The Enlightenment in America

Monday, March 2, 2009

Harvard was not the only place in America which had to face the challenges of a new philosophy. The English colony of Virginia had been founded more than two decades before Massachusetts Bay, but its settlers had no guiding religious vision and no incentive to found colleges. In fact, not much incentive to do anything else than hunger after quick fortunes in America’s first commodity: tobacco. Like Massachusetts, Virginia had been founded as a private corporate enterprise by the Virginia company in 1607. The Virginia company never paid a single dividend to stockholders and went bankrupt in 1622. At that point, the Crown might had decided to retrieve the unhappy employees in Virginia and give up on licensing fruitless commercial ventures in America. But the Crown wanted no responsibility for American enterprises, whether starting or ending them. Instead, the royal government in London left the employees of the Virginia company in Virginia to organize their affairs there as best as they could, sending a governor or two to give some semblance of English authority to matters. Until 1685, the Crown’s interest in America never moved much beyond that.

The Crown handed out ridiculous awards of land in America to Court favorites. For the most part, the government allowed the colonies to develop their own ad hoc assemblies and behave almost as they were little sovereignities of their own. With 3000 ocean miles between England and America, no one on either side was much inclined to complain. At least not until the end of the 1600’s. Then the attitudes of the imperial planners in London began to change for an unexpected reason.

So long as colony planning in America looked like digging a bottomless money pit, the royal government in London wanted nothing to do with any responsibility for colonial affairs. By the end of the 1600’s, however, the colonies had managed to invert this proposition completely. America had proven so fertile, and the religiously eccentrics England had sent there so unpredictably resourceful; that the mother country was beginning to sustain an unfavorable balance of trade with America. What was more; England’s great rivals, the French, had begun to awaken to the importance of waging imperial war on England through its own American colonies. Between 1690 and 1763 France and England became entangled in a series of wars in America that forced the British Crown to pour vital military resources into the protection of its North American colonies.

In process, the British could not help noticing several things in passing. First of all, they noticed that the Americans were quite happy to have the British carrying the burden of imperial expenses. Secondly, they noticed that the Americans were surprisingly prosperous, unregulated by British law. And many colonials assumed that they were good Englishmen as one could find in Britain. The more prosperous the Americans became, the more they wanted to wear the newest English style, read the newest English literature, become members of English learned societies, and in general, to behave as though they were decent Englishmen; and not the Robinson Crusoes the earlier generation had been.

Throughout the colonies, there was a self-conscious effort to Anglicize colonial life through the deliberate imitation of metropolitan institutions, values and cultures. They wanted, in other words, to think of themselves primarily as Britons rather than the descendants of convicts and religious oddballs.

The Empire surely understood how they should be treating them. From the 1690’s onwards, Britain began gradually reaching for more and more of the control it had once claimed to be too expensive. By the same turn, fewer and fewer Americans seemed to object to it. This included the intellectual life of the colonies.

As much as France is routinely thought of as the national capital of the Enlightenment, both the French and the rest of Europe thought of England as the nation of Enlightenment par excellence. England had a government with a Parliament far more powerful, and a monarch far less arbitrary than any other in Europe. It possessed a commercial culture that gave no automatic economic point to noblemen over merchants. It had an established protestant church, but by the end of the 1600’s and the beginnings of the 1700’s, that Church was no longer in the business of persecuting other religions. Even the bishops of the Church prided themselves over their broad-mindedness.

With the lapsing of the censorship laws in England in the 1690’s, Englishmen had the most unrestricted and free willing press and book culture in the world. The dawn of the 1700’s became the dawn of an age of literature: of Alexander Pope, of Joseph Addison and Samuel Johnson. It also became the dawn of an era or political radicalism and religious ease.

The Expansion of the Enlightenment to other Colleges

When at the end of the 1600’s the British government concluded that it would be a good idea to harness the American horse more securely to the British carriage; it began to do so by imposing new taxes, by sending out new administrators and by building in the colonies more and more English institutions. When King William and Queen Mary sent Francis Nicholson to Virginia as the new Royal Governor in 1691, he not only imposed a new political regime in Virginia, but he presented the colonial assembly with a bill to organize a college, a college to be appropriately named for the English monarchs themselves: William and Mary.

It was intended to be a perpetual college of divinity, philosophy, languages and other good arts and sciences; which sounds very much like a good replay of the Harvard curriculum from the 1640’s. But William and Mary’s first president, James Blair, was a great admirer of John Locke, and by the 1720’s the library of William and Mary was full of the unusual array of books by Bacon, Locke and Newton. By the time the young Thomas Jefferson arrived to William and Mary in 1760 to begin his education, its tutors were already renowned as men of the Enlightenment.

Something similar happened in Pennsylvania. The charter which the King gave to William Penn to organize a settlement North of Maryland in 1682 contained no references to religious eccentricity. But Penn had in 1663 turned Quaker. He envisioned his new colony as a refuge for his fellow Quakers. Over time his colony emerged as one of the most commercially thriving in British North America. Its chief city, Philadelphia, became British America’s de facto capital. Despite Penn’s efforts, Pennsylvania joined the rush to anglicize. Even Penn’s own sons eventually abandoned Quakerism and joined the Church of England.

The residual hostility of Pennsylvania Quakers to formal education prevented Pennsylvania from developing a Harvard or a William and Mary until 1740, and the founding in that year of the Academy of Philadelphia, which then became the college of Philadelphia and then the University of Pennsylvania. But the college of Philadelphia quickly established itself as a center of Enlightenment reading. Philadelphia became home, by the time of the Revolution, to a group of Enlightenment intellectuals: Benjamin Rush, William and John Bartram, Benjamin Franklin, Francis Addison and Samuel Stanhope Smith. All of whom accomplished America’s best reconciliation of the demands of Newtonian science with natural religion. The Enlightenment, remarked Thomas Jefferson, was never so advantageously taught anywhere else in America than in Philadelphia.

In the end, not even the conservatives who founded Yale college in 1701 were immune to the “threat” of the English-speaking Enlightenment. Although the Yale curriculum was built around the authors that Harvard had once prescribed, it also allowed the use of William Brattle’s logic textbook. By 1718, one of the Yale tutors, Samuel Johnson, was introducing Yale undergraduate students to the reading of John Locke. If to prove how corrosive the attraction of anglization and the new philosophy might be, in 1722, the rector of the college, Timothy Cutler, and four of the tutors, publicly renounced Congregationalism and took ship to England to be ordained as priests of the Church of England.

The Enlightenment apparently had won over the colonies. And the colonies had shown themselves over too happy to be won over. If that is the conclusion that we draw from these reviews of facts, we are committing a big mistake, because the dissatisfied energies of religious revival were about to erupt.