Intellectual historian at Stanford questions the idea of the American Enlightenment

According to Caroline Winterer, to be “enlightened” meant something different to Americans living in the 18th century than it does today.

Caroline Winterer, professor of history and director of the Stanford Humanities Center, recently came to a stunning realization – namely, that the so-called “American Enlightenment” was a narrative fabricated during the Cold War era. The United States, goes that narrative, is the bastion of “democratic civilization,” sure-minded and unstoppable, defined by its revolutionary break with hereditary monarchy and embrace of republican virtue. As envisioned by Cold War thinkers, America’s heritage of “democratic civilization” would shield it against totalitarianism.

Caroline Winterer

Stanford professor Caroline Winterer’s new book asks what Americans mean now and in the past when they speak of “enlightenment.” (Image credit: Steve Castillo)

Winterer’s new book, American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason (Yale University Press), rejects this Cold War narrative. In it she contends that we should think about American “enlightenments” instead of “the Enlightenment.”

“There were many enlightenments in America, not just one unitary, patriotic ‘Enlightenment,’ with the American Revolution and Constitution at its center,” said Winterer. Realizing that she “was never going to find this mythical golden age called the ‘American Enlightenment,’” she instead set out to learn how early Americans themselves thought about being enlightened.

What she discovered were disparate groups of people talking about all manner of topics – not necessarily about the Revolution, but always about a never-ending process they called “enlightenment.” By enlightenment, people in the 18th century generally meant using reason (as opposed to Biblical revelation or received opinion) to make the world a better place. Covering topics ranging from fossils to pie charts, from military intelligence to plantation slavery, Winterer sees the grand narrative of enlightenment in America as a series of smaller conversations about what it meant to be enlightened.

“People in the 18th century didn’t talk about a single Enlightenment,” Winterer said, adding that “they had a number of definitions for it and talked about how they were going to become enlightened by doing x, y or z.” The notion of a single, great American Enlightenment – one that assumed the one-way transmission of revolutionary ideals from Europe – portrays the founding fathers as unwavering and sure-footed. For Winterer, neither is accurate.

“The Cold War narrative of ‘the’ American Enlightenment is that the Founders knew what the right way was, and how to achieve it; they found it, they did it, and they never asked any questions,” Winterer said. This version of the founders was popularized by historian Adrienne Koch in her book The American Enlightenment: The Shaping of the American Experiment and a Free Society (1965) and was taken up by sociologists, philosophers and politicians to explain phenomena as diverse as religious institutions, the civil rights movements and American exceptionalism.

Winterer’s research tells another story. She holds that the Founders were not completely sure that revolution would actually bring them closer to enlightenment. Needling questions loomed: if a monarchy successfully sponsored intellectual and cultural activity, could a kingless republic too yield enlightenment for the people? How could Americans assess whether their new republican governments were more or less enlightened than European monarchies?

Questioning the “diffusionist” model

A historian who traces the evolution of ideas, Winterer relishes diving into what she calls “the last great age of the polymath” – an age when people imagined it was possible to know everything in the world. When you study people who are trying to know everything, where do you start? Winterer began by posing a simple question: “When you want to become enlightened, on what topics are you saying those things?”

Her research led her to examine a wide variety of subjects, including farming techniques, mastodons, Aztec civilizations, sea shell fossils, efforts to count Native Americans and the first sustained intellectual opposition to slavery. Each topic unearthed a major conversation about what “enlightenment” meant and a new understanding of the types of questions one asked in order to become enlightened.

Observations by explorers and colonists in the Americas gave rise to a host of theories about statecraft and the evolution of human societies. New discoveries, however, also put received opinion under the microscope. Developments in the Americas sparked debate over the ethics of slavery, the truthfulness of the Bible and the alleged supremacy of European civilization.

Among the many surprising connections Winterer has uncovered is the direct link between French philosopher Montesquieu’s denunciation of slavery in De l’esprit des loix (The Spirit of the Laws) (1748) and sugar plantations of the West Indies, as well as between the puzzling discovery of marine fossils high in the Appalachian mountains and questions about the veracity of biblical depictions of the Great Flood.

All of this led Winterer to call into question what she calls the “diffusionist” model undergirding most histories of the Enlightenment: “The story that the Enlightenment happened in Europe, sprang from the mind of the philosophes and then got on a boat and came to America and inspired the revolutionaries.”

For her, this model either ignores the major intellectual contributions of the Americas or treats them as afterthoughts, downplaying contributions of those in the New World to 18th-century intellectual life. The ships that conveyed goods to and from the Americas also carried new ideas and opinions, what Winterer considers a long-term “two-way conversation” that crisscrossed the Atlantic.

Hesitant forefathers

Another conversation going on at the same time involved the nature and purpose of language. Following John Locke, James Madison was not convinced that words contained intrinsic meaning. In Madison’s view, nothing about language was God-given: words were always in motion, their meanings decided upon temporarily until future generations repurposed them. According to Winterer, Madison’s beliefs about language suggest that, even for the framers, the Constitution was less a collection of self-evident truths than a document that took on meaning through interpretation and conversation. That conversation continues today.

Constant questioning, ongoing conversations, evolving interpretations: all of these paint America’s forefathers as uncertain people. Winterer, however, thinks that the idea of uncertainty enriches our understanding of democracy today.

“Democracy requires us to talk to one another about what we think we know and also about what we don’t know. Together we try to craft a workable truth for right now while always being aware that it’s contingent,” she said.

For Winterer, this is a better lesson to learn from American enlightenment than the Cold War narrative of boundless confidence. “We have a national tradition of speaking about the limits of what we can know. We should acknowledge and cherish that tradition.”