The Empire of Reason

Late in his career, Henry Steele Commager, in his bicentennial volume, The Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment, has sympathetically portrayed a glorious beginning for the United States based upon the ideas of the Enlightenment. Commager contends that. . . it was Americans who not only embraced the body of Enlightenment principles, but wrote them into law, crystalized them into institutions, and put them to work. That, as much as the winning of independence and the creation of the nation, was the American Revolution.

More than any other nation at its founding the United States was the fulfillment and fruition of the Enlightenment.

This scholarly and eloquent volume pursues its thesis relentlessly as it probes the ideas both of American and of European philosophes—that international community of intellectuals, consisting of educators, revolutionaries, rationalists, Deists, men of letters, statesmen, and citizens of the world, who sought useful truths. The underlying principle on which they all agreed, and which was the foundation of their perceptions of nature, God, and society, was order. They were occupied with organization, classification, codification, and systematization, from Baron d’Holbach’s Système de la nature (1770), to Montesqueiu’s Spirit of the Laws, to the System of Nature of Carl Linnaeus, to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, to the work of Comte de Buffon, Diderot, and others.

In the mid-eighteenth century Philadelphia was the capital of the American Enlightenment, the intellectual and cultural center of the American colonies presided over by Benjamin Franklin. America’s philosophes—Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, John Adams, Thomas Paine, Joel Barlow, Manasseh Cutler, Joseph Priestley, Benjamin Thompson—were an outstanding group almost unmatched in any European nation. Confident that Reason would solve all of their problems, they were also dedicated to Progress, the belief that the future would bring improvement to all aspects of life. Scrutinizing the past and analyzing and organizing the present, they were convinced that the future should and could be better. History became a reservoir out of which the philosophes derived support for their critique of eighteenth century society. Studies of ancient Greece and republican Rome increased in quality and quantity. Pope translated the Iliad and the Odyssey into English and Gibbon wrote his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The ancient world became the theme of painting, music, and sculpture. Many Europeans were particularly attracted to Greece, while most North Americans admired and sought to emulate republican Rome. History provided examples around which to shape the future.

A climate of curiosity and desire to expand the limits of knowledge led to a period of exploration in the eighteenth century that eventuated in the accumulation of vast quantities of scientific information and the mapping of previously unexplored areas. Under the impact of this interest in exploration, the interiors of both Russia and North America were mapped by the Russians, Spaniards, French, Scots, and American colonists. Siam, Burma, India, and China were all rediscovered and exploration also extended to Africa and the Middle East.

As explorers penetrated North America they initiated a debate about the nature of the New World and its inhabitants. A general assumption of the Enlightenment was that human nature was everywhere uniform, except that men differed in accordance with variations in their environments. Out of this assumption, individuals of the early Enlightenment attempted to explain America and the Indians. Why had America emerged so late in history? Why had it been so unimportant in the history of the world? The European answer was most unflattering: America had a distinctly inferior environment; its inhabitants were therefore inferior, and civilization gave way to barbarism.

In reaction to this indictment emerged a formidable defense by America’s philosophes, directed by Thomas Jefferson. His Notes on Virginia, an outstanding work which attracted much European attention, provided ample scientific information that there was nothing inferior about America. Jefferson also supplied Buffon and other European scientists with bones, skins, animals, and...

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Booklist. LXXIII, April 1, 1977, p. 1137.

Library Journal. CII, April 15, 1977, p. 916.

National Review. XXIX, September 30, 1977, p. 1123.

New York Times Book Review. August 14, 1977, p. 10.

Saturday Review. IV, May 14, 1977, p. 20.