Category Archives: enlightenment

portraits of the artist: Sher, chapter 2


[Two contrasting images of the historian William Robertson, courtesy of Wikipedia, the first taken from an oil portrait and the second from a German translation of his History of America.]

The chapter “Identity and Diversity among Scottish Authors” is probably less argumentative and more descriptive than the others in this book, but it contains a substantial discussion of the 115 Scottish authors included in his tables of authors and works, and serves almost as a sociology of the Scottish Enlightenment between 1746-1800.

The virtue of this sociological approach, rather than a straightforwardly literary-historical one, is that we back away from the usual biographical focus on undisputed major figures like Hume or Smollett, and begin to see even these famous writers, along with a host of unknowns, as men who fit a definite professional profile in the period, albeit with the usual caveats about variations and outliers.

This sociology of authorship also has the virtue of showing, for example, that the national, social, and familial networks among Scottish writers played an enormous role in developing an esprit de corps in this period, but that this corporate identity was as likely to reinforce Scottish insecurities  as it was to foster English fears.

The insecurities documented here are the usual ones of any outside group making its way to the metropolis to earn a living among strangers: ambivalence about one’s origins; fears of self-betrayal through inadvertent speech or mannerism; fear and distrust of the metropolitan “mobs.”

In this light, I was interested in how important “politeness” was for regulating one’s own and others’ conduct in this social context, and how much effort “politeness” required to be sustained at home and abroad.  Though plenty of titled names appear on Sher’s list, the overall impression one gets from these accounts is one of extremely disciplined professional men toiling away in universities over many decades.  In these universities, they faced the usual struggles to gain recognition in a politically murky environment where accomplishment was not (is not) routinely  rewarded.

For this reason, local differences often had to be overlooked for the sake of the group winning greater recognition for Scots writers generally.  (This dynamic seems to account for the odd mixture of toleration and abuse often directed towards Hume) Academic readers will therefore find a very familiar dynamic in which oral lectures and presentations are steadily revised and reworked for publication, so that the universities and learned societies become the staging grounds for many of the best-known works of this period.  This kind of de facto collaborative work, like much of our academic writing, demands a great deal of complaisance from all sides, but there were always those, like Dr. John Brown (not the writer of the Estimate), who were best-known for violating these tacit agreements.

At the same time, I was intrigued by the stories of the dissipated Scottish Grubs who frequented the British Coffee House–men like William Guthrie, Gilbert Stuart, William Thomson, and others–who sought literary fame but were disappointed for reason or another.  In most cases, these seem to have been men who were not able to get (or retain) their desired professional posts or preferments, and who were left therefore to the mercies of the publishers and the public.  Sher points out that most of these men died early, from the physical strains of overwork and literary overproduction, and their fate helps make Smollett’s early death, at the age of 50, more comprehensible.

But the fates of talented men like Robert Heron (in Sir Walter Scott’s words, “a mere sot and beast” who “starved to death” [quoted by Sher, 127]), showed just how far men could fall in this unforgiving environment, and help to illuminate the very different trajectories of, say, Robert Fergusson (dead in a madhouse at 28) and James Macpherson (abandoned literature for political preferment in his 30s, and died well off at his own estate just short of 60 years old).  It is for this reason that Sher arrives at the persuasively anti-Romantic formulation that “the paradigm of the ‘modern’ author is not independence in the sense of having no occupation other than writing for publication but rather independence in the sense of integration into the appropriate professions and professional institutions” (11).


chapter 1: nationalism and the book?

As I’ve been reading Sher’s account, one of the more intriguing stories that has emerged is the manner in which the books published by the Scottish Enlightenment writers served as a kind of literary monument to the movement itself,  fostering Scottish national pride and bolstering Scottish identity.  This is as true of the self-conceptions of men of letters like Hume as it is in the belligerent and defensive responses of English writers like Johnson or Walpole.

Yet thinking about the Scottish Enlightenment in this manner immediately takes us to the paradoxes of Scottish “nationalism,” which freely surrenders its claims to an autonomous state in order to secure access to British trade and a more expansive British identity.  So Hume reminds Gilbert Elliot that the Scots may not have a sovereign kingdom or their own Parliament, but they were still “the People most distinguish’d for Literature in Europe” (43).   And even if this statement was not strictly true when written in 1757, it was certainly true within a few decades. So one of the stories featured here is about Scottish culture, Scottish literature, and literary reputation generally as a form of compensation–what Scottish elites strove for and received instead of political representation at this time.

In my view, Chapter one’s most memorable moment remains its analysis of Hume’s carefully cultivated self-image as a British man of “polite letters,” even while the famously skeptical philosopher fended off clerical enemies at home and bigoted xenophobes in England, to win some degree of comfort and respectability in spite their efforts.  This idealized self-portrait of Hume as “jolly bon vivant” and “calm, contented philosopher,” is, as Sher points out, completely at odds with the “demanding, anxiety-ridden and sometimes accusatory” picture of the man we find negotiating with his publishers in correspondence (55).  (Though I suspect that none of us are at our best when dealing with publishers)

I was also interested to see how much this impulse toward self-fashioning drove Hume to repackage his earlier writings in subsequent editions, to choose particular genres (the essay) to draw the attention of a wider public, and even to orchestrate the reception of his first posthumous edition with “some small addition” from his friend Adam Smith (55).  So just as Hume laboriously constructed what amounted to a textual memorial to his own literary career, the writers and publishers of the Scottish Enlightenment, beginning with the friends and editors of Francis Hutcheson’s posthumous System of Moral Philosophy (1755), fashioned the books that would monumentalize their own achievements, and help to advance the reputation of Scotland as well.

The second portion of chapter one lays out what I suspect will be one of the more lasting contributions of Sher’s study, which is his very useful table of Enlightenment authors and books contained in the appendices.  Sher explains his choices, details the range of formats, subjects, and print runs for his group of texts, and talks a little about the range in popularity between the absolute best sellers (about 13% of the titles) and those at the other end of his list.  It is the sheer impact of all these books, produced and sold one after another over all these decades, that allows  Sher to conclude that “books were the basic building blocks of the Enlightenment, an edifice erected one block at a time.”   This superbly managed collective endeavor calls to mind a similarly impressive architectural feat of this era, the building of the New Town of Edinburgh, which helped to announce to the world (and to England) the modernity and collective intelligence of its inhabitants.


a few questions about Sher’s Enlightenment and the Book

I’m still working on my post on chapters one and two, but in the meantime I wanted to throw out a few opening questions in response to Eleanor’s overview of the book and its aims.  I know Rick will be chiming in at some point, but I’m hoping that others might be interested, as well:

  • from the perspective of  literary studies (as opposed to book history), the biggest surprise is the active, entrepeneurial, and editorial role of the publishers detailed here, particularly figures like Strahan and Creech, who tend to disappear when treated alongside the better-known authors they published.  We get a sense of the deliberations they made (individually and collectively), the pressures they were under, and the costs (literal and figurative) of the decisions they arrived at.  This model of author-publisher collaboration seems indispensable to me, because it can illuminate aspects of both production and reception, but where are its limits?  And how might it revise otherwise over-idealized accounts of the author in isolation, as literature, intellectual history, and certainly philosophy tend to do?  In other words, what, besides the outward form of the commodity, do the books in those appendices share?
  • if we are talking about this period’s “print capitalism” (Anderson), so to speak, can we say that there is such a thing as an Enlightenment theory of the “organization,” or better yet, “firm”?  In other words, to what extent does the ability of author-publisher collectives to work outside established institutions help them respond creatively to the demands of an amorphous, indeterminate public?  And to what extent does this model of transnational diffusion work against the nationalist histories of print?
  • it seems to me that any story of modernization and economic development in a specific time and place tends to feature both winners and losers.  So who are the losers in this story of modernization in Edinburgh and more generally, Scotland?  This seems to me to be what’s at stake in the debates over the status of Fergusson, Macpherson, and Burns, for example.


Richard Sher’s Enlightenment and the Book, Introduction

At the close of his introduction to The Enlightenment and the Book, Rick Sher summarizes the primary question his book seeks to answer: “how best to comprehend … the intricate, complex, expansive, and intimidating” maze that constitutes eighteenth-century book culture in order to facilitate its navigation (40). The pages preceding this query suggest that the work will serve as a highly able, thoughtful, and methodologically innovative guide in executing this task. Detailing why this task matters in the context of book history as well as Enlightenment studies, these pages indicate that this book will respond to unanswered needs within and across these two fields of academic inquiry as it charts new paths for both.

The introduction is divided into two main parts—TOWARD A BOOK HISTORY OF THE SCOTTISH ENLIGHTENMENT and DESIGNS AND DISCLAIMERS—and each of these parts is divided into two sections. In the first section of Toward a Book History of the Scottish Enlightenment, “The Problem of Enlightenment Publishing,” Sher briefly reviews the widely recognized role of book culture in the Enlightenment and addresses Britain’s place at the forefront of the developments affecting book culture during the eighteenth century. This overview prepares for an assertion that signals the meta-exigence for his study: “[T]he book history of the Enlightenment, especially the English-language Enlightenment, remains a story waiting to be told” (5).

The heart of this story for Sher is the relationship between authors and booksellers during the second half of the eighteenth century. Changes were afoot for both—authorship, for example, acquired a place within commercial relations, and considerable publishing houses appeared. Yet alongside these transformations, many other aspects of the trade remained intact. Publishers still engaged in other aspects of the trade such as bookselling, printing, and the like, while exchanges between authors and publishers still retained their personal character (5). Stressing a dialectic relationship between print and history as well as the importance of author-publisher partnerships, Sher asserts that “Enlightenment book culture, then, was a negotiated collaborative, often contested activity that occurred within the economic, technological, legal, and intellectual contexts of the day” (7). What much of this discussion aims to effect is a realization of the crucial but understudied role that eighteenth-century publishers played in deciding which books were made available to the public and the material forms those books assumed.

In addition to the author-publisher dynamic, Sher identifies two other areas in which methodological issues arise—questions concerning those of place and kind (8). On both counts Sher argues for an expansive view. Embracing the need for an international approach, he points to the longstanding recognition that books are foremost international commodities whose influence and interrelationships with one another refuse restriction to local or national borders:

the key to understanding the relationship between print and knowledge lies not in any particular local context but rather in the dynamic interplay of authors, publishers, and other members of the book trade in a variety of locations. Enlightenment book history must be viewed through a wide geographical lens. (9)

Despite this recognition, as Sher notes, the adoption of international approaches has remained largely an unfulfilled desire. Instead energy has been devoted to compiling national histories of the book, work that Sher appreciates but also warns must not be seen as an end in and of themselves but rather as stages toward achieving a firmer international grasp of the field (9). [Some book historians have viewed these national histories as essential preparatory work to more international approaches—and at times the production of these histories have reinforced the crucial need for international work as well as identified directions this work might take.] Similarly, he stresses the benefits of studying multiple genres as opposed to limiting studies to a single type of works. A focus on only a particular kind of books risks drawing skewed conclusions about publishing practices (10).

What this section establishes is

the need for a kind of book history that takes seriously and explores fully—in multiple genres and in local, national, and international contexts—the values, aspirations, actions, and interactions of eighteenth-century authors and publishers, and that does not seek to restrict one to the realm of the mind and the other to the purse. (11)

This book responds to this need by attending to Scottish Enlightenment authors and publishers as well as those who reprinted their works in order to illustrate the “symbiotic relationship” that existed between “developments in eighteenth-century publishing … and the Scottish Enlightenment” (11).

Having detailed the methodological approach that The Scottish Enlightenment and the Book will take and the rationale for its adoption, Sher then moves from book history concerns to Enlightenment historiography. While “From the Enlightenment to the Scottish Enlightenment” establishes the meaning his work accords to the term “Enlightenment,” the section also positions his study as an alternative approach to the impasses and defensive positions currently characterizing scholarship in this field. The section opens with the recent battering the Enlightenment has taken at the hands of postmodernist critics, Tracing the academic roots of anti-Enlightenment thought back to the early 1930s, it briefly rehearses the subsequent development of Enlightenment critiques (11-12). After observing that “most of these modern and postmodern critics have had only a superficial familiarity with the Enlightenment,” Sher sketches the general types of responses that Enlightenment scholars have offered to counter this disparagement, including those that debate whether the term should be singular or plural (13-14).

From here Sher turns to exploring ways to invigorate Enlightenment studies. Again the emphasis is placed on breadth and multiplicity: “[T]he Enlightenment should be viewed as a very big movement, requiring correspondingly broad conceptualization, geographically, intellectually, and socially. The Enlightenment may be perceived as a grand symphony with multiple variations” (15). He follows with a more detailed explanation of the suitability of adopting a definition that is broad yet still singular. More specifically, the definition must be able to handle recognitions that ideas emerged and were exchanged from a plurality of geographical sites, flowed in multiple directions, and were not confined to one disciplinary path such as political philosophy or science (15-16). The “common core” of the Enlightenment for Sher is in a “set of general values” found among Enlightenment proponents no matter their geographic or national location. This open-ended list of values, rendered general enough to encompass national differences, includes—and I closely paraphrase—a commitment to improvement (typically at all levels); an empathetic, cosmopolitan sensibility towards others; a respect and penchant for sociability; toleration towards religious differences and attitudes as well as a belief in the freedoms of worship, speech, and written expression (despite varied attitudes about the limits of these freedoms); an embracement of intellectual pursuits (Kant’s dictum ‘dare to know’) and related belief in the power of learning; and aesthetic appreciation for the arts (16-17). Viewing the Enlightenment through the prism of this value set fosters the traversing of national and disciplinary boundaries while providing an overarching unity that can accommodate variations (17).

Returning to his earlier musical analogy, Sher focuses on the Scottish Enlightenment as a variation within the grand symphony that is the Enlightenment. While scholarship on the Scottish Enlightenment has escaped, by and large, the disputes detailed in the previous discussions (was it good or evil, singular or plural), its study has been stymied by two opposing views that either regard it as the force responsible for creating modernity or deny it a separate existence, treating it instead under the rubric of the British Enlightenment (18-19). As an alternative to these two polar treatments, Sher defines the Scottish variation as

the Scottish manifestation of the international movement dedicated to the proliferation of polite, morally and intellectually edifying literature and learning during the eighteenth century, written by authors whose work can be identified with the general values of the Enlightenment discussed earlier. … a cultural and intellectual phenomenon not reducible to any single branch, school, or mode of thought…. [its] books … were influential disproportionately in certain areas and were conspicuous in shaping modern disciplines and academic fields. … so much of this literature was written by individuals who associated with one another, socially and professionally, in the urban centers of Scotland, and sometimes also in London, and moved easily as authors from one enlightened genre to another. This sense of social, intellectual, and cultural integration and cohesiveness gives a distinctive character to the Scottish Enlightenment, setting it apart from the Enlightenment in England. (20)

To flesh out this formulation of the Scottish Enlightenment, Sher compares Franco Venturi’s view of Scottish Enlightenment literati as a distinctive, highly socially and personally unified body matched only by that of the French philosophes to Roy Porter’s preference for “Karl Mannheim’s notion of a ‘free’ (or free-floating) intelligentsia,” which, in turn, supports Porter’s view of a single British Enlightenment (21). Siding with Venturi’s recognition of the powerful role Scottish authors played, Sher explains that “this work is about the disproportionately large Scottish component in Enlightenment book culture and the immense contribution of the book trade in cultivating it” (22). One of its central concerns, then, is how the world of books and publishing fed the development of the Scottish Enlightenment and facilitated its spread beyond England and Scotland (23).

Widely disseminated, Scottish books fueled the spread and influence of the Scottish Enlightenment on the Continent. Yet addressing these Continental dimensions of the Scottish Enlightenment would necessitate translation skills and raise methodological issues that are beyond the scope of this study. The international dimension of the Scottish Enlightenment is thus confined to “the spread of Scottish books to the English-speaking Atlantic world during late eighteenth century, especially as a result of reprinting in Dublin and Philadelphia” (23). As has been a constant theme in detailing this work’s methodologies, emphasis is placed on an approach that embodies dynamic interactions, geographic comprehensiveness, and generic inclusiveness. And once again this approach is presented a means of correcting existing shortcomings, in this case those affecting Atlantic studies. As the last chapters will demonstrate, book history, because of its range of interests and highly varied components, offers “one way to reconceptualize the Atlantic world and transcend the British-North America dichotomy” (24).

As its title suggests, the introduction’s second part, Designs and Disclaimers, addresses what the work will not cover and provides a schematic overview of the chapters that follow. In the first section of this part, “Copyright and Reading,” Sher discusses what he sees as an overemphasis on copyright law as a defining factor of eighteenth-century British book history. That this emphasis has created an “authorial bias” to scholarship has led to distortions of British book culture during this century (25). Such a bias, moreover, works against Sher’s design of recuperating the role of the publishers in this culture and exploring the collaborative dynamics between authors and publishers, especially in the production of new works (26). The inordinate attention to the regulation of literary property has also obscured other, significant interests and concerns that motivated publishers. Attention to copyright law, moreover, has often intersected with studies of reading and reception, most recently in William St. Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period that argues for key role played by the 1774 Donaldson v. Becket decision in creating this “reading nation” (27). As he has done throughout the introduction, Sher incorporates critique—in this case, of St. Clair’s work—alongside a presentation of his own approach to explain and ground his approach. Arguing that the roots of Britain as a reading nation stretch back much farther than 1774, Sher challenges St. Clair’s arguments concerning the revolutionary effects that the House of Lords’ decision exercised over the production and affordability of (and thus access to) books by drawing attention to actual practices (28-29). He does note, however, that St. Clair’s view of the formation of an ‘old canon’ during the second half of the eighteenth century, which endured through the mid-nineteenth century, is essentially sound (30).

While his study does not engage with reading and reception issues, Sher acknowledges the importance of conducting empirical research to gain a better understanding them and cites David Allen’s recent work in these areas. At the same time the privileging of reading and reception at the expense of attention to production, in part a result of the ascendancy of reader-response theory, has necessitated an adjustment and justifies renewing attention to publishing. As Sher points out, reception of works in the eighteenth century depended on publishing (31). Indeed, the “process of making and marketing books and the nature of books themselves must be recognized as crucial factors in shaping reading and reception” (32). This “process of making and marketing of books,” moreover, encompasses not only the material appearances of books (the typography, layout, and so forth that influence reading) but also a wide range of factors related to supply and accessibility of books, including the price, print run size, advertising methods, promotional campaigns, and author-publisher(s) contractual agreements and all of which exercised various degrees of influence on reception (32). To illustrate how a better understanding of book production and distribution can enhance our knowledge of reception, Sher contrasts a view of Hugh Blair’s sermon “On Sensibility” based on attention to its text alone against one that incorporates a book historical approach (32-34). This example serves as a larger reminder of how study that focuses on issues that concern production and distribution, as Sher work does for the Scottish Enlightenment, “can help us recover the contemporary meaning of published books” (34). Rather than “Abandoning the Author, Transforming the Text, and Re-Orienting the Reader,” Sher’s work advocates as it executes “Revitalizing the Author and the Publisher, Re-Situating the Text within the Book, and Re-Orienting the Reader” (34).

The final section, “Things to Come” summarizes the organization of each chapter and the progression of the arguments the book advances.

As this overview suggests, Sher outlines an ambitious project that seeks both to re-direct energies from the impasses and stagnation in Enlightenment scholarship (effected, in part, by the excesses of postmodern theorizing) and to debunk myths that have arisen about the trade as a result of too little attention to historical realities and replace them with a much richer, accurate understanding of the practices governing publishing during the eighteenth century. No doubt because of my own work on a publisher-bookseller, I agree wholeheartedly with his claims that exploration of these agents has been neglected and welcome the stress his book places on this role as well as that of the reprinters who followed. Without a better understanding of their role it seems we are missing a crucial piece of not just publishing history but literary history, too. Similarly, Sher’s call to attend to multiple genres seems useful for literary historians to heed as well as scholars of the Enlightenment. Increasingly, I have been drawn to investigating the relationship between the novel especially but other “literary” genres as well within the larger corpus of print production. From the stance of book history, his critiques of current work seem measured and balanced. Given Sher’s interest in correcting myths, Stephen Brown’s critique in .PBSA about the work’s neglect of ephemera seems an apt point to raise but, in my mind, does not result in marring the study’s impressive accomplishments. Whether Sher gives short shrift to anti-Enlightenment critics, as Richard Macksey insinuates, or whether he privileges publishing to the exclusion of other factors affecting the Scottish Enlightenment, as Roger Emerson, suggests are matters we might wish to discuss. As for how well his study fulfills the goals he outlines here, our discussions of later chapters will no doubt assess the work’s overall strengths and shortcomings.

collaborative reading in september: richard sher’s enlightenment and the book (UPDATED)

Eleanor Shevlin and I thought it would be fun to do a brief collaborative reading session in mid-September about Sher’s terrific Enlightenment and the Book (Chicago, 2006; link includes 1-34).  I’d like for us to do the Introduction “Toward a Book History of the Scottish Enlightenment” (1-40), ch. 1 “Composing the Scottish Enlightenment” (43-95), and Conclusion (597-609).  We could assign the chunks to three people and do it over three days, and see if Sher wants to participate.  How does that sound to everyone?

UPDATE: Great news!  Rick Sher has agreed to participate.  If anyone else wants to join in, contact me here or offline (at dmazella at  I can also get pdfs to people if they can’t get access to the book for some reason.  Those curious about the book should hit the link above, where the first thirty pages or so are excerpted.


more correspondence from the enlightenment project, this time from the edinburgh/newark bureaus (1985)

Speaking of Richard B. Sher, here’s a nice passage from his earlier Church and University in the Scottish Enlightenment (1985), which addresses the local resonance of terms like “moderation” and “politeness” in the context of mid-century Edinburgh, with all its religious divisions and class stratifications:

From the outset the Moderates were strongly supportive of law and order and eager to prevent a recurrence of the religious and political unrest of their early years.  They believed, as Robertson put it, that “there can be no society”–either civil or ecclesiastical–“where there is no subordination.”  As loyal Hanoverian subjects, they praised the British constitution as a nearly perfect blend of order and liberty and accepted without question the prevailing notion of the inequality of ranks . . . . They were, in short, Whig-Presbyterian conservatives (53, 54).

Besides church patronage and church polity, the emerging Moderate and Popular parties disagreed about numerous matters of piety, style, decorum, and attitude that may be considered parts of a wider controversy over the principle of “politeness.” Formally defined in Adam Ferguson as a “behaviour intended to please, or to oblige,” this elusive term actually had broader connotations.  Polite society meant well-bred people of taste and refinement; polite literature and learning meant the rational, elegant, polished poetry and prose and empirical scientific investigations that appealed to polite society; polite preaching meant the the sensible, restrained religious instruction that polite society appreciated.  The Moderate literati of Edinburgh recognized that the cultivation of politeness was fraught with danger, since it could all too easily lapse into over-refinement or affectation.  Within proper bounds, however, and combined with enlightened principles, politeness was in their view the distinctive mark of a fully civilized individual and the happy medium between “effeminacy” and “enthusiasm” (57).

The first thing that I noticed in these passages was the fierce anti-individualism of these sentiments, along with the insistence that subordination was the necessary basis for the existence of “society,” which appears here  in its sacral/secular double-aspect as “civil or ecclesiastical” society.  (The reality of Presbyterian Edinburgh again).

If, as Lawrence Klein has argued, that the notion of “politeness” in the eighteenth century retains some of its Shaftesburyan flavor even into the late eighteenth century, a dramatic shift in emphasis has accompanied its translation into Edinburgh’s : “moderation” is not merely about self-moderation or some version of stoic self-restraint, but the overt subordination of the vulgar by the “rational, elegant, polished” portion of society, who in turn were expected to remain perpetually on guard against excesses either of “effeminacy” (over-susceptibility to the feminine) or of “enthusiasm” (over-susceptibility to the vulgar, lower-class, and passionate [i.e., “Popular”] forms of religion).  Perhaps this was always assumed by terms like “politeness,” by I do think that when we encounter it in writers like Smollett, it is accompanied with a real hatred and fear of the plebeian.

In such an environment, it’s not surprising to me that Macpherson’s Ossian was received by this group far more favorably than the vernacular poems of Robert Fergusson.  What is interesting to me, however, is how dramatically this set of assumptions gets turned around by the time we reach the eras, respectively, of Burns and then  Scott.


project enlightenment, briefing from the cambridge/prague bureau, 1981

From Mikulas Teich’s “Afterword” to his co-edited volume with Roy Porter, The Enlightenment in National Context (1981):

By the eighteenth century the influence of capitalism on trade and industry was global and pervasively affecting the contemporary social, economic, political and intellectual scene from North America to Russia.  This is reflected in the convergencies and divergencies of the different Enlightenments.

In no area is this more apparent than the problem of ‘unfree’ and ‘free’ labour, one of the key issues of this period.  North America and Russia were as different in this period as chalk and cheese.  Yet, although without a feudal past colonial America had its unfree labour.  It has been estimated that at the eve of the American Revolution 80 percent of all immigrants to the colonies were indentured servants or black slaves.  Their position–not unlike that of Russian serfs–was that of chattels, and of relevance to the American theorists and practitioners of the ‘Rights of Man.’  Most agreed that such ‘Rights’ could not be granted to the unfree (216).

This was the passage that leaped out at me, as I was rereading the Porter/Teich volume.  Initially, the essays by Porter (on the English enlightenment) and Phillipson (ditto, for the Scottish) were the ones that really got me started thinking about the historiography of the enlightenment years ago in graduate school.  Now I’m surprised to find Teich’s materialist essay on Bohemia in this collection, and his afterthoughts about the effects of globalization and world capital on the diffusion of Enlightenment in places as different as Russia and North America.  Now his thoughts seem quite prescient to me, but maybe this stuff is old hat to others.

Now, though, I suspect that there’s a new history of the enlightenment to be written (if it hasn’t been written already) out of E.P. Thompson’s memorable attack on Hont’s and Ignatieff”s interpretation of Adam Smith in Customs in Common. How would we begin to write a history of the enlightenment’s discussions of/basis in free and unfree labor?  I suspect we’d have to start thinking again about the historical movement from the “luxury debates” to the birth of sociology and economics (Mandeville, Rousseau, Ferguson, and Smith), but also adopt Teich’s distinction between enlightened discussions of agricultural and other (non-chattel, or “skilled?) labor, wherein chattel labor fails to register as a problem with those who are otherwise associated with the causes of freedom or liberty (most notoriously, Thomas Jefferson).  And somehow the 18th-century technological innovations that led one way or another to the Industrial Revolution need to be factored into this discussion, as well.  It seems significant to me, however, that the economic historians I’ve been looking at repeatedly point to the geographic and regional interactions that helped to foster this historical process.  As one historian points out: “[T]here was only one route to the twentieth century–and it traversed northern Britain.” (historian Bob Allen, qtd. in the DeLong post linked above)

Still, the question that had me rereading Porter/Teich in the first place never got answered: is there such a thing as a Caribbean enlightenment in this period?  If we can talk about the enlightenment in national contexts, why not regional ones, as well?