The View From 1776

Dazzling Enlightenment of the Founding

Robert Curry?s fourth installment reveals a still-living American Enlightenment that outshines the abstract French Enlightenment.

The Scottish Enlightenment & America’s Founding
The Founding

By Robert Curry

The Americans are the first people whom Heaven has favored with an opportunity of deliberating upon, and choosing, the forms of government under which they shall live.    John Jay

The French remember the French Enlightenment, but no one today reads the Encyclopedie, the work that symbolized the French Enlightenment.  The philosophes have been displaced many times over by new fashions in thought—romanticism, socialism, existentialism, postmodernism.

In contrast, the great political writings of the American Enlightenment, the Declaration, the Constitution, The Federalist, are read, quoted, studied and called on by all sides in the day-to-day political debates of our republic.  Although these works are quite properly included in collections of Enlightenment writings, and are in fact among the greatest works of the Enlightenment era, in general even Americans who are interested in history somehow do not see them as having anything to do with the Enlightenment.

Many scholars have noticed this curious fact, and offered various explanations.  Perhaps the most common is that over time the French Enlightenment simply eclipsed all others, and came to be identified with the Enlightenment overall. 

It is easy to see examples of this right before your eyes.  The Portable Enlightenment Reader is an excellent collection of writings of that era.  In his introduction to the book, the editor writes: ?The Enlightenment was an international movement that included French, English, Scottish, American, German, Italian, Spanish, and even Russian schools.?  But on the very next page he also writes: ?What was the message of these Enlightenment intellectuals?...They believed that unassisted human reason, not faith or tradition, was the principle guide to human conduct.?  This is a perfectly fair characterization of the French tradition, which Gertrude Himmelfarb aptly calls ?the ideology of reason.?  However, as for the Scottish or the American Enlightenment, it completely misses the mark.  Thomas Reid focused on common sense, Adam Smith?s other great work was on the moral sentiments, and Adam Ferguson?s writings on the value of tradition were the inspiration for much of F.A. Hayek?s greatest work. In addition, we certainly don?t recognize any of the Founders in that characterization.

Yet it seems to me that there is another reason that we today tend not to not see The Federalist, say, as a classic of the American Enlightenment.  When we look back at that time, we do not see antique writings that are, like the Encyclopedie, marooned in that era.  We see the Founding, and we see it just as John Jay describes it.  Jay is one of the authors of The Federalist and will become the first Chief Justice of the United States.  He, like the other Founders, is not concerned to provide us with the background of the Founding.  That is all behind him, his back is turned to it; we see the Founders in the act of creation. They are facing the future, focused on the great task before them, the urgent challenge and enormous opportunity of founding a republic that will not fail, as Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic did, but will survive to reach our own time and beyond. 

In this sense, the Founding is a kind of historical Big Bang, the brilliance of which eclipses its antecedents, obscuring its roots in the Scottish Enlightenment.  Not aware that we will eventually lose sight of the debt America owes to the thinkers of Scottish Enlightenment, the Founders cannot be faulted for keeping their focus instead on making clear to us what they had given us: as Franklin famously said, ? A republic, if you can keep it.?

Visit MoveOff Network Members