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Was There a “Catholic Enlightenment?”: Rethinking Religion and the Age of Lights

By Shaun Blanchard

When “the Enlightenment” is conceived of as a unitary phenomenon – as the harbinger of a modern secularism publicly committed to reason, democracy, rights, and tolerance – the Roman Catholic Church is often portrayed as its early modern antithesis. A “secular master narrative” (Sorkin, 3) of the Enlightenment, usually with its sun located in Paris and its rays wherever the influence of the philosophes shone, is the story of the dispelling of superstitious and bigoted darkness. This once-commonplace “triumphalist linear teleology” (Sorkin, 1) has been challenged for many decades and is now, for all intents and purposes, overturned. As Franz Fillafer and many other historians have convincingly demonstrated “the Enlightenment was many before it became one” (112). The rediscovery of a Catholic Enlightenment, according to Gabriel Glickman, “has become central to the larger redefinition of ‘Enlightenment’, as a phenomenon shaped just as strongly by reformist confessional [i.e. “religious”] cultures as by a rising tide of radical secularism” (290). As S. J. Barnett correctly argued, the “broad politico-religious struggle – rather than the actions of the philosophes – provided the most significant challenge to the status quo of Enlightenment Europe” (168). This was certainly true in the many lands ruled by enlightened Catholic sovereigns, especially the vast domains of the Habsburgs (including Austria, Tuscany, Lombardy, and the Austrian Netherlands) and the Bourbons of Spain, Naples, and Parma. Such historical facts force a reevaluation not only of the relationship between Catholicism and Enlightenment, but between Catholicism and modernity as a whole, the emergence of which was, to use Jeffrey Burson’s language in his recent monograph The Culture of Enlightening, a deeply “entangled” process, the product of interlocking and plural secular and religious-confessional phenomena.

Among the many “religious” enlightenments that have recently been recovered, a “Catholic Enlightenment” actually has one of the oldest historiographical pedigrees. Although some eighteenth-century Catholic intellectuals self-identified as “enlightened” (aufgeklärt, illuminato, etc.) or were called that by others, the concept of a “Catholic Enlightenment” is a twentieth-century one, introduced by the German scholar Sebastian Merkle in a landmark 1908 lecture in Berlin. Merkle’s historiographical account met with great controversy, including from myriad successors of the anti-Enlightenment – or, better put, counter-Enlightenment – tradition so strong in the Catholic Church. It had become commonplace within the Church to narrate the Enlightenment as a monolithic movement of organized skepticism, and the crucial link in the chain of destructive errors connecting the Protestant Reformation’s rejection of the Church’s authority to the French Revolution’s guillotines and cults of Reason. Indeed, as Ulrich Lehner has noted, it was often Catholics themselves who advanced narratives of the irreconcilability between Catholicism and Enlightenment just as strongly as did Protestants and freethinkers.

Definitions of Catholic Enlightenment, like definitions of Enlightenment itself, are varied, referring as they do to pluriform, transnational phenomena. A broadly acceptable use of the term Catholic Enlightenment describes varieties of positive Catholic engagement with the values and methodologies of the Enlightenment in the realms of philosophy, science, politics, and theology. Catholic Enlightenment thinkers shared aims and goals with other religious enlighteners and sometimes with anticlerical, secular, or anti-Christian philosophes, while attempting the harmonization of Catholic culture, society, and faith with the new learning. Intellectual orientations and values shared by enlightened Catholics included an openness to the new science and philosophy (Locke, Descartes, and Newton, to name a few), a vision for the holistic reform of society (by means of anything from enlightened despotism to republicanism and democracy), and a concern with “reasonable” theology or “rational” devotion which often took shape in efforts to rid the Catholic faith of bigotry and “superstition.”

Work in recent decades has advanced the conversation on Catholic Enlightenment. Mirroring wider Enlightenment studies, one fruitful approach has been to study Catholic Enlightenment from a national or regional perspective. The initial interest in Catholic Enlightenment in Germany and then France and Italy has been supplemented with scholarship from Latin America, Spain, Portugal, Malta, and Poland. The concept is also now firmly established in the Anglophone scholarly community, aided by studies of Catholic Enlightenment in England, Scotland, Ireland, and North America. Another fruitful approach is found in the study of emblematic intellectuals. To consider only Italy: the remarkable mathematicianMaria Gaetana Agnesi (1718–99), the groundbreaking historian Lodovico Muratori and the cultured prelate Prospero Lambertini (Pope Benedict XIV from 1740­–58). Focus on central Catholic institutions, like Christopher Johns’ study of the papacy’s patronage of an enlightened intellectual and artistic culture (especially from 1724–58), sheds light on the achievements but also limits of Catholic Enlightenment. The same can be said for examinations of innovative scholarly religious orders like the Benedictines, the subject of a fundamental study by Ulrich Lehner and an incisive recent contribution from Thomas Wallnig. Exciting work is underway on the global dimension of Catholic Enlightenment and the participation of women in enlightened scholarship, art, and religious reform. A dearth of primary sources in English translation – an obstacle for educators – is also beginning to be addressed, for example in an anthology edited by Lehner and myself.

Just as Kant’s archetypal question “Was ist Aufklärung?” still compels reflection, though, historians continue to debate the usefulness of the term Catholic Enlightenment – from its relationship to the long and diffuse legacy of Renaissance, early modern Humanism, and Tridentine reform (i.e. the reformist impulses linked to the Counter-Reformation Council of Trent, held 1545–63), to its identification or overlap with “Reform Catholicism,” to whether it is preferable to speak of “Enlightenment Catholicism” or “Enlightenment in Catholic lands.” Most scholars see the utility of the term Catholic Enlightenment despite tensions and ambiguities, though a few question the legitimacy of the term entirely.

Much of the definitional and terminological confusion that still hampers the scholarly conversation might be solved by distinguishing between three “streams” of the Catholic Enlightenment. The first and most diffuse stream corresponds to what I call the “scholarly Catholic Enlightenment”; that is, widespread phenomena of Catholic advancement of “enlightened” scholarly endeavors (e.g. critical historical and scientific research, Wolffian metaphysics, Newtonianism and Copernicanism). The second stream of the Catholic Enlightenment describes an essentially “Muratorian” project, so-called as a nod to the profound influence of the aforementioned Muratori. The Muratorian Catholic Enlightenment was a quest for a “reasonable” Catholicism shorn of “superstition” and “bigotry” (all rather loaded and contested words, then and now!). The limits and agenda of this Muratorian second stream are more definable than those of the first, and virtually all the actors in the second stream would be participants in or sympathetic to the scholarly activities of the first, not least because the second stream depended on a critical approach to history, especially church history and the lives of the saints.

Though there were certainly loose networks of collaborating individuals in streams one and two (for example, so-called “Muratori circles” in the Habsburg lands), the third stream is the only one to which the word “movement” could be applied, at least in the sense of a movement internally conscious of itself and externally identifiable as such. This third stream, the “Ecclesio-Political” Catholic Enlightenment, however, is best understood not as a single movement but as a series of ideologically overlapping and mutually reinforcing movements that enjoyed a zenith of influence in the final quarter of the eighteenth-century: “Josephinism” and Reformkatholizismus in the Habsburg domains and German-speaking lands, “late Jansenism” in Italy (especially Tuscany and Lombardy), “Cisalpinism” in the British Isles, etc. These enlightened, anti-papalist, Erastian (i.e. state churches), and rationalizing Catholics agreed with the aims of the first and second streams of Catholic Enlightenment but came to conclusions in the political and ecclesiastical realms that were unacceptably radical even to many otherwise “enlightened” Catholics. The decline and eventual defeat of this third stream is linked to the turbulent events set in motion by the French Revolution, a fact not without irony due to the support of many enlightened Catholics, like Henri Grégoire (1750–1831), for the National Assembly and for the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790) that blew up ancien régime Catholicism in France.

This threefold schema certainly does not solve all the problems connected to the use of the term Catholic Enlightenment, and might even reveal some new tensions. Nevertheless, it is helpful, I hope, in preventing some of the most common misunderstandings that arise when scholars use the term Catholic Enlightenment to refer to different – sometimes conflicting – phenomena in the world of early modernity. For example, this schema avoids the pitfall of a use of the term Catholic Enlightenment that is so broad, it seems to include any erudite or scholarly activity by Catholics in the “long” eighteenth-century (ca. 1660–1815). On the other hand, some definitions are too narrow: they make choices about who “counts” as an enlightened Catholic that shed more light on internal tensions within Catholicism (past or present) than on the process of Enlightenment writ large. For example, any definition that excludes Jesuits or papalist Catholics privileges the theological, devotional, and ecclesio-political over scientific and scholarly endeavors. Likewise, an understanding that sees a putatively unified Catholic Enlightenment disintegrating or breaking up around the time of the death of Pope Benedict XIV in the late 1750s gives the impression of too much unity in the first half of the eighteenth century while also denying some of the very real ideological cohesion that existed in the second half of the century. When this threefold schema is deployed, the appropriate distinctions can be drawn such that a Jesuit scientist and a philo-Jansenist government minister in, say, Spain, can both be recognized as participating in Catholic Enlightenment and yet also be appropriately distinguished.

As I developed this schema for several forthcoming works, colleagues challenged me to think more about the many driving forces of these streams that pre-date the Enlightenment: about the great rivers, if you will, from which these three tributaries receive much of their water. A good deal of the “enlightened” phenomena I group into the second and third streams are at least partly explicable without the category of Enlightenment. For example, Muratori’s Della regolata devozione dei Cristiani(1747), which is widely regarded as a Catholic Enlightenment text par excellence, justifies religious reform primarily by appealing to a certain reading of the Council of Trent, St. Charles Borromeo, the Bible, and the Church Fathers. While an enlightened milieu and enlightened scholarly networks were no doubt central to Muratori, differentiating between what I call the second stream of the Catholic Enlightenment and the late implementation of a “Borromean” (in the sense of St. Charles Borromeo) and Tridentine reform agenda can be difficult. Likewise, in the third, Ecclesio-Political Stream, the legacy of late medieval conciliarism looms large, as does Gallicanism, Erastianism, and Jansenism – all of which interacted with the Enlightenment and yet predated it and are explicable apart from it.

Even regarding what I call the first stream (the scholarly Catholic Enlightenment), Thomas Wallnig shows in his excellent new monograph Critical Monks that one can argue that the culture of late humanism is the best category to apply to these scholarly endeavors and achievements. However, Wallnig, along with Franz Fillafer in his recent book Aufklärung habsburgisch, still sees the category of Catholic Enlightenment as useful, albeit with certain cautions. One of these, helpfully pointed out in Wallnig’s Critical Monks, is that the German origins of the term Catholic Enlightenment must be considered, and for reasons that are probably not intuitive for those in the English-speaking context. The foil that an account of “Catholic Enlightenment” was pushing back against in the early twentieth century, when the term originated, was not skeptical or secular but “Protestant” Enlightenment.

What is of vital importance is that any schematization delineates something much more specific than just erudition or intellectual life among Catholics in the eighteenth century, but does not, on the other hand, produce a monolithic and self-conscious conception of Catholic Enlightenment. This would raise essentially the same set of problems that are raised by such conceptions of Enlightenment writ large.These three streams are only heuristic devices, with very porous boundaries. Additionally, the complex fissures and disagreements within these Catholic communities, the roots of which were often centuries in the past, must also be acknowledged. Nevertheless, the conceptual mapping of a threefold schema of Catholic Enlightenment provides space for necessary distinctions while also successfully illuminating networks of affinity and delineating shared endeavors, methods, and goals.


Shaun Blanchard is Senior Research Fellow at the National Institute for Newman Studies. His first book, The Synod of Pistoia and Vatican II, considers radical Catholic reform in the late eighteenth century. His next monograph project will explore the ecclesio-politics of English-speaking enlightened Catholics.

Featured Image: Girolamo Batoni, Pope Benedict XIV Presenting the Enyclical “Ex Omnibus” to the Comte de Stainville, 1757.

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The Changing Status of Women and the Countryside in Early 20th-Century Russia

By Valeria Peshko

In September 1904, the private women’s agricultural school (Vysshie zhenskie sel’skokhozi͡aĭstvennye kursy) was established in Saint Petersburg, then the capital of the Russian Empire. It was the first institution to offer university-level instruction in this discipline, and its creation was the result of a decade-long campaign led by agriculturist Ivan Stebut, who had published numerous pamphlets and newspaper articles and given speeches at conferences to convince officials and the public to support his venture. A few months later, revolution would erupt and result in the creation of the first Russian Parliament, the State Duma. At the same time in another part of the Empire, the Grand Duchy of Finland, the revolution encouraged women to seize the moment and secure full political rights, marking the first such success in Europe. As historian Irma Sulkunen has argued, the success only became feasible due to the mass participation of women in gender-integrated voluntary organizations such as temperance and other reform movements, which taught men and women to cooperate to reach specific goals. Similar to this argument, I suggest here that Stebut’s initiative and many other related movements to broaden women’s access to education in Russia not only provided an experience of cooperation, but also nourished a hidden tradition of Russian republicanism without which the sweeping political changes of the first revolution would have not have been possible.

When Stebut first published his manifesto-like essay, Do Women of the Intelligentsia Need Special Training in Agriculture? (Nuzhdaetsi͡a li russkai͡a intelligentnai͡a zhenshchina v spet͡sial’nom sel’skokhozi͡aĭstvennom obrazovanii?) in 1891, the question the essay posed was probably not deemed the most pressing of the day. Although educated upper-class women who were members of the Intelligentsia and active in the women’s liberation movement demanded access to universities, very few dreamed of becoming agriculturists. Indeed, the most active campaigning on their part concerned the study of medicine, while the most famous private school for women (Bestuzhevskie kursy), which offered an alternative to a university degree, had only two faculties—the Faculty of History and Philology and the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics. Class distinctions in education also worked against Stebut’s plan: elite women mostly sought training in liberal arts or medicine, while vocational or technical disciplines—to which agriculture was attributed—were considered to be more appropriate for the lower classes.

Officials, meanwhile, were ambivalent about granting Russian women opportunities for higher education. The idea of women’s higher education contradicted conservative family values espoused by government ministers and, most importantly, Tzar Alexander III. On the other hand, as Richard Stites has shown, the radicalization of women who pursued their studies abroad was perceived as a real threat, so officials were willing to make some concessions to keep women inside the Empire and under close observation. In this context, Stebut’s message had to tread a fine line between popularizing agriculture among women and playing it safe in the eyes of those in power.

Class at the Women’s agricultural school, c. 1909. Source: Niva, 1909, #47.

While Stebut’s answer to the question the title of his essay posed was unambiguously affirmative, his justifications were not designed to advance the goal of women’s liberation. Indeed, one does not find any arguments about the emancipating potential of agricultural education in his work. This may seem surprising, given that his cause received support from professional women and early feminist activists, including Nadezhda Dolgova, Anna Filosofova, Nadezhda Stasova, and others who were also members of the Society for Assistance to Women’s Agricultural Education (Obshchestvo sodeĭstvii͡a zhenskomu sel’skokhozi͡aĭstvennomu obrazovanii͡u). The latter organization funded women’s participation in agricultural courses through membership fees and private donations, which supported the initiative alongside the course fees paid by students. Stebut, by contrast, did not dedicate much space to the issue of women’s independence, neither intellectual nor financial. Although women in Russia could legally own and buy property, Stebut imagined women becoming the sole proprietor of land only as a result of a misfortune, e.g. through the death of a husband or a father. However, he did argue that in such an event knowledge of agriculture would help a woman support herself and her remaining family. He even suggested that women-agriculturists could be hired to run an estate—but to him, both scenarios were clearly abnormal. To Stebut’s credit, he did not question women’s general ability to become independent professionals; in his view, agricultural education simply had a different goal.

Above all else, Ivan Stebut was an agriculturist. He served as a professor at Petrovskai͡a Academy, the highest institution for forestry and agriculture, from its founding in 1865 until 1894. Between 1898 and 1905, he was chair of the Scientific Committee of the Ministry of Agriculture and State Property, the chief scientific body of the Empire, which held considerable weight in a still primarily agrarian country. Simply put, Stebut’s work lay the foundations of agricultural science in Russia: he created the first classification of Russian crops, developed farming systems appropriate for different cultures and soil types, and demonstrated the benefits of soil fertilization and amelioration efforts.

While conducting his extensive research, Stebut could not escape the realization of the dramatic decline of the Russian countryside. The Russian authorities were not blind to this problem either, which is exactly why experts like Stebut were invited to cooperate with the Ministry of Agriculture. Besides disseminating knowledge about how to increase crop yields and promoting more effective land use, another issue loomed large for scientists and ministers alike: adapting the countryside to the new social and economic reality after the emancipation of serfs in 1861. Legislators tried to act in the interest of the gentry and included provisions to alleviate the reform’s consequences for landowners, such as redemption payments. Even so, as Roberta Thompson Manning has demonstrated, by 1890 only 60% of the landowning gentry could fully support their families with the revenue from their estates. In these circumstances, many gentry families moved to the cities and either leased or sold their property. Partially responsible for this decline in profitability was a lack of agricultural and economic expertise among landowners, and it was this shortcoming that galvanized Stebut’s efforts to popularize agricultural education.

Yet Stebut was also concerned with the demise of the rural way of life more broadly, and he saw women as both one of the main culprits behind this demise and a potential hope for reversing it. As he wrote in his 1891 manifesto, “For the exodus from the countryside, our woman of the intelligentsia is to blame, who, because of her upbringing, could not cope with country life, nor with agriculture, which meant nothing in her spiritual world and could not fulfil her learned vanity.” Stebut was convinced that the way contemporary women were raised made them dependent on the comfort and pleasures of urban lifestyle, and when their husbands faced difficulties with running the estate, they persuaded them to leave the countryside altogether. In Stebut’s texts on women’s higher agricultural education, the longest chapters are always dedicated to its positive effects on the landowner’s wife. Although in Stebut’s view, the landowner was responsible for the majority of important decisions made within the estate, his wife should not simply submit to her husband’s vision, but rather fulfill a complimentary function with the common goal in mind. As such, he argued in his manifesto, she was supposed to not only oversee traditionally feminine tasks, such raising children, managing the household, nursing farm animals, dairying, poultry keeping, and gardening. She was also to act as an expert advisor to her husband, and to be critical of his plans if necessary.

Ivan Stebut and Women’s agricultural school students in Petrovsko-Razumovskoe, c. 1910. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

However, the wife’s positive influence was not limited to her professional expertise. Stebut insisted on women’s key role in strengthening morale within the family and its rural identity. “Most importantly,” he wrote, “being interested in agriculture and, hence, in country life, she will not drag her husband to the city and instead keep him in the countryside or near it. As a mother, she will raise children in the country to be physically healthy, intellectually and morally strong, in love with agriculture, working life and peasants…” (Russkie vedomosti, 1891, #92). Knowingly or not, in his passages on improved estate management and harmonious marriage, Stebut employed tropes that were also common to the republican tradition forged by some of his contemporaries. French Third Republic politicians, for example, who supported the expansion of high schools attendance to girls, argued that secularly educated women would not transfer religious superstitions to their children and thus raise them as proper citizens. As Françoise Mayeur’s work has shown, they also believed that equal education opportunities would strengthen the bond within the family through bridging the intellectual gap between the spouses. Furthermore, almost a century earlier, another young republic—the United States—had articulated the ideal of the Republican Wife and Mother: a virtuous woman, a meaningful companion to her husband, keeping him on the right path, and instilling civic virtues into her children, especially on her sons.

Although the Russian Empire was never politically a republic, it possessed its own republican tradition, with none other than the monarch herself giving it her blessing. Catherine the Great famously claimed that she had a “republican soul,” and before she witnessed the French Revolution and foundation of its First Republic, she “perceived no functional incompatibility between monarchy and republicanism.” Without seeking to change the social hierarchy per se, her legislative efforts aimed at transforming the arbitrary rule of the monarch into the rule of law, where citizens would have liberties to be protected. She also understood that new privileges (in other words, civil rights) would not be effective without the proper formation of citizens through education. When she founded the Society for the Education of Noble Girls (Vospitatel’noe obshchestvo blagorodnykh devit͡s), which was the first of its kind, her aim was not to promote scholarship among women, but rather to uplift society overall by making changes to the structure of the family.

The family was the core unit of society in republican thought. French philosopher Marquis de Condorcet, whose writings from the 18th century were still influential among French politicians almost a century later, notably developed this idea when he characterized the relations within the family in terms of the reliance of children on their parents and the mutual affection of mothers and fathers in return. According to Condorcet, the stable balance the family provided for society was disrupted by the exclusion of women. In particular, the perception of female weakness which allowed men to deny women access to activities, such as war councils and hunting, laid the basis for the foundation of slavery. As Linda Kerber has argued, Condorcet did not go as far as to suggest that women should have political rights, but he believed that the status of women needed to be improved in order to achieve rational government. Interestingly, Stebut echoed this reasoning in the most famous passage of his manifesto:

I say, if you want to support morale among the people— support the family; if you want to preserve a healthy family—this cell of the state organism—support the countryside and agriculture! If you want to support the countryside and agriculture—support upbringing in the country and women’s agricultural education!

In Russia, Stebut was one among many educators and essayists who justified the expansion of women’s education with the notion of improved motherhood, and who conjured up a new generation of citizens raised by educated mothers (see the discussion of other examples in the works of Elena Kosetchenkova, Ivan Ladonenko, and Marina Moskaleva). In practice, however, increased access to education and the entrance of women into the labor market often created conflict rather than contributing to this future utopia. This can be seen in the discussion that occurred within the pages of one of the major early 20th-century newspapers. In 1903, not long before the women’s agricultural school was introduced, the newspaper Novosti featured a letter to the editor sent in by I. M. Stremovsky, which started a whole chain of letters on the subject of women’s employment. “Should a woman strive to compete with a man within his professional fields of activity?,” Stremovsky asked—just to answer it with a definitive “No.” As he claimed, “[a] woman has no right to disfigure nature’s design, to distance herself from family’s hearth, to choose a specialization, a profession, in order to … ‘be independent’”(Novosti, 1903, #82). Although some commentators agreed with Stremovsky, many others did not. One man, who signed his letter simply as ‘Doctor’, wrote: “… we men should sincerely admit that everything we say [to argue that] ‘women are not fit for this or that task’—is nothing more than a fear of competition, a fear of losing a slave-wife” (Novosti, 1903, #98).

The divisiveness of women’s education at the beginning of the 20th century had already made it clear that a republican vision would be difficult to realize in Russia. Nevertheless, the republicanism of Stebut and other educators, which presented women as valuable citizens, contributed to the quick success of the Russian suffrage movement, which was born in 1905 and achieved its goal in just twelve years—a lot faster than their counterparts in the United Kingdom or the United States. Ultimately, however, the future for women-agriculturalists in Russia was not bright: as Olga Elina has pointed out, women rarely occupied prominent positions within Soviet agricultural science—a testament to the fact that Stebut’s and others’ emphasis lay on complimentary rather than equal roles.


Valeria Peshko is a doctoral candidate at the University of Helsinki, department of Economic and Social History. Her research examines women’s economic agency in Imperial Russia. In her PhD dissertation she studies the impact of class, gender and religion on female partners in family firms in the 19th century.

Featured Image: Women’s agricultural school class at the experimental farm Kni͡azhiĭ dvor, 1910. Courtesy of the Saint Petersburg State University of Agriculture.

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Imagining Nova Scotia: The Limits of an Eighteenth-Century Imperial Fantasy

By Alexandra L. Montgomery

When it’s mentioned in mainstream North American media, Nova Scotia tends to be invoked as a kind of almost-mythical, impossibly remote place; a northern, maritime Timbuktu. Today, this supposed isolation is either used an easy punchline or exploited in tourism campaigns, although it can also cause breathtaking bouts of tone-deafness, such as when a reporter and editor for The New York Times framed the deadliest mass shooting in Canadian history as having occurred in a place “normally equated with stunning beauty and smoked salmon.” This perceived remoteness and lack of knowledge about Nova Scotia is, in many ways, a historical constant in the English-speaking world. In the eighteenth century, however, these qualities paradoxically made Nova Scotia central to the British Empire.

Rather than an isolated fantasy land, colonial planners saw Nova Scotia as a blank space ripe for transformation: the perfect canvas for imperial fantasies. Particularly during the decades on either side of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), the then-colony became a near obsession among British colonial administrators on both sides of the Atlantic. Generations of men poured over questionable maps, spinning out schemes meant to exploit the region’s rich fisheries, timber stores, and geographically advantageous location along the major ship routes between Europe, the British mainland colonies, and New France. And yet, though it was much more important, it was not necessarily more known, and while proposals for the region were unending, facts were in short supply.

Indeed, even the idea of a place called Nova Scotia was, for much of the early modern period, unmoored from any objective reality. The origin of the name—Latin for “New Scotland”—was a short-lived Scottish colonial venture which was over nearly as soon as it began. The region the name was appended to was, instead, generally recognized within Europe as Acadia, part of the French empire, and in terms of practical on-the-ground control it was the homeland of the Mi’kmaq, Wulstukwiuk, Passamaquoddy, and other Wabanaki people. Nova Scotia finally became a permanent legal entity after the region was “conquered” by the British in 1710, completing British control of the northeastern North American seaboard. But while Britons could now factually claim to have a colony named Nova Scotia, in practice the British presence in Nova Scotia amounted to a handful of soldiers in the small military outpost of Annapolis Royal. As historians such as Jeffers Lennox and Geoff Plank have shown, practical control remained in the hands of Indigenous nations and, to a lesser extent, the French Acadian settler population, who famously refused to swear full allegiance to the British Crown and remained Catholic.

First map of Halifax, Nova Scotia, published in 1750 to promote the new parliamentary-funded capitol. The layout of the town (bottom left) was planned in London. Map from the British Library.

It was this “problem” that planners sought to solve, and they were willing to throw significant money and force behind the effort. Beginning in the late 1740s, the colony was the centerpiece of the Earl of Halifax’s ambitious plan to reform the North American colonies. As a “model colony” and laboratory of empire, Nova Scotia was the site of a nearly unprecedented experiment in British colonization when, in 1749, a new, Atlantic-facing capitol—Halifax—was built entirely using Parliamentary money and peopled with settlers directly recruited by the British crown. The official plan called for the creation of several new settlements occupied by government-sponsored Protestant settler families. These settlements were a violation of Anglo-Wabanaki treaties, and armed Mi’kmaq resistance prevented their execution. However, the new Nova Scotian government made it clear that they were willing to use extreme violence to fulfil their dreams. Governor Edward Cornwallis, who had also been involved in the brutal suppression of the 1745 Jacobite rising, refused to acknowledge Mi’kmaq sovereignty and threatened to “root them out entirely” (Edward Cornwallis to the Lords of Trade, 11 Sept 1749, CO 217). Just a few years later, the Acadian population was rounded up and deported in what John Mack Faragher has referred to as an act of ethnic cleansing.

After the defeat of the French and the British annexation of Canada, planners continued to see Nova Scotia as a space uniquely suited for direct imperial intervention. While the new leadership of the province and Board of Trade supported Halifax’s broad vision, they balked at its cost and chose to outsource the next phase of Nova Scotia’s transformation to private individuals and land companies. It was in this post-war context that some of colonial America’s most notable names became involved in the colony to their north. The Board of Trade’s open call for respectable land investors to take up and settle Nova Scotian land attracted no less a figure than Benjamin Franklin, and another company from Philadelphia hired a fresh-faced and not-yet-“mad” Anthony Wayne to survey their potential Nova Scotian lands. But this flurry of interest—one historian referred to it as a “veritable carnival of land grabbing”—was short. By the late 1760s, what had begun with great excitement had almost entirely ceased, and Nova Scotia now gained a new reputation: a money pit, emblematic of the worst excesses of the British Empire.

It is no accident that this downturn coincided with the imperial crisis. In his 1767/1768 Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, John Dickinson pitted the colonies that would eventually break away from the empire against the somewhat newer areas of British control, among which he included Nova Scotia. He rejected the attempts to settle Nova Scotia as damaging to the population levels of the older colonies, not to mention a colossal waste of money. Dickinson was far from the only one to articulate this argument. In his late 1760s and 1770s writings, Benjamin Franklin, no longer so enthusiastic about the province, also drew a strong line between the older colonies and Nova Scotia and Georgia, which also had a reputation as an imperial experiment. For example, in an angry marginal note in his copy of Josiah Tucker’s A Letter from a Merchant in London to His Nephew in North America, Franklin claimed that the older colonies had no obligation to the Crown, as they had never “received maintenance in any shape from Britain.” He contrasted this with Nova Scotia and Georgia, which he positioned as wasteful exercise in nepotism, done only as “mere jobbs for the benefit of ministerial favourites.”

In that light, Nova Scotia’s loyalism during the American Revolution perhaps makes more sense. The problem of why the province, peopled at that point mostly with recently migrated New Englanders, would remain loyal while the rest of the mainland colonies did not has long been a puzzle in historiography of the region. Historians have put forward theories which emphasized the (overstated) isolation of the province, its religious heterodoxy, and, most compellingly, its lack of the kind of seventeenth-century political traditions that colonists in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia drew on for support. Less examined is the fact that Revolutionary leaders simply did not try very hard to bring the province in. There were, in fact, more than a few Revolutionary sympathizers in Nova Scotia; some went so far as to lay siege to Fort Cumberland in 1776, and supporters of an American Nova Scotia semi-regularly petitioned the Continental Congress.

Frontispiece of a pamphlet by Nova Scotia booster Alexander McNutt laying out a semi-satirical declaration of independence for Nova Scotia during the American Revolution, re-imagined by the author as “New Ireland.” Pamphlet in the collections of the Houghton Library, Harvard; photo by author.

What was lacking was commitment from rebel leaders. While they mounted a full-scale invasion of Quebec, a province with much weaker ties to the old thirteen and, indeed, their historic enemy, requests for assistance from Nova Scotia were repeatedly kicked to later sessions and ultimately passed on to Massachusetts as their responsibility. All of this was entirely consistent with the dismissive views of the province, such as those expressed by Franklin and Dickenson, which had come to the fore in the years of the imperial crisis and explicitly placed Nova Scotia outside of the imagined community of the emerging United States. While Georgia was already becoming a lucrative field of action for southern slaveholders, Nova Scotia had no such lobby in the halls of Revolutionary power. While forces within the province played a huge role in its ultimate “loyalty,” and the group of dedicated rebels was small, the fact of the matter is that outside revolutionaries never really tried.

And yet, in the aftermath of the Revolution, Nova Scotia was once again the site of bold new experiments in demographic management. Nova Scotia and the two new provinces it birthed (today’s Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick) were chosen as the preferred site for the resettlement of the thousands of displaced American Loyalists who had been forced to flee the new United States.A large number of African Americans, free and enslaved, were also part of this diaspora, though few remained permanently in Nova Scotia. To me, this choice can only make sense in terms of the by then decades long quest to transform the region into a model imperial colony. Certainly, many Loyalists thought what they were doing would do just that: elites made bold claims that the new Loyalist provinces would soon become “the envy of the American states.” But these big claims and assumptions soon withered in the face of reality. Journalist Stephen Kimber, for example, has written of the “rapid rise and faster fall” of Shelburne, Nova Scotia, which transformed from a boom town of as many as 14,000 people in 1783 to a near ghost town with over 300 empty houses just a few years later. Even where declines were less extreme, Loyalist plans, as with those that proceeded them, fell rather drastically short of expectations.

The common thread linking these phases of eighteenth-century thinking about Nova Scotia was a near total lack of actual experience with the lived conditions of the province. They were plans made in New York pubs, Philadelphia coffeeshops, and London boardrooms. Even the idea of “Nova Scotia” itself was made up. The men who gobbled up large tracts of land in the 1760s and the revolutionary pamphleteers who rejected Nova Scotia as a barren waste had roughly equal knowledge of the region, which is to say, none. But the land and its inhabitants were frustratingly real, messy, and hard to manage – considerations that rarely disrupt the realm of fantasy. Despite the out-of-hand dismissal by imperial planners, Mi’kmaq, Wulstukwiuk, and Passamaquoddy had their own strong vision of the region’s future, informed by their intimate relationship with the land and its history. They stymied British plans at every turn, and these communities persist to this day despite every effort to break them. Acadians, though removed, returned. Even the settlers the planners brought in refused to comply. Faced with less than stellar opportunities for agriculture, many simply left. Others stayed, but refused to cooperate with their supposed betters, demanding more land and less outside control, and coming up with their own schemes for how Nova Scotia should work.            

And yet, Nova Scotia continues to act as a magnet for settlement schemes that assume its malleability and emptiness. I grew up there because my own parents, as idealistic young American Buddhists, followed their religious leader and hundreds of their friends from the big cities of the United States to Halifax in the late 80s in an effort to create a spiritual utopia in a place that many thought was the ends of the earth. An article in the Washington Post written shortly after the 2016 election juxtaposes officials in Nova Scotia panicking about a population crisis with Americans looking to flee from Trump, who seem to have no opinions about the province other than the fact it is not American. Today, a reputation as a safe haven from COVID—boosted in part by a New York Times opinion piece that positioned the province as an idyllic “parallel dimension”—has prompted a wave of newcomers, driving up home prices and exacerbating an already existing housing crisis. As its eighteenth-century history shows, Nova Scotia as an idea has long captivated the imaginations of observers and newcomers who seek to fulfil their dreams and fantasies of what it should be. But this history equally shows the hard limits of these plans, and the dangers of assuming that an unknown land is the same as formless clay.


Alexandra L. Montgomery holds a PhD in early American history from the University of Pennsylvania. Her work focuses on the role of the state and settler colonialism in the eighteenth century, particularly in the far northeast. Currently, she is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Digital History and Cartography of the American Revolutionary War Era at Mount Vernon, where she is assisting in the creation of a new digital maps portal in collaboration with the Leventhal Map and Education Center. 

Featured Image: Map of Nova Scotia made in 1755 by provincial chief surveyor Charles Morris. Map from the British Library.

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Think Piece

“You’re a Human Being Before You’re an Intellectual”: An Interview with Peter Wirzbicki (Part 1)

By Alec Israeli

Peter Wirzbicki’s Fighting for the Higher Law: Black and White Transcendentalists Against Slavery, was released earlier this year by the University of Pennsylvania Press. In this book, Wirzbicki, an assistant professor of history at Princeton University, offers an engaging exploration of the relationship between Transcendental philosophy and abolitionism, as much in the realm of texts and ideas as in the realm of concrete action. Wirzbicki brings Transcendentalists beyond the woods of Concord (and beyond their own heads) and into the fractious world of antebellum politics, illustrating how the core thinkers of this philosophical movement—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Parker, among many others—were deeply involved in antislavery activism.

Significantly, too, Wirzbicki draws Transcendentalism into the African American intellectual tradition, and vice versa, teasing out the shared ideational lineages and actual interactions between prominent Transcendentalists and contemporary black abolitionist thinkers like William Cooper Nell, Maria Stewart, and Alexander Crummell.

Contributing editor Alec Israeli sat down with Wirzbicki to discuss his new book. This interview has been edited for length and clarity


Alec Israeli: In your introduction, you discuss your book as a project of “intellectual history in the open air.” In your words: “[…] this book seeks to take seriously the traditional history of ideas—texts, arguments, writers—while simultaneously examining how those ideas left the page, so to speak, went out in the open air, and rambled around in the world of people and things,” (6). So, just to set the stage for the conversation, could you talk a little bit more about what you mean by this? About what this means on a methodological level, about your predecessors? 

Peter Wirzbicki: That line you just quoted from is a paraphrase of a Bob Dylan lyric. I liked the image of the sort of Walt Whitman-esque character, who isn’t stuck in the seminar room, but goes off with some ideas and walks down the dusty road or something like that.  Who, in the great American pragmatic tradition, experiments with ideas and sees how they live in the real world. There are certainly other great intellectual historians that I’ve drawn from—people like Daniel T. Rodgers, Tom Bender, for instance—who are very much engaged with the way ideas about economics or society shape policy and urban life. I’d add that there’s a wonderful Sarah E. Igo essay about “free-range intellectual history” that is perhaps a similar metaphor of intellectual history not just stuck in a pure realm of ideas.

Methodologically, I found it a useful way to think because it allowed me to open up the texts and sources I was using— for instance, things like advertisements, sermons, or newspapers that aren’t aimed at an elite audience. I would get really excited when I thought I could find ways in which “high ideas” showed up in more everyday places. I was so excited, for example, to see a textile worker in Lowell reading Emerson, actually engaging with some of these ideas. Or how young black abolitionists in 1830s New York City would read philosophy—starting with the Scottish Common Sense School and Locke, and, then, rejecting them in favor of Coleridge. And one of the most exciting things is that people never passively accept these intellectual sources, they are always doing these creative and exciting things with them. For instance, in my first chapter I looked at how these young black radicals in New York City were reading English romanticism—people like Coleridge who were actually fairly conservative—and adapting them into this radical anti-slavery message.

So I liked “intellectual history in the open air” both in the sense that I think it’s a more accurate description of how ideas work, and in the sense that methodologically it opened up the type of sources I was able to use, and the type of people I was able to look at. 

AI: Do you see yourself as the first person to try to study the Transcendentalists with this kind of methodological approach? 

PW: I don’t know if I’m the first, because it is in some ways a very Transcendentalist method. Trying to integrate abstract life and messy life… I think Emerson and Fuller would approve! There’s some great work that I’ve drawn on, including some biographies: Robert D. Richardson on Emerson is fantastic, and I think does some of this stuff. And also all of David Reynolds’ work I’ve loved, particularly Beneath the American Renaissance, which is this just brilliant exploration of all these funky and unexpected places that some of these writers were taking inspiration from. But also, of course, one of the defining features of Transcendentalism has been its openness to the everyday. Think about Emerson sneaking off into these rough and tumble Methodist revivals on the Boston waterfront so he could experience a form of worship that was so more alive than the buttoned up Unitarian Churches.

But on the specific question of slavery and Transcendentalism, I do think, there was often a tendency, especially in political theory or in English, to over-analyze the texts, to analyze, you know, “What does Self-Reliance tell us about abolition? What does Walden tell us about abolitionism?” This is important, but misses that whatever Emerson was writing, he was also going to anti-slavery organizations, he was speaking in front of anti-slavery clubs, he was interacting with black abolitionists and learning from them. If you only look at the ideas, you miss something about the real world application of them. I do think that you see the ideas more quickly engaged if you get outside of the text a little, or put the text in the context of action and what thinkers are doing on the ground.

In particular I think there was a world of black Transcendentalism that opened up once I looked beyond the canonical sources: for instance, I was able to recreate how this one black intellectual club called the Adelphic Union organized itself by looking at the advertisements that they placed in local newspapers. In particular I could see that they often invited Transcendentalists to speak before them.

AI: To be honest, while reading the book at first, I found myself thinking that these political commitments of Transcendentalists felt familiar. I was thinking this, of course, not in the sense of having personally encountered instances of Emerson attending anti-slavery meetings (much of your original contribution is bringing these kinds of interactions out of the archival woodwork), but in the sense of encountering instances of contemporaries assuming that people like Emerson were abolitionists. My own recent research has dealt with the thought of American slaveholders, and as I have seen, it was a favorite pastime of their intellectual class to attack much Northern and European philosophy as a jumbled mess of radicalism. Transcendentalists and abolitionists were never far apart in the reactionary mind.

Indeed, you make the point a few times in the book that either Southern slaveholders or Northern conservatives were saying that Transcendentalism, abolitionism, socialism—all of the radical -isms—were the same thing. An especially common move you discuss was for critics to discredit abolitionism by tarring it as Transcendentalist, or to discredit Transcendentalism by tarring it as abolitionist.

So, an interesting implication that I felt you suggested in the book was that we should take these conservatives quite seriously, that we should not see them as simply overreacting and failing to parse differences between and among the adherents of the various -isms. You in effect argue that conservative critics were actually observing all of these people working together. 

PW: Yeah, and these conservatives sometimes saw something about the internal coherence of ideas in a way that I think the ideas’ very proponents missed. I mean, the narcissism of petty differences is common on the Left—to fight over territory, and to each have one’s own slightly distinct priority. And so you had things like the land reform people tangle with the abolitionists or some of the abolitionists resent the Transcendentalists. But they, mostly, are fighting over the same constituency of reformers. But sometimes the people who are the farthest away from the movement can see how and why these groups actually go together very well. So for instance, the land reformers would fight with the abolitionists, but they still both end up in the Republican Party which, of course, passes the Homestead Act. There’s a way in which Southern slave owners almost see that happening before the land reformers and abolitionists do themselves. In a similar way it takes some time for the Transcendentalists to get over their initial skepticism of the abolitionists, no doubt. But by the early 1840s, they are collaborating on all sorts of issues.

AI: Do you think that this is something that historians have missed? That is, when they see 19th-century conservatives lumping together the -isms, do you think that there’s been a tendency for historians to say, “Oh, they’re wrong to lump these people together,” and then walk away without actually engaging this critique in good faith?

PW: I think so. You see this a lot with a figure like the proslavery theorist George Fitzhugh, who often said things like, “the abolitionists are all socialists” or something. And of course that’s not entirely true—abolitionist political economy may not have been as free market-y as historians have sometimes made it out to be, but of course Fitzhugh was exaggerating: abolitionists were certainly not all self-conscious socialists. But Fitzhugh did put his finger on something real,  something about the way in which by introducing the kind of humanitarian and democratic impulse into the slave labor process introduces a wedge, it raises the idea that the economy ought to be managed via a collective moral or political logic. There’s a reason so many eight-hour day activists in the 1860s called themselves the “next abolitionists.” Ira Stewart for instance. They took up a lot of that energy. Once you say, “democracy has the right to manage labor in the South, to intervene in the ‘private’ realm of the planation,” it is natural for that idea to spread to the North as well, and to say, “democracy has the right to manage labor here too, to intervene in the factory.” Wendell Phillips is the greatest example of this—someone who understood his embrace of labor rights after the Civil War as a natural extension of his earlier abolitionism.

AI: And in turn, as you argue, the historical separation of Transcendentalism from abolitionism and its attendant radicalisms has produced an incomplete intellectual biography of all of these ideational tendencies. In the conclusion to your book you talk about how the first histories of the Transcendentalists tamed them in a way, or tried to make this strict division that actually was not there.

Is that the source of how all of the black abolitionists and thinkers you discuss in detail were written out of the history of Transcendentalism? 

PW: That’s a big part of it. There were a couple of moments where an erasure of this alliance occurred. First, some of the early histories of Transcendentalism were written in the conservative period following Reconstruction. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. writes a biography of Emerson in the 1880s that erases Emerson’s politics; a lot of the first histories of the Transcendentalists were written when Transcendentalists themselves were older, and honestly when they were more conservative. It’s not wrong to say that in general the intellectual and political climate of New England by 1880 was much more conservative than it was in 1850 in pushing on issues of race. So these first histories de-emphasize these questions of politics and certainly of race.

And, as I argue in the introduction, in the 1960s there was a move to separate the Transcendentalists from the abolitionists to protect the abolitionists— to say the abolitionists were more reasonable actors than contemporary narratives that tried to write the abolitionists off as fanatics, utopians, dreamers. Separating abolitionism and Transcendentalism was a way to say, “Well no, there was more practicality there than we had assumed.”

And finally, of course, there were generations where the scholarship barely took black thinkers seriously even as abolitionists—that doesn’t begin to change until Benjamin Quarles in the late 60s. So perhaps it is no surprise that scholars weren’t also looking more broadly at how black thinkers engaged with other movements. I think we’re finally in a moment that people are really taking seriously the depth of black intellectual history, which is a great thing.

AI: Yeah, and on this subject of reframing the relationship between abolitionism and Transcendentalist philosophy: I think the most striking part of the book for me was in the first chapter, where you discuss various black intellectual circles in the 1830s that were taking philosophical figures like Coleridge and Kant, and (unexpectedly) using them towards abolitionist or even proto-black nationalist political ends. You discuss at length this role of German idealism on Transcendentalists and abolitionists— in receiving Kant via Coleridge, these Americans absorbed a concern for the distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal; the primacy of generative Reason against merely reflective Understanding; an insistence on egalitarian free will against an empiricism that renders humans as receptacles of sensory input. As you put it, “More than a rigorous philosophical system, Americans inherited from Kant an unfocused impulse towards idealism and mental dualism and a vague suspicion of the body and the senses,” (37).

In a word, you suggest a deep humanism in this American reception, and its rejection of Lockeanism and the so-called Scottish school of philosophy. Abolitionist intellectuals feared such doctrines threatened to turn humans into passion-bound animals on the one side, or completely mechanistic automatons on the other. This empiricism which abolitionists opposed was very popular among contemporary conservatives more broadly; as I have seen in my own research, proslavery thinkers were quite ready to point to the world as it was as a prescription for how it ought to be, as opposed to the abolitionist insistence on the yawning gap between the is and the ought

In your book, I read Transcendentalists and their conservative opponents as both appealing to Nature—a reference point which unites them— but in very different ways. My attempted gloss here is that both looked to nature as it is as an affirmation of their worldview. Yet the conservatives, the empiricists, the adherents to the Scottish school, basically said, “Okay, we’re looking at nature as it is, which is a reflection of the world as it ought to be, and human society is just an extension of currently-existing nature, so observable human society (with slavery and all kinds of hierarchies) is acceptable and naturally justified.” Whereas the abolitionists and the Transcendentalists saw nature, and saw something that preceded human society, something that proves human society to be pure artifice, quite deviated from nature. So, they prescribed, we ought to look to nature for how the artificial human world ought to be.

PW: Like a kind of Rousseauian sense— that there is a simplicity or nobility to nature that can be contrasted with the ugliness and artifice of human society. 

AI: Right, and they parallel this contrast between the natural and the artificial with the Kantian contrast between the noumenal and phenomenal, the ought and the is. What I thought was interesting about this through-line of division was the sense of valuation which they ascribed to it, which is quite a step away from Kant. For Kant, creating the distinction between noumenal and phenomenal was a matter of really rigorous description; it is the thing that makes his system of philosophy possible. He creates this division and then it allows him to create realms of the moral or the ethical or the aesthetic or the purely scientific. He was not saying, “Oh, we have the phenomenal world and it’s bad.” Rather, he was just saying, “Okay, we can separate the phenomenal world, and we need that world to do science and to understand where we are and the objects with which we interact, but we can’t use that world to understand how humans should act towards objects and towards each other.” For him, his distinction is a very practical distinction. But for the Transcendentalists…

PW: They almost moralize the distinction.

AI: Yeah! But even beyond moralizing it, I got the sense that they almost saw a truth, or a potential truth, to the mechanistic, phenomenal world which their opponents claimed as the source of all truth. For the Transcendentalists/abolitionists, slipping into this worldview was something that they had to actively combat— for them, to exercise the noumenal over the phenomenal was something strenuous.

PW: I think you’re onto something really important: the almost proto-Pragmatism of Transcendentalism, which is fearful and skeptical of a world of nature without any humanity in it. Let me give you an example: how they see landscapes. Both Emerson and Thoreau at various times use the distinction of, on the one hand, some people look at a landscape and see it as split up as a utilitarian, frontier mentality might see it (you see so-and-so’s farm and so-and-so’s farm, with this wall between them, and you think about the land as worth a certain amount of money, capable of growing certain things), and, on the other hand, some people will see that same scene as a landscape, seeing the sublime, the totality of nature, the beauty of it all, etc…. The same scene, in other words, can be experienced in very different ways depending on what moral and spiritual values you bring to bear on the observation.  So there’s not just dead matter that you are passively observing, but your observation of nature always should include interaction with the human as well. Thus there is a sort of irony to the “go-back-to-nature” reputation of the Transcendentalists. They always saw the major value of nature to be, not its inhumanness, but instead exactly how it might reflect something ethical or spiritual, something human. They would have nodded along at William James’s insistence that the trail of the human serpent is over everything.

But they are really scared, and they’re not alone in this, of the idea that people are beginning to see nature as dead, as inhuman, as mechanical. It is such a 19th-century problem, this vision that in a totally disenchanted, totally material, and totally mechanistic world, all aspects of human life are totally determined, including our self! Laplace’s demon and all that. And politically, this is Hobbes, right; even the inner self could be almost a robot, a physical object determined by the experiences it had had. And anyone who wants to be consistent in this total determinism has to follow Hobbes into atheism and authoritarianism.  And so Transcendentalists really want to retain a sense of the human, and the will, and intuition, and all these categories, which means for them that you don’t just passively observe nature, but that observation always has a little bit of yourself in it as well. So for the Transcendentalists there is not a victory of the noumenal over the phenomenal, but always a back and forth between them, an interaction between (partly free) consciousness and (mostly determined) experience.


Alec Israeli is an incoming student at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, where he will be studying for an MPhil in Political Thought and Intellectual History as a recipient of a Dunlevie King’s Hall Studentship. His research interests span the overlaps of labor history and intellectual history in the nineteenth-century Atlantic, with particular focus on theorizations of free versus unfree labor. His work has also appeared in the Vanderbilt Historical Review, the Columbia Journal of History, the Princeton Progressive Magazine, and the Mudd Library Blog. He can be reached at aisraeli@alumni.princeton.edu.

Featured Image: Illustration of an attempt by an abolitionist crowd to free fugitive slave Anthony Burns from a Boston courthouse after his arrest in 1854. The crowd included (and was in part led by) contemporary Transcendentalists. Source: Wikimedia Commons, from Anthony Burns, a history, By Charles Emery Stevens (1815-1893).

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Think Piece

The Imperial Syndrome

By Ann-Sophie Schoepfel

The decolonization of imperial collective imagination triggered a deep fracture in France, a fracture that has been highly visible since the 2005 suburban riots.[1] In 2020, protesters marched down the streets of Lille, Rennes, Lyon, Beauvais, Bordeaux, Le Mans, Poitiers, Marseille, and Paris to express solidarity with BLM, denouncing the grievance voiced by Black and Arab communities across France. In Paris, they covered with graffiti the statue in front of the French parliament building honoring Jean-Baptiste Colbert, a prominent statesman under ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV who wrote the Code noir, the laws governing slaves in France’s overseas colonies. This iconoclast attack echoed pressures to remove a painting commemorating the abolition of slavery in France in 1794 from the National Assembly; a painting that featured, according to scholar Mame-Fatou Niang and novelist Julien Suaudeau, “two huge black faces, with bulging eyes, oversized bright red lips, carnivorous teeth, in an imagery borrowing to [sic] Sambo, the Banania commercials and Tintin in the Congo.” In France, as elsewhere, defacing symbols of colonialism evokes complex and contradictory emotions. Officially, race does not exist as a category in the republic; many French politicians continue to hold fast to the ideal of a color-blind universalism, even if more in theory than in practice. How, then, can we understand this apparent identity crisis, which is reminiscent, for example, of the denial of racism and the imperial past in Great Britain that journalist Afua Hirsch has denounced in her recent book Brit(ish)?

Revealing the uncomfortable truth about race and identity in France today demands the expunging of modern colonial rhetoric from the articulation of contemporary European identities. This rhetoric, of course, has a long history. During the nineteenth century, the inclusion of ancient representations in modern imperial ideology bolstered colonial claims to supremacy. For Alexis de Tocqueville, ancient Greece and Rome were model conquerors to imitate and a source of justification for the Western civilizing mission: The Greeks and Romans represented “heuristic teachers,” whose lessons were inestimable for modern ideologues. Colonialism acquired a palimpsestic structure, which penetrated international governance, capitalism, and nation-state identities.

Frantz Fanon was one of the first notable theoreticians to both analyze and condemn colonialism. Based on his experience in the Algerian war of independence (1954–62), he wrote The Wretched of the Earth (1961), where he described the destructive nature of colonialism from the viewpoint of modern psychiatry. Following the path of Fanon, Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Homi K. Bhabha, R. Siva Kumar, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Derek Gregory and Amar Acheraiou proceeded to lay the intellectual foundations of critical studies to fight against the social and political vertical hierarchies sustaining colonialism—and neocolonialism.

First coined by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1956, ‘neocolonialism’ indeed became a key concept for politicians and thinkers to depict the persisting inequalities between the global north and the global south. On the turbulent frontiers of post-imperial Asia and Africa, anti-colonial elites challenged nineteenth-century racial hierarchies by articulating alternative visions of worldmaking. Postcolonial self-determination, as Adom Getachew has persuasively argued, was not the belated fulfillment of a Euro-American legacy, an inheritance passed down from Westphalia to Woodrow Wilson. Instead, anti-colonial nationalists—such as Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe—attempted to secure a right to self-determination within the newly founded United Nations and create the New International Economic Order. Yet, their hope to create an alternate worldview of global political economy was diluted by the 1973 oil crisis and Cold War tensions. As a result, nineteenth-century economic and racial disparities persisted: Colonial practices and enduring legacies shaped existing international trade, the structure of international institutions and the global financial system. Western banking institutions profited from engagements with the slave trade, and postcolonial monetary relations between Europe and its former colonies still reinforce long-standing patterns of uneven development.

“Françafrique” is perhaps one of the most illustrative incarnations of this persistence of colonialism. In his 1999 book La Françafrique, economist François-Xavier Verschave argued that the Cold War attitudes of African leaders, such as Omar Bongo, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, or Hamani Diori, effectively created neocolonial relations between Africa and France’s former colonial peoples, featuring monopolies in situ by French multinational corporations. According to Verschave, these politicians behaved not as leaders of sovereign states but as agents of French business: Instead of fighting for decolonization, they simply accepted belonging to a community ruled by the French republic and received sizable economic assistance in return. As such, they too contributed to anchor modern colonial rhetoric in international relations.

The specter of neocolonialism also frames French and Francophone identities, as a new imperial geography has probed the evolution of collective imaginations since the former colonial possessions gained independence in the 1950s and 1960s. In his book Le syndrome de Vichy, historian Henry Rousso revealed how, from the end of World War II to the Klaus Barbie trial in 1987, France contested the memory of the Vichy experience, which was associated with the collaboration with Nazi Germany, defeat, and national humiliation. At the same time, the explosion in theoretical and historical scholarship on empires and imperialist discourses criticizing imperialism and colonialism led France to also reassess l’idée coloniale and to confront the legacies of its history as colonial power. From barriers to archival access on World War II, the First Indochina War, and the Algerian War, to controversies about the Stora report on Algeria and the rise in discourse of Islamo-leftism, we can witness a real crisis in the French collective memory—one we could, following Rousso’s work, reasonably call the imperial syndrome.

From the 1960s to the late 1980s, the French collective imagination was marked by a longing of the French imperial past. The French answer to the refugee crisis of the Vietnamese ‘boat people’, for example, heavily drew on the country’s historical ‘civilizing’ role to protect non-Western nations. In November 1978, when France decided to welcome refugees who fled Vietnam by boat and ship after the Vietnamese victory against the U.S. in 1975, deputy Joel Le Tac spoke of how France, “by tradition, has throughout time always been willing to carry the misery of those who believe in [France].” His speech was met with thunderous applause at the National Assembly: In this version, welcoming refugees from communist Vietnam represented a straight continuity with familiar imperial narratives.

Colonial nostalgia has also influenced film production. Censors banned films criticizing the French imperial past, such as Jacques Panijel’s Octobre à Paris (1962), Pierre Schoendoerffer’s La 317e section (1965), René Vautier’s Avoir 20 ans dans les Aurès (1971) or Jerome Kanapa’s La république est morte à Diên Biên Phu. Meanwhile, the longing for a colonial homeland defined the memorial tenor of popular films such as Claire Denis’ Chocolat (1988), Brigitte Rouan’s Outremer (1990), and Regis Wargnier’s Indochine (1991). In the latter’s historical epic, France’s relationship with Indochina was even presented to the viewers as a love affair, following the amorous adventure of the colonialist heroine Eliane, played by Catherine Deneuve, while her adopted daughter was ‘defeminized’ as she joined the Vietnamese national movement.

Yet, in the 1990s, when introspection concerning France’s role during the Nazi occupation was turning into a defining feature of French public discourse, the emergence of postcolonial studies and Michel Foucault’s legacy on marginalities began to slowly erode this colonial nostalgia. With the publication of his book Gangrene and Oblivion: Memory of the Algerian War, French historian Benjamin Stora broke the silence about French crimes committed during the Algerian War of Independence. The conflict soon became the focus of activists and historians who saw themselves as breaking discursive taboos that had been set up by the state.

The colonial past, too, is a “past that doesn’t pass.” Three different periods, from mourning (1954-1964) and repression (1964-1989) to the return of the repressed (1990-2005), opened up a new era characterized by a difficult anamnesis (2005-present). Beginning in 1964, repression was initiated through a series of amnesty laws for crimes committed in Algeria and was characterized by nostalgia. At the beginning of the 1990s, the work of historians as Benjamin Stora began to shatter the French silence on colonial crimes, initiating a third stage of the return of the repressed. After 2005, a real crisis of identity occurred in France, which was evidenced by a full-blown national debate on the country’s colonial past that divided not only French politicians and scholars, but most importantly society itself.

The riots in the banlieues, the emergence of the Indigènes de la République, an antiracist and anticolonial political party, and the 23 February 2005 French law on colonialism, which demanded that high-school teachers convey the positive values of colonialism, created a national uproar about the French colonial past. Associations, politicians, academics, and the media formulated a different kind of remembrance, borrowing the “devoir de mémoire,” a template of memorial activism from the success of Jewish activists, to demand memorial justice. Even high politics in France adopted memory wars vocabulary, with the conservative parties accusing those who denounced French colonial past as “islamo-leftists.” And by 2020, French statues had become a site of contestation as well.

After the 2017 series of protests in Charlottesville against the removal of Robert Lee’s statue, French memory activists Didier Epsztajn and Patrick Silberstein decided to explore the toponomy of Parisian streets and squares and published the booklet “Guide du Paris Colonial et des Banlieues,” which shows that more than 200 street names in Paris still honored the memory of French colonial statesmen, generals, and industrialists. As Epsztajn and Silberstein argue, the Parisian toponomy reveals that the French Revolution still acts as the founding myth of modern France, and that it is closely associated with historical colonial figures such as Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis-Philippe, Napoleon III or Jules Ferry. Following Gary Wilder’s argument about the close ties between colonialism and republicanism, they thus connect the prevalence of colonialism in France with the celebration of nineteenth-century industrialists and capitalists in the urban collective imaginary.           

As has become clear by 2021, this imperial syndrome is not an exclusively French phenomenon. Across the sites of the former European empires, one can observe demands for the removal of symbols of colonialism from public spaces, demonstrating that the meaning carried by those statues does not represent the various communities living in the country, the city or the neighborhood in the 21st century. Cities in Belgium removed statues of King Leopold II, who personified the country’s violent colonial history with the death of more than ten million Africans in Congo between 1885 and 1908. In Berlin, local authorities of the African quarter changed colonial-era street names. In Bristol, protesters tore down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston.

Echoing the purge of Nazi symbols in European public spaces after the end of the Third Reich or the toppling of Lenin statues after the end of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, this activist movement explicitly attacks the symbols of the Western colonial past. Demonstrators are calling for the removal of signs of racial oppression to deconstruct racism. For them, colonial, racist or slavery-era symbols are a visible barrier to decolonization and reconciliation as they embed ideas of white supremacy in public spaces. As the wounds of the French colonial past remain transgenerational and a marker of social divisions, the question of whether colonial statues must fall, or street names change, are key for the decolonization of the former metropoles from within.


[1] The author would like to express her gratitude to the Intellectual and Imperial History Working Groups of the European University Institute, Dr Milinda Banerjee, and Dr Andrew Levidis for their constructive comments on this essay.


Ann-Sophie Schoepfel is a historian of international law, professor in history at Sciences Po Paris, director of the seminar in global history and international law, and currently a Visiting Fellow at Harvard. She completed two PhDs at the University of Heidelberg and Lorraine University. Her first PhD, based on inedite sources, examined for the first time the Saigon war crimes trials in Indochina; the second reexamined the Tokyo Trial through the lens of colonialism, and re-creation of the liberal world order. Her research focuses on the history of international law, humanitarianism, migration, and memory. It was awarded the Jean-Baptiste Duroselle Prize in history of international relations. Her work has been published in peer-reviewed journals and edited volumes. At Harvard, she is completing her new monograph on the imperial origins of international law in the French empire and Global South. 

Featured Image: Trading Game: France—Colonies, 1941, O.P.I.M. (Office de publicite et d’impression), Breveté S.G.D.G. Lithograph on linen, 22 7/8 x 32 1/4 in. The Getty Research Institute, 970031.6

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Think Piece

The Pursuit of Happiness: New Approaches to the American Revolutionary Past

By Kevin Diestelow

The American Revolution looms large in the historical consciousness of the United States. It has played a larger role than any other event in determining the political identity of the American polity. Who we are as a people, what purpose we ascribe to our government, what ideals we strive for in our conduct –– each is a reflection in some way of how we choose to interpret the founding moments of our country.

Throughout American history, a certain telling of the Revolution has dominated both the popular and scholarly imagination, leading to a reductive understanding of the Revolution’s intellectual dimension. This understanding highlights the supposed “libertarian” character of Revolutionary ideology. In this view, the fundamental cause of the Revolution was an effort to limit government. Notions of liberty, as this story goes, form the heart of American government as developed by the Revolutionary generation. That reading, while applicable to portions of the eighteenth-century experience, too often leads to a narrow consideration of what was an expansive intellectual exercise. As will be shown, a libertarian reading of the American Revolution does not offer a ready explanation for the work of men like James Wilson, and moving beyond that reading offers new avenues for synthesizing the American Revolution as an intellectual event.

Two works in intellectual history demonstrate how academics have engrained libertarian  understandings into historical scholarship: Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967)and Gordon Wood’s Creation of the American Republic (1969).  Bailyn’s work, generally treated as the start of the “republican synthesis” in early American history, overturned decades of progressive scholarship which posited that the American Revolution was driven by economic factors by carefully arguing for the importance of ideas in American history. Bailyn demonstrated that colonists’ revolutionary activity was driven by the development of a particular ideological approach to politics, grounded in the “country opposition” language of British politics. He argues that revolutionaries were concerned that there existed a conspiracy of British ministers against colonial rights and freedoms. His Ideological Origins thus concludes that revolutionaries justified independence from Britain in order to combat creeping British authoritarianism and preserve the liberty that colonists had long cherished.

Wood’s work can largely be viewed as a continuation of Bailyn’s –– he extends Bailyn’s argument in order to understand the dynamic process of constitution-making occasioned by the Revolution. Wood argues that in the process of writing constitutions, Americans developed new understandings of critical terms including sovereignty, representation, and the relationship between power and liberty. These new conceptions transformed political understandings, ending the “classical era” of politics which Bailyn argued defined thought during the 1760s. They instead occasioned a new liberal political understanding which focused intently on the individual and on the competition of interests and factions in society.

This conception of the Revolution, built on the need to limit government and fulfilled by the final promotion of the needs of individuals, has been enormously influential. It complements wider arguments, offered by scholars like David Wootton, regarding eighteenth-century thought, which hold that the Enlightenment subjectivized moral understandings to a point where morality as a concept became little more than competing arguments regarding what is pleasurable. When combined with Bailyn and Wood’s arguments regarding revolutionary causality and institutional formation, this approach imagines the American republic as an arena of pure individual freedom. Within this conception, men have the latitude needed to act as they choose, and government exists only to provide minimal refereeing and protection for the boundaries of action.

New approaches in both intellectual history and the history of the American Revolution question the absolute validity of this picture, while also suggesting avenues for new understandings of the conflict. The first concerns the Enlightenment. Traditional approaches to Enlightenment thought emphasize it as an “age of reason” in which thought became secularized and predicated on the dispassionate pursuit of empirical evidence. It is easy to see how this staid intellectual approach has molded the scholarship on events like the American Revolution –– Wood’s work in particular reflects this reading of the trajectory of Western thought. A recent work by Ritchie Robertson, however, suggests a new paradigm for synthesizing the Enlightenment, one predicated on human happiness and improvement. The Enlightenment contained a vast array of geographic and disciplinary strands of thought, so much so that it is sometimes difficult to conceptualize it with any sense of coherence. Tying all of these strands together, Robertson argues, was a collective desire to improve the human condition and increase worldly happiness. The various thinkers of the Enlightenment believed that by applying careful reason and study to the world around them, they could uncover its inner machinations and ultimately improve its functioning. Reason still plays a critical role in this process, but it is a means rather than an end. Inverting this traditional structure places happiness at the forefront of eighteenth-century intellectual ambitions.

Regarding the American Revolution, the most innovative new approach has been pioneered by Steve Pincus and Justin Du Rivage. They argue that although colonial rhetoric concerned itself with the limits of power and the promotion of liberty, there were far more significant concerns regarding the proper application of power. This “imperial approach” to Revolutionary causality argues that colonists engaged in a far-reaching debate about the purpose of government and British imperial policy which shaped their critique of the imperial relationship. What was important was not just that citizens be free to act as they pleased, but rather that citizens be supported by the government in their pursuit of individual and collective happiness. Rather than perceiving it as a mere referee to safeguard liberty, Pincus and Du Rivage argue, colonial denizens expected the government to act in favor of supporting the collective good. Much as new Enlightenment scholarship inverted the role of reason in the process, this approach inverts the relationship between liberty and happiness. Liberty, while important, was one component of a wider quest for individual and societal improvement. Reading the Revolution in this way reveals that it was less about limiting government and more about ensuring that government acted in a way which was beneficial to those it governed.

The work of one founder in particular, James Wilson, illustrates how marrying these new historiographical strands can shape the way we approach the American Revolution. Wilson was born and educated in Scotland and signed the Declaration of Independence, helped draft critical sections of the Constitution as a delegate to the Federal Convention, and served as a Supreme Court Justice in the 1790s. As a thinker, he uniquely devoted himself to happiness as a philosophical ideal –– he reiterated numerous times throughout his career that “the promotion of publick happiness [was] the end originally proposed by the people for government.” Wilson’s treatment of the term “happiness” as a philosophic concept mirrors enlightened devotion to improvement. His definition joined together both moral concerns regarding virtue and material concerns of wealth and prosperity with a fierce philosophic optimism and belief that the human condition trended towards improvement. To be “happy,” in Wilson’s mind, was to be constantly striving to better oneself, to be more virtuous, more prosperous, more moral, more enlightened.

This belief strongly influenced his work as a revolutionary and constitution-maker during the 1770s and 1780s. Throughout the imperial crisis, he advanced a doctrine of revolution built around joining consent of the governed with government policy designed to meet citizens’ needs and interests. Because British colonial policy denied American colonists a voice in government and did not benefit their needs, Wilson believed revolution to be justified. Later, as he helped craft constitutions in both Pennsylvania and at the Federal Convention in 1787, he fought for a centralized government imbued with enough power to act decisively in favor of supporting citizens’ material and moral development. The main contributions he made to the Federal constitution –– a fierce argument in favor of popular sovereignty and the “necessary and proper clause” –– provide an example of government-for-happiness in practice.  The “necessary and proper clause” in particular dramatically expanded the latitude given to Congress to legislate on a variety of issues and represented the fulfillment of critiques launched against British policy during the imperial crisis. By the 1790s, Wilson possessed an expansive view of what government could or should do to support citizens that was fundamentally shaped by his devotion to happiness as a political and philosophic concept.

Historians have long struggled to assess Wilson as an individual. In different works that address his career, he has been characterized as variously “nationalist or conservative or democrat…radical, moderate, liberal, aristocrat, pragmatist, realist, optimist, and combinations thereof.” I would argue that the difficulty historians have in labeling Wilson’s thought is a reflection of the limiting language which historians have previously adopted when approaching the Revolution. By considering politics in positive moral terms, and by being open to a more expansive set of purposes both for revolutionary political thought, it could be possible to conceptualize the whole of Wilson’s intellectual career across the 1770s and 1780s.

 This seeming discord also mirrors wider issues which persist in the intellectual history of the American Revolution. Historians have long argued over whether a disconnect exists between the beginnings of revolutionary ideology in the 1760s and the creation of the modern American nation-state through the Constitution in 1787. This is largely the consequence of the disconnect between the strong centralized government favored at the convention with a revolution supposedly fought in the name of limited government. If we adopt new ways of looking at the Revolution, and instead consider it as part of a wider Enlightenment discourse regarding improvement and happiness, it is much easier for us to cast a cohesive narrative across the Revolutionary period. The American present is itself a reflection of the American past. For too long, that understanding has been hampered by a reductive understanding of the American Revolution focused on limited government and an overemphasized elevation of the role of liberty in our political canon. Re-centering our discussion of the Revolution around new approaches to studying the Enlightenment and to considering the active role colonial thinkers ascribed for government rather than just the way they believed government should be limited to protect freedom will help us broaden our understanding of the Revolution. In doing so, we will expand the intellectual language needed to understand both American thought and the American nation in a more inclusive and fulfilling way.


Kevin Diestelow graduated from the College of William & Mary with a B.A. in History and Government. As an undergraduate, he completed his senior honors thesis “The Republic of Happiness: James Wilson, Political Thought, and the American Revolution,” which was awarded “Highest Honors.” He has previously published work on republican formation in Pennsylvania during the 1770s and the intersection of baseball and citizenship norms during World War I.

Featured Image: Robert Edge Pine and Edward Savage, “Congress Voting Independence.” 1801. Courtesy of Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia History Museum).