The American Enlightenment: Worlds apart from the French one
The American Enlightenment? The idea may seem surprising. Wasn't the Enlightenment about the ideas of the French philosopher Voltaire and his followers?
Actually, there was an American Enlightenment, and it was fundamentally different from the Enlightenment in France. The two were related because they belonged to the same era of Western history, a time in which other countries, especially England and Scotland, also had their own Enlightenments. That era encompassed the 18th century.
Although the French and American Enlightenments were going on at the same time, they were fundamentally different. The French had Voltaire and his coterie. Who, you ask, were the thinkers of the American Enlightenment? You know them already as the American founders. Here is Paul Johnson in his outstanding book, A History of the American People:
It is rare indeed for a nation to have at its summit a group so variously gifted as Washington and Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Adams…They were the Enlightenment made flesh.
Although many Americans do not think of the founders as Enlightenment figures, the great works of the American founding – Thomas Paine's Common Sense, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, The Federalist Papers – are included and discussed in any collection of Enlightenment writings worth its salt.
The important point for understanding the American Enlightenment is that the ideas of the philosophes of the French Enlightenment and the ideas of the American founders were worlds apart.
The philosophes exalted reason. Voltaire argued that unassisted human reason could provide humanity with the answers to every question. (When people today refer to the entire era as the Age of Reason, they are revealing, consciously or unconsciously, that they are aligned with those who believe that the French Enlightenment essentially was the Enlightenment.)
In contrast to the French, the founders put their faith in common sense. Here is Thomas Jefferson:
State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.
The philosophes did not share the American founders' faith in the people. Voltaire's exalted notion of reason excluded ordinary people. He never concealed his disdain for the common people, habitually referring to them as "la canaille" (the rabble).
The founders' purpose was a government that would enable the American people to rule themselves, but self-rule by the people did not interest Voltaire and the other philosophes. They championed instead enlightened despotism, a form of government in which absolute monarchs would impose legal, social, and educational reforms according to the ideas of the philosophes.
The French and the Americans were working in different directions on different projects. The founders were focused on the theory and practice of liberty, and their new thinking about mankind and the state is what the American Enlightenment is all about. The American Founding that resulted is still today the most radical attempt to establish a regime of liberty in the entire history of mankind.
The French did not share the Americans' concern to conduct a careful, systematic analysis of what was needed to create a regime of liberty. There was no need for them to do so because for them, the solution to the political problem was rulers equipped with absolute power and the ideas of the French Enlightenment.
These differences help explain the sharply contrasting outcomes of the American and the French Revolutions. The two revolutions were as different as the two Enlightenments. It is not surprising that the French Revolution resulted in political chaos, the blood-drenched Terror, and eventually a new despotism under Napoleon even worse than the one he replaced.
The American founders gave the world something new in the political history of mankind.
We are now in a position to make several observations. Perhaps the most important one is this: when someone makes a general statement about the Enlightenment, we need to ask, "Which Enlightenment?"
Understanding the uniqueness of the American Enlightenment is the key to understanding the American founding. Many who have written about the American founding have gone awry by overlooking the American Enlightenment and how it differed from the other Enlightenments. Others have gone awry by trying to find the ideas of the philosophes in the American founding.
One more thought: The people who are pushing America deeper into rule by the Deep State and the permanent ruling class are attempting to replace the founders' America with an America re-founded on the ideas of the philosophes. A glance at French political history since the French Enlightenment should – but won't – cause them to reverse direction.
If America is to preserve the liberty bequeathed to us by the founders, we must find our way back to, and dedicate ourselves to, their American Enlightenment vision.
Robert Curry serves on the Board of Directors of the Claremont Institute and is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea from Encounter Books. You can preview the book here.