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American Enlightenments

Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason


Caroline Winterer


The Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History

New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016

Hardcover. x+355 p. ISBN 978- 0300192575. $35


Reviewed by Roger Fechner

Adrian College (Michigan)



Caroline Winterer’s well-written book is a revisionist study of what it meant to be enlightened for eighteenth-century Americans in their own time. She rejects the diffusion interpretation of the American Enlightenment (the argument that European thinkers invented enlightenment ideas, which were then transmitted to the Americas and put into practice) by modern historians Peter Gay, Henry May, Donald Meyer, Henry Steele Commager, and others. Indeed, Winterer refuses to even use the terms Enlightenment and American Enlightenment except when she uses them as “twentieth century concepts” [5-11]. Instead, her purpose is to “reconstruct the world as they saw it, showing how enlightenment was felt, perceived, and lived during the moment when the idea first captured the imaginations of a motley group of people living on the fringes of the British Empire, people who communicated intensively and feverishly with interested others scattered across the Americas and Europe” [2]. Thus, Winterer substitutes the term “American Enlightenments” for what historians have usually called “the American Enlightenment,” because she thinks it more exactly conforms to how Americans understood their enlightened world [1-17]. She also cautions her readers to avoid the common mistake of conflating American Enlightenment with the American Revolution.

The core of Winterer’s account are seven chapters that analyze major episodes in American enlightened thought in their trans-Atlantic context. They deal with geological science, writings on Aztec civilization, demography (especially on Native North Americans), slavery, religion, farming (with emphasis on political economy), and government (focusing on the debate between monarchy and republicanism as the most beneficial polity for enlightened societies).


A major strength of her analysis is her use of a variety of minor enlightened authors from Europe and America that were slighted or not mentioned at all in earlier studies. Winterer’s synthesis of the ideas of all enlighten authors in the eighteenth-century Republic of Letters allows her to draw valuable insights on all her topics. Central to her synthesis is her argument that not only did American enlightened authors incorporate Enlightenment ideas in their thought, but they also added to it in several significant instances.


Although Winterer readily admits that her chapters are “representative rather than comprehensive” [10], the episodic structure of her work has some major limitations. First, a more expansive study of American Enlightenments would have included a much greater number of authors as well as writings on a much larger number of topics such as publishing and book history, language and literature, philosophy, law, clubs and learned societies, medicine and additional sciences to name just a few examples.


Second, Winterer’s episodic approach fails to make explicit intellectual connections among the topics she analyzes. For example, how did enlightened ideas on political economy and political ideas on monarchy and republican forms of government impact each other? The author hints at such a relationship in implicit ways in her two chapters on these topics, but a more fruitful approach would have been to connect them explicitly.  Indeed, the ideas of enlightened American and European thinkers were bound up in webs that crossed over both geographic boundaries and a wide variety of disciplines of knowledge. Hopefully, historians who study trans-Atlantic enlightened ideas in that manner will eventually produce a comprehensive work on the American Enlightenment.

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