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Hardcover Enlightment in America Book

ISBN: 0195020189

ISBN13: 9780195020182

Enlightment in America

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Our Tangled Religious History

I bought this book after reading some news items describing an effort by conservative Christians on Texas's school textbook review board to recast the Founding Fathers as deeply Christian, rather than the more neutral, if not even hostile in Jefferson's case, descriptions that have been the norm. More generally, I've often wondered how a country that started as a colony of very dour Calvinists came to embrace a form of government that is so ambigouous towards religion. Professor May delivers an excellent picture of how the American Revolution occurred during a very particular period in our social history, when much of the religious activity among the powerful in the colonies was dominated by Anglicans and other "latitudinarians" who were comfortable with the intellectual skepticism of the Enlightenment, especially as espoused by Hume and the other Scottish Enlightenment thinkers. This period followed a much different one, known as The Great Awakening, that was dominated by strong Calvinist tendencies and the sort of "enthusiastic" revivalism that we see today. Ironically, the forces that supported the rise of the Anglican and other "softer" religions died with the end of British rule; so, as the 18the Century ended, professor May explains, the sort of "enthusiastic" religions---especially the Baptists---started to overtake the more "intellectual" religions and the period known as the The Second Great Awakening began. Reading this book in conjunction with Richard Hofstader's excellent history "Anti-Intellectualism if American Life" brings much clarity to the political and cultural battles we have experienced over time and especially today.


The Enlightenment in America is a detailed survey of the impact and life of Enlightenment ideas in 18th century America. Characterized by excellent writing and thoughtful scholarship, this is an insightful book. May begins with a division of the Enlightenment into 4 useful categories; the Moderate Enlightenment, the Skeptical Enlightenment, the Revolutionary Enlightenment, and the Didactic Enlightenment. The Moderate Enlightenment is very much the Enlightenment of Locke, Montesquieu, Samuel Clarke, Francis Hutcheson, and similar figures. Pervaded by a strong sense of rational design of the universe, a commitment to deism or very moderate forms of Protestantism, and of a need for order and balance, the Moderate Enlightenment exerted a strong influence on the American colonies. May is particularly good on the strong interaction between the Moderate Enlightenment and different strains of Protestantism. Melded with aspects of colonial Protestantism and the Republican Whig/Commonwealth tradition, the Moderate Enlightenment would contribute considerably to the ideology of the Founders. May sees the Skeptical Enlightenment, associated with several of the more skeptical French philosophes and with Hume, as being less influential, though he points out the importance of some of Hume's political ideas. The Revolutionary Enlightenment, whose greatest apostle would be Rousseau and whose most important American contributor is Thomas Paine, had a considerable vogue following the outbreak of the French Revolution but was later discredited, along with the Skeptical Enlightenment, by the reaction against the French Revolution and Bonaparte. The final phase of the Enlightenment in America was the very strong influence of the Didactic Enlightenment, May's term for the influence of the Scottish 'Commonsense' school of James Beattie, Dugald Stewart, and Thomas Reid. Partly a reaction to Hume and partly a reaction to more radical Enlightenment figures, these largely second and third rate thinkers put forward a version of epistemology and psychology that was easily incorporated into the burgeoning evangelical movement in America. Their influence in American education was great and largely defused the radicalism associated with prior aspects of the Enlightenment. Accompanying the success of the Didactic Enlightenment was a definite decline in the intellectual vigor of the former colonies. May does an excellent job of discussing a wide variety of major and minor figures in American life. He as good on a number of now largely unknown writers and clergymen as he is on Jefferson and other major figures. The integration of his intellectual history with political and social history is very good. I'm surprised this book isn't better known.

The Enlightenment in America

The Enlightenment in America by Henry F. May is a serious work about how and why eighteenth-century enlightenment occured. This book works two main themes or ideas in early America. The enlightenment and protestantism, but this book goes deeper as enlightenment with protestantism always in the background as matrix, rival, ally, and of course enemy. This book is about Enlightenment as religion.This book is divided into four sections: The Moderate Enlightenment, 1688-1787; The Skeptical Enlightenment, 1750-1789; The Revolutionary Enlightenment, 1776-1800; and The Didactic Enlightenment, 1800-1815. The author takes us through each of these time frames and gives the reader a basic comparitive analysis as to the times and events of the day. Politics, law, education, science and epistemology all are interplayed and are important in general discussion. To understand the political thought better we start with religion.Men of the late eighteenth century, no matter what their calling, seldom thought about any branch of human affairs without referring consciously to some general beliefs about the nature of the universe and man's place in it. So, with this tome, enlightenment is itself basic.. to believe in two propostions: first, that the present age is more enlightened than the past; and second, that we understand nature and man best through the use of our natural faculties. We find that in the years that enlightenment and protestantism were either allies or rivals neither was simple or undivided.This book brings into play ideas, ideas of Voltaire, Hume and Paine; Rousseau, Locke, Samuel Clarke, and Montesquieu all work toward the final outcome of the enlightenment that worked through to the Founding Fathers. Most of the Founding Fathers were deists, but perplexity of the American culture has always been deeply Calvinistic.Your brain will get a workout reading this book, as this is the most comprehensive survey of enlightenment as it relates to the eighteenth-century America. When reading about the Founding Fathers and their lives and times, reading this book about the history of ideas will put things into perspective.
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