunlap, the playwright, purchased the book, and made this notation in his diary: “Read in System of Nature.”62 Joel Barlow, according to Leon Howard, owed much to Holbach. One statement concerning this indebtedness will suffice. Barlow’s “deterministic materialism … derived from Holbach and the Encyclopedists, dominated his mature mind and his major literary works.”63 Elihu Palmer will refer to Holbach and quote the System of Nature on motion in his book Principles of Nature, published shortly after the century’s end.
In the last decade of the century, Caritat, proprietor of the big bookshop in New York City, did his best to disseminate books in French by leading authors of the French Enlightenment. Among these, according to Raddin, were writings of Holbach (including the Système de la nature), Helvétius (De l’Homme), Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, D’Alembert, Condorcet (Esquisse), and Volney.64 Raddin cites numerous other offerings by Caritat of less well known French authors. He does not, however, mention any book by La Mettrie. Yet Riley, in his old but classic work on American philosophy, speaks of the coming of La Mettrie’s materialism to the United States.65 The writings of this philosophe were conspicuously absent on the American scene. I can only point to the possession by Harvard of L’Homme machine (Leyden, 1748) and L’Homme plus que machine (London, 1748).66
The duke of La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, who traveled here and in Upper Canada in the years 1795–97, commented on the habit of referring to the United States as “the most enlightened nation in the world.” And Bernard Faÿ, the French historian, expressed the opinion that in the last thirty years of the eighteenth century, “the average man seems to have read more than was the case in Europe.”67 The increase in readership in America in this century had been extraordinary. Long before its close, Americans had the opportunity to buy and to read, in English or in French, important writings of the principal philosophes.
The fortunes in the United States of Bayle, Fontenelle, Helvétius, and Holbach have become clearer. In the pages that follow I shall deal with Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, Condorcet, and the reception of certain philosophies. I have written on Rousseau elsewhere.68