Voltaire in Philadelphia: The Circulation of American Enlightenment Ideas
The American Enlightenment was a period when new ideas were being constructed and old ideas were being rediscovered and built upon in an attempt to “Enlighten” the American colonies and people. The Enlightenment aimed to raise the American people to a higher intellectual status and to utilize these ideas pragmatically to build a country that exemplified the American ideals of Liberty. One crucial aspect of the American Enlightenment that historians continue to examine over time is the study of the circulation of these Enlightenment ideas in America. More specifically, the study of how these ideas were transplanted from the earlier European Enlightenments, including the Scottish, English, and French Enlightenments, to America and also how these ideas were diffused across the American intellectual public. The study of the circulation of Enlightenment ideas in the American colonies and later the early American republic arguably must precede all other studies of the American Enlightenment period. Without the spread of ideas, the American Enlightenment, as historians understand it, would never have happened. The ideas of the American Enlightenment were effectively an intellectual currency that key Enlightenment figures in America used to build their nation and constitution during the middle decades of the eighteenth century. However, these American Enlightenment ideas did not necessarily originate in America. Many ideas that were influential in America came from the pens of European philosophes (18th century intellectuals), specifically Scottish, English, and French philosophes.¹
The circulation of ideas in the American Enlightenment focuses primarily on the distribution, dissemination, and movement of books from Europe to America. According to historian James Raven, from 1700 to 1780, approximately forty-five percent of book exports from England travelled to the American colonies.² In her essay “Enlightenment and the Transatlantic Text Trade”, historian Eve Tavor Bannet states that the London book trade exported books to America before and after American Independence, and that although there was a brief stoppage in this trade during the Revolutionary War, Americans continued to order books from London booksellers long into the nineteenth century.³ For Americans, books were “lifelines of identity and were direct material links to a present and past European culture”.⁴ Books were one of the only ways that American intellectuals could participate in the growing intellectual discussions happening in Europe. Books also provided Americans with new, influential ideas that helped shape their political ideologies and eventually aided in the politics of liberty that led to American Independence.⁵
One particular French philosophe that had a great impact in America between 1750 and 1800 is commonly referred to by the pseudonym Voltaire (or de Voltaire). Voltaire, referred to by historian Henry F. May as “the greatest skeptic”, was one of a few key European philosophes that helped bring the Skeptical Enlightenment to America.⁶ His hatred of cruelty, his disdain for religious dogmatism, and his concern with dismantling the Christian faith were all evident in his work.⁷ His realistic thinking, skepticism, and his emphasis on reason had great appeal to the American people who were beginning to deal with oppression from Britain leading up to the Revolutionary War.⁸ Voltaire’s books were amongst the most popular in America during the second half of the eighteenth century, as evident by a number of book-selling catalogues and library collection catalogues.⁹ One city in particular was influenced by Voltaire and that was Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the city of Brotherly Love. Why was Voltaire’s writing popular in Philadelphia during the second half of the eighteenth century? This is largely due five major reasons.
1. Because of the strong religious diversity and tolerance present in Philadelphia.
2. Because of Voltaire’s skepticism and powerful appeal to reason.
3. Because of the growing number of French emigres relocating to Philadelphia to escape the Jacobin Terror in the French Revolution.
4. Because of his unique writing style that was distinctly more artistic and less philosophical than other European philosophes.
5. Because of the influence that Benjamin Franklin and other prominent American Enlightenment figures had on the intellectual structure and nature of the city of Philadelphia.
Voltaire was not his real name but actually a pseudonym which derives from the French verb “volter” which in English means “to turn abruptly”, a verb that excellently describes Voltaire’s view of society. His real name was François-Marie Arouet and he was born in Paris in 1694 to a bourgeois family. Although he was advised to pursue a career in law by his father, Voltaire chose a different path, the path of a poet. By 1723, Voltaire had established himself as a relatively successful poet in Paris. At this point, he decided to travel to England to work on the publication of his work La Henriade. While in England, Voltaire experienced a critical, ideological, transformative period where he learned the English language and began to interact with many English philosophers. According to historian Nicholas Cronk, “Voltaire came to England a poet and left it a philosopher.” While in England, Voltaire discovered the works of English Enlightenment figures such as Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Isaac Newton. Also while in England, Voltaire began one of his most influential works, Lettres Philosophique or Letters Concerning the English Nation published in 1733. This work specifically caused great backlash back in Paris due to its admiration for English religious tolerance and diversity, which forced him into self-exile in the French countryside. It was in this self-imposed exile where Voltaire wrote a large number of his important works over a wide variety of genres including science, philosophy, poetry, and fiction. In the 1750s, Voltaire continued to produce writings however these later works focused on what Nicholas Cronk calls “his crusade for tolerance and justice”.¹⁰
Voltaire’s contribution to the Enlightenment came in the form of skepticism. According to Enlightenment historian Henry F. May’s classifications and division of the Enlightenment, the second Enlightenment is known as the “Skeptical Enlightenment”. May claims that this Enlightenment developed in Britain and France around 1750. He states, “its method was wit, its grand master Voltaire.” May discusses how around 1750, the character and center of the Enlightenment in Europe shifted from London to Paris. May argues that the earlier category of Enlightenment, the Moderate Enlightenment, was no longer satisfactory to intellectuals in England and France and that this led individuals to look deeper at the structure of society and question fundamental ideas of morality, knowledge, and religion. Instead of questioning these fundamental societal ideas, some individuals simply gave up searching for answers of certainty and instead focused on building their own intellect and morality. May defines the Skeptical Enlightenment as a term that includes “all the varieties of iconoclasm that centered in Paris” and elsewhere between 1750 and the onset of the French Revolution in 1789. Voltaire was a quintessential skeptic and his works helped shape the Skeptical Enlightenment in France, but also in America. His work Letters Concerning the English Nation included great praise for Bacon, Locke, and Newton, but were also full of appreciation for the tolerance and diversity that he saw in English religion. Voltaire’s most influential contribution to the Skeptical Enlightenment came from his strong deism and his emphasis on reason instead of religion. His disdain for dogmatic religious beliefs caused him to admire the English religious tolerance and diversity, an ideology that American cities like Philadelphia also shared. Voltaire’s hostility towards the church and the clergy was due to his strong emphasis on using reason to explain the unknown questions of the universe instead of simply allowing the church to maintain authority through their explanation of mystery through religion. It is important to note that even the few philosophes that disagreed with Voltaire ultimately agreed with his hostility towards Christianity and its innate authority.¹¹
Next, it is important to examine the city of Philadelphia and its relation to the Transatlantic book trade. According to May, Philadelphia, especially toward the end of the eighteenth century, was known as the capital of the American Enlightenment and American culture.¹² Not only was Philadelphia the capital of the American Enlightenment, the city also served as the capital of the newly formed republic until 1800 when it was moved to Washington D.C. Philadelphia was where the Declaration of Independence was signed and also where the United States Constitution was signed over ten years later. In the early eighteenth century, Philadelphia was the fastest growing settlement out of all the major British settlements in the North America. The population of Philadelphia was approximately 120,000 in 1751 and doubled to approximately 240,000 in 1770. This drastic rise in population was due in part to elevated birthrates in comparison to Europe and other colonies, but mostly due to large numbers of immigrants settling in Philadelphia from Europe. With all this European immigration, Philadelphia became much more diverse. Built upon William Penn’s pledge of religious tolerance and political freedom, the city of Philadelphia attracted a wide variety of immigrants from different religious and geographic backgrounds. This diverse religious tolerance and freedom is why Philadelphia was given the nickname, the city of “Brotherly Love”.¹³ This is also why Voltaire’s ideas were popular in a city like Philadelphia because there was no strict religious denomination or quasi-legal framework that prohibited deistic or what is now known as “agnostic” works.
Now you may be asking, how do we know that Voltaire was popular in Philadelphia? By examining a small sample of book selling and library catalogues from different companies in Philadelphia during the second half of the eighteenth century, we can see that Voltaire’s works were commonly found and most likely read by the Philadelphian public. The earliest library catalogue that was examined, The Charter, Laws, and Catalogue of Books, of The Library Company of Philadelphia 1757, demonstrates the prevalence of Voltaire’s works in Philadelphia. Almost all his major works were found in this catalogue, including The History of Charles XII, Anti-Machiavel, The Age of Louis XIV, The Elements of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy, and Letters Concerning the English Nation.¹⁴ A few years later in 1762, book sellers Rivington and Brown released a book-selling catalogue for their book store in the London Coffee House in Philadelphia. This catalogue also includes a number of Voltaire’s works and discusses how Voltaire’s fame flourished in France, England, and the British colonies (America), and that he was universally admired for his genius, wit, satire, and writing style. This catalogue not only includes Voltaire’s historical works like The Age of Louis XIV but also the satire novella Candide which demonstrates Voltaire’s wide variety of works available in Philadelphia.¹⁵ The Library Company of Philadelphia continued to feature Voltaire’s works through in their 1765 and 1770 catalogues.¹⁶
In the 1770s, master printer Robert Bell, who emigrated to America from Scotland, released two book-selling catalogues.¹⁷ The first, released in 1773, was a massive catalogue of the books that Bell was selling at the bookstore of William Woodhouse near Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. This catalogue included over twelve different works by Voltaire, including the ones previously mentioned but also Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, The Sincere Huron, The History of the Russian Empire, and even a thirty-four-volume collection of all Voltaire’s works which is one of the largest collections available in this catalogue.¹⁸ Interestingly, this catalogue by Bell featured the first exclusively French collection of Voltaire’s works Oeuvres de M. de Voltaire, which suggests that a growing French-literate audience was present in Philadelphia as early as 1773.¹⁹ Finally, in the early-to-mid 1790s, another book-seller from Philadelphia, Mathew Carey, published three catalogues for his bookstore on Market Street.²⁰ These catalogues heavily featured Voltaire’s work and included French versions of almost all his work. The presence of a larger French section suggests that the French-reading population of Philadelphia was growing from 1792–1794. This growth in the French population of Philadelphia correlates with the mass amounts of French immigrants arriving in Philadelphia that were fleeing the French Revolution and the Jacobin Terror in France.
Now that it has been demonstrated that Voltaire was popular in Philadelphia, it is important to discuss why Voltaire was popular in Philadelphia during the second half of the eighteenth century. One of the main reasons why Voltaire was popular in Philadelphia, as well as across many European and American civilized cities, was because of his artistic style of prose-writing and his wide appeal to intellectuals and non-intellectuals alike. Voltaire originally built his reputation and initial literary success from his career as a poet and dramatist. Writing poetry and dramas requires a stronger command of the English language and the infusion of emotion into the written word, which is more effort than a scientific or philosophical work might require. This gave Voltaire’s work a unique advantage in that he appealed to the intellectual class of Americans who were able to study his work and discover the deeper messages behind his writing, while also appealing to the non-intellectual class who simply enjoyed his works for the surface narratives and artistic writing style. According to Nicholas Cronk, Voltaire’s incredible strength of language and his strong writing style allowed him to popularize and spread ideas that were previous unexposed. Along with his style, Voltaire was also a multi-genre writer whose popularity was able to benefit greatly by appealing to a larger audience than just individuals interested in philosophy and history. Voltaire wrote works in the field of science, poetry, philosophy, drama, and fiction.²¹ Considering that America possessed an extremely high literacy rate for both white men and women compared to European countries, it is probable that a large majority of the literate population had heard of or read some of Voltaire’s works.²²
Another reason why Voltaire was popular in Philadelphia during the second half of the eighteenth century is because of the strong intellectual and printing community that was built in Philadelphia during the eighteenth century. According to historian Jonathan Lyons, around 1726 Philadelphia was “on the cusp of a remarkable boom”. This was the same year that Benjamin Franklin had returned from his time in London.²³ Philadelphia, like most of America had an incredibly high literacy rate which was partly due to the Protestant origins of the American colonies and the emphasis of Protestantism in learning to read the bible at a young age.²⁴ However, what made Philadelphia unique was the intellectual community that began developing in the late 1720s. This community was built largely by Benjamin Franklin and over the course of the eighteenth century, Philadelphia became the intellectual capital of America.
With the growth of intellectual clubs and the Library Company of Philadelphia, the transatlantic book trade grew substantially. According to historian James Green, from 1746–1767 a minimum of twelve printers established themselves in Philadelphia which suggests a growing market for books and printing.²⁵ By 1790, Philadelphia had become a printing powerhouse with production levels on par with cities like Dublin and Edinburgh.²⁶ On top of this growing market for books, there was a declining religious market in Philadelphia which led to an increase in secular literature.²⁷
Another important aspect of America’s printing culture that differed from the European culture is the role of censorship and copyright laws. In Europe, specifically England and France, print culture was subject to copyright laws and censorship that could prohibit certain ideas that went against the state from being published. However, in America, these copyright laws and state censorship did not exist.²⁸ Therefore, controversial works like Voltaire’s Letters Concerning the English Nation, which originally forced him into self-exile from Paris, would not be censored and would not generate personal backlash against Voltaire in a city like Philadelphia. The intellectual community, the growth in printing, and the increasing demand for secular works are some of the primary reasons why Voltaire’s works were popular in Philadelphia.
The final reason why Voltaire’s works were popular in Philadelphia during the second half of the eighteenth century is because of the French Revolution. During the early years of the French Revolution, specifically 1789, Voltaire’s ideas and works were taken up posthumously by the French revolutionaries in Paris. Due to Voltaire’s hostility towards church authority, his emphasis on reason, and his resentment towards the Ancien regime and the aristocracy, his works became incredibly influential to the French revolutionaries who were pursuing a restructuring of the French monarchy and French authority. These French revolutionaries saw Voltaire as a hero and icon of their struggle against oppression by the French aristocracy and clergy. Voltaire’s remains were even dug up and transported to Paris where they were ceremoniously laid to rest in the Panthéon in 1791.²⁹ However, during the French Revolution, and especially the Jacobin Terror in 1793 and 1794, many French citizens fled the country and emigrated to America, specifically Philadelphia. This wave of French refugees had a tremendous impact on the city of Philadelphia. Because of the nature of the French Revolution and the Jacobin Terror, a lot of the French refugees arriving in Philadelphia in the early 1790s were noblemen and intellectuals. These newly arrived intellectuals immediately began to interact with the Philadelphian intellectual communities and the result was a growing presence of French politics and French Enlightenment ideas integrating with American Enlightenment ideas.³⁰ Since there was such a large number of French people now involved in the book scene in Philadelphia, it makes sense that many of Voltaire’s less radical works would be present and popular in Philadelphia during this time.
In conclusion, Voltaire’s writing was popular in Philadelphia during the second half of the eighteenth century due to his strong anti-clerical ideas; the religious diversity and tolerance that was present in Philadelphia during the eighteenth century; his skepticism and his appeal to reason which was a major Enlightenment concept; his unique, artistic, multi-genre writing style that was able to appeal to a large, diverse audience in all aspects of Philadelphian society; and because of the influence of French emigres in Philadelphia that had immigrated to escape the Jacobin Terror and the French Revolution, which consequently altered the intellectual environment of the city.
1 Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments (New York: Vintage, 2005), 5.
2 James Raven, “Part Three: The Importation of Books in the Eighteenth Century,” in Hugh Amory, and David D. Hall, A History of The Book in America: The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World (Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 183.
3 Eve Tavor Bannet, “Enlightenment and the Transatlantic Text Trade,” The Yearbook of English Studies 46 (2016): 128.
4 James Raven, London Booksellers and American Customers: Transatlantic Literary Community and the Charleston Library Society, 1748–1811 (Columbia: South Carolina University Press, 2002), 7.
5 Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity, 19.
6 Henry F. May, The Enlightenment in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 110.
7 Ibid., 111.
8 Ibid., 115.
9 Robert Bell, Robert Bell, bookseller, provedore to the sentimentalists, and professor of book-auctioneering in America is just arrived from Philadelphia (1778), 3.
10 Nicholas Cronk, “Voltaire” in Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment ed. Alan Charles Kors (Oxford University Press, 2002), 1–4.
11 May, The Enlightenment in America, 105–111.
12 Ibid, 197.
13 Jonathan Lyons, The Society for Useful Knowledge: How Benjamin Franklin Brought the Enlightenment to America (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013), 39–41.
14 Library Company of Philadelphia, The charter, laws, and catalogue of books, of the Library Company of Philadelphia (1757)
15 Rivington and Brown, A catalogue of books, sold by Rivington and Brown, booksellers and stationers from London, at their stores, over against the Golden Key, in Hanover-Square, New York: and over against the London Coffee-House, in Philadelphia (1762), 23, 30.
16 Library Company of Philadelphia, A catalogue of books, of the Library Company of Philadelphia (1765)
17 James Green, “Part One: English Books and Printing in the Age of Franklin,” in Hugh Amory, and David D. Hall, A History of The Book in America: The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World (Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 284.
18 Robert Bell, Robert Bell’s sale catalogue of a collection of new and old books, in all the arts and sciences, and in various languages, also, a large quantity of entertaining novels; with the lowest price printed to each book; now selling, at the book-store of William Woodhouse, bookseller, stationer, and bookbinder, in Front-Street, near Chestnut-Street, Philadelphia (1773), 7–36.
19 Ibid, 40.
20 Mathew Carey, Mathew Carey, no. 118, Market-Street, Philadelphia, has imported from London, Dublin, and Glasgow, an extensive assortment of books, among which are the following (1792)
21 Cronk, “Voltaire”, 1–3.
22 David Allan, “Books” in Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment, ed. Mark G. Spencer (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 151.
23 Jonathan Lyons, The Society for Useful Knowledge, 39.
24 Allan, “Reading”, 151.
25 James Green, Part One, 272.
26 Allan, “Books”, 154.
27 James Raven, London Booksellers, 7.
28 Allan, “Reading”, 153.
29 Cronk, “Voltaire”, 1.
30 May, The Enlightenment in America, 218.