Jefferson & Diderot

The founding of the United States by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, John Adams and others was inspired, in part, by the thinkers of the French Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, was a movement itself inspired by recent discoveries in science particularly the work of Issac Newton.  The study of nature using inquiry and analysis based on observation created new debates in philosophy.

Denis Diderot and others captured 18th century thinking in a massive document known as the Encyclopédie, or Reasoned Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Trades.  Comprised of 17 volumes of written texts, 11 volumes of illustrated plates, with written essays by more than 130 contributors, and 21 years to complete.  The 1751 publication of the very first volume was immediately deemed indispensable.  The Encyclopédie brought contemporary science and philosophy, and hosts of many other topics, to the general public.  Its influence moved scientific reasoning to the forefront of all discourse and spurred social and cultural change across the world, but especially in England, France, and America.

The front page of the Encyclopédie, courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons  

For over two decades, Denis Diderot (1713-1784) led the editorial direction of the Encyclopédie and wrote many of its finest essays.  He was also a philosopher, novelist, satirist, and art critic.  He is widely admired for elevating art criticism into a literary genre.  Diderot’s chief goal for the Encyclopédie was nothing less than to give all people a new tool to think with.  Recent scholarship now regards Diderot as one of the most sophisticated of all the Enlightenment philosophers perhaps moving ahead of Voltaire.

The aspirations of Diderot were bold and magnificent; the writers of the Encyclopédie were self-consciously trying to prepare an instrument of useful information for their reading publics with the overall aim of benefiting all of society.  The Encyclopédie embraced in over 70,000 articles nearly the entire scope of knowledge from the abstract theoretical to the most practical and mechanical in the sciences, arts, and trades.  It was collaborative.  There was a shared sense of purpose.

The page on Masonry from the Encyclopédie.  The articles featured a range of topics from masonry to mechanical arts, from agriculture to anatomy, from engraving to ethics.  

Three revolutions occurred during the Enlightenment era: the English Revolution 1688, the American Revolution 1775-1783, and the French Revolution 1789-1799.  Some of the American documents influenced by Enlightenment thinking include the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and The Federalist Papers.

Thomas Jefferson lifting the Declaration of Independence; a bust of Benjamin Franklin sits on the table.  Cornelius Tiebout (1777-1832), engraver, 1801. From a painting by Rembrandt Peale.  Courtesy of the Library of Congress 

Thomas Jefferson, in 1781, purchased Diderot’s Encyclopédie, the founding document of the French Enlightenment.  Jefferson purchased it for the state of Virginia and the public’s use.  But upon possession, Jefferson kept it for at least two years, before finally being persuaded to give it up to the state.  Afterwards, he purchased his own set of volumes and ordered a set for the College of William and Mary.  Jefferson also bought a complete set for James Madison and sent sets to Benjamin Franklin and James Monroe as well as at least four other Americans.

Jefferson’s Encyclopédie set eventually went to the Library of Congress.  The Virginia Museum of History and Culture has an original set.  In Louisiana, a recent September 2020 article details how 18th century law was transcribed directly into Louisiana state law.  See “The Encyclopedist Code: Ancien Droit Legal Encyclopedias and Their Verbatim Influence on the Louisiana Digest of 1808” in the Journal of Civil Law Studies.  Befitting our own digital age,  there are (at least) two online versions of the Encyclopédie courtesy of the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan.

The American phase of the European Enlightenment involved appropriating the best modern conceptions of political principles of government.

First public printing of the US Constitution in The Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser, September 19, 1787.  What would it mean to live in country where the government rose beneath one’s very feet for the first time? Courtesy of the Library of Congress  

The political theorists Jefferson, Franklin, Monroe, and Madison were deeply read scholars and up-to-date with current thinking.  For their project of creating a new and theoretically possible humane form of government, they pulled from the best thinkers of political philosophy of the time.  Among their resources were: John Locke in England, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Diderot’s Encyclopédie from France.  Americans constructed one of the boldest political documents of the Enlightenment, the US Constitution.

Their principles of bold thinking, collaboration, a singular sense of purpose, of embracing the entire spectrum of humanity in a common cause of uplifting and improving society are the hallmarks of the American republic.

This blog prepares ground for the spring exhibition featuring the art of Ken Botnick and John Fraser.