Modern history



HE RATIFICATION OF the United States Constitution in 1788 T was greeted with more excitement and more unanimity among the American people than at any time since the Declaration of Independence a decade earlier. “’Tis done!” declared Benjamin Rush in July 1788. “We have become a nation.” This was an extravagant claim, to say the least. Yet Rush thought the new United States had become a nation virtually overnight. Everywhere in America, he said, there was “such a tide of joy as has seldom been felt in any age or country. . ..Justice has descended from heaven to dwell in our land, and ample restitution has at last been made to human nature by our new Constitution of all the injuries she has sustained in the old world from arbitrary government, false religions, and unlawful commerce.” The new nation represented the “triumph of knowledge over ignorance, of virtue over vice, and of liberty over slavery.”1

What gave Revolutionaries like Rush confidence in America’s instant nationhood was their belief in America’s enlightenment. As early as 1765 John Adams had declared that all of previous American history had pointed toward the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. The seventeenth-century settlement of America, he said, had opened up “a grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the ignorant, and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.” 2 The Revolution had become the climax of this great historic drama. Enlightenment was spreading everywhere in the Western world, but nowhere more so than in America. With the break from Great Britain complete and the Constitution ratified, many Americans in the 1790s thought that the United States had become the “most enlightened” nation in the world.3

For the people of these obscure provinces—“so recently,” as Samuel Bryan of Pennsylvania declared, “a rugged wilderness and the abode of savages and wild beasts”—for these provincial people to claim to be the most enlightened nation on earth and to have “attained to a degree of improvement and greatness . . . of which history furnishes no parallel” seemed scarcely credible.4 The United States in 1789, in comparison with the former mother country, was still an underdeveloped country. Americans had no sophisticated court life, no magnificent cities, no great concert halls, no lavish drawing rooms, and not much to speak of in the way of the fine arts. Its economy was primitive. There was as yet nothing comparable to the Bank of England; there were no stock exchanges, no large trading companies, no great centers of capital, and no readily available circulating medium of exchange. Nineteen out of twenty Americans were still employed in agriculture, and most of them lived in tiny rural communities. In 1790 there were only twenty-four towns in the entire United States with a population of 2,500 or more, and only five of these urban areas were cities with populations over 10,000. It took over two months for news of a foreign event in London to reach Philadelphia.5 No wonder many Europeans thought of the United States as a remote wilderness at the very edges of Christendom, three thousand miles from the centers of Western civilization.

Nevertheless, as far removed from the centers of civilization as they were, many Americans persisted in believing not only that they were the most enlightened people on earth but also that because they were enlightened they were by that fact alone a nation. Indeed, America became the first nation in the world to base its nationhood solely on Enlightenment values. Gertrude Stein may have been right when she said that America was the oldest country in the world.

It was a strange kind of nationalism Revolutionary Americans asserted. For Americans to identify their nation with the Enlightenment was to identify it with transnational—indeed, universal and ecumenical—standards. They had little sense that their devotion to the universal principles of the Enlightenment was incompatible with loyalty to their state or to the country as a whole. Historian David Ramsay claimed he was “a citizen of the world and therefore despise [d] national reflections.” Nevertheless, he did not believe he was being “inconsistent” in hoping that the professions would be “administered to my country by its own sons.” Joel Barlow did not think he was any less American just because he was elected to the French National Convention in 1792–1793. The many state histories written in the aftermath of the Revolution were anything but celebrations of localism and the diversity of the nation. Indeed, declared Ramsay, these histories were testimonies to the American commitment to enlightened nationhood; they were designed to “wear away prejudices—rub off asperities and mould us into an homogeneous people.”6

Homogeneous people! This is a phrase that seems to separate us most decisively from that different, distant eighteenth-century world. Because we today can take our nationhood for granted, we can indulge ourselves in the luxury of celebrating our multicultural diversity. But two hundred years ago Americans were trying to create a nation from scratch and had no such luxury. They were desperately trying to make themselves one people, and the best way they could do that was to stress their remarkable degree of enlightenment. Since the Enlightenment emphasized the value of homogeneity and of being a single people, by describing themselves as the most enlightened people in the world Americans assumed that they would thereby be a nation. More than anything else, their deep desire to be a nation is what accounts for their impassioned insistence that they were especially enlightened.

But why would they assume that they were especially enlightened? Of course, they had many European radicals like Richard Price filling their heads with the idea that they had actually created the Enlightenment. “A Spirit” that had originated in America, Price told Benjamin Franklin in 1787, was now spreading throughout the Atlantic world. This spirit, said Price, promised “a State of Society more favourable to peace, virtue, Science, and liberty (and consequently to human happiness and dignity) than has yet been known. . . . The minds of men are becoming more enlighten’d, and the silly despots of the world are likely to be forced to respect human rights and to take care not to govern too much lest they should not govern at all.”7

But it was not simply compliments like Price’s that made Americans believe that they were the most enlightened people on earth. They thought they had ample reason for their confidence. They may not have been correct in their reasoning, but it is important for us to know why they thought as they did. By doing so we can understand not only something about the origins of the United States but also something of what the Enlightenment meant to many people in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world.

Americans had no doubt that they were living in an age of Enlightenment. Everywhere the boundaries of darkness and ignorance were being pushed back and light and reason were being extended outward. More than most people in the Atlantic world, Americans were keenly aware that savagery and barbarism were giving way to refinement and civilization. Precisely because they were provincials living on the periphery of civilization, living, as historian Franco Venturi once pointed out, in a place “where the contact between a backward world and modern world was chronologically more abrupt and geographically closer,” they knew what the process of becoming enlightened really meant.8 The experience of becoming refined and civilized was more palpable and immediate for them than it was for those living in the metropolitan centers of the Old World.

Americans told themselves over and over that they were a young and forming people. And because they inhabited a New World and were in a plastic state, they were more capable of refinement and education than people stuck in the habits and prejudices of the Old World. In writings, orations, poetry—in every conceivable manner and in the most extravagant and rapturous rhetoric—Revolutionary Americans told themselves that they were more capable than any people in the world of making themselves over.

As republicans attempting to build a state from the bottom up, they were necessarily committed to Lockean sensationalism—that knowledge came less from reason and more from sense experience. Not only did such Lockean sensationalism give a new significance to the capacities of ordinary people, since all people had senses, but it also opened up the possibility of people being educated and improved by changing the environments that operated on their senses.

These views lay behind the enlightened assumption that all men were created equal. Even those as aristocratic as William Byrd and Governor Francis Fauquier of Virginia now conceded that all men, even men of different nations and races, were born equal and that, as Byrd wrote, “the principal difference between one people and another proceeds only from the differing opportunities of improvement.” “White, Red, or Black; polished or unpolished,” declared Governor Fauquier in 1760, “Men are Men.”9 The American Revolutionary leaders were primed to receive these ideas that culture was socially constructed and that only education and cultivation separated one man from another. In fact, their receptivity to these explosive ideas, which became the basis of all modern thinking, helps explain why they should have become the most remarkable generation of leaders in American history. Because they were men of high ambition and yet of relatively modest origins, they naturally were eager to promote the new enlightened standards of gentility and learning in opposition to the traditional importance of family and blood. They saw themselves sharply set apart from the older world of their fathers and grandfathers. They sought, often unsuccessfully but always sincerely, to be what Jefferson called “natural aristocrats”—aristocrats who measured their status not by birth or family but by enlightened values and benevolent behavior. To be a natural aristocrat meant being reasonable, tolerant, honest, virtuous, and candid. It implied as well being cosmopolitan, standing on elevated ground in order to have a large view of human affairs, and being free of the prejudices, parochialism, and religious enthusiasm of the vulgar and barbaric. It meant, in short, having all those characteristics that we today sum up in the idea of a liberal arts education.

Almost all the Revolutionary leaders—including the second and third tiers of leadership—were first-generation gentlemen. That is to say, almost all were the first in their families to attend college and to acquire a liberal arts education that was now the new mark of an enlightened eighteenth-century gentleman. Jefferson’s father, Peter Jefferson, was a wealthy Virginia planter and surveyor who married successfully into the prestigious Randolph family. But he was not a refined and liberally educated gentleman: he did not read Latin, he did not know French, he did not play the violin, and, as far as we know, he never once questioned the idea of a religious establishment or the owning of slaves.

His son Thomas was very different. Indeed, all the Revolutionaries knew things that their fathers had not known, and they were eager to prove themselves by what they believed and valued and by their virtue and disinterestedness.

Most important, these Revolutionary leaders felt a greater affinity with the people they spoke for than did elites in Europe. Not for them “the withdrawal of the upper classes” from the uncultivated bulk of the population that historian Peter Burke speaks about. Because the American gentry were establishing republics, they necessarily had to have a more magnanimous view of human nature than their European counterparts. As we have seen, monarchies could comprehend large territories and composite kingdoms and rule over people who were selfish, corrupt, and diverse in interests and ethnicities. But republics required societies that were not only enlightened but were cohesive, virtuous, and egalitarian. It seemed as if the American people were ideally suited for republicanism; they necessarily possessed a unanimity and a oneness that other peoples did not have. As Joel Barlow noted in 1792, the “people” had come to mean something very different in America from what it did in Europe. In Europe the people remained only a portion of the society; they were the poor, the rabble, the misérables, the menu peuple, the Pöbel.10 But in America the people were the whole society. In republican America there could be no subjects, no orders, no aristocracy, no estates separate from the people. The people had become everything.

Perhaps some American gentry in the privacy of their dining rooms continued to express the traditional elitist contempt for ordinary folk. But it was no longer possible in public for an American leader to refer to the people as the common “herd.” During the Virginia ratifying convention in June 1788, Edmund Randolph had used just this term in reference to the people, and Patrick Henry immediately jumped on him. By likening the people to a “herd,” said Henry, Randolph had “levelled and degraded [them] to the lowest degree,” reducing them “from respectable independent citizens, to abject, dependent subjects or slaves.” Randolph was forced to rise at once and defensively declare “that he did not use that word to excite any odium, but merely to convey an idea of a multitude.”11

From this moment no American political leader ever again dared in public to refer to the people in such disparaging terms. Instead, in their orations and writings they exulted in the various ways the American people as a whole were more enlightened than the rest of mankind.

In these attempts to justify their enlightenment, Americans created the sources of their belief in their exceptionalism, in their difference from the peoples of the Old World. Americans, they told themselves, were without both the corrupting luxury of Europe and its great distinctions of wealth and poverty. “Here,” said the French immigrant and author Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur in one of his typical ecstatic celebrations of the distinctiveness of the New World, “are no aristocratical families, no courts, no kings, no bishops, no ecclesiastical dominion, no invisible power giving to a few a very visible one, no great manufactures employing thousands, no great refinements of luxury. The rich and the poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe.” There was nothing in America remotely resembling the wretched poverty and the gin-soaked slums of London. America, continued Crèvecoeur, was largely made up of “cultivators scattered over an immense territory,” each of them working for himself. Nowhere in America, he said, ignoring for the moment the big houses of the Southern planters and the slave quarters of hundreds of thousands of black Africans, could one find “the hostile castle and the haughty mansion, contrasted with the clay-built hut and miserable cabin, where cattle and men help to keep each other warm and dwell in meanness, smoke and indigence.”12

Precisely because Americans were separated from Europe and, as Jefferson said in 1787, “remote from all other aid, we are obliged to invent and execute; to find means within ourselves, and not to lean on others.” The result of this American pragmatism, this ability, said Jefferson, “to surmount every difficulty by resolution and contrivance,” was a general prosperity.13 White Americans enjoyed the highest standard of living in the world, and goods of all sorts were widely diffused throughout the society. Indeed, the enlightenment of a society could be measured by the spread of material possessions, by seeing whether most people possessed what Jefferson called those things “applicable to our daily concerns.” Did people eat with knives and forks instead of with their hands? Did they sleep on feather mattresses instead of straw? Did they drink out of china cups instead of wooden vessels? These were signs of prosperity, of happiness, of civilization. Jefferson believed that to know the real state of a society’s enlightenment one “must ferret the people out of their hovels, . . . look into their kettle, eat their bread, loll on their beds under pretence of resting yourself, but in fact to find out if they are soft.”14

The Revolution had made Americans a more intelligent people. It had given “a spring to the active powers of the inhabitants,” said David Ramsay in 1789, “and set them on thinking, speaking, and acting far beyond that to which they had been accustomed.”15 Three-quarters of all the books and pamphlets published in America between 1640 and 1800 appeared in the last thirty-five years of the eighteenth century. By eighteenth-century standards, levels of literacy, at least for white Americans in the North, were higher than almost any other place on earth and were rapidly climbing, especially for white women. All their reading made them enlightened. Jefferson was convinced that an American farmer rather than an English farmer had conceived of making the rim of a wheel from a single piece of wood. He knew it had to be an American because the idea had been suggested by Homer, and “ours are the only farmers who can read Homer.”16

Unlike in England where conservative aristocrats opposed educating the masses for fear of breeding dissatisfied employees and social instability, American elites wholeheartedly endorsed education for ordinary people. American leaders issued a torrent of speeches and writings on the importance of popular education that has rarely been matched in American history or in the history of any other country. Their goal, as Benjamin Rush put it, was not to release the talents of individuals as much as it was to produce “one general and uniform system of education” in order to “render the mass of the people more homogeneous, and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.”17

Formal schooling was only part of the educational process of rendering the people more homogeneous and enlightened. Because information of all sorts had to be spread throughout the sprawling nation, Americans began creating post offices faster than any other people in the world. One of the consequences of this expanding postal system was an astonishing increase in the circulation of newspapers. “In no other country on earth, not even in Great Britain,” said Noah Webster, “are Newspapers so generally circulated among the body of the people, as in America.” By 1810 Americans were buying over twenty-two million copies of 376 newspapers annually—even though half the population was under the age of sixteen and one-fifth was enslaved and prevented from reading. This was the largest aggregate circulation of newspapers of any country in the world.18

Because republics, as Benjamin Rush said, were naturally “peaceful and benevolent forms of government,” Americans inevitably took the lead in promoting humane reforms. Jefferson in fact thought that America was the most compassionate nation in the world. “There is not a country on earth,” he said, “where there is greater tranquillity, where the laws are milder, or better obeyed . . . , where strangers are better received, more hospitably treated, & with a more sacred respect.”19 In the several decades following the Revolution, Americans took very seriously the idea that they were peculiarly a people of sentiment and sensibility, more honest, more generous, more caring than other peoples.

They eagerly began creating charitable and humanitarian societies by the hundreds and thousands. Indeed, there were more such societies formed in the decade following the Revolution than were created in the entire colonial period. These multiplying societies treated the sick, aided the industrious poor, housed orphans, fed imprisoned debtors, built huts for shipwrecked sailors, and, in the case of the Massachusetts Humane Society, even attempted to resuscitate those suffering from “suspended animation”—that is, those such as drowning victims who appeared to be dead but actually were not. The fear of being buried alive was a serious concern at this time. Many, like Washington on his death bed, asked that their bodies not be immediately interred in case they might be suffering from suspended animation.

The most notable of the humanitarian reforms coming out of the Revolution involved new systems of criminal punishment. Jefferson and other leaders drew up plans for liberalizing the harsh and bloody penal codes of the colonial period. Since people learned from what they saw, the cruel and barbaric punishments of monarchies carried out in public, said Thomas Paine, hardened the hearts of their subjects and made them bloodthirsty. “It is [monarchy’s] sanguinary punishments which corrupt mankind.”20 Maybe it was sensible for Britain to have over two hundred crimes punishable by death, for monarchies were based on fear and had to rely on harsh punishments. But, said Paine, republics were different. They were capable of producing a kinder and gentler people.

People were not born to be criminals, it was now said; they were taught to be criminals by sensuously experiencing the world around them. If the characters of people were produced by their environments, as Lockean liberal thinking suggested, perhaps criminals were not entirely responsible for their actions. Maybe impious and cruel parents of the criminal were at fault, or maybe even the whole society was to blame. “We all must plead guilty before the bar of conscience as having had some share in corrupting the morals of the community, and levelling the highway to the gallows,” declared a New Hampshire minister in 1796.21 If criminal behavior was learned, then perhaps it could be unlearned. “Let every criminal, then, be considered as a person laboring under an infectious disorder,” said one writer in 1790. “Mental disease is the cause of all crimes.”22 If so, then it seemed that criminals could be salvaged, and not simply mutilated or executed.

These enlightened sentiments spread everywhere and eroded support for capital punishment in the new republican states. Not that the reformers had become soft on crime. Although Jefferson’s code called for the death penalty only for treason and murder, he did propose the lex talionis, the law of retaliation, for the punishment of other crimes. So the state would poison the criminal who poisoned his victim, and would castrate men guilty of rape or sodomy; guilty women would have a half-inch hole bored through their noses. In Massachusetts in 1785 a counterfeiter was no longer executed. Instead, he was set in the pillory, taken to the gallows where he stood with a rope around his neck for a time, whipped twenty stripes, had his left arm cut off, and finally was sentenced to three years’ hard labor.

Although most states did something to change their codes of punishment, Pennsylvania led the way in the 1780s and 1790s in the enlightened effort, as its legislation put it, “to reclaim rather than destroy,” “to correct and reform the offenders” rather than simply to mark or eliminate them. Pennsylvania abolished all bodily punishments such as “burning in the hand” and “cutting off the ears” and ended the death penalty for all crimes except murder. In their place the state proposed a scale of punishments based on fines and years of imprisonment. Criminals were now to feel their personal guilt by being confined in prisons apart from the excited environment of the outside world, in solitude where, declared a fascinated French observer, the “calm contemplation of mind which brings on penitence” could take place.23

Out of these efforts was created the penitentiary, which turned the prison into what Philadelphia officials called “a school of reformation.” By 1805 New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Virginia, and Massachusetts had followed Pennsylvania in constructing penitentiaries based on the principle of solitary confinement. Nowhere else in the Western world, enlightened philosophers recognized, were such penal reforms carried as far as they were in America.24

Not only did the Americans believe that they possessed a more intelligent, more equal, more prosperous, and more compassionate society than those of other countries, they also thought that they were less superstitious and more rational than the peoples of the Old World. They had actually destroyed religious establishments and created a degree of religious liberty that European liberals could only dream about. Many Americans thought that their Revolution, in the words of the New York constitution of 1777, had been designed to end the “spiritual oppression and intolerance wherewith the bigotry and ambition of weak and wicked priests” had “scourged mankind.” 25

Although it was the proliferation of different religious groups that made possible this religious freedom, Americans generally did not celebrate their religious diversity; indeed, the fragmentation of religion in America appalled most people. Most Americans accepted differences of religion only insofar as these differences made toleration and freedom of conscience possible. Even an enlightened reformer like Jefferson hoped that eventually everyone would become a Unitarian.

Since refugees from the tyrannies of Britain and Europe were entering the United States in increasing numbers in the 1790s, Americans had every reason to believe that their country had become the special asylum of liberty. In the spring of 1794 the United Irishmen of Dublin sent the renowned scientist Joseph Priestley their best wishes as he fled from persecution in England to the New World. “You are going to a happier world—the world of Washington and Franklin. . . . You are going to a country where science is turned to better uses.”

All of this immigration meant that representatives of all the peoples of Europe were present in America, which in turn helped to fulfill the fraternal dream of the Enlightenment, as Benjamin Rush described it, of “men of various countries and languages . . . conversing with each other like children of one father.”26 Not that American leaders celebrated the ethnic diversity of America in any modern sense. Far from it. What impressed the Revolutionary leaders was not the multicultural diversity of these immigrants but rather their remarkable acculturation and assimilation into one people. John Jay lived in New York City, the most ethnically and religiously diverse place in all America, and was himself three-eighths French and five-eighths Dutch, without any English ancestry. Nevertheless, Jay could declare with a straight face in The Federalist No. 2 that “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts . . . have nobly established general liberty and independence.” 27

The Revolutionary leaders’ idea of a modern state, shared by enlightened British, French, and German eighteenth-century reformers as well, was one that was homogeneous, not one that was fractured by differences of language, ethnicity, and religion. Much of Europe in the eighteenth century was still a patchwork of small duchies, principalities, and city-states—nearly 350 of them. Even those nation-states that had begun consolidating were not yet very secure or homogeneous. England had struggled for centuries to bring Wales, Scotland, and Ireland under its control. Only in the Act of Union in 1707 had it created the entity known as Great Britain, and as events showed, its struggle to create a single nation was far from over. France was even worse off. Its eighteenth-century ancien régime was a still a hodgepodge of provinces and diverse peoples and by modern standards scarcely a single nation at all. Spain had just recently begun assimilating the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon into a single state, but the Basque provinces and Navarre still maintained an extraordinary degree of independence from the central monarchy.

European reformers everywhere wanted to eliminate these differences within their national boundaries and bind the people of their state together in a common culture. The American Revolutionary leaders were no different. They thought that Americans had become the most enlightened nation in the world precisely because they were a more rational and homogeneous society. They had done away with the various peasant customs, craft holidays, and primitive peculiarities—the morris dances, the charavaries, the bear-baiting, and other folk practices—that characterized the societies of the Old World. The New England Puritans had banned many of these popular festivals and customs, and elsewhere the mixing and settling of different peoples had worn most of them away. In New England, all that remained of Old World holidays was Pope’s Day, November 5—the colonists’ version of Guy Fawkes Day. Since enlightened elites everywhere regarded most of these different plebeian customs and holidays as remnants of superstition and barbarism, their relative absence in America seemed to be another sign of the new nation’s enlightenment and oneness.28

In various ways, Americans appeared to be more of a single people than the nations of Europe. Nothing made enlightened eighteenth-century Americans prouder than the fact that most people in America spoke the same language and could understand one another everywhere. That this was not true in the European nations was one of the great laments of enlightened reformers in the Old World. Europeans, even those within the same country, were cut off from one another by their regional and local dialects. A Yorkshireman could not be understood in Somerset and vice versa. On the eve of the French Revolution, the majority of people in France did not speak French.

Americans by contrast could understand each other from Maine to Georgia. It was very obvious why this should be so, said John Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton). Since Americans were “much more unsettled, and mov[ed] frequently from place to place, they are not as liable to local peculiarities, either in accent or phraseology.” 29

In England, said Noah Webster, language was what divided the English people from one another. The court and the upper ranks of the aristocracy set the standards of usage and thus put themselves at odds with the language spoken by the rest of the country. America was different, said Webster. Its standard was fixed by the general practice of the nation, and therefore Americans had “the fairest opportunity of establishing a national language, and of giving it [more] uniformity and perspicuity . . . [than] ever [before] presented itself to mankind.” Indeed, Webster was convinced that Americans already “speak the most pure English now known in the world.” Within a century and a half, he predicted, North America would be peopled with a hundred million citizens, “all speaking the same language.” Nowhere else in the world would such large numbers of people “be able to associate and converse together like children of the same family.” 30

Others had even more grandiose visions for the spread of America’s language. John Adams was among those who suggested that American English would eventually become “the next universal language.” In 1789 even a French official agreed; in a moment of giddiness he actually predicted that American English was destined to replace diplomatic French as the language of the world. Americans, he said, “tempered by misfortune,” were “more human, more generous, more tolerant, all qualities that make one want to share the opinions, adopt the customs, and speak the language of such a people.”31 We can only assume that this Frenchman’s official career was short-lived.

It was understandable that American English might conquer the world, because Americans were the only true citizens of the world. To be enlightened was to be, as Washington said, “a citizen of the great republic of humanity at large.” The Revolutionary generation was more eager to demonstrate its cosmopolitanism than any subsequent generation in American history. Intense local attachments were common to peasants and backward peoples, but educated and enlightened persons were supposed to be at home anywhere in the world. Indeed, to be free of local prejudices and parochial ties was what defined an enlightened gentleman. One’s humanity was measured by one’s ability to relate to strangers, to enter into the hearts of even those who were different. Americans prided themselves on their hospitality and their treatment of strangers. In America, as Crèvecoeur pointed out, the concept of “stranger” scarcely seemed to exist. “A traveller in Europe becomes a stranger as soon as he quits his own kingdom; but it is otherwise here. We know, properly speaking, no strangers; this is every person’s country; the variety of our soils, situations, climates, governments, and produce hath something which must please everyone.” 32

The truth, declared Thomas Paine in Common Sense, was that Americans were the most cosmopolitan people in the world. They surmounted all local prejudices. They regarded everyone from different nations as their countrymen and ignored neighborhoods, towns, and counties as “distinctions too limited for continental minds.” 33 Because they were free men, they were brothers to all the world.

These were the enlightened dreams of Americans two hundred years ago. Looking back from our all-knowing postmodern perspective, we can only marvel at the hubris and hypocrisy involved in the building of their enlightened empire of liberty. Precisely because the United States today has become the greatest and richest empire the world has ever known, we can see only the limits of their achievement and the failures of their imaginations. All their talk of enlightenment and the promise of America seems hypocritical in light of their unwillingness to abolish slavery, promote racial equality, and treat the native peoples fairly. But in fact it was the Americans’ commitment to being enlightened that for the first time on a large scale gave them both the incentive and the moral capacity to condemn their own treatment of the Indians and Africans in their midst. However brutally white Americans treated Indians and Africans in the decades following the Revolution—and no one can deny the brutality—that treatment was denounced as a moral evil by more and more enlightened Americans in ways that had not been done in premodern pre-Enlightenment times.

Since these Enlightenment ideals still constitute the source of American nationhood, we need to understand them and their origins. Despite all our present talk of diversity and multiculturalism, we are, because of these Enlightenment ideals, still in the best position among the advanced democracies to deal with the massive demographic changes and movements taking place throughout the world. All the advanced democracies of Europe are finding it very difficult to assimilate immigrants and are experiencing serious crises of national identity. Whatever problems we have in this respect pale in comparison with those of the European nations. We, of course, are not the only country to base its nationhood on Enlightenment values. France also claims to be grounded in universal Enlightenment principles. But, ironically, the French have taken the Enlightenment desire for a single homogeneous nation so seriously that their collective sense of national oneness leaves little room for the existence of Arab and other ethnic minorities. Precisely because America ultimately came to conceive of itself not as a single entity but as a nation of individuals—in our better moments, open to anyone in the world—it is better able to handle this explosive demographic future. The coming decades will test just how much of an enlightened nation of immigrants we Americans are willing to be.


In recent years historians have been approaching the Anglo-American Enlightenment in new ways. They have tended to conceive of it as much more than a movement involving reason and deism and the works of highlevel philosophers like David Hume and Adam Smith. Instead, they have taken seriously what contemporaries thought being enlightened meant. It turns out contemporaries talked a great deal about the growth of what they called politeness and civility. Thus historians of eighteenth-century Anglo-American life have given a new significance to such mundane subjects as tea parties and letter writing. On this expanded conception of the Enlightenment, see Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (1992); David S. Shields, Civil Tongues and Polite Letters in British America (1997); and Lawrence E. Klein, Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness: Moral Discourse and Cultural Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century England (1994).

This paper began as a lecture at the Institute of United States Studies at the University of London in 2002. It was revised and later published in America and Enlightenment Constitutionalism, edited by Gary L. McDowell and Johnathan O’Neill (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

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