"The Atlantic Enlightenment, in France and the United States, at the time of the War of Independence and the Peace of Paris"

Presentation given on 3 September 2008 by
Marie-Jeanne Rossignol,
Professor of American Civilization, Dean for Education and Programs,
University Paris 7 - Denis Diderot

I would like to indicate that the ideas in this presentation are drawn from two books I am currently in the process of writing. One is L'Europe et l'Amérique du nord, 1492-today, which will be published in the fall, and is co-written with Jacques Portes, Cécile Vidal and Nicole Fouché. The other book is a history of American antislavery from the time of the American Revolution to 1815.
In 1957 Durand Echeverria published a book entitled Mirage in the West, which was to be very successful and very influential. The book bore on the French Image of America around the time of the War of Independence. Echeverria's thesis was that the French conceived a fascination with America at the time of the Revolution and then the War of Independence. But this fascination was a "mirage": the French saw in the new United States only what they wanted to see there, what suited their purpose. This was to lead to misunderstandings later in the 1790s. I do not totally agree with Echeverria. Both the French and the Americans took part in the same European Enlightenment, although in different ways. It was not simply a European Enlightenment, by the way. The French and British colonies in North America also participated in the general intellectual and social ferment that defines the Enlightenment: Le Cap in Saint-Domingue, and Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania, may well be called two centers of the transatlantic enlightenment in North America.
Yet Philadelphia was not Le Cap: in the 1750s, 1760s and 1770s, it came to embody change to an ever more receptive French public. First Philadelphia, the Quaker capital, signaled itself to the civilized world, by a strong condemnation of the slave trade and slavery. Then it was the capital of the United States during the Revolution and War of Independence: the Continental Congress sat there. The Declaration of Independence was discussed and drafted there. Third Benjamin Franklin came from Philadelphia: the scientist, printer and later diplomat was a late eighteenth-century star. By contrast racial tensions were building in Saint-Domingue, and in Le Cap whites tried to limit the rights of free mulattoes and there was no end of slavery in sight for recently imported Africans.
So North America (and Philadelphia is just a convenient example) was not simply a mirage for distressed continental Europeans who hoped for more liberal institutions, freedom of the press and of opinion, and fewer constraints on economic activity. When the French philosopher and mathematician Condorcet gave a speech on behalf of Franklin, who had recently died, he insisted on the fact that in his opinion Americans were a "people of philosophers" who had first turned the dreams of the Enlightenment into realities. He was right in many ways and the American Revolution resonated in Europe until 1789 and the start of the French Revolution precisely of that: through its social and economic system, politically progressive institutions, and universal message, the American Revolution showed the way in a very concrete manner. The Enlightenment had found a permanent home in the New World.
This paper today is an attempt to present the French and American enlightenments to the audience, with a view to explaining how the two nations were joined by a common belief in Enlightenment values, yet adhered to different conceptions of the Enlightenment. There was a French Enlightenment, and a very specific American one, derived in part from the British Enlightenment. Although the American Revolution was seen by many in France as the culmination of the European Enlightenment, it was also the result of a very British political culture, which partially explains the difference between the two revolutions in the end. Let us start with the American Enlightenment, which will serve as a point of entry for a comparison between the French and the American one.
Contrary to widespread ideas, the North American British colonists did not live on the edge of a wild frontier at the end of the eighteenth-century. Most of them lived on the eastern seaboard; they were more literate than Europeans were. If a large majority of them lived in rural areas, yet they frequently visited Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Charleston on business or pleasure. These cities were becoming centers of political, theological and generally intellectual debate, hosting libraries such the Library Company of Philadelphia, which Franklin created in 1743. Elite men also gathered in Mason lodges, and Franklin even set up a scientific society in 1741 in Philadelphia, the American Philosophical Society, where the first scientific Americans gathered around him. Soon foreign correspondents, such as the French naturalist Buffon were invited to join, later the philosopher and mathematician Condorcet also joined. Newspapers were being launched in all these urban environments, carrying news from Europe and the Caribbean. Printers also often doubled as booksellers (Franklin again) and American readers were avid for the bestsellers of Enlightened Europe, such as Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws (1748) or the Abbé Raynal's Philosophical and Political History of the Indies (1770). Educated Americans thus shared the values of the European Enlightenment: the primacy of reason, religious toleration, liberty, equality, the free circulation of ideas, goods and people, the desire for peace and happiness, the will to know and to spread knowledge. At the time of the War of Independence, they were to inscribe these principles in the Declaration of Independence (1776) as well as the declarations of rights of the states. In many ways thus, Americans were part of the European Enlightenment. Their values and their networks were typical of a common Atlantic rise to modernity.
But more specifically North Americans were indebted to the British Enlightenment. Although French philosophers such as Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau enjoyed international recognition in the mid-eighteenth century, more so probably than their English and Scottish counterparts (David Hume, Adam Smith), yet Great-Britain was the liberal country to which enlightened thinkers from all over Europe looked up. This was particularly the case since the 1689 "Glorious Revolution" which had established Britain as a liberal model: the King now shared power with Parliament, publications and tribunals enjoyed more freedom. The philosopher John Locke was greatly responsible for the ideas developed at the time of the Glorious Revolution, which were to be taken up by later by American revolutionaries, such as a right to insurrection, the need for the consent of the governed, and religious toleration. The American Declaration of Independence, the 1791 Bill of Rights, as well as many state bills of rights, bear his imprint. Religious toleration did mean a separation between church and state, but it did not imply a rejection of religion.
On this account, there is a major difference between the British and American Enlightenments, and the French Enlightenment. The French Enlightenment mostly saw religion as synonymous of intolerance and censorship, the enemy of reason and social progress. It had to be fought against. But the American Enlightenment experienced no such rejection of religion, even if some of the most prominent revolutionaries, Thomas Jefferson and even George Washington, were deists, or close to deism. Many Americans had experienced the Great Awakening in the 1750s and 1760s. The Great Awakening was a broad religious movement, which insisted on a religion of the heart, and by-passed established or official denominations. Average colonials, settlers living on the frontier, all could feel the inspiration of travelling preachers such as George Whitefield, and flee Anglicanism for the more democratic organization of Methodism and baptism. In the same way, Quakers, who were a majority in Pennsylvania until the mid-eighteenth century, embodied a rational, modern, yet religious America, in the eyes of French observers. Voltaire, who was prompt to condemn the French Catholic Church, praised Quakers, William Penn in particular, for having founded heaven on earth in the New World. So French philosophers knew that religion could rhyme with toleration in North America. However one must refrain from seeing British North America as some Enlightenment paradise at the time of the War of Independence: they were few scientists, apart from Franklin, who could rival with Europeans. Franklin himself was no philosopher, in the sense that Voltaire, David Hume or Montesquieu, could be. As for literary authors, poets, playwrights, painters, there were none, or almost none, due to a lack of wealthy backers: the famous painter Benjamin West, had to move to Britain in order to finance his full-time painting. There was yet no aristocratic class to support the arts. Most Americans lived on small independent farms ; yet they did debate, as the Revolution was to show between 1765 and 1775, but these discussions took place in taverns and newspapers, conventions and local assemblies instead of salons.
Yet American society came gradually to be seen as some kind of enlightened utopia before, during, and immediately after the War of Independence. As I suggested earlier, Quaker Pennsylvania had long appeared as a heaven of simplicity and democratic manners, as opposed to aristocratic France. Voltaire spread this idea, which gained more currency at the time of the War of Independence: in the 1780s a large body of literature was devoted to the New World, and the new nation in particular. Many French travelers to the United States contributed to this literature. In France but also in the rest of Europe, Britain gave way to the United States as a modern political model. Now the French no longer wanted to flee to London to avoid censorship: they dreamt of moving to the United States. A case in point is Jacques-Pierre Brissot, a future revolutionary leader in 1792-1793. He had been fascinated by Britain in the 1780s and repaired to London to avoid political problems in France: there he met with radicals but also with enlightened mainstream political figures such as Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice. He also met with Quakers, then at the forefront of the antislavery fight, and under the influence of famous American Quakers such as Anthony Bénézet.
By 1786, Brissot had been converted to the cause of America, like many French philosophers and journalists. To be enlightened was to be free ( the words light, enlightened and enlightened are to be found obsessively under his pen, as well as free and freedom) and to be free was to be in the United States. Beyond enjoying the kind of liberal institutions enlightened thinkers were hoping for, the United States also made it possible to consider economic prosperity for such lower-middle class publicists as Brissot through its cheap access to land. Brissot's close friend at the time was none other than Hector St John Crévecoeur, who had published his Letters from an American Farmer in French in 1784. Crévecoeur painted a elegiac view of his life as a farmer in North America in the Letters. Brissot thus dreamed of emulating him and achieving the kind of political and economic agrarian independency which Thomas Jefferson was describing at the very time in his Notes on the State of Virginia as the ultimate democratic ideal. Eventually Brissot's brother-in-law was to move there, and settling on a farm in "free America" as the future French revolutionary called the United States, was to remain a fond hope of Brissot's wife and mother-in-law.
In other ways, the "free America" was the culmination of the European Enlightenment in the eyes of Brissot. In particular, he was sensitive to the large movement of emancipation conducted by the new American states starting during the Revolution. Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, d'Alembert, all had railed against slavery. Men were equal by nature. Yet the antislavery movement in France was not making any headway. However by proclaiming that all men were born equal, the American Declaration of Independence caused North Americans, and then even the British, to think seriously about the concrete consequences of such pronouncements. On the question of antislavery, Brissot, like Crévecoeur, voiced special praise for American Quakers, who had prohibited their co-religionists, first from taking part in the international slave trade, and then from holding slaves themselves from the 1750s to the 1770s. During the American Revolution, the United States signaled its commitment to freedom by following up on the Quakers' example and by passing gradual emancipation laws which were bound to lead to the end of slavery. Support for these laws was also due to the presence of black troops during the War of Independence: 25% of American troops in Yorktown were black, and their courageous fighting was instrumental in both Lafayette and Washington's commitment to emancipation.
In 1787 Brissot's own fascination with the enlightened America was embodied in his founding a "French-American society" and writing a book on developing French-American trade. Through these endeavours he became close to Lafayette. In early 1788 Brissot founded the first French abolition society, with Lafayette as one of the earliest members, the French society was modeled on the similar British society, but clearly it had American Quakers as its inspiration, as was the case for the British society.
Brissot's personal goal to settle in America turned into a broader project of traveling in the United States in 1788, in order to investigate the new nation's recipes for the ending of slavery. From studying this "revolution" as he called abolition, Brissot came back in order to take part in the events of the French Revolution.
In this later part of the European Enlightenment, Brissot was not alone in drawing inspiration from what he saw as a "more enlightened" nation. Echoing Condorcet, the American historian Henry Steele Commager wrote: "The Old World imagined, invented and formulated the Enlightenment, the New World –certainly the Anglo-American part of it –realized and fulfilled it". As a result, the American Enlightenment, best embodied by the American Revolution and the later emancipation of slaves in the North, came to symbolize modernity and progress to Europeans. The Enlightenment thus circulated from Europe to North America, and then travelled back from the United States to France, but also to the rest of Europe including Britain. Now the liberal and inspiring model was the United States, no longer Britain.


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Presentation give at conference celebrating the 225th anniversary of the Peace Treaties of 1783, held at Palais du Luxembourg, Paris. See webpage: "An Exceptional Celebration".

Page posted 1 October 2008; revised 10 July 2010.