by Kenneth W. Krause.
Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer. Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes regularly to Skeptic as well. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“America was forged in the crucible of the Enlightenment,” affirms Darren Staloff, professor of history at the City College of New York. American ideals, in fact, at least as Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson developed them, are “inconceivable outside of an Enlightenment context.” As much an infatuated celebration of eighteenth-century Western philosophy as it is a concise yet absorbing biographical triptych, Hamilton, Adams, and Jefferson fulfills every promise one might reasonably infer from its generous title.
In his introductory chapter, Staloff wisely declines to define the Enlightenment, relaying instead brief synopses of its history, its “attitudes or cultural dispositions,” and its politics. Even so, he appropriately observes that moderns who value or perhaps foolishly assume a secular worldview featuring individual rights, representative government, and commercial freedom are profoundly indebted to the philosophes and their movement.
The Enlightenment originated in classical traditions, of course, and its emphasis on “reasoning from observation” and a “code of personal refinement and civility” was clearly reflective of Renaissance precedents. It was seventeenth century Rationalism, however, from which the Enlightenment inherited the onerous struggle against “enthusiasm,” or religious fervor and proselytization.
But Rationalism “simply went too far,” according to Staloff. Descartes overestimated the power of antiseptic reason. Hobbes’ social contract theory terrified greedy monarchs and offended religionists and republicans alike. Spinoza threw the Judeo-Christian baby “out with the bathwater” when he undermined the transcendent creator and, consequently, humanity’s free will and sense of supreme purpose. In short, the author concludes, it was Rationalism’s seemingly unqualified vilification of human passion that the Enlightenment eventually rejected.
Because it “restrained religion without destroying it or replacing it with alternative truths,” Enlightenment architects chose science, not reason per se, as their remedy for superstitional excess. As firmly rooted in his temporal milieu as he was devoted to science, Newton never plotted to annul the Bible even as he contradicted it. Lockean empiricism preserved Christian viability while containing its exorbitance, and Hume’s “corrosive skepticism,” as brandished in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, for example, demanded caution, modesty, and doubt “in all kinds of scrutiny.”
Like their predecessors, the philosophes eschewed religious dogma. Arguably, however, Enlightenment method persevered where Rationalist doctrine failed because of its relative pragmatism and, more importantly, because of its dispassionate contempt for all ideology, religious or secular. Similarly, the philosophes not only accepted human passions, but embraced them as “instincts that served human interest and survival.”
What the European Enlightenment lacked, quite predictably, was coherent and consistent politics. Some luminaries defended monarchy while others pleaded for one or another form of popular rule. Indeed, “it was not until the American revolutionary and constitutional epochs,” Staloff directs, “that this lacuna was finally filled and a distinctly enlightened practical ‘political sense’ was ultimately formulated.”
Although initially an idealistic, perhaps even a radical republican, the post-revolutionary Alexander Hamilton “fulfilled” the Enlightenment, Staloff professes, by emphasizing commercial capitalism, “corrupted” self-interest, and cultural expertise in national politics. As most readers probably know, “freedom and commerce went hand in glove” for Hamilton, substantially consistent with Adam Smith’s theory regarding the wealth of nations. Contrary to his Rationalist predecessors, however, a mature Hamilton entertained no illusions with respect to mankind’s intellectual perfectibility. “[E]very man ought to be supposed a knave,” he warned his comrades at the Constitutional Convention, “and to have no other end . . . other than private interest.”
Accenting the philosophical contrasts between the New Yorker and Jefferson, a paradigmatic agrarian, Staloff notes that, although Hamilton’s projects dramatically expanded American commerce, “they also lined the pockets of financiers and speculators” who were “morally suspect to a nation of farmers.” Even so, and perhaps contrary to popular understanding, “Hamilton was no fan of laissez-faire” economics. Indeed, he typically pursued his economic agenda assuming the propriety of “a powerful, activist federal government.”
In Hamilton’s estimation, a superior cultural education was imperative for all federal statesmen. Enlightened intellectuals, he averred, “lacked a distinct [self-]interest” and, as such, were the “natural arbiters of the public good.” Neither senators, executives, nor judges were exempt from scholarly prerequisite. Such was Hamilton’s nearly palpable disdain for intellectual mediocrity.
“[P]erhaps the least loved founding father,” Staloff supposes, the “[a]rrogant and imperious” Hamilton possessed “little of that warmth or folksiness that Americans have always embraced in their heroes.” Consistent with his surly suspicion of the common, Hamilton became both America’s “greatest champion” of an independent federal judiciary and its most relentless critic of government designed and moved by popular will. Nonetheless, his vision of commercial modernization and worldly real politique was truly both prescient and enlightened.
But Massachusetts’ John Adams eclipsed Hamilton, the author vies, by actually “transcending” the Enlightenment. Though no less vain than his Federalist cohort, Adams was not born into an elite class. “He lacked the polish, savoir-faire, and gentlemanly manners” of other founders, especially relative to his eventual Republican foils.
Additionally, it was Adams’ tendencies toward introspection and self-criticism, and perhaps most of all, his intellectual independence and passion for dispute that ultimately rendered him the least celebrated president from the revolutionary and constitutional eras. Fortunately, however, popularity has not always dictated impact, at least evidently not in eighteenth-century America.
According to Staloff, Adams was the “the first of a long line of Yankee gadflies, men [and women] with a strong contrarian streak” who “have kept our culture at least minimally honest.” “Knowledge,” Adams urged, “is among the most essential Foundations of Liberty.” Such unrelenting skepticism and insistence upon learning, writes Staloff of Adams’ early career, “bears witness to his complete immersion in the politics of Enlightenment.”
Perhaps revealing a subtle idealism that Hamilton clearly rejected and convinced that empiricism applied to the social as well as the physical sciences, Adams became a committed proponent of public education. “[T]he preservation of the means of knowledge, among the lowest ranks,” he wrote in 1765, “is of more importance to the public, than all the property of all the rich men in the country.” Congruously, he advocated for a free and vigilant press, demanding that it “be easy and cheap and safe for any person” to publish his thoughts. For Adams, popular education and the birth of America were inextricable. Indeed, he blasted Tories for attempting to undermine independence by taxing books and college documents and by displacing intellectuals from important political and legal positions.
But Adams’ confidence in popular education and elite virtue were “shaken” during the American Revolution. Formerly quite “progressive,” in Staloff’s judgment, Adams regrouped philosophically and redirected his skepticism against the “whole notion of progress,” while remaining constant to social empiricism, basic public education, and intellectual statesmanship. By 1790, Adams had admitted that “the laboring part of the people can never be learned,” and that the truly learned would never be completely disinterested. Knowledge, thus, became less a prescription for mass liberty and more “a [natural] source of inequality and division.”
Surely, contemporary and subsequent events in France contributed to Adams’ disillusionment. The Enlightenment gradually shaded into Romanticism, particularly in Paris, as Physiocrats and luminaries like Rousseau challenged civility and urbanity. Adams “bristled” in response, perhaps too near the debate to distinguish between the Enlightenment and its creeping betrayal. And perhaps Staloff errs when suggesting that Adams “transcended” the Enlightenment, given facts that reveal only his stubborn allegiance to it. Regardless, Adams’ personal dedication to scientific inquiry never faltered.
Though no casual admirer of the physical sciences, for Staloff, Thomas Jefferson initiated the American Romantic transition. Jefferson never consciously rejected the Enlightenment, of course, but like “other great proto-Romantics,” his influence began to “unravel” it.
While his Federalist contemporaries recognized nature as a terrible burden to be survived by many and overcome by few, if any, Jefferson viewed it as perfect in its “pristine innocence and inherent goodness,” even and perhaps especially in social contexts. His ethics stressed tender-hearted compassion more than rational calculation. Morality turned upon sentiment and “internal authenticity” rather than reason and utility.
Although Jefferson suffered the same brand of post-revolutionary disillusionment as did Hamilton and Adams, the Virginian’s experience was “crushing” by comparison. “These injuries,” he gloomily reported to James Monroe in 1782, “will only be cured by the all-healing grave.” No wonder, concludes Staloff, that Jefferson’s was the more “thorough and radical” philosophical transition. Epitomized in his famous Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson’s “Romantic spirit was at last unfettered from the shackles of enlightened moderation and compromise.”
Staloff unequivocally characterizes Jefferson’s core principles as impractical. Relative to Adams’ social skepticism, Jefferson’s political ideology often “seemed to float above the realm of the factual,” thus conveniently “insulat[ing itself] from empirical refutation.”
Which is not to imply that the Republican’s comprehension of human or majoritarian limitation was fundamentally incredible. Although Jefferson often expressed popular confidence, his vision of American democracy “combined majority rule with a profound sense of civic humanism.” Jeffersonianism, in other words, required vigorous and meaningful popular participation which, in turn, assumed significant and continuing popular education. Clearly, the Sage of Monticello’s many attempts to reform and expand both popular and advanced secular education bear this out.
Nevertheless, as Staloff indicates, Jefferson recognized that such civic humanism was unfeasible “in any but the most local venues.” Even then, as a proto-libertarian, he favored personal autonomy over government, though perhaps more because of an intense trust in nature rather than, as was the case with Hamilton and Adams, a prevailing distrust in the masses. According to Staloff, Jefferson’s localism and libertarianism “explain[ his] initial hostility to the federal Constitution,” which he often expressed to James Madison, the document’s primary architect. What Jefferson “failed to grasp” was America’s need for a considerable federal scheme and what his friend failed to appreciate was that “Jefferson had embraced the principled politics of Romanticism.”
Indeed, many continue to misapprehend Jefferson’s writings and public professions. How could he sponsor permanent revolution? Why did he continue to support the Jacobins during their reign of terror? Jefferson’s principles, Staloff answers, expressed his “moral sensibility” and “not a blueprint for legislation” or, for that matter, personal action. Arguably, Jefferson’s primary legacy to America was his intellectual complexity. At times, his “Romantic rhetoric” has been employed to rally Americans during national or international crises. In other innumerable instances, however, it has been cynically exploited to “obscure the real sufferings and injustices in American society under patinas of glittering principles and abstract ideals.”
Perhaps America realized, at least to some extent, what Europe could only imagine. Edward Gibbon coldly characterized the philosophe as one who “weighs, combines, doubts and decides.” Denis Diderot portrayed her metaphorically as one who “walks through the night but is preceded by a torch.” Benjamin Franklin described the enlightened person more pragmatically, more intimately, as a “heretic” with the “virtue of Fortitude.
Studied en masse, the philosophies and ideals of the American founders inform us that “enthusiasm” arrives in both religious and secular forms. These eminent lives reveal that true enlightenment, in fact, might never be “transcended,” and that effective communication and advancement can be achieved only through empirical inquiry. As Staloff observes, the enlightened person “searches for the truth in a spirit of open rationality[,] free from dogma,” whatever, and no matter how near, its source.