Caroline Winterer: “The U.S. Constitution & the American Enlightenment”
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Caroline Winterer: “The U.S. Constitution & the American Enlightenment”

September 11, 2019


[ Applause ]>>Caroline Winterer: Today I’m going to
talk to you about two very huge topics, both of which are here on the
PowerPoint slide, the US Constitution and the American Enlightenment that we often
think of as belonging naturally together. And to show that actually one of
them is a complete fabrication. Now don’t worry I’m not going to argue that
the US Constitution is a complete fabrication, so everyone can relax especially Paul and Kevin. What I’m going to argue, is that this moment in national history called
the American Enlightenment is in fact the invention of
the post World War Two era. So is the idea that the so called American
Enlightenment is this spectacular culmination of enlightenment ideas that were born in Europe. And third so is the idea that the
Constitution is at the very middle of this so called American Enlightenment. These three things it turns out are all myths
invented in the decades after World War Two. Which today I’m going to tear down for you and
to reconstruct so that we have a correct sense of what enlightenment in
America was in the 18th century and how the United States
Constitution fits in with it. So let’s back up a little
and begin at the beginning. When we think of something called The American
Enlightenment and I hope you appreciate that I fiddled around with the PowerPoint and
made the American Enlightenment glow there, so it’s glowing, when we think of something
glowing called the American Enlightenment we almost always think of things
related to the American Revolution, usually the eight year military struggle
against Great Britain or the Declaration of Independence, the founding fathers
and then the Constitution itself as the culmination of all of these events. And in fact if you Google the term The
American Enlightenment don’t do this right now, right do it later. If you Google the term the
American Enlightenment and as we know goggling terms is the
gold standard for all knowledge today. These are exactly the images that appear, so
this is actually the first image that comes up if you Google the American
Enlightenment you get John Trumbull’s, the surrender of Lord Cornwallis which you
know that the surrender not itself in 1820, the surrender was much earlier,
the painting was done in 1820. But this one of the images you get, you also
get this one, another John Trumbull painting of the Declaration of Independence,
also not done in 1817. The painting was completed in 1817 and
then you also get this very famous portrait of Benjamin Franklin from 1785 done just as
he was leaving France after his service there. All right well what could possibly be wrong
with this picture of the American Enlightenment? Well nothing, as long as
we recognize that the idea of a big bold glowing American Enlightenment
was actually invented out of whole cloth in the years immediately
following World War Two, a mid-rising American anxieties
about the Soviet Union. In the midst of the many terrifying isms
of the 20th century and all of those things that the isms had inflicted upon Europe,
Marxism, Communism, Totalitarianism and Fascism. Americans of the World War Two era created
a new mythical moment in their national past that they christened the American Enlightenment. It’s easy to spot the making
of this new national mythology, national magazines during the Cold
War published apocalyptic visions of Soviet attacks on the United States. Here is a 1951 painting from Collier’s
Magazine, of the bombing of Washington DC, where the Soviets have strategically
destroyed what the author of the magazine called the
shrines of American freedom. Which were of course the monuments
of the American Revolution. The author envisioned the Jefferson memorial
being blown to smithereens and the top of the Washington monument being sheered
of, so those of who are experts on the city of Washington DC can try to figure
out where, where those things are. It was amid these nightmarish scenarios that the so called American Enlightenment took
root in the American imagination. Like a Cold War bomb shelter made
of ideas instead of concrete, Americans crafted a mythological era of
freedom and democracy in the 18th century that they called the American Enlightenment. And you can see the rise of this new
term in the immediate postwar era, I plugged into the other determiner of
what we know today, not just Goggle, but something called n-gram you
go to n-gram and plug any word and it’ll show you how it
increases in usage over time. So this is the term the American
Enlightenment plugged into n-gram. There’s absolutely no usage of the term before
the 1940’s, certainly not in the 18th century and we can see the rising usage of this term
over time and finally its stabilization. So who is responsible for
the wholesale fabrication of an entire historical era,
that did not exist before? Well a lot of people in the post World War
Two era helped to fabricate this new idea, but the earliest major proponent
was the historian Adrienne Koch, who is so forgotten today,
even though she wrote 20 books, so depressing for someone
who’s only written three books. That you can be forgotten after 20, she’s so
obscure today even though she wrote 20 books, that I couldn’t even find a
picture of her to show you. But here is the image of the cover of her
1965 book, The American Enlightenment. This is the first book in the history
of the world to have the title, The American Enlightenment and it has
the celebratory subtitle about the rule of the American Enlightenment in the shaping of what she calls a free society,
very much a Cold War term. Koch singled out what she
called the big five founders, this is her term, the big five founders. John Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson,
Alexander Hamilton and James Madison for embodying what she called the vision and
the spirit that underlay the free society and democratic civilization of modern America. In Adrienne Koch’s view and this is
key for us today, the political drama of the American Revolution formed the
very center of this new mythical era, that she was calling the American Enlightenment. And she argued publicly that
enlightenment ideals remained of the highest relevance
in the mid 20th century. We should appreciate our American
Enlightenment she seemed to say, the way we appreciate vaccines and
other modern wonders that protect us from very bad things like
viruses and communists. By the mid 70’s and especially
during the American Bicentennial, these ideas had become embellished
and amplified. In 1976 and 1977 the years of the American
Enlightenment, of the Bicentennial no less than three books were published
that confidently assured us that there had been an American Enlightenment. And moreover that this American
Enlightenment was most clearly embodied, in fact it was realized during the political
struggles of the American Revolution. These books set into stone a second crucial myth of the mid 20th century idea
of the American Enlightenment. That its ideas had been born in
Europe, especially in France, in the minds of airy philosophers like Voltaire. And had been migrated like so many
immigrants to the United States, where the airy ideas had been forged into real
hard facts during the American Revolution. As the historian Henry Steele Commager
put in his 1977 book, the Empire of Reason which is the one over there on
the right, the old world imagined, invented and formulated the enlightenment,
the new world realized it and fulfilled it. I call this the myth of diffusionism. That the ideas of the American Enlightenment
were born in Europe and then came to America. Like a one way boat ticket, no return passage. But as this map of Benjamin Franklin’s
lifetime correspondence network shows, Franklin’s is the blue one on the top,
Voltaire’s is the orange one on the bottom. Ideas in the 18th century didn’t just cross
the Atlantic once, on a westward bound ship. They crossed it multiple times back and forth. The orange map below Franklin’s map of
Voltaire’s correspondence network also shows that it’s entirely possible for a major
European figure of the 18th century to not have any new world correspondence. Except one, those of you who can see the orange
line, there’s one and we can talk about who that is in the q and a. By these
images are from Stanford’s mapping, the republic of letters project, that I
work on among my other side projects is to map the correspondence network of Ben
Franklin, so I’m happy to answer any questions about this if you have them as well. Not only does Ben Franklin’s
lifetime correspondence network show that ideas constantly crisscross
the Atlantic in the 18th century, but glimpses of the development of his network
over time show that ideas crisscross back and forth more intensely as time went on. Here’s a time lapse of his
correspondence network, this is in 1758, the second year after he arrives in
London for an 18 year journey there. And I know that you’re all looking at those
mystery letters that appear to be going to Kansas City when there was no Kansas City
in the 18th century, maybe they’re going to Norman Oklahoma, I don’t know but there’s
some look like they’re going to the middle of the country, they’re not this
is where the computer puts anything for which we don’t have location data. So those are our unknowns, so don’t think that
Ben Franklin had correspondence in Kansas City, he didn’t, okay so if that’s
on the test, the answer is no, he didn’t have correspondence there. So that’s 1758, this is 1775 when he left
London, before going to Paris, so you can see, look again dada 1758, 1775 ideas are
crossing more intensively over time. So the takeaway is that Europeans and Americans
were in constant conversation over centuries of time, exchanging ideas that were enlightened
more and more intensively as the years went by. It’s not just a one time trip to the
west for European ideas into the Americas and it’s not just happening at the
moment of the American Revolution. So why should we care about all of these
things that happened half a century ago? Well we should care because as a result of
the work of these mid 20th century historians and artists and politicians, we all assume today that there was a thing called
the American Enlightenment and that the American Revolutionary era was
the brilliant sun of 18th century American, intellectual and political history. Pulling everything into its orbit,
including all the ideas about freedom and democracy that we really like today. The mythical American Enlightenment gives us
satisfying triumphal narrative trajectory, to the history of ideas in America. Soothing our fears that compared to
Europe we might be a little lacking in the big idea department. Europeans might have Newton,
Voltaire, Kant, Espinoza, but Americans have the American
Enlightenment whose most important outcome, as I’ll talk about later, is the federal
constitution, which remains so relevant to so many of our modern concerns and needs. This narrative of the American
Enlightenment is so different from Europeans ideas of their own enlightenment. After the calamities of World
War Two, Europeans looked back on the enlightenment with guilt and anxiety. They stared at their ruined continent
and asked how did we get here? From there? The loudest hand wringers were two
German ex-patriot scholars Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, that’s Horkheimer
on the left, Adorno on the right. And for those of you who are Jurgen Habermas
groupies, he’s the young guy on the far right. They had fled Nazi Germany for America and
they’re siring indictment of modernity, the 1944 manifesto dialectic of
enlightenment drew a straight line from the 18th century enlightenment and its
rationalism and scientism to the modern cancers of materialism and excessive systematizing
that seemed to have brought things like the toxic racial categories of the Nazis. Since that World War Two moment
Europeans have what I call a combative or oppositional relationship
with their enlightenment. This oppositional enlightenment
nurtures a flourishing industry of bracing reinterpretations that are often as
critical of the present as they are of the past. For Europeans their enlightenment is like the
bathroom scale, it tells them what they need to know about present conditions, but
not always what they want to hear. By contrast with this oppositional
European enlightenment, the American Enlightenment is
foundational to Americans since today that we are a people of progress. Foundational arguments presume a solid
base on which to ground their conclusions. And Americans have chosen to ground their
enlightenment, the American Enlightenment in the patriotic pride of the founding
moment of the republic in 1776. Americans are like the 18th century French
physiocrat Dupont de Nemours writing to his old friend Thomas Jefferson in 1816. My friend, wrote Nemours, we are snails
and we have a mountain range to climb. By god we must climb it. This is not a drawing from
the 18th century by the way. This is what happens when you
Google snails climbing mountains. I wanted to show you a picture. All right. So who cares about all of this? Well what has been lost in this big
grand 20th century construction, called the American Enlightenment is
the actual reality of the 18th century. I have a new book out this month, thank
you Kevin for drawing it to our attention and actually I’ve been told that there’s
book in the warehouse as of tomorrow. So you can order it tomorrow,
should you be so inclined. The 20th, what has been lost in this
big grand 20th century construction, is the reality of the 18th century. In the new book that I have out this month,
I attempt to rescue the 18th century ideas of enlightenment from our
own 20th century modern, highly politicized 20th century
version of the American Enlightenment. The book shows that the 20th century
term obscures more than it reveals. Holding the 18th century to our own highly
politicized and nationalistic standards of what enlightenment is or
was, rather than listening to people in the 18th century themselves. They never used the term The American
Enlightenment, but they did very frequently talk about their quests for very elusive and unstable
state of being that they called enlightenment, with a small e. What did they mean by this term? Well they basically meant two things. First that human reason,
rather than superstition or biblical revelation would
help us to understand the world. And second that instead of getting worse,
as the bible narrative of the fall of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eve had
said, that human societies were in fact constantly getting better. In short these 18th century people were the
first people in the history of the world to believe that human reason
would lead to progress. But here’s the key, they didn’t think
that enlightenment had ever been achieved, it was a constant process onward, upward,
but never ending and hardly ever achieved. So in short where we see an era, an
admirable thing that is already done, the actual people who lived in
the 18th century saw a process. Never completed because human
reason was always foulable. They were never sure exactly whether
enlightenment had been achieved, there was always room for improvement. They were the most hopeful and optimistic
people in the history of the world. But they were also highly
uncertain and questioning about their own abilities to achieve perfection. We can glimpse some of their uncertainty
and questioning by looking at some of the visual imagery that they pioneered
to try make sense of their world. Especially for people in the Americas
who were constantly faced with trying to understand a radically new place. This is the imagery of organization
and clarification and attempting to answer the many questions that they
and Europeans had about their world. So I want to, instead of, you know that art that
I showed you at the beginning of patriotism. This is the art of the American Enlightenment,
these are tables, they love tables and charts. This is from Thomas Jefferson’s
notes on the state of Virginia. This is one of the first
tables in American history to feature counts of the American Indians. They had to be counted or not
counted as the constitution had it for the new republican schemes
of representation. And so this is not only Jefferson trying
to count the numbers of different tribes, but he’s showing you his sources, four different
text from which he’s getting his Indian counts. So this is a kind of art, it is art illumination
and clarification about some of the major issues of republicanism and this is the
first pie chart in American history. I’ll bet you never thought
about the history of pie charts, well now this is the first pie chart, this is
the representation of the United States based on how large in miles the states are. So you can see that the project for the
19th century is the big green thing, this is Louisiana, down here at the bottom,
that place that still needs counting. Other art of enlightenment is the art of
understanding what is around us in the world, this is John Winthrop, not the John Winthrop
the founder of the Massachusetts bay colony. This is John Winthrop his decedent,
the chief astronomer at Harvard, who is the most important
astronomer in 18th century America. This is him looking at the most important
astronomical event of the 18th century which is the transit of Venus over the face
of the sun, he has London made telescope and you can see his hand is hovering over
an image of the transit that he is making, so with his hand he’s drawing
celestial movements to clarify to reveal here is the companion
portrait of his wife. Who was not an astronomer, but look
what she’s doing with her hands. She’s using fruit which is the
conventional artistic representation of what you show with women to show [inaudible]. But she’s using them to show the
movement of astronomical objects in space, she’s literally showing you how planets orbit, you can see this most clearly
when I put them together. A lot of husbands and wives have their
portraits painted together and you can see that this is the imagery
of scientific investigation as it was revealed in the 18th century. So the art of the American Enlightenment
is not the art of the formal portrait of the revolutionaries that I showed
you at the beginning of the talk. It is the art of clarification and question
asking of illumination and reflection. Enlightened people and this the
takeaway were far less triumphal than they were inquisitive, anxious and unsure. Okay. Let me spend the rest of the lecture
diving into a concrete example of what it meant to be enlightened in the 18th century. By looking at the US Constitution and where
it fits into enlightenment in America. Critical to the invention
of the 20th century idea of The American Enlightenment
was the US Constitution. As the crowning achievement
of that invented era. A document that embodied the rightness and the
certainty of the American Republican Project. It’s fun to see how this
happened in visual imagery as much as in written text of the 20th century. And no artist contributed more
to the 20th centuries crowning of the US Constitution than
Howard Chandler Christy. The artist who had already achieved
national fame during World War One for updating the famous Gibson
Girls into the Christy Girls, who adorned patriotic posters everywhere. Howard Chandler Christy is partly responsible
for the achievement in 1940 of the apotheosis of the hyper real enlightened US Constitution. As you can see in this painting
that he made in 1940. Now it helps to know by way of
background that no paintings of the Constitutional Convention
were made at the actual moment of the signing or even for many decades after. And just so you have grounds for
comparison of this painting from 1940, this is the first painting, the first visual
image ever made of the US Constitution. It was made in the decade immediately prior to
the Civil War by Junius Brutus Stearns, in 1856. So you can see that there’s a big
difference, there’s the dull wood plank floor, the plain clothes, the drawn curtains,
it looks very gloomy almost like we’re in a funeral parlor, it’s
all very rough shot and dark. The main character is George Washington
and if you look closely he looks like he has cross eyes, but
we won’t dwell on that and he also gets covered shoes,
everybody else gets slippers. Okay so lets, just so now you have a
comparison for what get to with this. We can see how the whole thing just gets
bigger and grander over the next century. As the need in the United States
in the face of Soviet threats, for certainty about the Constitution and an era
of commitment to freedom and democracy increase. Howard Chandler Christy was commissioned to
make this painting after one politician noticed that no picture of the Constitutional Convention
hung in the US Capital building, enter Christy. The painting is ordered to be heroic
in size, it’s 20 feet by 30 feet, so this is actually kind of life
size right here, up on the stage. And it was the most expensive painting ever
commissioned by the federal government to date and took three years to research and complete. Highly relevant to our story about the
modern invention of a hyper real era of political certainty, called
The American Enlightenment. American government officials repeatedly claimed
that this 1940 painting was the most accurate, these are their words accurate, authentic
and truest rendition of the signing. Because Christy has consulted portraits of the
founders, this is an artist who does research. And had even borrowed books from Jefferson’s
library to place under Ben Franklin’s chair. You can see them there, at its unveiling in
1940, President Roosevelt himself declared that the painting was a democratic antidote to
the diabolical forces on the rise in Europe. As abstract modern art became ever more popular, Howard Christy produced a painting
deliberately designed to be non-abstract and instead hyper realistic and authentic. But the painting was anything but authentic. Christy was a master of icons like the
Christy Girl and he later became famous for this portrait of Jesus Christ as an icon. In his painting of the Constitutional Convention
he has elevated the document to the status of enlightenment icon, hyper real and
according to his supporters, hyper accurate. He visited the actual room in Philadelphia where the Constitutional
Convention had been held in 1787. And then set to work re-imagining it for use as the modern antidote to
the dark totalitarian menace. All the curtains are now pulled open,
bathing the room in brilliant white light, which becomes so dazzling on the right hand side that the wall behind George Washington
fairly dissolves into a blur of brilliance as though it stood for the whole
concept of the American Enlightenment. The delegates including the weirdly
saluting ones to the left, do you see those? Those are the Pinckney’s from South Carolina,
cause the painting also comes with a key of, a numbered key you know like paint by
numbers, so you could figure out who they are. So those are the Pinckney’s who are saluting. The delegates are spectacularly overdressed
in powdered wigs and gleaming golden outfits as though they were French aristocrats
air lifted from Versailles in the era of Louise the 14th, the Sun King. The 20th centuries favorite founders
are conveniently seated in plain view. Ben Franklin stares directly at the viewer
from the back of his chair an enormous train of blue fabric unfolds regally
over Jefferson’s books. Franklin’s clothing and face and even his
expression are recognizable as a clone of an 1785 painting I showed you
at the beginning of the lecture. As though he changed neither his outfit
nor his expression in about 200 years. Also like a clone of Gilbert Stewart’s
portrait from the late 1790’s, George Washington stands proudly erect, in front
of the chair with its image of the rising sun. By now Ben Franklin’s apocryphal
quotation about the chair was widely known, one of the most often quoted pieces of lour
about the US Constitutional Convention, that we actually don’t really know if he
said, it’s just neat if he did say it. I have often looked at that sun behind
the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or
setting, Franklin allegedly said. But now I know that it is a rising sun. Everywhere the imagery of illumination and
enlightenment and frozen certainty prevails. So this is what the World War Two generation
thought about the light and brilliance and certainty of the US Constitution. It was part of a larger mid 20th
century invention of a hyper real, hyper patriotic American
Enlightenment that would shield America from totalitarian threats abroad. Much more illusive is what people in the
18th century actually said was enlightened about the US Constitution. Scraping away the 20th century barnacles
as I do in chapter eight of my book on the enlightenment reveals
a much more tenuous picture than the painting of Howard Chandler Christy. It turns out that Americans in the 18th century
weren’t exactly sure what was enlightened about the Constitution or even the
Revolution that had preceded it. So this is the first major takeaway from the
Revolutionary American view of enlightenment. But they were never sure at all whether
their republican revolution and its rituals and practices and structures were bringing them
closer to enlightenment or further away from it. We should remember Franklin’s uncertainty at the
Constitutional Convention about whether the sun, depicted on the back of George
Washington’s chair was rising or setting. Today we presume that he must
have been joking and that he was in fact sure that the sun was rising. But let’s place ourselves
back in the 18th century for a few minutes and remember some realities. The first reality was that monarchies
were widely regarded by many people in the 18th century as agents of enlightenment. We presume today as Americans that all monarchs
are devious fossil relics of a benighted past. But it was in fact the case that for
centuries monarchs had been agents of enlightenment in Europe. The active aggressive bureaucracies of
18th century European monarchs had helped to push back the power of the Catholic
church and admiring references to the idea of the philosopher king as the road
to peoples happiness appeared in some of the most widely disseminated
text of the 18th century. No other bureaucratic structure in 17th and 18th century Europe had
equivalent financial resources to support a thriving cultural
and intellectual life. And between 1500 and 1800 many European
monarchs had embarked on the project of making their courts the monumental
expressions of monarchical, political policy and cultural patronage that
they called enlightenment. In the American colonies
themselves King George the Second, whose 33 year reign was actually the
longest of any colonial American monarch but we always forget about
poor George the Second cause of the guy who came after George the Third. He oversaw the founding of three
colleges in America including Princeton and his portrait hung in Nassau
hall and did until it was burned to ashes during the American Revolution. Note the enormous train of blue fabric unfolding
behind him which we also saw in the portrait of Ben Franklin, so Americans still liked to conjure monarchical imagery
even though we disavow monarchy. A deep interest in intellectual and
cultural patronage extended to the wife of George the Third, Queen Caroline. She was widely revered by the American colonists
as a great patroness of science and education. Fair princess vow was the beginning of a poem
written in the 1720’s at her coronation by one of her many admiring American
colonists in Boston, the later seat of the American
Revolutionary uprising. This medal shows a gigantic Queen Caroline
watering a grove of tiny Carolina palms with the logo, growing arts adorn
empire, Caroline protecting. She was seen as the most active agent of
enlightenment in 18th century America. Even after the American Revolution that
disavowed monarchy, Americans continued to appeal to royal patronage
for their intellectual projects. Returning to the United States after
his diplomatic service in France, John Adams founded the American
Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1780. In explicit acknowledgment of the role
that monarchies and aristocracies played in nurturing European cultural
and intellectual life. In brief, in nurturing European enlightenment. So in January of 1776 when Thomas Paine began
very strenuously to paint monarchy as backward and irrelevant in his widely, circulated
pamphlet Common Sense, British writers rose up in opposition to declare what
everyone in Europe knew to be true, that monarch’s were agents of enlightenment
and that it was republicanism that was strange, untried and potentially unenlightening. Heredity monarchs these writers
declared could have no interests opposed to those of their people. Anyone could pursue happiness,
it was people led by a monarch. These British writers had a very good point. Thought Thomas Paine mocked George the
Third as the royal brute of Britain. In fact this particular King
ranked among the most educated and cultured monarchs ever
to sit on the British throne. The King’s education far exceeded in depth and
breath that of many British university graduates at the time and it certainly far surpass that
possessed by the military man George Washington who had never attended college
and knew no foreign languages. By contrast the future George the Third’s
education had become an urgent national priority the moment his father died and he abruptly moved
to the front of the order of royal succession. And here is a gigantic portrait of the George
the Third’s wife, Queen Charlotte posing with her two eldest sons, I know they
look like daughters but they’re dressed like 18th century royal sons,
that is in dresses. And she has on the piano behind
her underneath the sewing box that book is the premier enlightened
child rearing manual of the 18th century, John Locke’s thoughts on education
resting there for all to see. For the record this was exactly the
same book that Abigail Adams used to raise her four children in the precepts
on enlightened republican citizenship. Both of those mothers sent their eldest
sons to highest office in the land, Queen Charlotte sent George the Fourth
of course to be the next King of England and Abigail Adams sent John Quincy Adams to
become the President of the United States. So what’s the takeaway here? Well the takeaway is that the kingless republic
that Americans created in their Constitution in 1787, one that granted as much or more
real power to the President than that held by the British monarch was by
no means universally thought of as being the most enlightened of documents. Even by Americans, nor were newly
independent Americans sure at all that republican government was the government
best suited for creating an enlightened people, given how much monarchies and aristocracies
had done over the last 300 years to promote learning among their citizens
through universities, symphony’s, museums and scientific societies. Americans had no national university, they
still don’t and patronage for the arts and sciences remained a source of
constant anxiety in the absence of a land of gentry and kings just as it does today. And in fact some of the Constitution’s
major architects were deeply uncertain that the words in it were clear at all. In federalist paper number 37, one
of the essay’s written in support of the Constitution immediately
after its drafting, James Madison unrolled a remarkable
series of doubts about the ability of language itself to convey meaning clearly. Madison was heavily influenced
by the linguistic theories of John Locke the one who’s book
we saw on Queen Charlotte’s piano. Locke believed that all language was created by
human beings on the fly, rather than being given to us by God with single meanings
attached to an external reality. Language thought Locke was shifty, a single word
could mean many things to many different people. Speaking of the US Constitution Madison openly
worried about what he called the inaccuracy of the terms we commonly use to
communicate with one another. His colleague Oliver Ellsworth, the delegate from Connecticut chimed into
agree, this is Ellsworth. The charge of being ambiguous and indefinite
may be brought against every human composition and necessarily arises from the
imperfection of language, wrote Ellsworth. Well the none the less strongly
supporting ratification. Ellsworth went on, perhaps no two
men will express the same sentiment in the same manner and by the same words. Neither do they connect precisely
the same ideas with the same words. So here we have two of the loudest champions
of the Constitution calling its language and all language inaccurate,
ambiguous, cloudy and indefinite. Yet here is a portrait of Oliver
Ellsworth, one of the few paintings in the 18th century actually to depict
someone with the US Constitution. We’re very far from the gleaming windows,
Christ like motifs and glittering jackets of Christy’s images from
the late 1930’s and 1940’s. We’re now on a quiet farm on a gloomy
day in rural Connecticut in 1792. Where the US Constitution
is part of a domestic scene. We have the husband, a wife and
between them a baby Constitution. 18th century artists loved
to depict their subjects with documents and books of various kinds. But usually they are unidentifiable as specific
texts in the basic idea of documentness is all that is required to show off
the sitters vast learning. But here the artist has taken pains to show us that this is the US Constitution,
you can actually read it. It’s extraordinary. Here is a closeup and I thank
the Connecticut gallery that holds this painting
for sending me this closeup. Here is the closeup and at the bottom you can
actually make out the words article seven, the word article is misspelled,
you see that it’s got two L’s. I think it’s because when you write
something very slowly you often misspell it, that’s why you can Google yard sard
and see all the people who’ve tried to write yard sale signs, but
they were writing yard sale so slowly that they just wrote yard sard. So this, I think this is what
happened to the artist here, is that he wrote article very
slowly and so it’s misspelled. So you can read all of article seven,
the ratification of the conventions of nine states shall be sufficient for
the establishment of this Constitution between the states so ratifying the same. Interestingly this version of the
Constitution doesn’t include the signatures which exactly replicates the situation that
Ellsworth found himself in because he ended up leaving the convention before
he could sign the document. So in a sense Ellsworth is taking
ownership of the document in this painting, since his name doesn’t appear on the original. And in case you’re wondering, that’s
not article six, above article seven. You would think it is, but it’s
not and I don’t know what it is. So I am happy to send this to anybody out there
so you can tell me, I have passed it along to my colleagues at Stanford who are experts on
the US Constitution saying, what is that stuff above article seven say and
nobody can figure it out. So this is an example of
ambiguity in the 18th century. All right so what else is interesting here? Something that can tell us more about
the tenuous uncertain nature of knowledge in the 18th century, which fascinated
people who called themselves enlightened. Well look out the window into the landscape. The house that the Ellsworth’s are
sitting in, is also visible behind them. Big and white with a red roof. They had by now earned enough money to add
on to their old house and wanted everyone to see how big it actually was,
but also how pretty the inside was with the fashionable carpet and the rows of
books that marked Oliver Ellsworth as one of the men with the largest
private libraries in Connecticut. So let’s just pause here and ponder
the sheer weirdness of what the artists and Ellsworth are asking that we accept. This is actually a big house in the
background, but it looks small because it’s in the distance being seen through the window
of a room that while appearing to be bigger than the house it’s suppose to fit into, is
in fact smaller than the house it fits into. Here are indeed some pyrotechnics asking
us to play with our self evident truths about perspective, size and
representation all matters that preoccupied not just 18th century
artists, but 18th century political theorists. Confused? Who wouldn’t be. But the fascinations of representation
and ambiguity were everywhere for people who called themselves enlightened
in 18th century America. It will not surprise you to learn that Oliver
Ellsworth was the delegate to Philadelphia who helped to broker the great compromise,
which ended the struggle between large and small states over representation
by assigning two senators to each state regardless of population. How the small would become
big and the big become small. By 1792 when this painting was completed,
Ellsworth was representing tiny Connecticut in the grandiose, is in the grandiose manner
as its first US Senator, in a political house that made tiny states such as Connecticut
seem as big as giants like Virginia. Two people like Oliver Ellsworth
political representation and artistic representation
faced similar challenges. All this from a framer devoted
to the document that he holds in his hands or hand as the case may. This very odd painting featuring
Oliver Ellsworth suggests that enlightened Americans were not so much
certain about what their eyes told them as willing to ask questions
about what their eyes and in fact all of their five senses told them. Those who thought themselves
enlightened like to head their five senses to help them to know what was really true. They though that this empirical knowledge
would release them from the prison of biblical revelation, superstition, miracles,
from the reign of what they called priest craft by which they meant the Catholic church
and from what Jefferson called abracadabra. But listen again to James Madison in
federalist 37, our senses routinely deceive us, they are nothing but imperfection. We should lower our expectations and
hopes from the efforts of human sagacity. This was Madison’s initial summing up
of the words of the US Constitution. Words were muddy, meaning was unclear. No wonder that in 1796, less than
ten years after ratification, the US House of Representatives
spent not one day but two whole days, debating this incredible question. Was it okay to declare to all the world in
a formal statement that the United States and I quote, was the most
enlightened nation in the world? They spent two days debating that question. Are we the most enlightened nation in the
world and is it okay to say it to Europeans. Now in retrospect from where we stand this
sounds like the most ridiculously obscure and inconsequential topic to spend two days
debating in the US House of Representatives. But off they went, they wondered
if republican government did in fact help the United States become
more enlightened than European monarchies or whether republican government
merely helped to disburse learning of a shallow kind among a large variety of
people, rather than cultivating the kind of special genius that truly
enlightened statesmanship required. The question was eventually tabled, no
one in the US House of Representatives in 1796 was sure enough about
what it meant to be enlightened or how to measure the enlightenment
of a people to declare the US to be the most enlightened nation in the world. So this then was enlightenment in America. There was not a single moment
in American history in the 18th century called
The American Enlightenment. One baize in a heavenly glow of certainty. That was our invention in the 20th century,
not the reality of the 18th century. If we listen carefully to the 18th century, to
the people on those cloudy farms in Connecticut, we hear anxiety and doubt as
much as hope and optimism. We see a process always ongoing, not a finished
era varnished to a high gloss of certainty. The legacy of enlightenment for Americans is
not so much of providing definitive answers and being sure about everything but of
asking important questions about our world. About nature, society and government. This legacy of questioning, rather
than declaring should be something that Americans both acknowledge and cherish. As the Revolutionaries themselves
have shown us today, doubt and questioning can
be a real national strength. It makes people inquisitive, inventive
and open to new possibilities. And part of the adventure of living, of
building societies and governments from scratch, is to talk together about what we don’t
know as much as about what we do know. It seems to me that this is a more useful
version of enlightenment for Americans today, than a dusty mausoleum of self evident truths. Thank you. [ Applause ]

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  1. Can we stop saying that humans only have five senses? Let's get enlightened on this. "Touch" actually involved pressure, temperature, and some other senses. Everyone should know about proprioception. "Five senses" is one of my pet peeves because it's no better than the four humors.

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