How many Enlightenments were there?

An American Enlightenment?  The very idea of an American Enlightenment is surprising to many Americans.  Yet the editor of The Enlightenment Reader, a collection of writings from the Enlightenment Era, wrote that "America was the embodiment and natural home of the Enlightenment."  The Enlightenment Reader, like other collections of writings from the Enlightenment Era, features the great documents of the American founding — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, The Federalist Papers — but Americans usually don't think of the founding documents in that way.   Wasn't the Enlightenment about the ideas of the Voltaire and his followers in France and elsewhere in Europe?

Actually, there was more than one Enlightenment, and the French Enlightenment was only one of them.  Consequently, when people refer to "the Enlightenment" it is often wise to ask, "Which one?" 

To get clear about the various Enlightenments, Gertrude Himmelfarb's The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments is a great place to start.  Her discussions of the French and the American Enlightenments especially are models of brevity, clarity, and scholarly command of the subject. 

Professor Himmelfarb brilliantly contrasts the French Enlightenment, which she terms "the Ideology of Reason," and the American Enlightenment, termed by her "the Politics of Liberty."  Although the French thinkers and the American Founders were contemporaries, they were working in very different directions on very different projects.  The French did not have the Founders' laser-like focus on political liberty.  The differences in these two Enlightenments are reflected in the differences in the nations that emerged from their revolutions.  The American Revolution gave us George Washington, the elected leader of a limited government with a written constitution; the French Revolution gave the world Napoleonic France, the prototype of the modern war-making totalitarian state, the full potential of which was to be realized in the twentieth century.

When people discuss "the Enlightenment" and leave out the American Enlightenment, they leave out the crowning achievement of the Era of the Enlightenments.   

But America does get left out of those discussions.  America is a problem for experts on the Enlightenment Era because America simply does not fit into the paradigm they prefer.  Experts like to refer to the Enlightenment Era as the Age of Reason, implying that the Enlightenment was about the ideas of Voltaire and his followers.  If America provided the favored paradigm, the alternative name for that era would have to be the Age of Common Sense.  In addition, experts will tell you that the Enlightenment Era lasted from around 1685 until around 1815, but the American Enlightenment was still going strong until late in the nineteenth century. 

When Lord Acton visited Harvard in 1853, he found that the philosophy taught there was the commonsense realism of the American Founders.  It would have been the same if he had visited Princeton or Yale or Columbia or any other college in America.  In those days, American colleges were teaching young Americans to think like the American Founders — that is, to think like Americans.  In the words of the distinguished American historian Allen Guelzo: "Before the Civil War, every major [American] collegiate intellectual was a disciple" of commonsense realism.  Although the Enlightenment Era was over and done with in Europe, the American Enlightenment was alive and well in academia in America for long after Acton's visit to Harvard.  For example, James McCosh, president of Princeton from 1868 until 1888, continued to advance commonsense realism, published prolifically, and was influential in America throughout his long academic career.

The appointment of Woodrow Wilson in 1902 to the presidency once held by McCosh marks the final end of commonsense realism in American higher education, and Wilson's election to the presidency once held by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in 1912 marks the beginning of the rise of Progressives in American politics.  Wilson was a follower of the German philosopher GWF Hegel.  Hegel idolized Napoleon and inspired Karl Marx; his thinking was profoundly at odds with commonsense realism.  Wilson in his turn rejected the self-evident truths of the Declaration and scorned the Constitution. 

The best way to understand the project of the Progressive left in America is to realize that the Progressives are the dedicated enemies of the achievements of the American Enlightenment.  The American left is the declared enemy of the American founding and all its works — and of common sense and the philosophy of commonsense realism the Founders relied on in carrying out the work of the founding.  Leftists have only contempt for the American Founders.  That is what explains their determination to get rid of the Electoral College, to do away with the First and the Second Amendments, to make war on common sense, and to press on until no trace of the American founding remains.   

Robert Curry serves on the Board of Directors of the Claremont Institute.  He  is the author of Reclaiming Common Sense: Finding Truth in a Post-Truth World and Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea.  Both are published by Encounter Books.

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