Rescuing the Concept of the Enlightenment

Hannah Arendt once wrote that “the French Revolution, which ended in disaster, has made world history, while the American Revolution, so triumphantly successful, has remained an event of little more than local importance.”

Once true, perhaps, but no longer today. President Bush’s passion to universalize democracy as the surest way of creating world peace has made 1776 a symbol of hope that this passion might be realized in our lifetime.

But a question remains: How did 1776, the annus mirabilis, happen? How could the geographically separated colonists from Maine to Georgia, a distance of some 2,000 miles, have come up with similar liberating ideas—what professor Gertrude Himmelfarb calls the American Enlightenment?

Himmelfarb, author of The Roads to Modernity, is our premier practitioner in the history of ideas. She has rescued the concept of the Enlightenment, a title usurped and monopolized by the French as a movement of ideas that informed British and American intellectuals and opinion makers. She argues there was an enormous difference between the French and British Enlightenments. In France, the Enlightenment was designed to discredit religion: “Ecrasez l’infame,” Voltaire thundered (crush the infamy), referring to the Catholic Church. But in England and in the blossoming 13 colonies, the Enlightenment slogan was the Kantian “aude sapere”—dare to know.

It was Kant who defined the Enlightenment as man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage, from a reluctance to use one’s own understanding without institutional guidance. Having the courage to use your own understanding is, therefore, the motto of the Enlightenment. The Founding Fathers, however, went beyond Kant’s description. For them, the animating spirit was the “politics of liberty” and their definition of “virtue,” writes Himmelfarb, was “the will and capacity to put the public interest over the private.”

Himmelfarb, who calls the Enlightenment the “Great Awakening” and sees the revolution as the culmination of that Enlightenment, gives particular importance to the role of religion in the American experience:

Even those of the Founders who were not devout believers, or those who were most wary of government support of religion (Madison most notably), respected religion in general and the religious beliefs of their countrymen.

She cites the words of George Washington in favoring the public recognition and practice of religion while insisting on adherence to principles of religious liberty and pluralism. He provided for government-paid military chaplains but specified that there should be chaplains for each denomination.

Some historians have over-interpreted the separation of church and state doctrine, says Himmelfarb. She points out that, however interpreted, the doctrine itself “did not signify the separation of church and society.”

America was saddled with two problems which, brilliant statesmen though they were, the Founding Fathers were unable or, perhaps more correctly, unwilling to solve: First, what to do about the Indians whose land the colonists coveted, and second, what to do about slavery. Any attempted solution would have precluded creation of what professor Seymour Lipset has correctly called “the first new nation.” As Himmelfarb writes: “It was on the issue of slavery that the politics of liberty dramatically clashed with the sociology of virtue.” This clash meant that a bloody civil war involving 3 million men, of whom 600,000 soldiers on both sides died, was inevitable—a war whose wounds lasted well into the 20th Century.

Himmelfarb’s hero is Adam Smith, political economist and moral philosopher, and “it is this amalgam,” she writes, “that characterized Britain then, as it does the United States today. Americans take for granted what Europeans regard as an inexplicable paradox: that the United States is the most capitalistic and at the same time the most moralistic of countries.”

I want to say something special about this collection of masterful essays. As an admirer of Walter Bagehot, the 19th Century publicist, and his luminous prose, I see in Himmelfarb a most worthy successor.