Review: Caroline Winterer, AMERICAN ENLIGHTENMENTS

It has been forty years since the publication of Henry May’s influential The Enlightenment in America (Oxford University Press, 1976), which has (mostly) remained the standard in the field ever since–if by “standard,” one means the punching bag that cultural, social, and intellectual historians alike can unite in tearing apart, anyway. The book has been a favorite of scholars to both cite and dismiss, praise and to scorn. For many, it was the climax of an older discipline: its unrepentant reliance upon elite(, white, male) sources, its careful taxonomy of different enlightenment categories, its insistence on a Europe-to-America progression, as well as its avoidance of cultural contexts. It is the book that many PhD students put on their comprehensive reading lists, but mostly out of ritual.[1] It seems time, then, for a replacement.

Caroline Winterer’s new offering, American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason (Yale University Press, 2016), both resembles and diverges from her predecessor. First, it is important to note the similarities: Winterer, like May, mostly relies on elite, white males; like Enlightenment in AmericaAmerican Enlightenments climaxes with the republicanism of the Revolution; both authors argue that how one understood the past to be crucial to the enlightenment project; and, for the most part, Winterer follows May’s lead by not becoming too entrenched in particular cultural contexts. These consistencies between the two works, separated by four decades, might frustrate some readers who expected more lessons from social history and the cultural turn to infiltrate the narrative, but the continuities also keep the book and its arguments more relevant to scholars of politics and philosophy. The “enlightenment” belongs to many disciplines.

But there are plenty of new developments in this book, and in many ways it is framed so as to refute a number of May’s governing mechanisms. First, Winterer rejects what she calls the “diffusion theory,” where Europe invented the enlightenment and the ideas merely traveled to America in a purely east-to-west fashion. Instead, American Enlightenments argues that there were “correspondence chains” that connected Europe to America since 1500 through the exchange of ideas and goods. Just as the American continent became central to European economy, so too did the people and their products that made up the colonial experience play a major role in the development of European thinking. They were not mere passengers along for the ride.

Second, Winterer refuses to use the categories of enlightenment made popular by May and others–radical, conservative, etc.–because such a taxonomy forces modern classifications upon those of the past. The concept of an “American Enlightenment,” with capital letters and singular expression, for instance, is a product of later centuries when citizens tried to reassure themselves that they had created a new intellectual tradition. Conversely, Winterer is more interested in the divergent, competing, and often unsure versions present in the eighteenth century. “Nowhere was enlightenment a formal political program, nor were the enlightened a sharply defined group,” she explains. “Rather, enlightenment was a process of becoming, a way of imagining the relationship of the present to the past” (2). Hence the plural “s” in the book’s title and the un-capitalized “enlightenment” throughout the text.

And third, Winterer rightly notes that early American appeals to and claims of being “enlightened”–the term most common during the era–were primarily political in nature. That is, to say something was “enlightened” was more a partisan tool than a disinterested description. “The enlightenment of the American Revolution,” argues the final chapter on politics, “was thus both a reality and a fable that the people of the new United States told about themselves” (251). The first step to dissecting this period and its meanings, Winterer implies, is that we need to stop taking the participants’ words for granted.

American Enlightenments is broken up into eight thematic chapters that cover topics ranging from the American landscape to anti-monarchism. Winterer is at her best when demonstrating how the people, goods, and even landscapes of the Americas challenged European knowledge, like how the seashells found at the top of the Appalachian Mountains led scientists to envision non-biblical origins for their environment. These discoveries were not seen as merely “American” lessons–such nationalist frameworks wouldn’t come until the nineteenth century–but as universal revelations. Debates over these seashells thus integrated the American landscape into international debates while simultaneously upending traditional understandings of the earth and its development. Similarly, intellectuals throughout the Atlantic world were fascinated with both the past civilizations of the continent, like the Aztecs, as well as the current inhabitants, like the indigenous tribes, in formulating theories of human progress and populations. And just as slavery drove the European market, so too did slave bodies provide challenges to and vindications of evolving theories concerning human origins. In each of these cases, Americans had a lot to contributed to these enlightened dialogues, as they were far from merely witnesses to an intellectual pageant taking place in Europe.

Yet in each arena of enlightened science, Americans could never come to a definitive answer. There was no singular “Enlightenment” conclusion. On slavery, the inability to either definitively reconcile or refute coerced labor with enlightened principles perpetuated the practice. The deep division over political economy bred competing factions over whether America should be an agricultural or manufacturing nation. Even in republicanism, where Winterer persuasively shows that anti-monarchy was far from the pre-determined outcome of enlightened politics during the era, modes of governance and rituals of belonging only became more contested at the end of the era. Part of becoming “enlightened,” Winterer emphasizes, was becoming more aware of competing modes of thought. Though she doesn’t specifically say it, pluralism is one of the primary fruits of this intellectual development. Hence, again, the plural “s” in the title.

But the topics Winterer chooses, and the cast of characters through which she tells the story, can often be limited. Perhaps this narrow focus is most apparent in the book’s treatment of religion. Recent scholarship on the enlightenment in Europe has emphasized that it mostly operated within, rather than without, religious frameworks.[2] That is, the enlightenment was a part of, rather than in opposition to, Christian belief. This has been echoed in American scholarship, which has demonstrated that most individuals associated with the American enlightenment highlighted its religious dimensions.[3] Yet in American Enlightenments, Winterer relegates religion to its own (and comparatively small) chapter, compartmentalized from the other topics. More, the chapter devoted to religion spends most of its time on Thomas Paine, the European skeptics who energized him, and finally on the Thomas Jefferson and John Adams correspondence. And the thematic focus for the chapter is on the destruction of ancient “mythologies,” both sacred and profane. Both these individuals and this topic are not overly representative of a majority of Americans who filled the pews during this period. Winterer hints to the unrepresentative nature of these figures, but then identifies this tradition’s later inheritors as the Unitarians, Transcendentalists, and even William James. “Reason took a backseat to morality” in the American intellectual narrative, she explains (193). But this does little to engage the recent works on, say, the many Evangelicals in America who appropriated enlightened ideas of natural religion in order to construct substantial yet democratic messages.[4] Those segments are mostly left out of the story.

So while I can buy into Winterer’s overall arc of increased pluralism, scientific experimentation, and optimistic renderings of America’s future (the “pursuing happiness” in the book’s subtitle[5]), the implied secularization seems a tad too neat. “The major innovation in the new political meaning of enlightenment,” she argues, “was that it was secular, human-centered, and historical” (224). I’d argue that the circle of intellectuals for whom this statement was completely true, who would agree with the “secular” qualification in the way it is used by Winterer, was remarkably narrow. Interestingly, Henry May was more insistent about the role of Protestantism in the American Enlightenment than is Caroline Winterer. We are still waiting for a treatment on the American enlightenment that more completely captures its religious dimensions.[6]

But this critique concerns itself with just one, albeit a significant part of Winterer’s story. Overall, American Enlightenments is the new standard for tracing the American participation in and contributions to the Atlantic world’s enlightenment project. It should replace May’s classic text on comprehensive exam lists, serve as a repository text for intellectual historians of the eighteenth century, and provide a touchstone for a new generation of scholarship. One can only hope that it will pave the way for another forty years of enlightened debates.


[1] See the thoughtful reassessment in John M. Dixon, “Henry F. May and the Revival of the American Enlightenment: Problems and Possibilities for Intellectual and Social History,” William and Mary 71, no. 2 (April 2014): 255-280.

[2] See David Sorkin, The Religious Enlightenment: Protestant, Jews, and Catholics from London to Vienna (Princeton University Press, 2008), for an overview.

[3] For example, see Leigh Eric Schmidt, Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment (Harvard University Press, 2002); John Fea, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); Catherine Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (Yale University Press, 2012).

[4] See Christopher Grasso, “Deist Monster: On Religious Common Sense in the Wake of the American Revolution,” Journal of American History 95, no. 1 (June 2008): 43-68; Amanda Porterfield, Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation (University of Chicago Press, 2012).

[5] From the text: The “pursuit of happiness was one of the principal quests of enlightened people.” But this was a different happiness than today. “Happiness first of all had expansive, public meanings…A society was happy when its people enjoyed the security, stability, and peace that allowed them to prosper. The purpose of government was to create public or social happiness by shielding the state from foreign enemies and internal threats. The opposite of public happiness was not sorrow but anarchy or tear any.” (3)

[6] For more on secularism during this period, see Christopher Grasso’s recent essay, “The Religious and the Secular in the Early American Republic,” which I outlined here.

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