- The Atlantic Enlightenment
This volume represents the fruits of a conference held at the University of Edinburgh in 2002 to reconsider the nature and character of the trans Atlantic Enlightenment. Although some scholars continue to regard the Enlightenment as a single, cohesive movement centered in France that radiated outward to influence the rest of the western world, others have a different conception. For these scholars, there is not one Enlightenment, but many, each of which took on the distinctive characteristics of the particular locale in which it occurred. By presenting the work of geographers and literary scholars as well as historians, this volume offers a set of richly textured, multidisciplinary essays that substantially broadens our understanding of this newer approach, especially as it applies to the English-speaking North American world.
In their Introduction, Manning and Cogliano are forthright about the limits of the volume. As they admit, these essays concentrate on the North Atlantic Enlightenment with a particular emphasis on Protestant, Anglophone thinkers and ideas. They do not explore the Spanish or Southern European Enlightenments or push beyond the boundaries of the British North American colonies. Even so, many of the volume's best essays do not take the meaning of "Atlantic Enlightenment" for granted; they interrogate the role of the Atlantic in producing a distinctive kind of Enlightenment thought. In a study of sailors' understandings of Enlightenment ideas such as equality and rights, for example, Paul Gilje demonstrates that the Enlightenment "not only stretch[ed] across the Atlantic, but also upon the Atlantic, reaching into the forecastle and the world of the common seamen" (180). This was an Enlightment from the bottom up as well as the top down. In a fascinating discussion of the mapping of the Gulf Stream, Charles W. J. Withers describes the circulation of knowledge throughout the Atlantic world. The Atlantic Enlightenment, he concludes, was "not a single entity but . . . a dynamic space, at once social, geographical, and epistemological. Its characteristics were different depending on where on its margins Enlightenment knowledge was made and received, by whom, and in what form and how such knowledge and its makers and audiences moved, if at all, between one [End Page 523] place and another" (47). This Enlightenment was not one movement, but a complicated set of processes that occurred in different ways at different places and times.
This more capacious understanding of the Atlantic Enlightenment enables contributors to put familiar thinkers or traditional ideas into a new context. Peter S. Onuf 's insightful essay, "Adam Smith and the Crisis of the American Union," is a case in point. Using Smith's influential Wealth of Nations as the basis of his analysis, Onuf shows that the text can be read in two ways: in the more familiar fashion as a brief for free trade, in anticipation of free market ideology; or retrospectively, as Smith's historical critique of British trade policy with respect to the North American colonies. The second reading, he says, suggests that Smith was less interested in promoting foreign trade per se than in freeing England's domestic economy from the stifling restrictions imposed by a mercantilist economic system. Although conventional narratives stress only the impact of Smith's free market ideas in the United States, Onuf shows that there was more to it. Ironically, during the antebellum era the North latched onto the retrospective, historical reading of Smith in an effort to promote tariff regulations and build a strong domestic economy, while the South emphasized the ostensibly more forward-looking view, becoming champions of free trade in an effort to promote cotton and protect slavery.
Other essays in the volume offer fresh insights on other Enlightenment thinkers. In a perceptive discussion of David Hume, Emma Rothschild shows how Hume's travels throughout the Atlantic world, including stays in Paris, Vienna, and Turin, and an abortive career as part of an expeditionary force bound for Canada, shaped his thinking about commerce and society, slavery and civilization. Examining John Witherspoon, an understudied Scottish thinker, Daniel W. Howe shows how Witherspoon...