Book Review

Winterer, Caroline. American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason. The Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2016.

Commonly, references to the age of Enlightenment evoke John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Charles-Louis Montesquieu. Caroline Winterer posits that, in its formation, Enlightenment thinking crossed the Atlantic many times with American intellectuals adding considerably to its development. She demonstrates the influence of American thinkers such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Further, she integrates the justification of the enslavement of people and dispossessing Native Americans into enlightenment thinking.

At their core, 18th-century Europeans and Americans who viewed themselves as enlightened exhibited hope and believed that they could make the world a better place. At the same time, they condoned slavery and supported the destruction of Native Americans. Despite vexing contradictions and paradoxes, Winterer cautions readers not to judge the Enlightenment thinkers by today’s standards. She reminds readers that the role of historians is not to judge but interpret the historical record. Even the word Enlightenment is a 19th-century term and not one used by the philosophers and scientists of the now referred to “Age of Enlightenment.”  

While readers of many books can get lost in complexity, Winterer clearly explains Enlightenment concepts in intellectually rigorous but eminently understandable terms. For example, she demonstrates that simple words such as nature, society, and rights have potent meanings for the 18th-century philosophers. Further aiding comprehension, Winterer provides paintings and illustrations to demonstrate period thinking and to communicate philosophical concepts. For example, she includes a picture of a reverend with scientific equipment to illustrate the connection between enlightenment thinking and religion.

Winterer concludes her book with an incisive metaphor and a critical question. In Middle America, early European settlers uncovered bones and tusks of long-extinct mastodons. One of the early mysteries is whether the massive, curved tusks curled up or down. If curling up, the mastodon was likely a plant-eater, further demonstrating to the Europeans the North American environment’s inferiority. Curling down tusks connoted the mastodon as a fierce meat eater and a “relic of past American glory.” To Winterer, the orientation of the mastodon’s tusks is a metaphor describing the modern debate over the legacy of the Enlightenment. She likened curling up tusks to the people who think the Enlightenment was a significant move forward. On the other end of the spectrum, the tusks are curling down for the people who think the Enlightenment was tragically flawed. She dismisses these extremes and believes that we should listen carefully to our 18th-century predecessors and chart our path toward our version of Enlightenment. What is your view?

Mastodon and Whooly Mammouth National Park Service
This prehistoric fossil skeleton had been excavated by US naturalist Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) in the Hudson River Valley in 1801.

For more information from Professor Winterer, the Gilder-Lehrman Institute on American History offers a highly recommended self-paced course on The American Enlightenment. The twelve lectures are supplemented with both primary and secondary source readings. If desired, participants can take quizes and receive certificates of completion.

Peale’s Mastadon