Was America Part of the Republic of Letters?

There’s an interesting take on early America in the new issue of Modern Intellectual History.  The article is an unusually layman-friendly essay on digital humanities, but it’s also an excellent essay on the importance of a spatial imagination to those of us who work on American intellectuals. And it challenges conventional thinking about the intellectual significance of the American Revolution, so I think it merits careful reading.

In “Where Is America in the Republic of Letters,” Caroline Winterer reflects on what modern digital tools can reveal about early American intellectual life. Specifically, Winterer discusses an ongoing initiative at Stanford called “Mapping the Republic of Letters.” There she is the lead researcher on a project to visualize Benjamin Franklin’s correspondence networks in the mid-18th century. In her new MIH article, Winterer tries to explain how digital projects like this can challenge or revise historians’ thinking.

Winterer contrasts two dominant ways of conceptualizing intellectual exchange in colonial British America. “Put bluntly,” she writes, “the Atlantic world has become an early Americanist’s category, while the republic of letters has become an early modern Europeanist’s category.” She suggests that this is due to Americanists’ nationalistic assumptions. European historiography, by definition, (and I’m embroidering a bit on her text here) starts from the the recognition that nations are contingent and porous, while Americanists, always conceiving of their subject teleologically as the future United States, struggle to recognize the limits of the nation at all. So for us, the British “Atlantic world” is useful as a rather grudging way frame and problematize the thing that was not yet the United States, while Europeanists are happy to follow the cosmopolitan “republic of letters” wherever it leads them, whether around the Mediterranean or into the Far East.

This may fall slightly off the mark, I think. The more important thing about the Atlantic world is that it’s a sneaky way to maintain a special relationship between Britain and the United States, preserving the privileged place of English law and ideology in our studies of colonial and revolutionary America while acknowledging the existence of other empires and constituent peoples. In other words, I think the Atlantic world is actually more about U.S. historians’ Anglophone nationalism than their American nationalism. Nevertheless, Winterer’s observation seems important. It is true that the republic of letters gets far more play in early-modern European history than in early American history, and this almost certainly means something interesting.

According to Winterer, one thing it means is that early American intellectual history needs to take a closer look at where the letters of the republic were actually going. “The big, broad idea of an Atlantic world” is a clumsy replacement for more precise locating of nodes in transatlantic intellectual networks. Mostly, she writes, the paths taken by writers and writing reveal that British America’s “Atlantic” intellectual life was really centered on England, and not just England but London (phenomena like the Edinburgh enlightenment and John Fea’s rural enlightenment notwithstanding).

Detail from Claire Rydell and Caroline Winterer, “Benjamin Franklin’s Correspondence Network, 1757-1763,” Mapping the Republic of Letters Project, Stanford University, October 2012

A second use for the concept of the republic of letters, Winterer argues, is to show that America’s revolutionary “philosopher-statesmen,” Benjamin Franklin in particular, weren’t really as new as certain historians have claimed. Franklin, Winterer writes, should not be seen simply as a producer of Enlightenment knowledge. His real importance lay in his function as a key node in Enlightenment literary networks, a sort of “human switchboard” who relayed ideas to and from his many correspondents. This sort of figure, Winterer says, was not exactly new to Europe, but it may also have been more common in colonial America than most people realize. Winterer points to Prospero’s America, Walter Woodward’s recent study of John Winthrop Jr., which reveals that the 17th-century Connecticut governor maintained a similar transatlantic correspondence network one hundred years earlier. The scale of Franklin’s literary output and scientific success was extraordinary, but he functioned as the literati had throughout the early modern era.

A harder problem, Winterer concedes, is what all of this means for the nature of intellectual cosmopolitanism and empire. For example, what was the relationship between centers and peripheries in the republic of letters — and is it appropriate to view early America as intellectually peripheral? The answer is unclear. On ordinary maps of correspondence networks, American letters appear as long lines crossing the vast Atlantic ocean. But does this mean that Americans were less firmly connected to London and Paris than provincial Europeans were, or more? Similarly, does mapping intellectual networks shed any light on the role of religion in carrying ideas? In the absence of well-organized missionary-intellectual orders like the Jesuits, were British America’s religious literary networks primarily a cause of empire or an effect? The concept of the republic of letters, Winterer suggests, opens these as important questions without resolving them.

Finally, and most importantly, Winterer argues that the concept of the republic of letters calls into question the significance of the American Revolution. “In fact,” she writes, “seen in the broader context of the republic of letters, the specific influences of the American Revolution and republicanism on the deep structures of US intellectual life become more difficult to assert with confidence.” In the first decades after the Revolution, the intellectual life of the new nation was not necessarily preoccupied with republican politics. Often, intellectuals in the early American republic were more concerned with the same sorts of questions that had long kept the public of letters humming — questions of personal refinement and honor, virtue in a prepolitical sense, and appropriate sensibility. So when the ground beneath American intellectual life shifted later in the 19th century, was this because of the Revolution and democratization, or was it because of a wider evolution in the modern republic of letters? Winterer clearly favors the second thesis.

To say that I agree with Caroline Winterer about the importance of visualizing early American intellectual networks would be an understatement. That’s true whether we’re discussing “visualization” in a formal sense, i.e., the sense of precisely representing large data sets as comprehensible graphics, or in an informal sense — meaning the presentation of stories about travel and communication that make it easy to imagine ideas as concrete, material, personal things rather than abstractions.

But I also worry about what Winterer’s model might mean for the study of “intellectuals” as people. The great virtue of the concept of the Atlantic world is that it reminds us of the enormous importance of ships (bear with me a moment) to literally every aspect of life in early America. Not just particular ships, like, say, the Mayflower or the Arbella— the special vectors of special people with special thoughts — but shipping in general. It puts many different kinds of exchange at the center of what it meant to be and think in colonial America. And it makes it increasingly hard to set apart ideas as a special kind of thought, or to set apart colonial intellectuals, a priori, as special people. Early American intellectuals may be distinguishable as unusually good writers and thinkers, but they were also full participants in a culture of exchange  that encouraged written representations of all kinds. Their ideas had meaning not only in the republic of letters, but also in a much larger public of letters — an enormous quasi-Habermasian commercial public sphere. So the concept of a watery world of exchange opens up intellectual history to new topics and new forms of relevance to other subfields, in ways that the concept of a relatively rarefied cosmopolitan republic of letters does not.

It seems to me that mapping the republic of letters will be most useful if it can help us represent that aspect of early American intellectual life. Benjamin Franklin’s thousands of letters traveled overwhelmingly between London and a handful of American cities. But who were the thousands of people who sent and received them? With whom else did those people correspond about the same questions? And how closely were “ideas” bound up with their daily pursuits? If we can find better ways to visualize these dimensions of intellectual exchange, we may find ourselves in a much better position to argue for the importance of the life of the mind to the wider history of early America.

[Note: This is reposted from U.S. Intellectual History under a Creative Commons license. Thanks to L.D. Burnett for arranging its publication there.]


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