JEFFERSON, NATIONALISM, AND THE ENLIGHTENMENT by Henry Steele Commager

JEFFERSON, NATIONALISM, AND THE ENLIGHTENMENT

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Commager, perhaps our most broad-ranging American historian, here continues his favorite theme: ""The Old World imagined the Enlightenment and The New World realized it."" It was on native soil that philosophy -- a European product -- blended with conduct. Here there were jobs to do, unhindered by dated institutions: feudalism, monarchy, aristocracy, church, military. Jefferson becomes the central and symbolic figure, the 18th century model of the Platonic philosopher king; he dominates our Enlightenment, Commager says, more completely than Voltaire did the French or Goethe the German. At once theoretician and man of affairs, he wrote the Declaration, created the Library of Congress, studied agriculture, law, religion, literature, morals. ""In America the romantic could feed on reality, the real was romantic and the romantic was real."" Commager as historian is that unique American combination of the practical and theoretical and romantic he so greatly prizes (this collection of essays manages to unite concern for law and polity with the higher ground of moral philosophy), yet the vision is too idealized. To say that Europe ""contrived"" its Romanticism while ours was natural is to do a bit of contriving on one's own.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1974
Publisher: Braziller