- The Enlightenment in America, 1720–1825
Period determinations spur endless debate in academic circles, and never more so than over the claim of an American Enlightenment. Disputes range from whether such a phenomenon ever existed, to differences over significant origins (French? English? Scottish? American?), and on to diverse claims about cross-continental influences, stages of development, patterns of involvement, most significant figures, beginnings and endings, immediate impact, long-term historical consequences, and secular against religious affinities. More recently, these debates have come to recognize that a scholar's disciplinary focus—philosophical? historical? political? literary? economic?—usually controls the argument in a way that the universalist impulses of the Enlightenment would never have recognized.
Jose R. Torre, acutely aware of these internecine battle lines, enters the fray with his own massive four-volume edition of relevant materials. Perhaps unavoidably, he chooses some sides in these debates (with greatest indebtedness to the seminal work of Henry F. May), but he is far more interested in promoting "a dialectic" between competing concerns in search of a more "cacophonous" Enlightenment. The major question in examining his work thus becomes one of special accomplishment. With what success do these volumes offer up the possibility of new interpretation?
The results are mixed. Programmatically, The Enlightenment in America appears caught somewhere between personal "collection," the author's term, and general "anthology." The collective aspects, the materials selected for inclusion, offer great range, but the choices themselves seem idiosyncratic, tending toward [End Page 113] the esoteric and obscure rather than the canonical, with little or no justification given to selections made or not made. The contrasting move toward a more comprehensive anthology takes the form of rubrics meant to contain the larger subject. We have "economic and political ideas" in volume I, "education, literature, and the fine arts" in volume II, "religion and moral philosophy" in volume III, and "science and technology, social sciences" in volume IV—each with introductions that lay out the bibliographical range of commentary more than the author's own interpretive scheme.
By insisting on a dialectical methodology, Torre avoids many value judgments that might have been made more explicit in the overall collection, but one decision at the outset is very important. He argues that the economic aspects of Enlightenment in America have been undervalued, and so his first volume opens with primary sources on conceptions of finance, particulars on land policy, the emergence of land banks in America, and the prevalence of paper money disputes. Torre's major contribution to the subject of Enlightenment lies in these initial pages. It may, indeed, be the case that the early establishment of financial arrangements away from strict governmental control encouraged the growth of voluntarism and independency elsewhere in Colonial America, and, given the assumption, Torre was wise to begin here. There is chronological strength in the claim of early economic innovation, and what an author puts first in an extensive work always gets attention.
On the other hand, even these opening materials are narrow and particular. Where, for example, is the leading document on the subject of economics in the overall period, Alexander Hamilton's Report on Manufactures (1791)? Here and elsewhere, Torre's avoidance of canonical works seems perverse, unless his goal is to be read by specialists already in the know. Surely, it is more than a little perverse to make Thomas Jefferson's one primary entry an observation on the cultivation of olive trees (IV: 65–68). The decision to exclude leading texts that are still read today means that no general reader will come away from these volumes with the overriding excitement and flavor of the Enlightenment either then or now. Missing are the sweeping demonstrations, the driving belief so crucial to success, the understanding that every problem could be corralled and brought into the realm of human understanding for...