The Politics of Enlightenment and the American Founding
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City-slickers versus countryfolk, skeptics versus Bible-thumpers: the red state/blue state divide was there at the very start of the nation.

As Gertrude Himmelfarb groused in her grouchy Roads to Modernity (2004), there were several Enlightenments. Whereas she clearly prefers the English one to the icky French version, Staloff (History/CUNY; The Making of an American Thinking Class, 1997) finds virtues—but also failings—in the several approaches to the Enlightenment endorsed and even represented by three well-covered Founding Fathers. If Immanuel Kant defined the Enlightenment and its forebears in rationalism as “dare to know!,” then Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton expanded it to read “dare to act!” But each took a different tack. Hamilton found a perfect republic in the marketplace, marked by “commercial prosperity, economic growth, and social mobility”; by Staloff’s view, Hamiltonian man evolved into the New Yorker of today, full of moneymaking energy but not necessarily of the patrician graces. Jefferson, that “Romantic visionary,” took his cues from France, at least in part because he conceived such a great hatred of the English crown during the Revolution; the proposed Jay treaty drove him to distraction, as did what he regarded as Adams’s (and Hamilton’s) secret entreaties to the English in the postwar era, hoping to get the pounds rolling back to the ports of New York and New England. (Hamilton retorted by accusing Jefferson of having “a womanish attachment to France and a womanish resentment against Great Britain.”) And Adams’s Enlightenment allowed a meritocracy, but certainly not a democracy: talent and genius were rare, he reckoned, and it was a fool’s job to suppose everyone equal; “No love of equality,” he railed, “ever existed in human nature.” Yet all embraced republicanism, if with different wrinkles, and associated doctrines whose origins were, Staloff notes, urban in origin, the stuff of smart coffeehouses and salons, hinging on access to the printed word and best read with at least some sense of irony and humor, and hopeful that the nation was capable of self-governance.

A lucid argument, usefully extending the intellectual history of the American Revolution by interrogating three great revolutionaries.

Pub Date: July 4th, 2005
ISBN: 0-8090-7784-1
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 2005


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