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The American Enlightenment

“Thus in the beginning all the World was America,” wrote the English philosopher John Locke at the end of the seventeenth century. Like many European Enlightenment theorists, Locke had never been to the New World, but this small detail did not stop him from grounding some of his revolutionary ideas in the vast Enlightenment laboratory called America.

The Enlightenment, that great age of intellectual inquiry and discovery that stretched from roughly 1680 to 1820, drew fundamentally from the European colonization of the Americas. The discovery of the New World prompted a flurry of new questions about society, government, art, religion, and nature. Did American Indians represent the fundamental state of nature from which all human societies developed? Could a perfect new government or society—uncorrupted by European degeneracy—be created in the New World? Did plants, animals, and peoples improve or degenerate in the American climate? These were just a few of the questions that revolutionized intellectual life in this era.

British Americans were at both the center and the edge of the Enlightenment. The source of so many discoveries that fostered new ideas about nature and government, British Americans knew they also lived at the periphery of the community of learned Europeans called the “republic of letters.” The great centers of learning in London, Paris, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Rome lay thousands of miles away. But ever-faster and more numerous ships regularly ferried books, objects, and letters across the Atlantic Ocean, so that Europeans and Americans communicated in increasingly dense intellectual networks over the course of the eighteenth century.

This exhibition puts American books at the center of the great transatlantic conversation of the Enlightenment. “American” here is meant broadly: viewers will find books published by Americans, books owned by Americans, and books about America. The exhibition focuses especially on books unique to the Stanford University Libraries: “association copies.” These are books connected to a (usually) famous owner who has recorded his or her ownership or reactions in the book. Some people autographed the title page; others wrote curious or revealing things in the margins. We often imagine that a printed text is the same everywhere; this exhibition returns us to the unique copy, the book or pamphlet owned by a particular person at a particular time. We have also displayed letters by famous Americans such as Benjamin Franklin, a reminder of the continuing relevance of the archive. In all, we have tried here to recapture the personal, revealing stories of ownership that bring the grand ideas of the Enlightenment to the intimate scale of the human.

Caroline Winterer

Professor of American History

Stanford University


This collection is currently being migrated to this exhibit from its original online site. The digital images used to create the exhibit are available online. You will find it available here as soon as possible.