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Enlightened Independence and the Origins of its American Radicalization American Studies Today Online

Through a thematic comparison of the notion of independence found in Immanuel Kant's seminal essay, "What is Enlightenment?" and various texts of the Radical American Enlightenment, I argue that America, as nation and idea, could not ever have fully accepted the European model of Enlightenment articulated by Kant and others.

By Joel Wilson,
graduate student at Florida Atlantic University


Posted 20-Mar-2014

Kant's Enlightenment and American Exceptionalism

Individualized Exceptionalism

(Radical) America's Birth

American Radicalism: Back to the Future


Works Cited

Further reading

“There is in effect a manly and legitimate passion for equality which excites men to all want to be strong and esteemed … but in the human heart, there exists also a depraved taste for equality … which reduces men to prefer equality in servitude than inequality with liberty.” [1]

--Alexis de Tocqueville, De la démocratie en Amérique, I.iii

The spirit of America is the spirit of independence. Roll your eyes, scoff at my presumptuousness - but do not make the mistake of dismissing it as nationalistic hysteria. I am no gun-toter; I am no neoconservative; I am no immigrant-hater - my opening statement is grounded wholly in nonpolitical rhetoric, and it is precisely this kind of rhetoric of which I avail myself in order to gaily express myself both in public and in this article. The mere fact that I, as an American, can speak so audaciously while another American can summarily dismiss my statement as rightwing orotundity, is, in itself, a manner of demonstrating the spirit of independence as manifested in the rhetoric fostered by the United States and noted by de Tocqueville almost two hundred years ago.

This spirit of independence to which I refer can be traced throughout the history of the United States - from the very inception of the history of this country and its ideals, as recorded in the rhetoric of Winthrope’s “City on a Hille,”[2] to contemporary rhetoric demanding an end to dependence on foreign oil and supporting America’s entitlement to act unilaterally, without the backing of the United Nations or the international community at large. On a more domestic level, the recent matter of obligatory healthcare insurance and whether or not its mandate infringes on the rights of free citizens as well as the more pernicious issue of gun control after the series of tragic mass shootings in 2012 has proved controversial to Americans’ sense of individual independence. Truly, the “fierce spirit of independence,” to use Irish statesman Edmund Burke’s eighteenth century description, that pervades American society must have traceable roots (Burke 237). It is my purpose in this essay to delineate one root, specifically the radical American Enlightenment, by which I refer to a catalog of diverse ideologies found objectionable by the mainstream Enlightenment, including the belief in fundamental rights endowed by a Creator and not birth, limited to no government, uninhibited freedom of speech, an insistence on one’s individual prerogative over communal benefit, and individual access to providence instead of progressive and secular rationality. Through a thematic comparison between Immanuel Kant’s formative essay, “What is Enlightenment?” and writings of the American founding fathers, I will establish that from the arrival of the first emigrants in Massachusetts, Americans have perceived themselves to be Enlightened in a manner that would ultimately prevent the European moderate Enlightenment from taking root in the American mind.

Kant’s Enlightenment and American Exceptionalism

Though Kant praised the American Revolution[3] and throughout his oeuvre, extols independence as noble virtue, it is important to separate this term from its contemporary connotations. Kant’s usage did not predicate “[direct] democracy; racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression, and the press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separation of church and state” (Israel, Revolution vii-viii). Such liberties are conspicuous in the writings of, among others, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson - men who were
Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine
Kant’s contemporaries, but not likeminded philosophers. Kant’s independence is far more subjective. In his celebrated essay from 1784, “What is Enlightenment?” he outlines the overarching goals of the on-going European Enlightenment.[4] Yet from his first few words, distinctions between American radicalism and European moderateness are palpable. Kant’s principal aphorism: “Sapere aude,” “Dare to Know,” his motto for the Age of Enlightenment, presents the first challenge to the American mind, legally formed just eight years before the publication of his essay. Despite being the progeny of Europe’s progressive move towards Enlightenment, America could never be the realization thereof for at least three reasons. For one, colonial history did not inspire an intimate community; the colonies frequently had more enmity with one another than England, and more to the point, each sought colonial interest instead of communal welfare. Additionally, emigrants to the Americas frequently transplanted themselves in the name of freedom and independence. not a view to the amelioration of a community.[5] Yet the most germane reason that America’s Early Republic could never have adopted the principles of the moderate Enlightenment in the context of this discussion of Kant’s “Sapere aude” is that both radical and moderate thinkers in colonial America freely accepted tutelage, to use one English translation of Kant’s Unmündigkeit, to a bygone era’s manner of thinking, stemming from the colonization of the New World: American Exceptionalism

William  Bradford
William Bradford
The first leaders in America - William Bradford, John Winthrop, among others - believed their individual church was synonymous with the New Jerusalem prophesized in the Bible. These men believed they were delivered from heathen Europe by the mighty hand of God Himself, and though such providential deliverance led men like Bradford and Winthrop to be “what we would think of today as a civic-minded citizen[s],” they by no means “believe[d] in democracy” or individual liberties beyond the right to worship as Puritan church leaders saw fit (Söderlind 245). In 1754, when Jonathan Mayhew writes that America’s first emigrants were “smitten with a Love of Liberty,” it was not the kind championed by the Enlightenment’s leaders, including Kant - it was not secular, nor was it egalitarian; early New England Puritans’ love affair with independence had everything to do with the Anglican Church (Mayhew 23). For these early Americans, something was fundamentally wrong in the Old World, but the plight of the average citizen, which the Enlightenment sought to correct, was not their concern. The Puritan emigrants felt that genuine faith lacked in Europe, and their deliverance proved that God purposed their establishment of the scripturally foretold New Jerusalem. While a boon to their community’s freedom of worship, the establishment of Puritan havens in the New World did not bring about the kind of enlightenment Kant and his contemporaries would later seek. However, the American Puritans, as a group, believed themselves chosen as the cornerstone of God’s recreation. As such, they were “answerable only to God and to his or her own conscience” (Innes 116). On into the early 1700s, New World prosperity, coupled with the subjugation of America’s natives and nature, further nourished their spirit of Exceptionalism. New Englanders in particular, enjoying a lifestyle equal to or superior to many Europeans, considered themselves blessed for their efforts to establish an enlightened, theocratic society.

Individualized Exceptionalism

Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards

In the first half of the eighteenth century, Jonathan Edwards played a crucial role in extending Exceptionalism beyond just Puritan America. He writes, “Beautiful as Tirzah, comely as Jerusalem, and terrible as an Army with Banners” - “Put on thy beautiful garments, O America, the holy city!”[7] In coupling his rejection of the Enlightenment’s sense of progressive, secular societies with an ever-expanding sense of individual Exceptionalism, Edwards planted the seeds of a radical independence during the First Great Awakening.[8] According to Edwards, America constituted “the holy city,” not just the Puritan communities therein. The eminent scholar Sacvan Bercovitch aptly argues that “Edwards’s arrogance reflects a set of widely shared beliefs[,] … Edwards drew out the protonationalistic tendencies … [and he] retained the Puritan vision of personal/communal exceptionalism” (Bercovitch 105-106). Indeed, Edwards “opened the ranks of the American army of Christ to every white Protestant believer” (Bercovitch 106). These soldiers needed guidance from God, Edwards in effect argues, yet once they received it, they were free to make morally sound judgments as they, and not solely their society, were divinely enlightened. Such decisions thus did not need to have the community’s benefit in mind. Edwards coalesced Puritan Exceptionalism and the revivalism of his own age, advancing colonials’ sense of independence while tacitly linking it to the emerging belief in America’s mission. Hence, fifty years prior to Kant’s manifesto, Americans had already developed clear notions of singular and superior individuality which endowed them with a belief that their actions were inherently nobler and more enlightened. Edwards essentially molded the Puritan belief to fit the ever increasing American population, hungry for individual identity and individual opportunity, hungry for individual self-assertion, into a self-righteous mass of individuals believing their personal relationship with the Almighty endowed them to an exalted position in His design.

The colonies came to represent, at least in the minds of colonists and newly-émigré, a new Eden, where individual independence was part of providential plan, much like when the Biblical Adam had but a single law to obey. Such identity politics bled into all facets of life, most notably in public rhetoric, literature, and poetry, such as that of Philip Freneau who, using another Biblical idyll, praises America as “A Canaan here,” one he prophesies “shall excel the old” (Freneau 82). From the Puritan settlers to Freneau’s compatriots, Americans, first communally then individually, supposed themselves intimate with God and capable of making enlightened decisions before that term was ever popularized. In effect, they were not part of an Age of Enlightenment Kant said was ongoing in 1784, but the culmination of it.

Cotton Mather
Cotton Mather

While this enlightened Exceptionalism is unambiguous in political rhetoric of the Revolutionary Era, rhetorical antecedents are conspicuous throughout America’s colonial literature. In 1710, Cotton Mather speaks of America as the fulfillment of prophecy: “Mal. 1. 11. From the Rising of the Sun even unto the going down of the same, my Name shall be great among the Gentiles. AMERICA is Legible in these Promises” (Mather 31). Little variation of Mather’s tropos is found in secular writings even decades later. J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur’s prerevolutionary third letter in his Letters from an American Farmer praises America for having “no princes, for whom we toil, starve, and bleed: we are the most perfect society now existing in the world. Here man is free; as he ought to be; nor is this pleasing equality so transitory as many others are” (emphasis mine, Crèvecœur 50). In his 1775 Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, Thomas Jefferson defends Americans’ right to radical independence. Jefferson weds the secular and religious rhetorics of his time, without obscuring his focus on individual: “We do then most solemnly before God & the world declare, that … we will wage with bitter perseverance, exerting to their utmost energies all those powers which our creator hath given us to preserve that sacred Liberty which He committed to us in sacred deposit, & to protect from every hostile hand our lives & our properties” (Jefferson 123). Through his repetitious use of the first person plural pronoun, Jefferson’s concern over the individual is clear. By the time of the American Revolution and the authoring of the Declaration of Independence, a sense of special propriety pervaded the colonists, one that from its onset diverged from the path of Kantian ethics and the moderate Enlightenment. 

Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant
Divinely-granted individual sovereignty was never Kant’s intent. While Kant does acknowledge “The public use of one’s
reason must always be free,” he does contrast this with “The private use of reason” which he argues must be “very narrowly” (Kramnick 3). He elaborates: “By the public use of one’s reason I understand the use which a person makes of it as a scholar before the reading public” (Kramnick 3). Military officers, clergymen, and government officials, to use Kant’s examples, can use their positions as citizens to voice their opinions and exercise their independence. A clergyman, for example, may denounce teachings of his church while not in front of the pulpit entrusted to him by the church. In effect, individuals have the right to break character. In this way, institutions are upheld for the benefit of society while those within them encourage gradual change, which “leads the government to relax its restrictions on public discourse,” thus creating a “self-perpetuating motion” towards greater and greater civil freedom for the benefit of the society, not solely the individual (McCumber 269). Commenting on Kant’s notions of restricted private freedom, John Dewey notes the schism between enlightened freedom and radical, mercenary independence when he writes that Kant’s Enlightenment ushers “the coming of age on the part of humanity,” and not the idiosyncratic individual. Humanity will find “Genuine growth … in the slow growth of science and philosophy” (Dewey 76). “True freedom,” according to Dewey, “is inner freedom, freedom of thought” based solely on enlightened thinking relative to the age in question (Dewey 76). This inner independence, when practiced by the mass of society, gradually leads to greater, progressive freedom for society and communal - again, not individual - benefit. Put simply, unrestricted reason only may reign free when the individual, in Kant’s words, “regards himself … as a member of the whole community or of a society of world citizens, and thus in the role of a scholar who addresses the public” (Kramnick 3).

Certainly this call for communal enlightenment is a far cry from the American jeremiad of the mid to late eighteenth century, employed not to incite rationality and reason but to stir nationalistic sentiment against British Empire who was supposedly limiting individual freedom. Religiosity was thus bound up with America’s sense of post-Enlightenment and Exceptionalism. As God had chosen the American people, He too had already granted the nation communal Enlightenment. Nathaniel Niles, preaching in 1774, demonstrates the entrenched opposition against the moderate Enlightenment when he writes, “Liberty is not an absolute right of our own.” Liberty, independence, and free thought, not inherent to man, are all “a loan of heaven, for which we must account with the great God” (Niles 1774). The implication is clear - if Americans did not capitalize on providential liberty and support the revolution, they were not demonstrating their commitment to their own Exceptional Enlightenment. Such fervent beliefs led Tocqueville, over fifty years later, to note the stark contrast between attitudes emanating from the moderate French Enlightenment and the religiously driven radical Enlightenment in America: “I had remarked among [the French] that religion and the spirit of independence almost always marched in opposite directions. [In America], I have found them intrinsically united with one another in rulership over the same land” (Tocqueville 222). Beyond mere text, the wedding of these two ideologies is no more apparent than in Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin’s first proposed official seal for the United States: Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea. Such visual rhetoric alludes to the kind of independence many Americans believed they had gained. Whether or not every colonist avowed such exceptional, enlightened independence or if it was a necessary bathos meant to boost wartime morale and subsequent nationalism is debatable. What is not, however, is that fervent faith, not tempered reason, fueled the American Revolution.

In his masterpiece, Democratic Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel explains how Kant attempts to draw a compromise between the growing number of radicals in Europe and America and the more conservative Enlightenment thinkers. To paraphrase Israel, Kant had to introduce subtle ideas that allowed princely rule to continue, as a single executive power would, Kant surmised, more effectively permit a gradual Enlightenment to occur in society. Israel continues:

‘Republicanism,’ in his view, is the political principle according to which the executive power is separated from the legislative. Despotism is where the legislator executes his own laws, so that the private will of the chief is substituted for the will of the public. Here was a device enabling Kant to reject democracy as a form of despotism while fusing central European enlightened absolutism, or forms to it, with representation and republicanism. (Israel, Democratic Enlightenment 818)

Kant argued for a compromise between monarchs and their subjects, where royals would permit freedom of expression for the creation of a proto-republican system, thus permitting gradual changes to be effectuated in society while the subjects, gracious for their freedoms, remain obedient and reap the gradual benefits enlightened societies receive: reason, rights, and liberty, all within the parameters of the moderate Enlightenment.

While Kant astutely recognizes that “there will always be some independent thinkers,” for a general public to find real Enlightenment, sovereign “freedom,” the citizenry’s ability to speak freely as literate and learned individuals, is required, which in turn culminates in the “throwing off the yoke of tutelage … [and instead] disseminate the spirit of the rational appreciation of both their own worth and every man’s vocation for thinking for himself” (Kramnick 2). Such lofty principles, as outlined in Kant’s essay, seem to explicitly enshrine the individual freedoms articulated in the political rhetoric of the radical founders of the United States. Yet Kant’s position on the ends of the Enlightenment is clarified a year later in his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, where he writes that there is “one categorical imperative, and that is: Act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kramnick 301). Under[FD2]  Kant’s meta-moral framework, the independence for which he advocates is meant to produce an individual will that is “not merely good as a means to something else,” such as personal gain or entitlement. Rather, such a will ought to be obedient “to a self-imposed law,” “good in itself, for which reason [is] absolutely necessary. … For reason recognizes the establishment of a good will as its highest practical destination,” moral duty to society (Schmidt 488; Kramnick 297-98). Kant argues that if individuals act according to this “categorical imperative,” an ethical supercode as it were, acts of individual independence would qualify as universal guidelines. Thus, societies, even the world’s citizenry as a whole, would act for universal betterment and enlightenment.

Kant is not dismissive of religion; rather he praises Frederick the Great who, according to Kant, “holds it his duty to … [leave] each man free to make use of his reason in matters of conscience. Under him venerable ecclesiastics are allowed” (Kramnick 6). Kant, though dismissive of religion for its long history of combatting reason and rationality, permits clergymen to express their beliefs as scholars, “submit[ting] for public testing their judgments and views which here and there diverge from the established symbol” (Kramnick 6). Kant grants such freedom to clergy because he did not fear the effects of true Christianity - what he considered to be morality based on an ethical use of rationality. Many of the clergy preaching in Berlin, even to Frederick himself, taught Christianity through a doctrine called “neology,” which “combined historical and critical approaches to the interpretation of Scripture with an emphasis on the primacy of the moral and practical dimensions of Christian teaching” (Schmidt 7). Kant and moderate Enlightened thinkers saw “no conflict between enlightened reason and Christian” (Schmidt 7).

Regarding Kant’s own views against the established churches, Curtis Peters writes, Kant “was particularly incensed over the fact that ecclesiastical authorities were inhibiting development of people’s full moral autonomy. … [A] person can only ‘please God,’ according to Kant, through autonomous moral purity” (Peters 95). Thus, Kant articulates another guiding principle of the Enlightenment: regulations, and particularly those concerned with matters of faith, must be era-appropriate. Kant argues that neither clergymen, lawmaker, nor anyone else may justifiably petrify the truth of their respective age for all time. “Such [a contract], made to shut off all further enlightenment from the human race, is absolutely null and void,” Kant declares, because “An age cannot bind itself and ordain to put the succeeding one into such a condition that it cannot extend its (at best very occasional) knowledge, purify itself of errors, and progress in general enlightenment” (Kramnick 4). In limiting laws, doctrines, and principles to a specific age, Kant stresses the need for each age to enlighten itself, using the independent public reason accorded to its aggregate citizenry by an enlightened despot like Frederick. If one age determined for all ages what is true Enlightenment, then subsequent ages would be in tutelage to bygone ages. Unequivocally, Kant declares, “That would be a crime against human nature, the proper destination of which lies precisely in this progress” (Kramnick 4). This section of Kant’s essay concludes by justifying a rejection of unwarranted decrees and a revolution by those who unilaterally receive them from previous ages. The Enlightenment, in Kant’s understanding, is in perpetual forward motion towards human societal perfection; Enlightenment is not an age but a defining quality of one, dependent upon the varying degrees that individuals of that age claim moral and ethical maturity and autonomy for themselves and for their a society. Inheriting Enlightenment was categorically out of the question for moderate thinkers - and yet as we considered, that is just what Mather, Edwards, Niles, saying nothing of Jefferson, Paine, Franklin, and others, supposed they had been bequeathed.

(Radical) America’s Birth

The ingrained “Holier than thou” attitude, in addition to “general living standard [which] seems to have equaled or surpassed that of any European country,” compounded by victories over the French and Indians in 1763, gave way to Americans’ pervading sense of “‘millennial optimism,’” a mindset that superseded the need for Europe’s moderate Enlightenment (Bercovitch 115-116).[9] This embracement of the radical Enlightenment’s undercurrent is no more obvious than in the pivotal document of America’s history: the Declaration of Independence. The writers of the Declaration took it upon themselves to radicalize the principles of Kant, Hume, and other continental European thinkers, demonstrating a proclivity towards a much greater public independence than that with which the moderate Enlightenment felt comfortable. The preamble of the Declaration articulates what is essentially the heart of radically enlightened liberalism: the universal right to individual self-determination beyond the political context. Allen Jayne further highlights the Declaration’s emphasis on individualism when he affirms affirmsfsfsfssthat the preamble “gave the common man a basis to reject and resist anyone who claimed authority over him without his consent, since equals have no authority over equals” (Jayne 109). The Declaration of Independence thus serves as the amalgamation of both American political rhetoricians’ ideals inherited from the Enlightenment and their notions of American Exceptionalism. Its idealist expression, however, serves as the commencement of its own downfall as it lacks a Kantian system of communal ethics. In this regard, which Pierre-Henri Tavoillot notes:

According to Kant’s categorical imperative, [moral actions] must have universal value and target all of humanity. In other words, I should subordinate my natural egoism in consideration of others, ‘always at the same time as an end and never as a means.’ And as for this exigency, no one other than me may impose it upon myself. Kant thus forms the autonomous morality. (Tavoillot 72)

A Kantian autonomous morality is echoed in the illustrious words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (US 1776). Yet the founding document of America as nation, not just idea, makes no reference to a Kantian-like ethical, moral, or universal code, nor does it invoke societal welfare which provides the backdrop for enlightened public expression of freedom. The essence, then, of the Declaration of Independence can be likened to newly erected walls of a house sans foundation; such deficiency in construction cannot provide an enduring tenement. With Jefferson’s Declaration, then, America preemptively built the walls of an enlightened future without the social foundation necessary on which to sustain an enlightened society.[10] In effect, America’s founding declaration borrowed from the Enlightenment’s autonomous morality irrespective of the governing ideological superstructure of a society seeking communal welfare and not that of its discrete constituents.

Kant does not justify an unbridled use of freedom, perhaps even to the detriment of other free individuals, the kind of independence Declaration indirectly permits. He concludes “What is Enlightenment?” with the realization that “A greater degree of civil freedom appears advantageous to the freedom of mind of the people, and yet it places inescapable limitations upon it; a lower degree of civil freedom, on the contrary, provides the mind with room for each man to extend himself to his full capacity” (Kramnick 7).[11] By way of contrast, the Declaration of Independence concludes with: “With a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” (US 1776). Kant’s conclusion reinforces the communal good culminating in individuals finding their “full capacity” within society; the Declaration ends on the powerful chord of guaranteed divine protection and American Exceptionalism, only further emphasized by the repetitious use of our - a telling word choice of Jefferson’s - coupled with the plural lives and fortunes, suggesting discrete lives, fortunes, and honor. Should Kant be correct, unrestricted freedom presents dangers to morality, ethics, society, and ultimately to man himself. Likewise, the early American values enshrined in the Declaration, further reinforced by individual states’ declarations of rights, would lead to a society deadlocked by incommensurate opinions emanating from its great mass of singular citizens seeking egoistic interests, reminiscent of Tocqueville’s “tyrannie de l'opinion.”[12]

Herein lies another issue: America’s “tyrannie de l’opinion” left millions disenfranchised for numerous reasons, race, religion, being on the wrong side of the political pendulum. In Kant’s Prussia, though Frederick was considered a benevolent and enlightened ruler, being the source of executive power left an entire nation subjugated according to one of the radical Enlightenment’s most vociferous anti-monarchical voices, Thomas Paine. In his treatise Common Sense, Paine makes a powerful and persuasive call in his independent and radical rhetoric for a break from subjection to any monarch, even those considered to be enlightened (Paine 82).[13] Paine provides ample reason for his abject disdain for enlightened despots: “If we inquire into the business of a king, we shall find that in some countries they have none,” and regarding England’s regent: “A pretty business indeed for a man to be allowed eight hundred thousand sterling a year for, and worshipped into the bargain!” (Paine 78-79). In characterizing European royalty as a gaggle of wasteful vagabonds, full of deceit, ostentatiousness, and wickedness - qualities not only unchristian, but unenlightened - Paine sets up his key contrast: “Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived” (Paine 79). Implicit in Paine’s words is that America possessed not one honest man but a nation of them. He maintains that the common American man, as an individual, has “every opportunity and every encouragement … to form the noblest, purest constitution on the face of the earth[,] … to begin the world over again” (Paine 109). To Paine, as with so many of his countrymen, America was the grand culmination of the Enlightenment, and like the patriarch Noah after the deluge, America could refashion its own destiny sans the guidance of political rulers.

As grand as Paine’s recreation of the world through America may seem, many newly independent, aristocratic Americans, similar to moderate continental thinkers, saw the common man as not worthy of the independence entrusted to him by Jefferson, Paine, and other radicals. For a certainty, they wanted an America free and enlightened, but ultimately “limited” to “gentry, lawyers, officers, and upper-class contractors and professionals,” those who have learned to exercise rationality (Israel, Democratic Enlightenment 462). The extreme freedoms hallowed by Jefferson’s Declaration, Paine’s canon, as well as the jeremiads leading up to the Revolution were incommensurate with practicalities of governing a nation. While much of these writers’ emphases foregrounded the independence of the individual, the individual was left, in the end, not in a pure democracy but a limited republic based on the Constitution, a far more moderate document when compared to the Declaration. In essence, America’s radical Enlightenment was a means to an end for those who would become its leaders. The great mass of Americans were summarily removed from the “we, the people” of the Declaration, leaving their ideals unfulfilled and yet, paradoxically, this did not lead to wholesale abandonment of these ideals.

American Radicalism: Back to the Future

The radical ideals of Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson, Samuel West, in addition to Paine and Jefferson, took root in the early American consciousness even though the great majority of the revolutionary class became members of a subsequent reactionary class that sought to secure its own prominence and power. In proposing a government based on the moderate Enlightenment in 1775, Alexander Hamilton quoted philosopher David Hume verbatim:

In contriving any system of government, and fixing the several checks and controls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave; and to have no other end in all his actions, but private interest. By this interest, we must govern him, and by means of it, make him co-operate to public good, notwithstanding his insatiable avarice and ambition. (Hamilton 2:55)[14]

A year later John Adams confesses to James Sullivan: “It is certain, in theory, that the only moral foundation of government is the consent of the people. But to what an extent shall we carry this principle?” (Adams 135).[15] Both Adams and Hamilton, like Kant, clearly had reservations about “the people.” The American gentry at large saw the inherent good in the theories of radical Enlightenment but feared that the implementations of these theories would end in anarchy. After all, did not God’s consecrated nation of Israel still need a king? Less dramatically, however, such power and independence entrusted to the unreasoned masses would lead to unenlightened choices in leadership and would cultivate egoism and self-interest. Paine himself had already manifested his anarchist tendencies by 1792; he writes in The Rights of Man, “Society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government” (Paine 266). The Constitution took many years to ratify across the newly formed states, heavily contested on the grounds that a federal government would infringe on individuals’ rights to liberty and independence.

Into the nineteenth century, this concern over entitlement persisted in the American psyche. For example, Herman Melville’s 1852 novel Pierre opens with a paean to American Exceptionalism and the creation of a New Canaan, where man was free to exercise unregulated freedom. Emerson and Transcendentalism - the belief that man had goodness inherent within him, that he need only be self-reliant - provided a governing philosophy for America’s infatuation with personal independence. Thoreau, Emerson’s intellectual son, followed suit and wrote Walden, regarding which one anonymous reviewer writes, “Whatever may be thought or said of this curious volume, nobody can deny its claim to individuality of opinion, sentiment, and expressions” (Kirklighter 66). Whitman followed a year later, and at the onset of his 1855 Leaves of Grass writes, “The President’s taking off his hat to [the people] not they to him” (Whitman 3). Later in the same work, Whitman writes of authors, “The messages of great poets to each man and woman are, Come to us on equal terms, Only then can you understand us, We are no better than you” (Whitman 14). Whether presidents took off their hats to the citizenry or the citizenry sat down equally with Whitman, we can be dubious - yet the “Land of the Free” and outlook of Americans continued to characterized by the “fierce spirit of independence.”

Delineating the expansion of radical American individualism from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to today is an exercise best left to sociologists and cultural anthropologists. Therefore, instead of speculating about Kant’s likely views on twenty-first century America’s divisive issues - international affairs, gun-control, abortion, welfare, tax policy, 99%, multiculturalism, and the list continues - allow me to conclude with a tale about Kant himself that greatly highlights the difference between the American attitude characterized by the platitude, “It’s a free country,” and Kant’s attitude towards his fellow person.[16] Nine days prior to his death, Kant was visited by his physician. He rose from his chair to welcome the visitor to his home. “Old, ill and nearly blind, he … stood trembling with weakness and muttering unintelligible words.” The doctor could not understand why Kant would not retake his seat after greeting his visitor, until he realized Kant would not do so until the doctor took his; only then would Kant once again take his seat. After regaining his strength, Kant said to the doctor, “Das Gefühl für Humanität hat mich noch nicht verlassen” - “The sense of humanity has not yet left me.” Kant’s humanity - his unselfish concern, sympathy, respect for others, in other words, his willingness to forgo his own comfort and prerogative for the sake of his fellow human - prevailed over the inherently selfish penchants of humankind and the kind of independence proponed by the radical American Enlightenment. Its version of independence pales in front of the 81-year-old Kant’s “sense of humanity.”


[1] Translation from Tocqueville’s “Il y a en effet une passion mâle et légitime pour l’égalité qui excite les hommes à vouloir être tous fort et estimés. … mais il se rencontre aussi dans le coeur humain un gout dépravé pour l’égalité … qui réduit les hommes a préférer l’égalité dans la servitude a l’inégalité dans la liberté.”

[2] See Massachusetts Historical Society 52.

[3] See Beck, Lewis Wi. “Kant and the Right of Revolution.” Journal of the History of Ideas 32:3 (1971): 411-422.

[4] While the precise date of the commencement of the Enlightenment is debated, 1650-1700 is a reasonable period. During this period, Spinoza, Locke, Bayle, and Newton began publishing the works that would later become the foundations for later Enlightenment thought. The leading historian on this age, Jonathan Israel, contends, "After 1650, everything, no matter how fundamental or deeply rooted, was questioned in the light of philosophic reason" (Israel, Radical Enlightenment 3).

[5] J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur makes a point of informing his readers that “The great number of European emigrants yearly coming over here informs us that the severity of taxes, the injustice of laws, the tyranny of the rich, and the oppressive avarice of the church; are intolerable as ever. … This country, providentially intended for the general asylum of the world, will flourish by the oppression of their people” (Crèvecœur 119).

[6] Alexis de Tocqueville is often accredited with exceptionalizing Americans. Though used first in 1835, Tocqueville makes reference to that status existing far before his neologism. He writes in his De la démocratie en amérique: “La situation des Américains est donc entièrement exceptionnelle, et il est à croire qu'aucun peuple démocratique n'y sera jamais placé” (Tocqueville 58). And yet even before that, he notes, “Les Américains sont un peuple très ancien et très éclairé, qui a rencontré un pays nouveau et immense dans lequel il peut s'étendre à volonté, et qu'il féconde sans peine. Cela est sans exemple dans le monde” (Tocqueville 57). See Tocqueville, vol. 3, 56-64.

[7] Originally from Edwards, Jonathan. Works. Ed. John Erskine. New York, 1849; vol. 1, p. 484-486, cited in Bercovitch 99.

[8] Regarding recent scholarship on Edwards and the Enlightenment, see John Smith, The Princeton Companion to Jonathan Edwards, 34-41. The Great Awakening, usually dated from the 1730s to 40s, contributed greatly to the wedding of early American politics and religion; see Bercovitchch. 3, 4.

[9] The original expression “millennial optimism” is discussed in detail in Hatch 409.

[10] I borrow the term, “Jefferson’s Declaration,” from Allen Jayne’s book bearing the same name. In it, he expresses his explicit intent of his work: “To demonstrate … the interdependence of political thought and philosophical theology in Jefferson’s worldview as expressed in the Declaration of Independence” (Jayne 8).

[11] Interestingly, the German word translated here as civic is bürgerlicher, can also signify bourgeois, or even more pejoratively, commoner. Hence, Kant explicitly argues that greater freedom for the middle-class everyman is counterproductive in that he will inexorably use his freedom in an unenlightened manner.

[12] Prior to the 1776 Declaration of Independence, more than half of the thirteen colonies already had their own declarations of rights. Consider Article 1 from the Virginia Declaration of Rights: “That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety” (Virginia 1776). Interestingly, unlike the United States’ Declaration, Article 15 of this document does in fact point to “fundamental principles” meant to provide the groundwork for the liberty of a free people. Tocqueville, vol. 3, 335.

[13] Emily García notes that “the evocation of universalism in Common Sense [is] evidence of Paine’s indebtedness to Enlightenment notions of sympathy and reason,” to which Paine himself attests when he suggests that, “Europe, and not England,” is the ideological “parent country of America” (Söderlind 54-55; Paine 81). She further cites Elizabeth Barnes and John Highman when she contends that Paine’s “simple facts” and “plain arguments” implies “that there exists a natural, universal ‘character of man,’” which evokes “sympathy for the suffering of humanity everywhere” and services patriotism, but is not “an extension of it” (Söderlind 54-55).

[14] Compare Hume, Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects, vol. 1. London, 1764, 37.

[15]My emphasis; originally John Adams to James Sullivan, May 26, 1776, in Adams, ed., Works of John Adams, 9:375.

[16] Paraphrased and partially cited from Marie Hochmuth Nichols, Rhetoric and Criticism, 6.

 [FD2]Der kategorische Imperativ ist also ein einziger, und zwar dieser: handle nur nach derjenigen Maxime, durch die du zugleich wollen kannst, dass sie ein allgemeines Gesetz werde.

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Further Reading

To learn more about the philosophy of the early puritan settlers, you may be interested to read Andrew Panay's article 'God was with me in a wonderful manner': the Puritan Origins of the Indian Captivity Narrative.

Here is another account of how captivity narratives helped to shape our perception of American history by Andrew Panay. War, Captivity and the American Civilising Process on the Colonial Frontier of the Eighteenth Century. This article examines the ordeal of James Smith whose captivity by Indians during the French and Indian War occurs at a pivotal moment in the history of relations between the British and its subject populations. These it is argued are increasingly strained by social processes of estrangement from colonial systems of authority, and by developing interdependencies amongst diversifying settler populations within and amongst the native habitus.

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Der kategorische Imperativ ist also ein einziger, und zwar dieser: handle nur nach derjenigen Maxime, durch die du zugleich wollen kannst, dass sie ein allgemeines Gesetz werde.
Il y a en effet une passion mâle et légitime pour l’égalité qui excite les hommes à vouloir être tous fort et estimés. … mais il se rencontre aussi dans le cœur humain un goût dépravé pour l’égalité … qui réduit les hommes à préférer l’égalité dans la servitude à l’inégalité dans la liberté.


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