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Less original, rigorous and abrasive than its European counterpart, the American Enlightenment was as nebulous as it was decisive in the formation of America's self-image and public creed. Meyer (History--Univ. of Delaware) draws on the work of Peter Gay, Perry Miller and Richard Hofstadter to give the Enlightenment its distinctively Yankee inflection. It was, he says, ""destined for the happy mediocrity of being made safe for democracy."" That may sound blasphemous, but in fact Meyer has great respect for the problem-solving, engineer's mentality of Ben Franklin and yes, even Thomas Jefferson. Unlike Voltaire, Rousseau, or even David Hume, their European counterparts, American intellectuals in the 18th century were provincials. But this gave them certain advantages. The life of the mind was, in America, much ""closer to the practical and the public"" than in Europe where the Republic of Letters was a class apart. American philosophes were also practical men of affairs: they did not have to flay archaic dogmas, outmoded social prejudices or arcane laws; they perceived a happy congruity between personal happiness and public service, self-interest and the welfare of the community. Paradoxically, the most intriguing figure in Meyer's panoply is Jonathan Edwards, the radical Puritan whose dour Calvinist emphasis on man's sinfulness and impotence before God was apparently antithetical to everything the humanistic, secular Enlightenment stood for. Meyer argues that the Great Awakening was in fact complementary not inimical to the Enlightenment in its American context--both movements were part of the moral and civic consensus that became what Franklin called ""Public Religion."" There was a price paid for this intellectual harmony of course: ""intellectual passion and subtlety"" were not highly regarded. The noble principles which the Declaration of Independence expressed politically could, too easily, degenerate into smugness. In short, the American Enlightenment was assimilated into the public realm without great rancor--but more as rhetoric than reality.

Pub Date: June 27th, 1975
Publisher: Putnam